Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Missional and Emergent, Part 2

Both the missional and emergent church movements refuse to be classified as a program or a brand (though emergent seems closer to functioning as a brand). They would distinguish themselves, for instance, from approaches like Rick Warren (purpose driven church) or Kennon Callahan (keys to an effective church) that offer change through programmatic steps or keys. In fact, many in the missional church conversation suggest that in a time of discontinuous change, these types of "fixes" often set the problem deeper. If, then, missional and emergent are not programs, then what are they? Both are an attempt to bring a new kind of imagination to how we think about church in the first place. This is more than just tinkering with some programs. This is a deep culture change within congregations. Sometimes this sounds like the title of Brian McLaren's new book, Everything Must Change.

I admit that I bristle a bit at this kind of all or nothing language. It's no more attractive on a book about faith and church than it is on an adolescent whose vocabulary consists mainly of absolutes: "you never, you always, etc." And in this regard, the emergent literature is more strident. In addition to McLaren's recent book, the all-or-nothing sense is apparent in the opening of Tony Jones' new book, The New Christians, and in many of the essays found in the collection edited by Jones and Doug Pagit, An Emergent Manifesto. The diagnosis is bleak and the cure radical.

The missional church folk are also prone to sounding the alarm bells, though perhaps not so close to your ears. They talk about the differences between technical and adaptive change, and suggest that we've been applying to technical fixes to an adaptive challenge. Basically, a technical challenge is one where the diagnosis is fairly clear and the range of options to address the challenge are known and outcomes predictable. In many respects, however, we no longer live in a world of congregational technical fixes. We will have to learn adaptive skills as we engage in experiments related to our emerging situation.

Both movements are right that we can't simply do what we already know to do, albeit better, and expect the same outcomes we experienced in our not so distant past. We will have to cultivate a new imagination with regard to the things we do under the banner of church.

This does not mean, however, that literally everything must change (not the meaning of McLaren's book, I might point out), an impression that both movements sometimes leave with observers. In fact, one of the things that first attracted me to the emerging church literature was the emphasis on the historic practices of Christianity as a source of renewal. Not only will everything not have to change, but we will need to recover some old things we've lost along the way. I would like to see more of this sense of continuity or recovery upfront. I know a book entitled, Some Things Might Have to Change, Possibly, isn't as sexy or marketable, but continuity and discontinuity are both in line with emergent theory, a point that could be underscored to some positive effect.

It is interesting to note, along these lines, that many of the emergent leaders are in new church starts, while missional church leaders, to the extent that they are leading in congregations at all, are primarily working toward change within existing congregations and denominations. Much of this, from my perspective, has to do with different understandings of culture and change. But I'm going home now to make dinner. We'll have to get back to this later.


Anonymous said...

Welcome to the blogging world, Mark. You're like 6 years late, but who's counting... =)

You're officially in the Google Reader now.

Hope all is well. Study hard, man.

Steve Holt

RPorche said...

Mark--I really appreciate your ability to articulate these matters so well. This West Texas boy usually suffers injury trying to do the same.

The work you and Ogren are doing is benefiting our team. We're grateful!


Mark Love said...


I'm so far behind in so many areas of life that six years seems like real progress.