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Emerging church and Orthodoxy

4 February 2009

I am sometimes asked by fellow-Orthodox Christians why I am interested in the Emerging Church movement, which is a movement within Western Protestantism, and seems at first sight to have little to do with Orthodoxy.

In some ways the Emerging Church movement seems to be a spin-off from the “Gospel and Our Culture” movement, which was started by Lesslie Newbigin, who was at one time a bishop of the Church of South India. The “Gospel and Our Culture” movement was concerned with the re-evangelisation of Western culture (the “our culture” label seemed rather ethnocentric to me).

The emerging church movement seems to concentrate specifically on postmodern culture and it is in many ways a reaction against the influence of modernity in Western Protestantism.

Orthodoxy did not experience the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment — the core elements of modernity — in the same way as the West, and so in many ways it is premodern.

Now Jonathan Mason has published a series of posts on his blog on The Emerging Church in its own words, and one of these, Breaking down the dualisms of modernity, has some extracts from books that reveal an overlap of interests between the Emerging Church movement and Orthodoxy.

Chapter 4 of Gibbs’ and Bolger’s Emerging Churches: creating Christian community in postmodern culture is entitled, ‘Transforming secular space’.  Here are some extracts.

A consequence of the creation of a secular realm was modernity’s penchant to break everything up into little parts for classification, organisation, and systematisation. Thus, in the modern period, many dualisms were introduced to church life that had not been problematic before: the natural verses [sic] the supernatural; public facts versus private values; the body versus the mind and spirit; faith versus reason; power versus love; and the list goes on. These capitulations to the dualisms of modernity affected every level of the church, including worship, Bible study, power structures, and mission. Postmodern culture questions the legitimacy of these dualisms. Correspondingly, every one of these modern divisions is greatly opposed by emerging churches. (Gibbs & Bolger)

The link here is that these capitulations to the dualisms of modernity either did not affect the Orthodox Church at all, at any level, or did not affect it to the same extent or the same way. Orthodox worship, for example has remained substantially changed since the ninth century, and did not change a great deal before that. It has therefore been less affected by the dualisms of modernity, except, in some instances, for the elevation of the microphone to the level of an important ceremonial object.

Modernity tries to understand things by analysing them, and taking them apart. Orthodoxy by contrast, is holistic. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. One can understand some things by analysis, but analysis alone cannot lead to full understanding.

The clarion call of the emerging church is Psalm 24:1: “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (NIV). For emerging churches, there are no longer any bad places, bad people, or bad times. All can be made holy. All can be given to God in worship. All modern dualisms can be overcome. (Gibbs & Bolger)

This strikes me as a statement of the essence of Orthodox worship, in which everything is given to God in worship. The weekly cycle of worship begins with Saturday Vespers, with the refrain “How glorious are thy works, O Lord; in wisdom hast Thou made them all” from Psalm 103/104, which is sometimes shortened, and sometimes read in full, referring to the whole creation, and the day that has passed, and the night that is falling, and offering all to God.

Emerging churches remove linear expressions of the faith. Postmodernity teaches that linearity is but one of many narratives that could be told about a given event. In fact, postmoderns prefer that more than one narrative be told, recognising that one systematic telling is selective and open to distortion. It is not that postmodern people do not want truth per se, but whose truth? Often the one proposing, or more often imposing, “truth” is a person in power. Why trust that person? Instead, a better way to truth, in their view, is to hear the many stories and to discern accordingly, within the context of community. (Gibbs & Bolger)

Again, this is something that Orthodox Christians can identify with. Orthodox worship is composed of many layers of narrative and imagery. There are many biblical images, but they can jump from one end of the Bible to the other and back again. While Orthodoxy does have dogmatic theology, it does not have a systematic theology, and the dogmatic theology has often been worked out as described there, within the context of community, in meetings of ecumenical councils.

Protestant church forms were created by a literary age that no longer exists. It is hard to imagine what their particular traditions would look like without a literary, modern emphasis. The Protestant church has sided with elite print culture historically, and now there exists a great disconnect between those in the culture who venerate print culture and everyone else. (Gibbs & Bolger)

As I noted in another post, on The Bible and the Orthodox Church, Protestantism was hugely influenced by the Gutenberg galaxy, and came into existence about half a century into the age of print.The point about print culture was not so much that it was elite (though to a certain extent it was), but, as Marshall Mcluhan points out, it was isolated and individualistic. In a manuscript culture people became familiar with the words of the Bible by hearing them read and sung in community, while printed books made it easier to read them in isolation.In the Orthodox Church we sing our theology.

These points of common interest do not mean that the Emerging Church movement is on its way to becoming Orthodox, or that Orthodoxy is part of the emerging church movement. It does mean, however, that dialogue between them could be fruitful.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 4 February 2009 2:06 pm

    I’ve noted some of these same convergences (to use a popular “emergent” word) myself. In evangelistic terms, I imagine some of the emergents may find themselves Orthodox down the road a bit. The movement itself doesn’t seem to have much of a stabilizing, self-replicating quality, i.e., one cannot imagine multiple generations of an emergent congregation.

  2. 4 February 2009 3:33 pm

    Fr Andrew,

    I’m not sure that “convergence” is the right word, though, as it suggests approaching the same point from different directions, though of course it depends on what the point of convergence is. If it is postmodernity, then I suppose convergence is appropriate, in that the emerging church people approach it from a particular experience of modernity, whereas the Orthodox approach it from a different experience. But in many ways it could also give rise to divergence.

    And the IMonks articles I commented on in a previous post seem to agree with you that the emerging movement is unlikely to be sustainable in the long term, when he predicts

    I believe the emerging church will largely vanish from the evangelical landscape, becoming part of the small segment of progressive mainline Protestants that remain true to the liberal vision. I expect to continue hearing emerging leaders, seeing emerging conferences and receiving emerging books. I don’t believe this movement, however, is going to have much influence at all within future evangelicalism. What we’ve seen this year with Tony Jones seems to me to be indicative of the direction of the emerging church.

  3. 6 February 2009 6:50 am

    Steve, I agree with your comments on the points of connection, but as I’ve indicated before, the disconnects are so fundamental that the dialogue will go nowhere except for the few cases where emerging people see the light and become Orthodox.
    I say this as a former leader of the whole pre-emerging movement from 1981-1999 when i became disillusioned with the way the emerging movement was developing. The new crop of emerging leaders were big into books but had few runs on the board. And the hype by 2003 got ridiculous. Some of the main authors have never actually led an effective emerging church ( the groups hey led lasted under 2 years then folded).
    The irony is that in Australia some of the same “leaders” in the mid-90s were very mainstream and critical of us who were emerging! Maybe they’ll see the light… but the level of arrogance of most does not give me hope.
    Still, for the few, it’s worth the efforts- go well!

  4. 6 February 2009 6:59 am

    PS, the fundamental disconnect that i see is the agreement with post-modern ideas a la McLaren that negates all truth claims and relativises everything. The few emerging leaders who haven’t become liberal and who have pulled back from the emerging leadership are now completely confused about what church is, and even where Jesus fits in.
    If modernism was rationalism and individualism, post-modern/emerging is irrationalism and hyper-individualism. None of this meshes with orthodoxy at all. Yes emerging and Orthodoxy teach community, but our conceptions below the surface are different. We share a critique of modernism, but our answers are opposite on many fundamental points.
    eg. they say as you quote: “All can be made holy. All can be given to God in worship. ” which is true, but how they implement that is forced and doesn’t work, because they reject any specifically sacred places or objects. I know, I tried all these emerging ideas for over 20 years and was generally more “successful” than most of the book-writers, but ultimately it was shallow. I left. May God so lead others.


  1. The rise and fall of the Emerging Church movement « Khanya

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