What Can Northern Irish Evangelicalism Learn from the Emerging Church Movement? Discussion at Fitzroy Presbyterian

DSC03885Last week I took part in a question and discussion session at Fitzroy Presbyterian church with Rev Steve Stockman, as well as with some very insightful congregants and visitors.

Alan in Belfast recorded the discussion, which you can listen to here. He also has reviewed the new book on which many of my comments were based, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity, co-authored by Gerardo Marti and me.

In response to Steve’s initial questions, I described and defined the Emerging Church Movement (ECM), tasks which are far from simple.

Following the descriptions and definition developed in The Deconstructed Church, I described pub churches, online networks, neo-monastic communities and emerging conferences, and highlighted the ECM’s testy relationship with Protestant evangelicalism.

I also read out our characterisation of Emerging Christianity as an orientation rather than an identity (p. 8):

“ … for us, the term orientation rather than identity better captures the package of beliefs, practices and identities shared by people within the ECM. Orientation allows us to convey that there is a wide spectrum of beliefs and practices within the ECM. While people may disagree, they can still be considered part of the movement. It also allows us to recognize that people within the ECM hold multiple identities simultaneously and that identification as “emerging” may be only occasionally important in their everyday lives (if ever). This leads us to characterize the ECM as an institutionalizing structure, made up of a package of beliefs, practices and identities which are continually deconstructed and reframed by the religious institutional entrepreneurs who drive the movement. But Emerging Christians are somewhat unique institutional entrepreneurs, in that one of their primary purposes is to resist the institutionalization of their faith rather than to reform or create new institutions. This desire to resist institutionalization explains our adoption of the term “institutionalizing structure” to describe the swirl of activity generated as Emerging Christians intentionally reframe Christian belief and practice.”

I said that Emerging Christians often define their movement in terms of a conversation, and that reaching agreement about beliefs or ideas is not the point of what they are doing. Nevertheless, I identified some beliefs/ideas that are widely held in the ECM:

  • The substitionary theory of the atonement is wrong. Emerging Christians prefer to think of the atonement in terms of Girard’s scapegoating theory or as Jesus’s suffering alongside humanity.
  • Truth is not objective and verifiable; rather truth is embodied in the way Jesus lived and in the way Christians should strive to live.
  • It is healthy to doubt. Here, I referenced the work of Belfast-born Peter Rollins, whose redefinitions of crucifixion (experiencing and embracing doubt) and resurrection (an authentic mode of living, i.e. living as if God does not exist to reward or punish you) have pushed the boundaries of the conversation around doubt. (For more, you can read “Northern Ireland, America and the Emerging Church Movement: Exploring the Significance of Peter Rollins and the Ikon Collective.”)

During the discussion period, I was asked a question about the biblical scholarship of Emerging Christians. As a sociologist of religion I am no expert on the field of biblical scholarship, so I responded that most of the prominent leaders in the ECM – like Rollins or Brian McLaren – seemed to have backgrounds in philosophy or literature rather than biblical scholarship.

After the discussion ended a man called Richard from South Belfast Methodist came up to talk with me and pointed out that some leaders in the ECM reference biblical scholarship quite adeptly, though it may not be traditional biblical scholarship. Richard also drew parallels in Emerging leaders’ thinking with the work of the Jesus Seminar and Dominic Crossan.

As the discussion drew to a close, Steve brought us back around to the topic that had shaped the evening: What can Northern Irish evangelicalism learn from the Emerging Church Movement? He highlighted four points:

  • Many Christians (whether they identify as Emerging or not), and others in our society, feel they experience more authentic living apart from institutions.
  • Emerging Christians value relationship and community and report that they often do not find relationship and community within existing religious institutions.
  • Emerging Christians value the space to ask questions and that space is often not available within religious institutions.
  • Emerging Christians highlight the complacency that often exists in our religious institutions.

How then should Christians within existing institutions respond, especially if people are leaving their congregations?

Steve also picked up on an example I had given during the discussion, which I credited to sociologist Josh Packard. In his study of emerging congregations, Packard had asked people:

If your congregation/community folded tomorrow, would anyone in the surrounding neighbourhood even notice?

So Steve asked those gathered: If Fitzroy Presbyterian, or the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, closed tomorrow, who would notice?

Emerging Christians strive to live an authentic faith that makes a difference in the ‘real world’ outside of religious institutions. Packard’s question about closing down gets to the heart of this concern. It is a question that could be productively pondered by Christians everywhere.

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