Sorry for the slightly pretentious if not strange title of this article, but I wanted to add some further thoughts to my article The Emerging Missional Church Fractures into Mini-Movements by making some comparisons between the cultural symbolism of Greenwich Village and the Emerging Missional Church.
New York’s Greenwich Village has for decades carried a tremendous amount of symbolism in the popular imagination. The neighbourhood’s bohemian flavour can be traced back to the beginning of the 20th century when artists, dancers, poets and actors were drawn to the accessible art-friendly spaces of the area. As the decades passed various artistic, cultural and intellectual movements found a home in the area. In the 1920’s it could be radical playwrights, in the 1930’s it could be Dadaists and Surrealists, the 40’s were about the Abstract Expressionists, the 50’s saw the beat writers such as Jack Keroauc and Allen Ginsberg, in the 60’s the village became the hub of the folk music movement lead by Bob Dylan which drew in the anti-war movement and the hippies. The late sixties and early seventies saw the village become the centre of the gay rights movement and of radical political groups such as the weather underground.
So over the last century Greenwich Village has been home to various divergent and often oppositional movements, philosophies, political agendas, artistic visions. What then has drawn all of these diverse groups to the Village? A common sense of being ‘defined against’, of wanting an identity that is in contrast to what is seen as the mainstream culture of the day. Thus Greenwich Village is not a movement or manifesto in of itself, it does not stand for a set of beliefs or accompanying actions. Instead it acts as a kind of floating symbol which unites people who are defining themselves against the mainstream culture, despite the fact that many of the groups and movements which found a home under that umbrella would totally disagree with each other, they all agree that they don’t want to be part of the mainstream.
I am more and more inclined to see the Emerging Missional Church as a similar floating symbol, an umbrella under various divergent and often disagreeing mini-movements and ideologies gather, all united by their desire to not be like what they see as the defunct or irrelevant mainstream mode of Church.This is why so many find it so difficult to come up with a satisfactory list of common factors that unite those who would label themselves Emerging/Missional and why so many people found it difficult to place themselves in the large amount of mini-movements that I outlined.
But just as you thought that might simplify things a bit they only get more confusing. Let’s return to our metaphor of Greenwich Village. Today the Village is in many ways is gentrified and home to the kinds of wealthy professionals that the original inhabitants of the village were trying to define themselves against, one of the great ironies is that the thing that draws in the upwardly mobile to the village is the bohemian ethos. This is the reality of our post-hip culture, in which pretty much everyone defines themselves against the mainstream, and in which the mainstream no longer believes that it is mainstream. Thus today when people shell out the big bucks to live in Greenwich village they are not making a disentsablishmentary political statement, rather they are investing in their identity, finding a sense of self in the historical cultural symbol of Greenwich Village.This is is the score in the society of ‘cool’ in which we are encouraged to live in a state of permanent faux rebellion against the mythic ‘mainstream’.
And this is the rub for us folks. Do we find a sense of identity by defining ourselves against those in the mainstream church, those in the broader Christian culture? I remember back in high school the secret sense of superiority I felt being an ‘indie’ kid, looking down my nose at my classmates and what I saw as their ‘plastic FM’ mainstream music tastes. To my shame and to be really honest over the last decade or more of being part of this whole “emerging scene’ I have secretly felt the same sense of delight I felt in High School at times as I defined myself against what I saw as others in the ‘mainstream’ church. I have wrongly at times sought sense a sense of self as I wrote a mental list of the ways in which I ‘got it’ in contrast to others. One thing that grabbed me in many of the blogs written about the various mini-movements is that many people used the language of ‘where I fit or where I do not fit in’ and ‘belonging’, such language made me wonder if part of this all is about how we construct identity.
Therefore we who place our selves somewhere under the broad umbrella of the Emerging Missional church must ask ourselves if have we defined ourselves against the mythical ‘other’ in order to find a sense of self? When we define against what we see as the mainstream church we marginalize others from the conversation, creating the precise ‘us and them’ dynamic which the story of the Good Samaritan subverts.
Therefore as previously stated I see the fragmentation that is occurring as a positive thing, as that we are forced to define what we are about, rather than getting caught in the cultural trap of finding a sense of self by defining against. Fascinatingly most of the mini-movements that I named in my previous article are really not that unique or new, but rather re-discoveries of older traditions. I find this incredibly encouraging, as too often a sense of arrogance accompanies new movements, and often subverts them. As we mature we may begin to realize that we are not the last great hope, maybe all we are doing is what Christians have always done, that we are simply applying unchanging truths to a changing context.
The more I read history I am not sure if we are experiencing a great Emergence: I am more inclined to wonder if what we are seeing is the same dynamic that we have always seen since the birth of the Church, that is the highly dynamic and adaptive nature of our faith. Yes I know it does not sound as sexy as labelling a our time in history as a momentous hinge, but I have a hunch that it is closer to the truth. I will leave the last word to Alistair McGrath, whose book Christianity’s Dangerous Idea started this whole train of thought,
“Those who are anxious about the future of Protestantism often urge that radical change in it’s self understanding is necessary if it is to survive, let alone prosper…The historical and theological evidence presented in this book offers a rather different answer. We have seen that Protestantism possesses a unique and innate capacity for innovation, renewal, and reform based on its own internal resources. The future of Protestantism lies precisely in Protestantism being exactly what Protestantism actually is.”