For over a decade here in Australia I have been involved in what some have labelled the Emerging Missional Church. Over the last two years I have been asking a lot of questions and critically reflecting upon this movement. The following points are my reflections on some of the mistakes that we have made. But before I continue I would like to make something absolutely clear.
When I say that I am reflecting upon the Emerging Missional Church (EMC), I am not referring to the newer American Emerging Church movement which I think is a very different creature to what we have here in Australia. What I am reflecting upon is the Emerging Missional Church movement that sprung up here in Australia in the early to mid 90’s in an attempt to reach secular Australia with a missiological approach. Some of what I may write will be applicable to other contexts but I wanted to make clear what I was referring to.
I am still 100% passionate about reaching Australia with the gospel, and with approaching our context with a missionary mindset, so I write this article to help others become more effective in their outreach. So in the spirit of praxis and constant improvement here is my list of the top five things we did wrong in no particular order.
1. FAILED TO DEFINE WHAT WE MEAN BY ATTRACTIONAL
One of the buzzwords in the Aussie scene has been the word attractional. This word has been used to describe the way that churches have acted in a non-missionary manner expecting people to simply turn up on their door step. The term attractional has almost become short hand for non-missional. However this has caused all kinds of problems. As many with good intensions have attempted rid their ministries or churches of anything that looked attractional eg programs, services, worship.
However we have failed to understand that any social movement that is successful contains some elements which are attractional. Political movements use rallies to fire up their supporter base, social movements use events to communicate and train their activists, even the highly decentralized Internet contains websites which are in essence attractional. Thus we have misunderstood attractional, we need events, programs, training, even worship in which our base and other interested people come to us to be inspired and encouraged; such events can create great social energy. When all you are doing is putting on a service and expecting people to turn up you are attractional. However succesful missionary churches understand that they must find the balance between missionary efforts and attractional events.
2. FAILED TO DEFINE WHAT WE MEAN BY INCARNATIONAL
Taking its clues from the life of Jesus and the missiological framework; the EMC here in Australia has endeavoured to approach mission with an incarnational approach. Again I believe that this is completely right. However where things get tricky is defining what we mean by incarnational. The modern missiological understanding of the incarnational approach was developed by missionaries who were attempting to communicate the gospel to various cultural and ethnic groups outside of the West. The incarnational approach has worked well when used with tribal or ethnic groups with well defined cultural rules, traditions and fully formed worldviews. And thus the EMC has rightfully attempted to bring such an approach to the Western context. Such an approach is fairly cut and dry when you are trying it with Bangladeshi villagers, Papua New Guinean Tribespeople, or Bedouin Nomads; but what happens when you try such an approach with the liquid, half formed, ephemeral sub-cultures of the West?
Is it the same trying to incarnate into an Amazonian Tribal group as it is into a Volley Ball team? I don’t think so. Sub-cultures here in Australia tend to be interest based, they tend to form around common activities and hobbies rather than a culture and worldview that has grown over centuries. Sure, some may carry elements of a worldview but you will find on the whole sub-cultures still carry the dominant Western secular worldview. Interest groups also tend to come and go, people can be in several at once. Sure the missionary in the West can find common ground by participating in common activities with people who are part of an interest group, but adopting the missiological incarnational position lock stock and barrel in the West can be problematic. The danger is one’s is more shaped by a reaction to evangelical culture rather than a proactive missionary response.
We also must ask the question “what does it mean to incarnate in the post-christian West where cultural memories of Christendom still linger?’. As I have stated, the incarnational approach was developed on the mission field in non-Western pre-Christian environments. But how do you incarnate into a culture which is post – Christian yet still holds many Christian values and which holds ideas and opinions on how Christianity should operate itself?
3. BEING OVERLY DEFINED BY A REACTION TO MASS CULTURE
The EMC has at times found itself working from a reactive rather than a proactive position. Much of its culture has been defined by a reaction to Mass culture rather than a proactive missionary response. To understand this error check out my article Emerging’ Church its about culture NOT theology.
4. FAILING TO UNDERSTAND LOW FUEL TANK FAITH
One of the beliefs of the EMC is that if it can just re adjust our the churches practice around a more missionary position and learn from movement dynamics we will have a significant impact in the West. This is true, however it is missing one crucial point. That there is a giant crisis within the evangelical Church. I call this low fuel tank faith. That is that the average believer in the pew has very little fuel left in their fuel tank. That crisis revolves around three key elements
* Young Adults are leaving behind the church and faith in droves
* Many within Evangelical/Charismatic churches feel Burned/Disillusioned/Disheartened/Cynical
* All across the Evangelical/Charismatic world Christians are struggling to live out their faith. You just have to read Ron Siders The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why are Christians living just like the rest of the World to see the way that we have a crisis of holiness in our churches.
Thus what is occurring is that the troops that are being rallied by Emerging Missional Leaders to begin this new movement in the West are either too burnt out, deconstructing their own faith, or not even sure if they believe in Evangelism anymore. Generals will tell you that you can have the biggest and best equipped army but if you have low morale amongst your troops you are doomed. Missional movements will only get as far as people are brimming over with excitment about their faith. To drive the distance that missional movements need you need a full fuel tank. Thus many EMC missional ventures have become filled with Evangelical and Charismatic church refugees, if you understand this reality and have the patience to build up their faith again over time this can be an advantage, but if you are not aware of this dynamic it can be disastrous.
5. WEDDING OURSELVES TO GEN X CULTURE
In many ways the contemporary Church movement wedded itself too closely to boomer culture, but the same charge can be made of the EMC when it comes to Gen X culture. To understand more read my article here