What does the Emerging Church Want?: Reflections on a Dark Gospel

image What do people in the emerging church want? This is a question that is being posed increasingly in one form or another by academics, critics of the emerging church, and people who are themselves involved with the movement.

Of course, if you ask the people who are involved with the emerging church, you will probably get a unique answer from each person. Some want to reform the church institutions in which they were raised. Others think those institutions are beyond reform and they should be ignored or eliminated altogether.

Some want to shift the focus of Christianity from individual fulfilment and happiness to a grittier, more realistic engagement with people around them, the ‘Other’ of Kester Brewin’s latest book.

Critics of the emerging church argue that in the end it will be nothing more than a blip on the radar screen of religious history, footnoted as an interesting reform movement that ultimately failed to transform or supersede the religious institutions of its day.

Brewin has been responding to this idea in a series of blog posts in which he asks if people involved in the movement in Britain have recently been ‘retreating’ to the religious institutions they had once abandoned.

This is a crucial discussion, because the ability of the emerging church to offer a distinct interpretation of the Christian story – one that resonates in a Western context in which the churches have too often been captive to capitalism and political power holders – will depend on its ability to either resist institutionalisation, or hold relationships with religious institutions in creative tension.

Brewin puts it this way when he characterises the actions of some pre-existing Christian institutions,

My concern is that this could be a political move on the part of the powerful: they can’t afford for a generation to up sticks and leave, so they find new ways to hold on to them, offering certain compromises in the knowledge that once they’re ‘in’ they can be ‘in-stitutionalised’ – made part of the firm.

In a recent blog post, Peter Rollins offers some reflections on a version of the ‘what does the emerging church want?’ question. Rollins was asked ‘what the goal’ of his work was. In this post, Rollins writes about replacing the ‘good news’ that many churches have offered people – a shallow form of individual happiness with a darker vision,

Rather the good news comes down to offering people the possibility of facing up to their suffering and darkness and sharing them with others in some (often ritualistic) way. The good news is found in offering those present the space to face their anxieties (rather than repressing them or falling into despair) and develop the courage to embrace them. This of course is not something that brings in the masses. Stadiums are more often filled by smiling men in good suits offering a lot more (in exchange for a little cash).

With this darker version of the ‘good news,’ I think Rollins articulates something that is crucial – but that can be overlooked – about the emerging church.

Most people who are involved with it will not be quick to define religious ‘success’ in the same ways that the institutionalised churches of the West define success: in conformity to beliefs, church attendance, building programmes, and so on.

But if emergent Christians are ‘retreating’ to institutions, as Brewin claims, I think it is more interesting to ask:

Are they bringing Rollins’ rather dark gospel with them? And if so, how will the institutional churches handle it?

(Photo sourced on Kester Brewin’s blog)

11 thoughts on “What does the Emerging Church Want?: Reflections on a Dark Gospel”

  1. “Critics of the emerging church argue that in the end it will be nothing more than a blip on the radar screen of religious history, footnoted as an interesting reform movement that ultimately failed to transform or supersede the religious institutions of its day.”

    This prognostication belies one of the fundamental differences between the established and emergent crowds: the establishment’s indicator of success is to become established; the emergent indicator of success (if there is one) is to emerge.

    The critics say the emergent movement will fail if it doesn’t supersede the institutions, but the joke is on them, because the emergent movement isn’t trying to become the new establishment. There are some in the emergent crowd who want to reform the establishment just as they themselves are being reformed, but many emergents just want to be true now, without regard for perpetuating their practices indefinitely.

  2. Even if they brought the “dark gospel” with them I think in this case people prefer “light” over “darkness”. Many institutional churches are too program driven and Osteenized to let that messy, raw, fleshy, darklight come and have it’s way. Unfortunately within the binaries of dark/light, happy/sad, fleshy/spirit, raw/cooked, organic/processed etc. we know who the hierarchical victors are in most institutional churches.

  3. Many notable movements in history best served their cause by holding up a mirror to the establishment so that reformation might happen from within. If emergents are reentering the institutions they once left one can only hope they are returning in order to bring a sense of new life (or a new grasp on the Gospel as Rollins has indicated). It is easy to procreate (start something new) but raising the dead (breathing new life into the establishment) is miraculous. As a supporter of emergent it is my hope that our sensitivity to and focus on the resurrection might lead us back into our institutions and that they might look completely different as a result. But maybe that’s just me…

  4. Interesting that I found this today. I happened onto a post by a fellow named George Elerick on the Emergent Village Weblog yesterday (http://www.emergentvillage.com/weblog/elerick-barren). For the record, I do not know George. But I thought his post was a good reflection of where I find myself theologically. (And, I have to get into a pulpit every week.)

    I was amazed at the discussion that ensued. It makes for very interesting reading.

    Even though I serve a very institutional church, I really hope that the institutional church will NOT be able to handle the dark gospel that Peter Rollins and others describe. If they can, then it will, in fact, be co-opted, refined, and neutered.

    Is the Tipping Point near? No idea. But it is swirling out there.

  5. hey gladys,

    this is a really interesting post…

    i’m undecided on this theme and so these are only provisional thoughts…

    i think the wider conversation of which this is a part, would be greatly enhanced by a greater level of specifics and less generalisation.

    as i reflect on it, i wonder if when we talk about “churches” we’d do well to be clear about what we mean when we use expressions like “institutional churches”. because all churches are not alike.
    further, i fear too much of the conversation is decontextualised. and that much of ’emerging’ conversation risks synecdoche. ie. we say “institutional church” when actually we have a specific kind of church we have in mind. it makes the critique sound universal, when actually it’s probably far more partial.

    if “emergent Christians” are retreating, and i’m not entirely convinced of that thesis yet,
    i’m not sure whether it should be framed in these broad terms or even as a ‘retreat’, for a number of reasons:

    – because it suggests or infers that the defining characteristic of emergent Christians is that they left “institutional church”. i’m not sure that actually describes the majority of people defining themselves as emergents or identifying with emerging themes. many never left. thus, the ‘retreat’ is only speaking about a specific group of people. not all.

    – it doesn’t speak to what motivates people who have left to return to church except to frame them in ‘retreat’ – which implies it’s a lack of bravery/energy/will to keep going outside of an existing structure or community. Or that they have been co-opted rather than it’s a choice of agency made in positive terms made by an individual who desires to make (potentially transformative) contribution in a very specific context and within a personal narrative.

    – if emergent Christians don’t define success by numbers, then the issue of filling stadiums is perhaps a moot point.
    – further, that itself is a goal of a very specific kind of Christianity and does not speak for all.
    – one could apply the same critique of the good news/dark gospel.

    – at the end of the day, when ‘returning’ to church one is first and foremost entering a congregation. not simply an institution, but a community of people as part of a personal narrative. and that’s the point at which we need context, and specifics. and i am increasingly finding that kind of context to be lacking and the conversations or approaches on the table are weaker for that lack.

    – when expressions like ‘institutional church’ are used we’d be well served to ask, what churches specifically are we talking about? what actual denominations and congregations are people returning to? and what characterises those diverse congregations? or indeed, should we ask people why they are ‘retreating’ rather than assuming they are ‘retreating’?

    i think the thesis risks denying resistance and agency on behalf of the individuals it purports to be describing, and also makes far too generalised assumptions about the shape or theology of churches.
    e.g. comments that actually are directed towards the Church of England context are implied to mean all institutional churches. or Joel Osteen style mega ministries get to be the definer of how we think all churches understand ‘good news’.

    finally, the idea that there is no institutional structure in emerging groups is potentially a red herring. it allows new forms or shape or leadership style to avoid the issue and not necessarily self-critique the form they take, simply by virtue of not being ‘institutional’.

    what exactly do we mean by ‘institutional’?
    i think how we define that oftens depends on where we’ve come from or where we are for that matter.
    i’ve for some time been fairly convinced that definitions of what ’emerging’ all too often reflect the traditions of those defining it. but that goes unstated and thus unquestioned for its partial perspective.

    the ’emerging’ vs ‘institutional’ just sounds far too neat a distinction to my ears. it’s a very diverse range of ‘particular’ experiences we are talking about.

    that said, i think these are not unimportant questions. and as such are worthy of interrogation.

    sorry – should have tried to say that with greater brevity. apologies for the length.


  6. Emerging church seems overly orientated towards postmodern jargon, introspection and interminable analysis. It is quite easy to get bored with this type of thing.

    In addition it seems difficult to imagine that emerging church has any appeal to those who are not already disgruntled churchgoers; without the backdrop of a rebellion against traditional church what is the point?

  7. Here in the states, we have significant cross cultural movements that choose not to intersect with the US Emergent church movement because they do not self-identify was white and postevangelical. Some streams of church such as the black historic church have a very strong tradition of practicing the dark gospel – that was the theology that birthed the civil rights movement and is fueling the current Sanctuary movement not to mention significant strides in the US Episcopal church in working with the transgender community. Granted much of Americana Xnity doesn’t resemble this model but it is out there in the outer fringes of the faith.

  8. @Joey, you said, “Many notable movements in history best served their cause by holding up a mirror to the establishment so that reformation might happen from within.”

    I think this is the heart of emergence. We have to be honest about the Gospel that we’re holding onto. And if that Gospel is not addressing the underlying suffering within the individual, there is no real good news.

    @John, I know George. He and I are some who are trying to listen once again to the stories and draw out what the good news is. And as he said, sometimes we have to enter the barren land and lose God in order to find God.

  9. Rollins refers to people “falling into despair” if they do not face their own selves through a darker gospel. As someone who looks favorably on the emerging church, but has limited first hand contact with it I limited in my opinions but I think Rollins is on to something here. If a postmodern ideal is fully carried it out it leads to a very nihilistic view of the world which could be accurately characterized as despair. Perhaps the emerging church isn’t a response to postmodernity but a reaction. Without a gospel (no matter how “dark” it may be) postmoderns are headed for despair.

    Great post.

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