Stories of Emergence

June 5, 2006 by

Stories of EmergenceYou’ve probably heard about the emergent church movement. It’s a collective of ideas that loosely fall under the postmodern label and draw nods or scowls, depending on the crowd (Brian McLaren? nod. Chuck Colson? Scowl.) Stories of Emergence is a collection of first-person accounts of exploring postmodernism and new ways of doing church.

Whether or not you jump on the emergent train and no matter how you feel about postmodernism, this book offers ideas and perspectives worth considering.

I love hearing church stories. I like hearing about how church works and the different ways it happens. Sometimes church doesn’t work, but grace pervades. That’s what Stories of Emergence offers.

But what gets tiring is the constant bashing of ‘church that doesn’t appeal to me.’ I know emergent writers don’t intend to come across that way—and many of them even apologize for having that attitude at one point in time—but the book can still feel like a constant assault on evangelical church. Brian McLaren acknowledges that: “These stories could—but shouldn’t—be considered a slap in the face, a rejection, a repudiation. … But if you interpret those emotions graciously, you will conclude (I believe) that people like the storytellers in this book have come not to bury modern evangelicalism, but to continue it in a new era, under new conditions, in new ways.” (224)

James F. Engel: Where’s the Transformation?
One of the more interesting stories came from James F. Engel who has a background in marketing and consumer research. He initially applied that wisdom to his faith, but soon became disillusioned by a number of things he saw, among them an emphasis on salvation as mere soul winning:

“I was taught in the early part of my Christian life that Christ established his church on earth for just one reason—to seek and win the lost in a dying world. Given this conviction, it naturally followed that success in soul winning was established as the primary criterion of Christian vitality and fruitfulness. Radical moral and social transformation was viewed either as an impossibility in a dying world or as an outcome of conversion, but not as an end in itself. To me this grossly distorted Christ’s command to make disciples who would follow all that he taught and modeled.” (121-122)

That approach to evangelism as a mere numbers game resulted in a sharp comparison to the business world:

“I contrasted this biblical perspective [actions over words] with prevailing practices that reduced the gospel to methods that communicated propositional truth (the plan of salvation) followed by persuasion to ‘receive Christ.’ I began to wonder: How is this different from marketing methods designed to promote consumer products? I couldn’t help but conclude that we had engaged in serious biblical reductionism in which the gospel becomes little more than a consumer product marketed internationally with an abundant life message ‘dreams will come true’ as our competitive distinctive. Our strategy called for advertising (gospel media) to generate consumer interest and personal selling (personal witness) to close the sale accompanied by public accolades for individuals and expanded donor support for organizations with the highest sales numbers.” (123)

For Engel, this sort of numbers approach fell apart when the actual people weren’t transformed. His example is Rwanda, a country that had been “reached” with 80% of its population Christian, yet the 1994 genocide still happened. The country had been reached, but not transformed.

Engel makes a powerful point. I don’t think it entirely condemns the use of marketing or communications strategies, but rather it points to the fact that our motivations and goals must be in the right place. Numbers and growth are not wrong, but seeking numbers and in the process forgetting people is a tragedy.

Parush R. Parushev: Evangelism by Community
Another interesting story came from Parush R. Parushev, who grew up in Communist Bulgaria and began to see the flaws in communism: “Right teaching could not guarantee nor even launch right living in the community. Unfortunately, this sad lesson can be learned from the history of the Christian church, too.” (209). What changed his mind was the witness of a group of Polish Christians: “But what really impresses us and takes us by surprise is a community with integrity of character.” (209)

Parushev came to the U.S. to study theology and saw many churches, though rarely saw that kind of transformational community: “We saw big churches functioning much like a theater. Entertainment and emotional stimulation mattered more than fellowship and involvement. We went to small churches, which were completely preoccupied with doctrinal purity and internal fights and slowly dying.” (214)

Other Note-worthy Quotes

“To authentically connect with people who don’t attend church requires us to make more than superficial changes in our external forms. We must undergo the painful process of changing our ways of thinking, our deep-set attitudes, and our mental paradigms. An old codger with a face-lift is still an old codger with a face-lift.” (Church Smith, Jr., 95)

“We have turned God into a consumer commodity, and religious leaders are the vendors.” (Brad Cecil, 178)

Post By:

Kevin D. Hendricks

When Kevin isn't busy as the editor of Church Marketing Sucks, he runs his own writing and editing company, Monkey Outta Nowhere. Kevin has been blogging since 1998, runs the hyperlocal site West St. Paul Reader, and has published several books, including 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading, The Stephanies and all of our church communication books.
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4 Responses to “Stories of Emergence”

  • Kelly Filgo
    June 5, 2006

    This one is going next on my reading list… I’m halfway through “A New Kind of Mind” (see post a few weeks back). Great stuff- a tad academic at times, but with a little re-interpretation, it has lots to offer to church communicators.

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  • emergingblurb
    June 5, 2006

    I can only concur with all of this. The last point has been an important one for me. In sharing with friends they know I’m not trying to introduce them to a church but to God, and there is a big difference.
    We must learn to see all the biases of our cultural churchianity before we can expect to move forward or we potentially suffer from conforming people to a cultural Christianity of middle class values rather than seeing the real transformation.

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  • Caleb
    June 5, 2006

    I’ve read about 1200 pages and researched about 200 pages of internet blog and church sites on the “Emerging Church.”
    I think this is one of the best books to understand the “vibe” of the EC crew. There is little thought given to how to fix the issues one has with the church or the Church. Rather the continually finding fault let’s seek to see the life change that is being instigated by local churches of all type across our country.
    My perspective is on “Stories of Emergence” come from an emergence from a solid biblically based Baptist home to a solid biblically based evangelical home. One is not better than the other, they are different. I hope as Christians we can see the need for all types of churches. Not everyone wants rock music in their church. Not everyone wants candles. Not everyone will love the idea of community or small groups. Not everyone likes choirs or expository preacher either.
    Also, though you will not read it in this book, there are many who have emerged from a mainstream evangelical position to a conservative baptist or even from mainline denominational to a roman catholic or from pentacostal to greek orthodox. Emergence is not just one direction.
    Let keep building the kingdom together and emerge as better followers of Jesus and more verbal witnesses for His Name!

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  • Mike G.
    June 6, 2007

    Interesting stories. I agree that no matter what one thinks about the emergent church personal stories are a valuble insight into how others have experienced church. Transformed lives not just numbers is what we should be about as servants of the Most High God. By God’s grace more Christians will model that and then teach it with more than just words.

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