The Emerging Missional Church Fractures into Mini Movements

I just finished reading Alistair McGrath’s fantastic history of protestantism  Christianity’s Dangerous Idea. It’s interesting how when the Reformation began, Protestantism united itself against what it saw as its binary opposite, Catholicism, but as time passed, Protestantism began to split into various movements and factions (eg Calvinist, Anabaptist, Anglican, Congregationalist etc), overtime these groups began to define themselves against each other rather than against the perceived enemy of the time, Rome.

The history of protestantism is a classic example of movement dynamics. Dissatisfaction creates a ground swell of support against a perceived problem, injustice or enemy. This ground swell coalesces into a movement; at first the movement’s energy and internal dialogue is centered around defining itself against the common enemy. But then as time passes the internal dialogue of the movement begins to shift away from ‘defining against’ to ‘defining itself’. Then the conversation changes and people inside the solidfying movement begin to discover that although they are united in their distaste of their ‘enemy’ there is much that they disagree with each other over. Then tensions and differences arise, fractures are followed by factions, and the new movement breaks up. (For another historical example of this check out the French revolution.)

The emerging missional church seems to be following  a very similar path, having seemingly fractured into multiple movements. In the early days it could define itself against the perceived enemy ‘the mainstream church”.The problem was that whilst everyone agreed that something new and different must be birthed that is in contrast to the ‘mainstream church’, many had differeing definitions of what ‘mainstream church’ was. For some it was large mega churches who had seemed to have capitulated to consumer culture, for others it was irrelevant, overly traditional mainline churches, for others it was  churches that were too theologically conservative, but others were rebelling against what they saw as a mainstream church that was made impotent by liberal theology. Some saw the task as being centered around creating a contextually appropriate church for post-modern people in contrast to the ‘mainstream church’ which was perceived as being too closely wedded to ‘modernity’.

Many in the United States saw the enemy as the conservative Evangelical ‘religious right’, whereas some in the UK saw themselves creating something fresh and culturally relevant in contrast to the perceived irrelevance of many Anglican parishes. For some the problem with mainstream church was it’s politics, for others it was a lack of genuine mission. So as time went on and as conversations went deeper, many in the emerging missional movement found that they were more divided than they realised. For a while a sense of tribalism and common cultural interests seemed to hold these divisions at bay. But then things started to get weirder as something unexpected happened. Not all, but many institutions, leaders, and churches that had been labelled ‘mainstream church’ by the new movement began to listen to, converse with and imitate the emerging missional movement.

Justice went from being a sidelined issue to one of the hottest causes in many mainstream churches. Books like Blue like Jazz , the Shack and The Irresistible Revolution, which most likely if had been released ten or even five years earlier, would have only been read by a small amount of readers within the emerging missional movement, began to sell by the container ship load,  and most of the readers were from ‘outside’ the movement. The line between mainstream church and the emerging missional church had become very blurred.

Inevitably the movement began to fracture and I believe now has broken up into a number of mini movements. Here is my rudimentary attempt to name  and describe some of them.

Neo-Anabaptists:  Some have called this movement the new monastics, which is quite a helpful term, but I think that a more accurate description would be Neo-Anabaptists, as this group is shaped by the ethos of the Anabaptist movement. This movement tends to be pacifist, favours incarnational living amongst the urban poor, and has a strong distrust of power, sees contemporary Western Culture and Society as being controlled by “Empire” and thus favours an approach of prophetic action by small grassroots Christian communities.I would also place in this group the growing Christian-Anarchist movement in Australia and New Zealand. This group tends also to be strongly influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement started by Dorothy Day. A key leader in this movement would be Shane Claibourne. Key books The Irresistible Revolution. The New Conspirators by Tom Sine.

Neo- Calvinists:   This group puts an emerging spin on classic Calvinism. This group views reformed theology as way out of the morally relevatist mess created by postmodernity. Whereas traditional Reformed theology viewed gifts of the spirit with suspicion, the new calvinism tends to have a charismatic edge. The neo-Calvinists also in contrast to early Calvinism, place a high emphasis on mission, and thus have begun a number of church planting efforts. Key Leaders in this movement, Mark Driscoll, Tim Keller.

Neo-Missiologists:  This group are in many ways the heirs to the church growth movement created by Donald McGavern, a returned missionary who advocated a missional approach to the West. However whereas church growth was influenced by the mechanistic leadership, marketing and organising techniques of the corporate world, the new missiologists borrow instead from the organic models found in nature. Building on the work of Christian Schwarz this group favours small simple highly reproducible forms of church. This group is also highly influenced by the missiology of Leslie Newbiggin and Paul Hiebert and favours an incarnational mode of church, that is not ‘attractional’ but rather missional. This group also borrows some of its eccleisiology from House Church theorists and practitioners such as Robert Banks and Wolfgang Simson. Thus many label this movement ‘missional’. Key leaders Neil Cole and Wolfgang Simpson and Frank Viola. Key books the Forgotten Ways, Pagan Christianity and The Organic Church.  

Neo-Clapham’s:   A strange name yes but I think a descriptive one as this group tends to be influenced by the ideas of William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect. Whilst this movement is technically not concerend with ‘church’, one cannot underestimate its effect upon the contemporary church, and the lives of christian young adults. Whilst just as passionate about justice as the Neo-Anabaptists, the Neo-Clapham’s  tend to take a very different approach. Whereas the Neo-Anabaptists tend to favour an approach which is local, grassroots and suspicious of larger institutions, the Neo-Clapham’s take an approach that is global, large scale and campaign driven.In contrast to the Neo-Anabaptist’s, this group are less suspicious of power and thus work closely or within corporations, governments, the Entertainment industry, NGO’s and denominations. Much of the energy of the Neo-Clapham’s can be found in various movements such as Make Poverty History, Fair Trade, Human Trafficking, Blood Chocolate, and so on. Key Leaders Jim Wallis, Tim Costello, Bono, Steve Chalke, David Batstone.

Digital Pentecostals:   This movement is a recent development within Pentecostalism in the West, specifically developing out of Australia. While Pentecostalism classically was defined by outward expressions of response to the Holy Spirit, the digital pentecostals create experiential spaces through cutting edge media and technologies in which participants can respond to the Holy Spirit. This group attempt to reach out to postmodern culture by creating large church worship experiences which are highly experiential and tech savvy thus being attractive to postmodern tech savvy, experiential Gen Y’s. Many Digital Pentecostals has eschewed the ‘prosperity theology’ of their parents and instead are highly influenced by or part of the Neo-Clapham movement. In many ways this the second generation of Gen Y kids who have come of age being influenced by Hillsong. Key Leaders Joel Houston, Judah Smith. This group would not have ever seen itself as part of the emerging missional journey at any stage, but never the less is an interesting response to post-Christian culture.

Neo-Liberals:   Many who began in the Emerging Church have taken the journey further and embraced a kind of 2oth century liberalism with an emerging spin. In an attempt to reject what was seen as the cultural captivity of evangelicalism, many have questioned a number of key components of evangelical life and theology and found themselves swimming in for want of a better term ‘soft liberalism’. Whereas traditional liberalism was born out of an attempt to create a theology that fit with modern sensibilities, the Ne-liberals find themselves creating a new theology in response to the post-modern context. Interestingly this group seems to be finding more and more in common with mainline liberal Churches in the United States than they do with Evangelicals. Critics would place some of the voices within the ‘Emergent” camp here.

Blenders:   This group would have placed themselves in the emerging church camp five years ago, but in response to the move away from evangelical theology by many of their former travellers (the Neo-Liberals)  they have re-affirmed their commitment to evangelical theology. This group also seems to be questioning some of the assumptions of the Neo-Missiologists and are attempting to blend a missional approach, whilst still affirming some elements of the attractional mode of church, hence the term blenders.Key leaders Erwin McManus, Dan Kimball.

 Obviously there is much cross-pollination between these groups. As well as many problems with my analysis. I am sure that there are more that I could come up with, maybe you can think of some too.


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