Thursday, May 15, 2008

emerging church as countercultural

Is the emerging church a sellout to current culture? I am addressing this question at a BCNZ forum next Thursday.

Today, as part of my research, I am surfing the web and scouring the literature, looking for examples of emerging church as countercultural, as swimming against postmodern tides, as offering prophetic critique to the whims and whimsy of our world.

If you know of any examples, I’d love to hear them.

Update: In response to helpful comments, here is my basic framework.
1 – some stories of cross-cultural sell-out
2 – what is emerging church
3 – the missiology of Luke 10:1-12
4 – encouragements to the emerging church from Luke 10:1-12
5 – challenges to the emerging church from Luke 10:1-12
6 – so, is the emerging church a sell-out ….?
(If you want the paper, let me know and I will see what happens to it post-delivery).

Posted by steve at 01:25 PM


  1. Hi friend
    Interesting question to be addressing, and one which actually needs concrete examples to rebuff the implicit criticism.

    One a basic level, I think any church that is proclaiming the Kingdom gospel, with all the challenges to individualism and relativism that should involve, is swimming against the tide. The call of Christ is counter-cultural.

    Beyond, that I would happily suggest City Lights, of which I am a founding trustee, is an example of young Christians from multiple churches collaborating to develop long term relationships with people in material and other need. This isn’t church for postmoderns, this is postmoderns being church for the hurting.



    Comment by Rich Johnson — May 15, 2008 @ 2:38 pm

  2. Hi Steve,

    For what it’s worth… I think that the emergent movement is a powerful and much needed critical voice on the matters of culture we have taken for granted so long in churchendom. My own ’emergent’ reading points to central values of authenticity, relationship, perspective over attending, being a member, and knowing the answers. To me, one of the great shames is that we take the incumbent as normative. ‘Emergent’ becomes a deficit term, a ‘not-quite’ prefix. I think that’s worth challenging. It would also be worth considering how the emergent differs from the incumbent… I wouldn’t take it for granted that everyone knows what ’emergent’ actually signifies, so I think you ought to be clear on just what ’emergent’ means and what differentiates it from the incumbent.

    A pity you won’t be able to benefit from the Wineskins talks on Saturday… I’m not sure of Mark and Rod’s take on things, but it would be worth picking up on some of the matters they deal with as it will be timely for your audience. I was going to be there but something has come up.

    Comment by Mark — May 15, 2008 @ 4:36 pm

  3. I hope you don’t need to be an expert in emergent church to post – because I am not, I am just meadling around the corners of emergent. The stuff which I have been doing has two points of reference, one is current culture. The second point of reference is ancient worship (1st – 4th century). So the Easter Vigil event which we organised wasn’t based around current culture, but around a 4th century rite, and was emergent in nature.

    Comment by KSW — May 15, 2008 @ 5:25 pm

  4. thanks KSW. Great to have your comment. So your saying that its’ counter cultural cos its’ ancient liturgical. Can you tell us more then about how it was culturally connective?

    It sounds fascinating.


    Comment by steve — May 15, 2008 @ 5:28 pm

  5. Was not the incarnation the ultimate sell-out to the prevailing culture – perhaps sell-out is a good thing if done deliberately and prayerfully. Notice how common the sellout charge comes from people so linked with a particular form of culture ( American evangelicals + right wing politics) that they cannot see their own “sellout”

    Comment by Tom Allen — May 15, 2008 @ 8:12 pm

  6. Tom,

    yes and no. yes, the incarnation was a sellout. it was also a countercultural critique, as Jesus offered a new way of being human.

    this is what i will be arguing, using Luke 10, a text in which the disciples both ate what was before them and shook the dust off their feet. both a yes and a no.

    trust your move north is going well. have you see the festricht in honour of newbigin, that has 3 chapters on newbigin and trinity?


    Comment by steve — May 15, 2008 @ 9:31 pm

  7. I’ve been reading around the subject recently – mainly from contemporary RC perspective – more specifically – Ratzinger’s ecclesiology (in “Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI” by Tracey Rowland / OUP, 2008). I haven’t yet got complete handle on it, but my initial reading suggests a primacy on “worship” and “Christian formation”. He offers a critique (and he’s no intellectual light-weight) at just the point your title suggests – the intersection of church and culture… The picture I’m getting is that he thinks we swing to far in the direction of culture…and he sees risk in this…

    Sorry I can’t be more specific (still trying to get my head around the debate), but it’s a place I currently find myself in, a place more popularly described by the likes of Stanley Hauerwas, and suggested by descriptors like “resident aliens” – my hunch is that there must come a point where the (over)prioriterising or preferencing of gospel / culture / missional engagement (one text, e.g. Luke 10) creates an unhelpful polarity or dualism with worship (and other dimensions of being “church”), and the subversive, counter-cultural dimensions of “gospel” (kingdom) identity and practice over and against culture (and culturally formed identity).

    Incarnation is important, but so is the cross, resurrection, and ascension. I worry (sometimes) that we don’t hold (wisely)the tensions inherent in the Jesus-story…

    Still thinking…

    Would love a copy of your paper in due course…

    Comment by paul — May 16, 2008 @ 9:37 am

  8. How was it culturally connective???
    Context: Anglican Parish who did their normal Easter services, but this was something new to their Easter menu. Held after dark on Saturday evening. Four part event: 1. Lighting an Easter Candle, 2. Reading the Word 3. Renewal of Baptismal Promises; 4. Eucharist.

    1. starting outside in the cold and the dark; lighting a fire (in an ornate BBQ) from which a large Easter candle was lit, every one had individual candles lit, went into the church, and lit around 200 more candles – so that there was enough light to see without electric lighting (except for the musicians).
    2. Hearing readings from Exodus, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Psalms, Luke.
    3. Gathered around the font, and used water as we renewed our baptismal promises
    4. Communion together.

    Hard to describe an event in two paragraphs, but hope you get the idea.

    How was it culturally connective??? It connected with people because they left with a sense of either the transcendence of God and the immanence of God (or both). It connected with people because their participation was active (they weren’t left passively in a pew), it was multi-sensory – the space we used (our church) was familiar, but looked completely different by candle light; people were asked use the water in the font to remember their baptism; the music was diverse (from the original stuff from 4th century to contemporary). It connected people present not just with the people in their midst, but people of faith (Christian and Jewish) back to the Exodus.

    Comment by KSW — May 16, 2008 @ 3:33 pm

  9. thanks Paul. i wonder if different cultural times call for different Biblical texts. i wonder this because of the diversity in the Bible itself – from exilic alien to Dueteronomic reform of governmental structures to Lukan liberation. so a useful question might be, what does our current context call for.

    the power of Christendom is great. might the context for spiritual formation and worship changed and if so, might the Biblical nourishments lie elsewhere in the Biblical text?

    and with reference to Luke 10, there is worship and formation in that text, along with counter cultural “shake dust off one’s feet”


    Comment by steve — May 16, 2008 @ 5:36 pm

  10. Hi Steve

    Thanks. I hear what you’re saying, and am trying to hear what the questions being asked by the likes of Ratzinger, Hauerwas and others have to say within our current context. I’m trying to sit a while at “their table” listening to their affirmation, their subversion and their critique…

    Is “shaking the dust from your feet” really counter-cultural in a contemporary context where in a very real sense, “shaking the dust” from ones feet becomes a ‘biblically’ sanctioned means of walking away from the “other” in the face of difference, misunderstanding and disagreement? Whenever the going gets tough, we “shake the dust from our feet” and walk away (cf. the Anglican communion / in Politics / in race relations etc). Walking away indiscriminately used becomes an easy avoidance strategy…

    Luke 10 is an important (contemporary) text, but it is only one text of the many that inevitably need to be lived into and out of in our various contemporary contexts…

    Comment by Paul Fromont — May 16, 2008 @ 6:53 pm

  11. I have never thought of shaking the dust as a walking away.

    I have seen it as a refusal to colonise my other, and instead to commit them into the hands of Jesus who is coming after. I sought of tender holding in a way that gives them space, in expectation of a return to the table at some point down the track.


    Comment by steve — May 16, 2008 @ 8:02 pm

  12. Paul and Steve… a very interesting and thoughtful conversation… please keep it going on your respective blogs etc. It is incredibly valuable and timely.

    Sorry, it seems to think my Blog has “questionable content” and won’t let me leave the url!

    Comment by Mark B — May 21, 2008 @ 4:26 am

  13. thanks mark. i think i might have fixed the spam thing! and with your encouragement, I have added a further post

    i speak on the paper 2morrow and if i get the headspace, and a worthwhile reception, will think about how it could see the light of day,


    Comment by steve — May 21, 2008 @ 8:49 pm

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