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Postmodernity and the Emerging Church

By Geoff Westlake
January / February 2015

Emerging churches refer to churches which have emerged from
the grassroots level up instead of the top down.

What does the so-called “Emerging Church” really bring to the whole Church taking the whole gospel to the whole world? How do we critique it meaningfully, without overstating the good or bad within it? What can we learn from it? And can we assist its formation in effective mission?

Mission Ferment
Some say that the term “Emerging Church” (EC) refers to new kinds of church “emerging from the field,” groups that have emerged from the grassroots level up instead of training from the top down. Indeed, emerging church personnel often report that they thought they were a lone voice until they suddenly met others on the same path. So it is largely true to say that the phenomena “emerged” from the interfaces between church and the changing cultures of postmodern times. In that way, the EC movement does arise from both missionary exchanges and dissatisfaction with established churches’ abilities to meet those exchanges.

It is generally a good impulse to “live with the natives” and let indigenous forms of church emerge, similar to the ministry of Hudson Taylor (whom we now hail as a father of modern mission) in China.

Taylor’s actions, however, scandalized the “compound” missionary model of his day, which enabled missionaries to be in proximity enough to “communicate to” the Chinese, but allowed them to retreat to their little piece of Britain each day. When Taylor “went native,” the compound missionaries quickly criticized his audacity. They gave many warnings: “You will syncretize. You will not preach the gospel. You will lose your distinctiveness. You will lose the great traditions of the Church. You will not be nourished. You will become theologically lazy.”

One should never dismiss a new movement out of fear of what might happen. Perhaps these opponents of Taylor were so personally invested in the compound as “the right way” that they could no longer imagine other ways.

Since Alvin Toffler’s 1970 book Future Shock, we have known that Western cultures have shifted far from church culture. They are now foreign, just as Chinese culture was foreign to British compounds. This is precisely why emerging churches often do not have the “compounds” of church buildings, structures, salaries, music, services and sermons as we know them. Could it be that some emerging churches hold the seeds for a new missionary movement for our challenging day?

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Geoff Westlake is team leader for Cheers, "a neighbors' network working from a Christian base." He works as an outreach specialist for OAC Ministries in Western Australia.