What is “emerging church”? It is a highly vague movement mainly consisting of ex-Evangelicals, who have found that tradition narrow, inauthentic, illiberal. It is defined by the desire to communicate Christianity to young agnostics – not Alpha Course fodder, but fairly trendy, media-savvy, liberal-leftish types who are wary of organised religion. It is above all a presentation style – of openness, of scepticism towards the old fusty-dusty forms, of irreverence, of irony, of artiness, of political and environmental engagement.
But is it just a presentation style – or is it a substantially new form of Christianity? Mostly it is the repackaging of an essentially conventional product. This obviously applies to all the Anglican chat about “fresh expressions” of church.
And yet there is also a genuinely radical movement here. A few voices are proposing a major rethink of what ‘Christian culture’ is meant to be. I recently wrote about Pete Rollins, who is trying to develop a new sort of ritual practice on the border of Christianity and agnosticism. A closely related approach is taken by Kester Brewin, a Londoner who co-founded an alternative worship group a decade ago. In his latest book, Other, he suggests that the core impulse behind the emerging church movement is a new honesty: God cannot be captured by doctrinal or ritual purity, nor can we pretend that we have a ‘buddy-close relationship’ with him. There are no cosy formulas to follow or reliable structures to inhabit.
We should reject the assumption that Christian culture takes the form of a stable institution, or even a stable movement. So what form should Christian culture take? It should take the form of lots of events that provide a glimpse of an alternative social order. When Jesus fed the 5,000 it wasn’t an attempt at the permanent restructuring of society, it was a brief sacramental party. Brewin borrows a concept from the anarchist writer Hakim Bey: we should look to create “Temporary Autonomous Zones” (TAZ), which contain a glimpse of a transformed world. We need a new sort of church “that abandons careful strategy and instead embarks on a tactical adventure from one eruption of TAZ to another.” Christians should ‘create festive, hospitable, healing and creative places…which, like the lover in Song of Songs, leave those touched by them aching to know more.’
I like the sound of this. I agree that Christian culture must move away from institutional church; we must simply dump all that ghastly old baggage, of bishops and buildings, rules and power, and start a new sort of Christian cultural presence. But how? For the most part, Brewin suggests that the change will come through the growth of small-scale community projects, that are not just interested in practical results but also in symbolising a changed world. But he also enthuses about events that are more purely cultural, events that combine worship, art and festivity. One of the main examples of “Christian TAZ” that he gives is the Greenbelt festival, full of arty Christian experimentation.
This is where I would place the emphasis, on the need for a new relationship with the festive arts – music, theatre, spectacle. We need a new paradigm of worship in which participatory public performance eclipses the church service. How might it emerge? We need some events that are big and bold enough to put this paradigm shift on the cultural map. For example, what about a large participatory public art event in London at Easter? It could be the centrepiece of a wider festival. For obvious reasons the bishops aren’t going to organise this for us.
If a few such events arise, a new model of Christian culture will be on the table. This familiar, creaky-seeming religious tradition will suddenly look strange and young.
My comment…… what are your thoughts?
Being a Pioneer Minister in the Church of England, and given the role to imagine and create fresh expressions of church that culturally meet the needs of those who don’t go to church. I don’t think that anyone has ever had to wait for a Bishop to tell them to get on with anything! Quite the opposite in fact!
I am 30 and a liberal lefty but don’t have a problem with organised religion, that fact is, organised religion is the best place to start something fresh, without the inherited there would be no direction in the first place, a mixed economy is what is needed. Let’s be honest what ever is considered cultural radical now will be outdated within 6 months anyway, so the media heavy arty creative gathering that i run are going to look old hat long before i am!
When it comes to church i believe we need to take ourselves a lot less seriously, there are bigger issues in this world than how, where, when and what we gather for !