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New World? New Church? by Hannah Steele

23 February 2018

Peter Forster considers the ‘Emerging Church’ and its convictions

THE driving force behind the “Emergent Church” movement reflects wider cultural wars emanating from the United States. The emergent church movement regards traditional Evangelicalism, with its fundamentalist certainties and rigid approach to Christian orthodoxy, as paradoxically complicit with Enlightenment modernism.

As one of its exponents, Brian Mclaren, has put it, the post-modern world of the 21st century needs a new and generous orthodoxy. The bulk of this well-researched book examines the proposed content of “generous orthodoxy”, particularly in relation to eschatology, missiology, and ecclesiology.

The discussion of eschatology is set against the theology of “rapture”, wherein the end of the world will involve the salvation of the faithful elect, who will be protected from whatever Armageddon (nuclear or otherwise) comes to pass.

Emergent Church theology regards this as both pessimistic and exclusivist. It is pessimistic about this world, and views salvation as separation from it. In its place is offered an eschatology of hope, which views the world rather as parents might view their children: by no means perfect, and apt to make a mess of things from time to time, but the object of patient and protective love.

Steele points out the danger here, that Christian hope is replaced by a rather naïve optimism that sees the world as the best of all possible worlds. It also struggles to accommodate the discontinuity that the cross and resurrection represent.

From this perspective, the Emergent Church movement has a generally positive view of cultural change, and adapts the presentation of the gospel to it. The task of the Church is to embrace local culture, much as Jesus did in his teaching and evangelism.

One of the dangers here is that the Jewish background to the gospel becomes neglected, once the Church moves to other settings. Some writers speak of an evolution in the being of God himself, picking up themes from 20th-century process theology. The task of the Church is primarily to identify where God is already at work in a given society, and to proclaim his presence.

Steele uses Lesslie Newbigin to offer a critique of too much identification of the Church with its surrounding culture, which she traces to an unbalanced emphasis on the incarnation at the expense of the atonement.

Evangelicalism has often been held to have a deficient ecclesiology, and Steele’s assessment is that the emphasis on contemporaneity means that, while some Emergent Church liturgy can be refreshing, at other times it becomes myopic and faddish.

Part of the challenge to the Church in an increasingly transient culture is to be a beacon of stability. This is what C. S. Lewis advocated with his concept of “deep Church”, which Steele commends. The Church, she maintains, can be genuinely progressive only if it inhabits and values its whole tradition, and not just the earliest centuries. A truly apostolic Church must be both backwards- and forwards-looking.

This needs an appropriate liturgical context. Hope must be “sealed in baptism” and “dramatised in Eucharist”. Preaching must adapt to post-modern culture, and yet not be replaced merely by cosy conversations.

Overall, this is a helpful book. Trends in North American Christianity tend to have a delayed migration to the UK, and the advance parties have already arrived.

Dr Peter Forster is the Bishop of Chester.


New World? New Church? The theology of the Emerging Church movement
Hannah Steele
SCM Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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