I rarely hear the words ’emerging church’ used any more. I had just about got used to using them myself without cringing a little (it always felt slightly pompous to describe my association using this kind of label) and then it seemed to be out of fashion. And despite myself, I do miss it slightly. It is always good to think of yourself as part of something hip and happening- on the pioneering edge of something new.
Over the last few years there has been a lot of discussion (some of it here, or here for example) about the end of EC as a movement. I never agreed with these obituaries- it always depended what you looked for and how you asked the questions. However, it did seem that a lot of the radicalism that went under the banner was cooling, and perhaps being ‘tamed’ by institutional connection.
What was refreshing about the article mentioned above was the generous description of the breadth of the ‘movement’ defined as follows-
A movement has a center without boundaries. The center is a set of common interests and ideals. People who make up the movement are more or less committed to those ideals, but all share the interests. When a movement develops boundaries it is no longer a movement but an organization…
…Movements are notoriously difficult to pin down and describe–except by their common interests, ideals and commitments (although it must be remembered that within any movement, insofar as it is truly a movement and not an organization, levels of commitment to the ideals varies.) That’s what makes them so interesting and what gives rise to so much discussion and debate about them.
Roger E. Olson (what is it about those initials that always makes it clear that Roger comes from the USA?) who wrote the article compares the EC with the Charismatic movement in the early to mid 1960’s-
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s people debated the nature of the charismatic movement and its boundaries. Much of that discussion was misguided and misleading because there never was a headquarters or magisterium or universal spokesperson or group for the whole movement. But a cottage industry arose around attempts to define it and describe it and gain influence over it. Some organizations tried hard to harness the movement’s energy and control it for their own purposes. During the 1970s and 1980s Oral Roberts tried desperately to do that with little success. Eventually the movement died out as charismatics stopped networking with each other and settled into competing organizations. The charismatic ethos (it’s center) gradually blended into the religious mainstream as demonstrated in, for example, “praise and worship” chorus singing during Sunday morning worship services (something virtually unheard of before the charismatic movement).
Every movement takes up the old in a new way and adds to it as well as subtracts from it. Every movement includes some diversity and is dynamic–flexible and changing. Every movement has its founders and its “Johnny-come-latelies” and its exploiters. And every movement has its would-be popes, its prophets and its critics (both internal and external). AND, every movement has its adherents who refuse to be identified with it.
Olson goes on to try to define what he thinks are some of the unifying features of the movement. I think this part is a little weaker- most dry lists like this tend to feel rather artificial- particularly when one of the defining characteristics of the movements seem to have been a resistance to restrictive definitions!
Perhaps too the UK perspective is rather different. In many ways the UK EC movement was fostered within the mainstream- particularly by Anglican and Methodist leadership. Sure there were radicals who flared bright and largely burned out, but on the whole the movement here has often been an adventure from and within establishment. Perhaps there was also the ‘desperation factor’ in the UK- churches declined to such a remnant that something had to be done- we needed a new gig.
I found myself wondering about Olson’s description of the end of the Charismatic movement however. The end of networking and the settling into competing organisations. This sounds sad- but is inevitable I think.
The issue is, however, the degree to which a movement ‘moves’ things- how much things change. I think that the EC has brought about significant changes, both subtle and obvious, to the Christian landscape of the UK. I would mention specifically some of these-
- A change from attractional to missional forms of engagement with the wider world
- A focus on local, community based ways of living out faith
- An embrace of older religious traditions, alongside new technologies
- A more generous and open dogma- you could even say liberalisation of previous Evangelical core beliefs