This article, written by a young bloke named Drew Moser, is very insightful. In fact, recently I spoke at the Rising Tide Conference in Yeppoon, Central Queensland and used language not dissimilar to Drew’s. However, I also think that so many in ministry in the United States are hung up on creating a whole other language for the Christian church. So much so, that there is a very real possibility of complicating what God is trying to simplify for the world we are trying to reach. Some of that comes through in this article, but the heart of what Drew has to say is worth reading. Chew the meat, spit out the bones, but read the article. It will be worth your time.
An Emerging Blur: Journeying Towards the Simplicity Beyond Complexity
The Church is a dusty, messy enterprise. This is especially so in the present. Many books are written and many blogs are devoted to the ‘shifts’ occurring in the Western church. The conferences, the books, the blogs, and the podcasts are all propelling a dynamic change that is shaking the very foundations of the Western church. As the dust flies, definitions and boundaries seem fleeting.
In a way, it feels like we’re in the midst of an emerging blur. Our picture of the church-at-large has become less focused, and a new picture is starting to present itself. Our human nature wants crystal clear HDTV, with perfectly equalized surround sound. But we don’t have it yet. So we pound the side of the TV in frustration.
Why are things so blurry?
A helpful starting point is Peter Berger, the prominent sociologist who coined the term ‘plausibility structure’ to "refer to a structure of assumptions and practices which determine what beliefs are plausible and what are not." Every culture at any given moment submits itself to a reigning plausibility structure that maintains its way of thought and practice. At the present we find ourselves in the midst of a battle between two plausibility structures, the modern and the postmodern. (ht: Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society for further exploration of this subject)
The church is thus pulled by the two in different directions. We feel the pull on one arm by the modern plausibility structure informed by the Enlightenment, industrialism, imperialism, capitalism, and democracy. We feel pulled on the other by the postmodern plausibility structure informed by pluralism, a holistic worldview, and a neo-communal order of life. It’s confusing. It’s frustrating. It’s a blur of dialogue, semantics, polemics, and finger-pointing.
How did we get here? It seems that cultures tend to adhere to plausibility structures cyclically. When a culture shifts its adherence to a new plausibility structure, there’s a honed focus; a simplicity of mind and heart in this new reigning plausibility structure. It becomes comfortable. It becomes ‘normal’. Morale, unity, and passion are high. However, somewhere in this comfortable cultural existence, the simplicity is reduced to simplism. The intricacies of the reigning plausibility structure are pandered down to a simple formula for adherence. The heart and soul are lost, and the focus shifts to the more external issues through behavior modification and manipulation. On the one hand, it’s understandable. It’s easier, in a sense, to devote oneself to a formula. It’s neat and tidy, and you can fit it in a box and hand it to someone else without much struggle or effort. But the simplism turns stale, and the culture starts to grow restless. A brave few step to the fore and offer a new way of thinking, living, and being. The beliefs, traditions, and customs of a culture suddenly become very complex. The paradigm begins to shift, and a crisis develops. the proverbial line is drawn in the sand. Does one stick with the old way? Or does one join the new revolution?
But even the shift is not so clear-cut. In reality, there is no line in the sand. Rather, the sand is kicked around in the chaos of change.
It’s therefore incredibly hard to nail down the emerging church movement. The attempt for boundaries, statements, and definitions will be presently found wanting. It’s because we live in an age where the hangover from modernity is still pounding in our heads. But a new day has dawned, and postmodernity offers a new path. But if we can’t wrap our minds around the pending plausibility structure of postmodernity and visualize it, then what can we see? In this meantime, the marks of the shift are blurry, but noticeable.
• Space: The practice and experience of worship and is no longer confined to the Sunday morning worship service. Contemplative spirituality, iPods, and podcasts ‘dislocate’ (ht: Pete Ward’s Liquid Church) the elements of worship throughout our lives. Additionally, the cultural dichotomy between ‘Christian’ and ‘Secular’ is being fiercely challenge. This is resulting in a new blur of modernity’s distinctions between sacred and secular. The space for church is shifting.
• Taxonomy: The blogs, books, and magazines are intently devoted to exploring such terms as ’emergent’, ’emerging’, and ‘missional’. People are hungry for more concrete terms upon which to hang their newfound beliefs. Presently all three tend to be fairly fluid, and somewhat interchangeable. There simply is no definitive guide to help us navigate the waters of taxonomy. The terms float about.
• Communication: Modernity was marked by the written word. Literacy was (and still is) considered a crucial component in economic development, nation building, as well as cross-cultural mission methodology. But with the advent of the iPod, the postmodern quest for beauty, and technological advances such as Web 2.0, a shift is occurring from a literate culture to an audio/visual. Podcasts and v-casts communicate more quickly, more efficiently, and potentially more broadly to a wired world.
• New Tribalism: Modernity taught the church to gather into denominational camps based primarily upon doctrine. Postmodernity is offerring a new tribalism, where faith communities are now gathering into missional tribes, and then uniting into more ecumenical clans. This new missional ecumenism is blurring the denominational divides of the modern era.
• Theology: No longer is theological formulation contained in the world of academia. Blogs, open source theology, and e-zines (such as the Next-Wave) blur the lines between the formally educated and the ‘uneducated’. This results in a postmodern cry for theological formulation that is less systematic and more organic and contextualized. Theology now becomes not merely the task of a privileged few vocational theologians, but it is now the task of the local faith community as it seeks to embody the Story of God in its community. Grass roots movements are challenging the formal institutions.
• Spirituality: Modernity taught us to separate the spirit and the flesh. Our spirituality was thus disembodied from much of our earthly existence. This dualism is now giving way to a holistic approach to spirituality, one that touches our entire beings.
• Relationality: Finally, modernity exalted the individual. Democracy, freedom, and the Enlightenment fostered a renewed sense of individual autonomy. Though we have much to be thankful for many of the blessings that come with these movements, the church can suffer from an unhealthy emphasis on any or all. Along the way, an authentic sense of community was lost. The line between individual and community is now being challenged in a fresh way.
Postmodernity will ultimately become the reigning plausibility structure when it can, to reference Lesslie Newbigin (who is responsible for much of these thoughts), answer the ultimate question: "Which (plausibility structure) is more adequate for grasping and coping with reality with which all human beings are faced?" Only then will the postmodern plausibility structure reign. Only then will the dust settle, and we can enjoy the simplicity of a new day.
The church thus finds itself in the midst of the blurring. How do we then engage in the mission of God on earth in such tumultuous times? The answer lies in the necessity for the church to embrace its present role as a ‘tweener’. Just as many American immigrants children speak their native tongue in the home and English in school, so the church must be willing to be well versed in the languages and intricacies of the modern plausibility structure as well as the postmodern. Both possess a unique language. The church has the unique opportunity to be a place a peace and calm amidst the storm. We can no longer offer the pat answers from modernity to a postmodern world. But we also can’t simply scoff at the influence that modernity still holds on our Western culture.
The emerging church can be a source of honest interpretation of the present, careful critique of the past, and imaginative hope of the future.
Drew Moser is Bekah’s man, Ben’s dad, an adoptive father of a Guatemalan baby girl whom he’s yet to meet (almost there!), and a pastor/writer/schemer from NW Ohio. He blogs @ www.drewmoser.com.