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Gibbs and Bolger's Emerging Churches Focuses Almost Exclusively On Small House Churches

Gibbs, Eddie and Ryan K. Bolger. Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Disclaimer: I liked the book and I recommend that everyone read it. It articulates the ideals of the Emerging Church movement very well and gives practical examples of each ideal. Bravo! Now for the critique . . . which perhaps is no surprise considering the fuzzy nature of the movement . . . I didn't like how they limited the definition of "Emerging Churches."

It seems almost everyone agrees that Gibbs and Bolger have written the most responsible, comprehensive and current portrait of the Emerging Church movement. Their methodology seemed sound. They interviewed 50 emerging church leaders and tried to collate those responses into a report from the frontlines. I thoroughly appreciated the work and plan on writing more about its positive points. But today I have a warning for the reader: Gibbs and Bolger basically just focus on small house churches. Though there are large church pastors, traditional church pastors, youth pastors, and Next-Gen pastors “in the conversation” at any emergent conference or emerging church website, you will not hear from them in this book.

Gibbs and Bolger have made the crucial decision to exclude Gen-X megachurches and Gen-X/young adult services from their portrait of the emerging church. They admit that these forms of church are often what people think of when they use the term emerging churches. But apparently Gibbs and Bolger have decided to try to change that. They write, “Popularly, the term emerging church has been applied to high-profile, youth-oriented congregations that have gained attention on account of their rapid numerical growth; their ability to attract (or retain) twentysomethings; their contemporary worship, which draws from popular musical styles; and their ability to promote themselves to the Christian subculture through websites and by word of mouth” (41). Though most people consider these youthful expressions of church part of the emerging church movement, Gibbs and Bolger dismiss these expressions as hopelessly “modern.” They write, “Taking postmodernity seriously requires that all church practices come into question. In contrast, Gen-X churches involve simply changes in strategy from what came before (e.g., adding stories, video, raw music, vulnerable preaching, art, and candles). However, to be missional is to go way beyond strategy. It is to look for church practices that can be embodied within a particular culture. In other words, theologies given birth within modernity will not transfer to postmodern cultures” (34). I think they are wrong to dismiss the possibility that Gen-X churches are missional. (Popularized by Darrell Guder’s The Missional Church, this term simply means a fresh application of the techniques of missiology to Western culture. There is no reason only church plants or house churches can do this. In fact, the book is written by Guder who is a PCUSA person with the intention to shake up the mainline churches especially). They are also naïve to assume that “emerging churches” can possibly remove themselves from the influence of modernity. Emerging churches will still likely use modern inventions such as printed Bibles, automobiles, public transit, computers, phones, etc.

Because of their definition, it seemed to me that the description by Gibbs and Bolger of “emerging churches” sounds a lot like “house churches” to me. A small group of 10-100 people come together, discuss some Scripture, care for one another, stress participation in worship, eat a meal together, share leadership, do good to those in the community, and do friendship evangelism. They write, “When emerging churches meet in a large congregational setting, they widen their community ties and build on the intimacy developed in their small groups. These networks of small groups may gather together on a monthly basis. However, the large group meeting is of secondary importance” (112). There are a lot of church leaders which are not specifically house church-oriented that have been highly involved in discussing how to minister to postmoderns.

It seems to me most of the leaders of the emerging church they interviewed would consider the Gen-X church leaders part of the “emerging church conversation.” Listen to these definitions.

a. Jonny Baker: “Church, as we have inherited it, is no longer working for vast groups of people. The world has changed so much. So I think the term emerging church is nothing more than a way of expressing that we need new forms of church that relate to culture” (41).

b. Ben Edson: “So emerging church for me is quite simply a church that
is rooted in the emerging context and is exploring worship, mission, and
community within that context” (41-42).

c. Karen Ward: what is “coming to the surface that is new, unformed,
still happening, emerging” (42).

d. Mark Scandrette: “The emerging church is a quest for a more
integrated and whole life of faith. There is a bit of theological
questioning going on, focusing more on kingdom theology, the inner life,
friendship/community, justice, earth keeping, inclusivity, and inspirational
leadership. In addition, the arts are in a renaissance, as are the
classical spiritual disciplines. Overall, it is a quest for a holistic
spirituality” (42).

e. Doug Pagitt: “He sees three types of responses to the current
context: (1) a return to the Reformation (e.g., Mars Hill in Seattle); (2) deep
systemic changes, but Christianity and the church are still in the center and
theological changes are not needed (e.g., University Baptist in Waco and Mosaic
in Los Angeles); and (3) seeing the church as not necessarily the center of
God’s intentions. God is working in the world, and the church has the
option to join God or not. The third approach focuses more on the kingdom
than on the church, and it reflects the perspective of Solomon’s Porch in
Minneapolis and characterizes what Pagitt would classify as emerging”
(42).

Gibbs and Bolger essentially decide to accept Pagitt’s most exclusive third approach as their working definition and ignore the more broader definitions articulated by Baker, Edson, Ward and Scandrette. (It should also be said that the third approach is not articulated well in the quote above. How is the church not the center of God’s intentions? I think what they are trying to say is that these churches have a fresh awareness of the importance of a kingdom perspective but this is overstated and unclear in the quote).

I understand that Gibbs and Bolger could not profile everyone who is part of the emerging church conversation. They have to draw the line somewhere. So they have decided to argue that the emerging church is very different from other expressions of church. But it seems to me their definition ends up excluding some of the leading voices in the movement: Brian McLaren, Chris Seay, Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll, and Erwin McManus. McLaren, indisputably one of the leaders of the movement, is rarely quoted in the book and his church is never mentioned as an example of an emerging church. Rob Bell, who is not explicitly part of the movement but was featured in the Christianity Today article by Andy Crouch on the emerging church and is extremely influential among young church leaders, is never mentioned. Chris Seay, who invited Tony Jones (coordinator of Emergent) to speak at the anniversary of his church, is dismissed. The Younger Evangelicals by Robert Webber, The Church on the Other Side by Brian McLaren, and The Emerging Church by Dan Kimball have other weaknesses but they do not exclude these other voices. They include the fact that many pastors are trying to help traditional, seeker and modern churches become more adept at ministering in a postmodern context. For Gibbs and Bolger, if you haven’t planted it from scratch, then it doesn’t count as an “emerging church.” I would say there is a range of emerging churches who are involved in the conversation. I’m interested in what all of them have to say. However, Gibbs and Bolger limit themselves to just numbers 8-9.

1. Mosaic (Erwin McManus)
2. Mars Hill Church (Mark Driscoll)
3. Traditional churches that are being led by young pastors who are trying to adapt them to reach a postmodern culture
4. Gen-X/young adult services
5. Gen-X Churches
6. Mars Hill Bible Church (Rob Bell)
7. Cedar Ridge Community Church (Brian McLaren)
8. Solomon’s Porch (Doug Pagitt)
9. House churches / post-modern church plants

To be fair, Gibbs and Bolger intend to include the overhaul of traditional churches and also large churches in their analysis. They write, “Most of these emerging churches are new, while others represent the rejuvenation of long-standing congregations and ancient traditions. Some of these frontline churches are large, the biggest attracting crowds of several hundreds or even thousands, but the majority are small, consisting of independent groups of less than thirty or clusters of house groups totally less than one hundred” (29). But in the end I had difficulty identifying any churches that have “thousands” in attendance or are the result of a traditional church being adapted. They also try to distinguish these emergent churches from “house churches” (60). “Unlike the stereotypical house church, emerging churches do not exist in isolation but establish networks for mutual support and encouragement” (113). Still I think the churches they describe are very similar to house churches. I think it would have been more fruitful to pick out how all sorts of churches are trying to reach postmoderns.

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