RIP Emerging Church. Now can we change the conversation with some help from Al Pacino?


A number of people including myself have been writing on the net of the demise of the Emerging Church movement (or at least the terminology) over the last little while see

Out of UR       Dan Kimball     Andrew Jones   Me

I guess that for the first time I feel a sense of hope. My hope is that the conversation will now change. For sometime I have felt like a lone voice, as I have advocated our need to understand that if God is going to change the church, first he wants to change us. Whilst the discussion about church shape, missional movements, cultural relevance, social justice, missional movements and creative worship has been vital and essential, a key element has been ignored.

We need a revolution of the self.

We have failed to address our own souls and our own sense of self. We have pointed the finger – analysed and critiqued church patterns, missional models and Christian culture, but have remained naive to the way in which we ourselves as individuals have co-opted by contemporary culture. For we carry within us viruses. Parasitical organisms which are capable of ruining all of our plans, of wounding, weakening and even destroying our movements, churches, communities, ministries.

I have compiled here from previous writings some of these viruses and the influence they play on our selves that we must address.

The Lure of the Hyperreal World. Our culture offers us a vision of the future that is air brushed perfect. Just over the horizon there seems a perfect world, all you have to do is make that purchase, book that vacation, or pay for the right experience. This mirage like future is presented to us thousands of times in day in our media and advertising drenched world. If you really listen to people you will find that this perfect future is a very real competitor to the Christian gospel, it is one of the most virulent implicit religions of our day. For more see my book The Trouble With Paris

Commitment Phobia One of the flow on effects of the worldview of consumerism is that it has a caustic, corrosive effect upon our ability to commit. I remember as a kid seeing a shirt that I wanted to buy, I had my money, and was ready to head to the cash register, when my mother taught me a key tactic known to every shopper, that is shopping around for a better bargain. We headed off to the others stores to see if the same shirt was on sale for a cheaper price. Hyper-Consumerism has taught us all to be good shoppers in almost every arena of life, we have learnt to not commit and hang on for the better bargain. For consumerism to operate effectively as a system, it needs a low commitment environment.

We only have to look at the arena of human sexuality to see how the world view of consumerism has shaped our behaviour. Consumerism shapes our civic life, and our community habits. In all areas we are taught to hold off, and not commit. In my book The Trouble With Paris I write,

“We run from those promises and covenants that humans have made to each other for thousands of years because they frighten us to death. Many today fear such commitment-based social institutions because self now takes precedence over commitment. As the worldview of hyperconsumerism has taken hold of our imaginations, everything has become shopping. We must not become entangled in commitments, because they could limit our options on finding something better. This constant search for something better means that the supershoppers of hyperconsumerism are still waiting for a better deal after the mall has closed and then are forced to return home empty-handed. Or we find ourselves always on the move, searching for a home that shifts and shimmies over the horizon. We keep up this restlessness as our fears of not being stimulated take over.

The key to life, we are told, is to keep holding out for that perfect bargain. But the less we commit, the more we become passive. We never make a move; instead, we simply stand and watch life go by. Our fear of commitment has turned us into passive consumers.”

Of course this deeply effects how we view church. In my experience most young adults would view staying in a church for three years as a long term commitment. Most seem to re-examine their commitment to communities of faith on a rolling 12 month basis, this contractual view of church attendance is based on a fear of ‘missing out’ on something better.

Therapeutic Faith. We have taken on what some label as a therapeutic faith, that is a faith in which feelings rule over facts, in which the heart beats the head. A faith that is built only upon feelings can truck along nicely until the rough weather comes along. Our culture values pleasure and feelings over almost everything else, we need faith’s in which our hearts and our heads work in tandem. A faith that is only heart driven has no discernment. The word warned of false prophets, we must take everything we feel and experience back to scripture to be weighed.

Life as acting. Young adults today emerge into a world in which we act all the time. You can pretend to be someone online that you are not, you can make your life look more awesome on your myspace or facebook than it really is. There is tremendous pressure to live as though we are acting. Media theorist Neal Gabler in his book Life the Movie notes that today many live their lives like they are acting all the time. Young people live in a perpetual spotlight, they are their own media channels, their own brands, and their own public relations firms. In such a world who you are on the inside is irrelevant, instead we act out a life script our audience is our peers.

Double Lives. A number of recent surveys have found that large segments of Evangelicals privately do not hold to evangelical beliefs. Ron Sider’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience points out that Evangelicals behaviour is no different to that of those who do not hold to faith and in many cases worse. One of the traits of contemporary culture is what Danel Gergen in his book The Saturated Self calls multiphrenia, that is the ability to hold contradictory beliefs at the same time without a sense of guilt or cognitive dissonance. Sadly Christians have begun to mirror this phenomenon. Many young Christians pick and choose what parts of the gospel they want to adhere to and seem to not feel the guilt that past generations did about doing so.

Choice Anxiety. If you live in the West you are rich, not just financially, but you enjoy an affluence of options and choices. On one hand this is fantastic, we have access to millions of opportunities and experiences that our forebears could never dream of. But the flipside of this abundance of choice means that we become paralysed in the face of a million possibilities, choices and variables. Barry Schwartz in his book The Paradox of Choice notes that the more choices we are given, the more our well -being and happiness deteriorates. Why? Because whatever choice we make we are always comparing our decisions to the myriad of other possible choices. Thus we can never be at peace with the paths that we take, we are always comparing and fretting, we are stuck with a constant gut level anxiety or angst over our choices. Add to this the fact that daily we are confronted with thousands of advertising messages all of which are designed by experts and marketing psychologists, and each has the purpose to make us feel discontent with our lives in order to make new purchases, and you can see why we are stuck in choice anxiety. 

Christian young adults are stuck with a constant splinter in the mind, the never ending nagging feeling that they might have made the wrong decision. Did they even make right choice in following Christ? Maybe they should move Cities, States, Countries? Should they change partners, careers, lifestyles, ethics? All of these factors create a constant and nagging feeling that young adults must leave their churches in order to find fulfillment. However as soon as you move and set your tent down, that nagging feeling returns. Sadly more and more young adult believers are experiencing a harried, exhausting and restless spiritual homelessness.  

Get these on the Talking Points

There are influences on the contemporary self that we as Christians must turn our attentions to. My prayer is that these issues can find their way onto the list of contemporary Christian talking points. If we do not, whatever vision you have the church’s future is in serious jeopardy.  

I can’t help but wonder if these issues have not really been on the agenda because they require us to turn the spotlight upon ourselves, that all come with a price tag. They require of us that oh so unhip concept, repentance.

How Al Pacino can help us

Two things struck me when I first watched Al Pacino’s classic 70’s film Serpico. Firstly Al trotted out in the freshest thread I have ever seen (see top pic). But secondly I was struck by the story. The movie is based on the true story of an honest yet avante garde cop Joe Serpico, who blew the whistle on rampant corruption within the police force. In the film Serpico faces tremendous pressure to conform to the wider culture of corruption, at first it is just peer pressure, but as the film progresses, he faces violence even death. The point of the movie, is that one honest person who sticks to their values and sense of self, can bring down and reform a culture which has gone toxic.

If we are to reform our culture it is not just enough to pioneer new forms of church and mission, we must evangelise ourselves, our primary post modern mission-field is our own hearts. Change our hearts, rid them of the aforementioned toxins, and we could have a genuine revolution on our hands.

Are you game?


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