Friday, September 26, 2008

why i’m emergentkiwi (still)

In 1994 my wife and I began church planting. We moved into a suburb, called Ellerslie. She joined the netball team and I began washing our clothes at the local laudromat, building relationships, practising Incarnation. Demographics told us it had a predominance of young adults, which resonnated with our age as church planters and our listening to our friends. We had friends who had faith, and who were finding faith, but outside the church. These friends valued relationships and participation and they wanted a faith that made sense of all of their lives and all of their persons. We began to talk about shared values of community, and creativity and about overcoming the sacred/secular divide and a community of Jesus followers began to form.

We felt very lonely. We suffered a lot of antagonism and disdain from some (not all) older Christians. (We were probably also aggressive and insecure in our response and that made it worse!)

Then we find some travelling companions. And this is really important. We found some travelling companions, they did not found us. Initially we found the alt.worship movement in UK. Then we found the Young Leaders Network, and tallskinnykiwi. And then we found Emergent in US. These were friends who were asking similar questions, about faith and mission in our time.

And so my blog is called emergentkiwi. In honour of finding some friends and about a shared conversation.

But the antagonism continued. And now the US antagonism was polluting New Zealand waters. (And perhaps the US emergents were also a bit aggressive and insecure and made it worse, but that’s up to them to own that). And the shared global conversation became dominated by a US brand. Happens all the time, with all forms of pop culture.

At the time I was doing my PHD study, on new forms of church and mission and discipleship. It became my book The Out of Bounds Church? Learning to Create a Community of faith in a culture of change. (Yep – sold as part of the US brand :)) And I was reflecting more theologically and intentionally on what was going on.

And I was being invited to speak about the emerging church. And I kept getting all tangled up. What was it? Could I define it? And when I did, did that make my listeners in? or out? And what did I think of McLaren?

And all the time I am thinking – this is not where I began. I did not begin with definitions. I began in a local community with a desire to connect people with Jesus. And so I stopped defining and tried naming those impulses. I would start with Acts 2. At Pentecost, people from many nations began to hear in their own language. That is the missionary work of God’s Spirit. So when my friends stopped hearing God in their own language, then our church planting was simply a reflection (good and bad) of the missionary work of the Spirit.

And I would show the fabulous emerging church cartoon by David Walker. And we could all laugh at the emerging church – and then to realise that this was simply some people “hearing God in their own language.” Which then gave space for every participant to think not about definitions of in and out, but about their group, their context, their culture and begin to wonder what it would mean for people to hear “in their own language.” And so I did not have to defend the emerging church and participants did not have to compare themselves to the emerging church, but only to think about their own context.

And then I would turn to Luke 10:1-12

It starts with prayer and sending. And so we need established churches to send people. And so the attractional vs incarnational dualities were sidestepped.

A text that invites disciples to go and speak peace. That’s the first response of missionaries to culture, to go and speak peace. So we don’t need to be afraid of the big bad wolf called postmodernity. So let’s go, to our networks and neighbours, outside the walls of a church and start by speaking peace.

Luke 10 then calls disciples to dwell at the tables of culture. So we should be happy to listen, well and deeply, to the narratives and dreams and hopes and aspirations of tables. So we need to do cultural exegesis – well and thoroughly, not poorly and lightly – as part of the missionary encounter.

Luke 10 then suggests that in the grace of God, healing might happen and Kingdom conversation might begin and faith community might begin to form. It will be bottom up, and particular and localised (although it will be able to share stories of healing and shared Kingdom values between localised communities). And so emerging church is one such attempt. And emergentKiwi will be local and US Emergent will be particular and alt.worship will be unique and Forge will speak in Australian. And we should be able to share stories of healing and Kingdom talk. And participants listening don’t need to become like me, or like McLaren or like Alan Hirsch or Cheryl Lawrie. Rather they need to look for God’s works of healing in their our context. It also means that WillowCreek is also a form of particular healing. And so it’s not about small church or large church, PAL or NTSC, singing or video loops, PC or Mac, but about the grace of God forming local bodies of Christ.

And Luke 10 invites us both to speak peace and to shake dust of our feet. And so there are times when emerging will be critical of postmodernity. We are not marrying the spirit of the age. We are deeply concerned about the sin of consumerism and we love the story of Jesus and we are angry at practices that damage God’s earth. But we will do that from a position of Incarnation, following Jesus who loved the world and did not come to condemn, but to save.

And now, when groups gather with me around Acts 2 and Luke 10, the conversation is suddenly no longer about definitions and about in and out. Instead it is around mission and change and the Kingdom of God. And for the last few years I have loved being part of this and worked with all sorts of denominations and in a good number of countries.

And now some of my friends are walking away from the label emerging. And the www, which helped carry the conversation, is now carrying the demise. And lots of people love it and will work very hard to spread the news. And frankly, this will make some conversations even more antagonistic. When I go to speak, someone will put up their hand and so “Oh, but I hear emerging is dying.”

And I will look at them and part of me will want to cry. How could my efforts to be part of God’s work, born for such a time as this, now be called dead.

And part of me will want to hit over the head all the people who have stirred and misrepresented and fought over labels and words and used the web to spread disinformation and increase their blog ratings.

And part of me will smile. What will they call the next thing, I wonder?

And I will respond to the question by suggesting we turn to Acts 2 and Luke 10. I will suggest we stop worrying about what we call these “new forms of church.” Instead we think about what it means for us to be obedient to the mission of God, because we are born “for such a time as this.”

Which, actually, is a much scarier conversation, because labels keep us academic and intellectual. But mission invites us to follow Jesus into God’s world, like lambs among wolves, taking nothing but our faith in the active, missionary Spirit.

Posted by steve at 12:59 PM


  1. Could I be naughty and suggest it’ll be called “growing up” or something similar? 😉
    Actually, I share your frustration at labelling. And mud-slinging. It’s not that I disagree with critical analysis (I’m quite a modernist in that respect), it’s just that sometimes it’s not about critique so much as criticism….

    Comment by Rachael — September 26, 2008 @ 3:36 pm

  2. Supurb Steve,

    Andrew M

    Comment by Andrew — September 26, 2008 @ 7:58 pm

  3. READ ANDERSON! 🙂 He basically says the same thing.

    Love the reflections. It is nice to have a bit of background to your teaching. It helps place things in perspective.



    Comment by mark — September 26, 2008 @ 8:13 pm

  4. Well done, that was straight from the heart! Established churches can certainly help and they can be a real blessing, where they are still present in the locality, or are still present in a form that enables them to be effective. It depends on where you are located and the degree of decline that has happened. The decline is reaching its end point in some places in the UK, particularly in rural areas, and what remains can have a deeply embedded church culture that not only does not enable pioneering ministries or innovation, it intentionally prevents them.

    In the end, even most of us who are effectively serving alongside or outside established churches owe our formation to the established churches, and it has to be Christlike to relate to them in grace-filled ways, facilitating, forgiving, accompanying them where possible, and no reason why not to be prepared to work within their structures where these are potentially productive.

    I believe by modelling warm and mutually respectful relationships with the denominations we are laying good foundations for the future churches here in the UK, which may or may not have connections with them.

    It’s great to hear reminders that we can transcend the arguments of terms and models of church to find the timeless anchor points in scripture which will carry the churches through the UK churchgoing meltdown and beyond to a healthy future. Every blessing,

    Comment by Eleanor Burne-Jones — September 26, 2008 @ 9:19 pm

  5. thanks, yet again Steve, for your gracious and considered words, for simply telling your story and how you have sought to live out a story that resonates with(in) the Jesus story.
    keep telling that story, on www and face-to-face. we need more storytellers.

    Comment by Andrew Dowsett — September 28, 2008 @ 4:54 am

  6. Thank you Steve…that was exactly what I needed to hear right now.

    I’m really frustrated with it, and you can read about my thoughts on my blog…Kimball especially seems so childish about it.

    Comment by Mark — September 30, 2008 @ 3:05 am

  7. Aren’t we humans stupid, how we love to make a name and afraid of being scattered, which always means someone gets excluded, written out… Yes, I taught Gen 11:1-9 last week 😉

    Comment by Tim Bulkeley — October 1, 2008 @ 6:24 am

  8. “How could my efforts to be part of God’s work, born for such a time as this, now be called dead. ”

    Steve, the movement is strong and global and our efforts are not dead. but in usa it has become confused with the wrong things and has lost its meaning. lets keep on keeping on and let others name it what they want.

    its been a great decade with you. i look forward to the next one.

    Comment by andrew jones (tallskinnykiwi) — October 3, 2008 @ 8:43 pm

  9. what a gorgeous, gorgeous piece of thinking & writing

    Comment by bob c — October 4, 2008 @ 12:51 am

  10. Steve:

    This is extraordinarily refreshing. Thanks for it, and thanks for continued friendship.

    Contrary to what TSK comments, we are neither confused with the wrong things nor have we lost our meaning in the States (these judgments seem odd from someone who primarily views us from afar). We in the States, like you in NZ, TSK in the UK, and others around the world, continue to try and faithfully follow Jesus and push his church into the future.

    As Brian McLaren predicted years ago, the “theological police” have mounted an attack against us. If that leads some to abandon us or a name that we find helpful, so be it. In this I agree with TSK: the Kingdom work will continue regardless.

    Grace and Peace.

    Comment by tony jones — October 4, 2008 @ 10:04 am

  11. Steve, loved the post….. and i agree on many parts, but as one that is on the USA side of the pond, i do think that the word Emerging has been misconstrued on a bunch of levels. Emerging and Emergent have somewhat become synonymous – and because of theological debates- has caused confusion. (not so much if you have a PHd or a MDiv. – and are open to discourse on that level of dialogue)…… but for many – who don’t even know the word post modern- they are struggling. So for me… unless i’m in like company of Co-horts, having to constantly defend a position based on a misunderstood concept – is more of a labor than any fruit could harvest. I think some of it is being all things to all people, so if i’m with friends that hold to a more conservative mindset, my main goal is seeing the Kingdom of God manifest and NOT my own personal investment in a specific word or frame. I was literally disowned from my family because i used the term Born Again when i came to know Jesus on a deeper level. NO JOKE, that was over 27 years ago!- and that was a term that has a actual scriptural reference! I am not disowning my Emergent/Emerging friends – because i’m using that word a bit more sparingly. Just that in the context of people that i am in relationship to … that may have some issues with that frame, i’m giving a grace space- for them not to have to jump to My thought processes, before they can see Jesus on a different level. On a basic level… there are many that think drinking wine or anything of the like is a “sin”, or for some a temptation …. If you come to my home, there is always wine, or beer… but if some one comes to my home that i know has an issue with it… i refrain…… if they ask me why i drink wine, i have no issues with sharing …… but if it’s not a cross issue, then what is the point. What are we really trying to share, – Jesus or a concept or style in relating? Sometimes, things need reframing for people to understand better, but if they are stuck on a word, persevering on a point of view that has that word in it, isn’t the best way to reconcile things.
    Blessings and thanks for giving me grace to share.
    Shalom to the deepest parts,

    Comment by Cathryn Thomas — October 4, 2008 @ 7:33 pm

  12. Thank you Steve for your story – what seems to happen is the moment you try to market a “movement (albeit church growth, Social Gospel, emergent), replete with branded publishing deals and appointed spokesmen who are deemed experts in said field, then that particular piece of the puzzle seems to have died. But I agree with Andrew, the movement (though I’d prefer perhaps a more organic term) continues to grow throughout the world. Check out Phyllis Tickle’s book “The Great Emergence” when it is released this month as she carries the discussion forward and makes some fascinating and much needed historical connections.

    Comment by Becky — October 5, 2008 @ 6:36 am

  13. Becky, – well put.. and i’ve always loved the term Organic Church much better anyways. Tripp Fuller has a convo with Phyllis Tickle- on “Homebrewed Christianity”- i love Tripp to pieces … it’s playfully refreshing whenever i listen in.
    Should be interesting how this all pans out…….

    Comment by Cathryn Thomas — October 5, 2008 @ 7:12 am

  14. Thanks heaps Steve. This is wonderfully restorative and I sense a knowing smile as the challenge dawns on me. Cheers mate.

    Comment by Adrian — October 6, 2010 @ 5:47 pm

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