Words betray us… adventures in cross-cultural emergence

The constant instantaneous flow of ideas and information provided by the Internet emboldens those who want to see the church emerge and flourish in today’s world. It is pretty cool being able to post some thoughts on your blog and before you know it reactions come from around the world. The very strength of the emerging church blogosphere reveals its weakness. Much of what you read concerning the emerging church could bear the title, “The emerging church in the white, anglo, post-modern, post-christian subculture”.

This is why our words betray us and we should be slow to trust ourselves.

If you talk to an African-American working in the ghettos of Chicago, he’ll find the talk of emerging church to some degree interesting. He may even find some of the ideas helpful. But in the end it will come across as a conversation among white guys with a lot of education and time on their hands.

Talk to him about changing power structures and he’ll tell you that all his life he and his people have suffered at the hands of those power structures. Talk to him about the need for authentic community and he’ll tell you that’s all they have had to sustain them in the face of oppression. A number of things we want to see in the emerging church have been present in their communities for a long time.

If you talk to a French person they too will find the conversation interesting and agree that some of the ideas could help the church in France. But he too will see the conversation as something coming from the English-speaking world. He will wonder about the simplistic use of philosophy and will point you to a world of thought that goes well beyond Lyotard, Foucault and Derrida. He will see a conversation weighed down by its own history. And even though it employs the most inclusive and non-imperialistic language it will still come across as another franchise wanting to get a foothold in new territory.

So there I’ve gone and deconstructed the emerging church. A process that could continue ad infinitum, like a dog chasing its tail.

The Church isn’t about that. While it seeks to enter into a culture and truly be all things to all people, it also rises above and calls us to experience a new way of being human. This new humanity, which is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, transcends all cultural boundaries. We are the body of Christ. You could extend the list to include neither modern nor post-modern, solid church nor liquid church. The opportunity for the Church to truly be this new humanity has been greatly aided by the communications/transportation revolution of the 20th century.

Today we can go and meet people from radically different cultures who are living out their own expressions of emergence. Some of these will be similar to our experience others will make us wonder, “Why are they doing that?”

I’ve spent the last 11 years working in France. During that time I’ve kept an eye on the post-modern/emerging church movement. Often I’ve seen things that made sense to me, that resonated with my experience. At times I’ve thought, “We need that in France.” But the danger is introducing a new idea that is not compatible with the cultural context and seeing it rejected thus making the situation even graver. Furthermore I’ve seen things in France that offer a way of being church not experienced elsewhere.

For me a fundamental challenge of the worldwide emerging church is learning to talk about the emerging church in a way that respects and honors all its diverse expressions.

I believe the way forward must draw on the truth of the interdependence of the body of Christ and recognition that each incarnation of the church in a specific culture will by necessity have strengths and weakness. Our strengths are gifts to be given to other parts of the body and we need to be helped in our weakness.

Jonny Baker likens parkour to the emerging church. Using existing systems in new ways. Playing where play was never intended. Beautiful. The very nature of parkour demands a certain understanding of the system. Then you go beyond it. Other cultures when they look at ours have the capacity to see the system in ways we never imagined.

We need to move beyond words to face-to-face encounters with people from other cultures and give them permission to speak into our world. We need to build relationships that allow us to live out our new humanity; that allow us to invest our world with new meaning; that allow us to call others to come out and play.