Emerging churches in post-Christendom

What kind of church can participate effectively in God’s mission and incarnate the good news in the emerging culture of post-Christendom, where the church is on the margins rather than in the centre?

In Christendom, questions about church required examination of neither culture nor mission. Church was primary; culture was a friendly and hospitable environment shaped by the story the church told. There were many discussions about church – doctrine, liturgy, authority, sacraments, ministry, architecture and pastoral theology – but cultural exegesis and reflection on mission did not shape developments.

But the self-confidence of a dominant social institution expecting culture to adapt to the church is waning. Christians in all traditions are asking searching questions about the shape and focus of church; most are thinking deeply about the cultural context and many are starting with the mission imperative. The language of ‘new ways of being church’ and ’emerging church’ is popular – evidence Christendom is fading.

Several related factors have prompted widespread reflection on what church means in the twenty-first century:

  • Recognition of a yawning cultural chasm between church and contemporary culture that hinders movement in either direction. Church members struggle to bridge the gap at work or relaxing with friends; many know their friends will find church incomprehensible, irrelevant, archaic or twee.
  • Realisation that unitary Christendom culture has given way to the plural sub-cultures of post-Christendom. Inherited forms of church are attractive only to certain sub-cultures (especially white, middle-class, educated and middle-aged conformists) and are ineffective in mission beyond these.
  • Discouragement that the Decade of Evangelism was ineffective and church planting initiatives fell short of expectations. Many argue we gave inadequate attention to the kinds of churches we tried to plant.
  • Alarm that we are losing from our churches many former members who are not losing their faith but find church uninspiring, disempowering, crushing and dehumanising. In post-Christendom, institutional loyalty and inertia no longer prevents this haemorrhage of disillusioned Christians.

What is church?’

‘What is non-negotiable and what might be done differently?’

New models of church are promoted as contextually appropriate and missionally effective – seeker-sensitive, purpose-driven and cell church among the most popular. For some this means planting churches that are not clones of other congregations. For others it means working to transform inherited forms of church. Some are pioneering expressions of church that focus on particular sub-cultures. Redesigning church for postmodern culture is a quest on which many have embarked. On the fringes are those whose experiences of church make them wary of using the term ‘church.’ Alternative worship, café church, youth church, pub church, cyber-church, household church, portfolio church, table church, new monastic communities and other models are emerging. Alongside these, diverse ethnic minority churches are proliferating.

The deep yearning for expressions of church that are spiritually authentic, culturally attuned and attractive to others is a hopeful feature of contemporary church life. What is emerging is hard to track, let alone classify or evaluate.

This might be a short-lived and typically postmodern fragmentation of church life that rejects institutional forms and celebrates plurality and diversity. It might be ‘the latest big idea of slightly disappointed menopausal men looking for fresh excitement’ (Robert Freeman). It might be an example of rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic once more as decline continues or a navel-gazing distraction from the church’s mission.

But it might also be a spontaneous grass-roots reaction to moribund forms of church that alienate members and non-members alike. It might indicate the Spirit is renewing the church for mission and ministry in a time of cultural turbulence. It might herald the start of a movement capable of bridging the gap between church and culture and responding to the ‘double whammy’ of postmodernity and post-Christendom.

What do you think?

Stuart Murray Williams is chair of the UK Anabaptist Network and the editor of Anabaptism Today. He has written several books, including Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition (Pandora Press, 2000)