Has What Emerged Retreated? | Returning to Institutions [3]

by , under Church, Emerging Church, Theology

burning-church

Emerging/Retreating [1] | Emerging/Retreating [2]

I’m glad Jonny has posted some of his thoughts and responses to these posts on his site, and Andrew Jones has some great thoughts too, backed up by a range of pieces he’s written around the issues here too.

As I set out in a long comment on Jonny’s blog, I’m not convinced that his critique is fair, mostly because I don’t think what I’m trying to do here is bashing institutions. The simply summary is this: having picked up on a trajectory that seemed to be leading away from institutional forms of faith in the 90’s and 00’s, I now feel that that trajectory has changed, and is leading back towards institutional forms. No value judgement intended.

I do want to draw in one more theme which I explore in ‘Other’ (which comes highly recommended by Pete Rollins, Brian Maclaren, Phyllis Tickle, Shane Claiborne… 😉 ) which is to do with how institutions can become damaging – and what we should do to try to counteract that.

First of all – I completely agree with Jonny when he says:

“There is plenty of research around that suggest that if you have a local church in your community it will be full of people who make life better giving themselves away on behalf of others in the community, getting involved in soup runs, parent associations, prison visiting – generally all round kind and caring people.”

Churches are full of good people. I’ve very very rarely met anyone who is not likeable or well-meaning or sincere about what they are doing. But I tend to find out these things about people after the service, over a drink or a meal. Why? Because when people begin to inhabit the framework of the institution they change.

I’ll use sermons as an example. I have rarely met anyone who thinks sermons are a good idea. They can be amusing and enjoyable and informative, but on the whole everyone I speak to considers them anachronistic and ineffective in terms of education or enrichment. Yet sermons remain. Why? Because the aggregated effect of small amounts of inertia and uncertainty about how changes could be made can lead to a huge amount of corporate inertia.

The slowness of the body to respond to environmental changes can be a good thing, but it can also be a huge disadvantage. One only need look at the difficulties in negotiating a climate deal in Copenhage that everyone individually agreed needed to happen to appreciate this.

We are communal people. We like to gather, to have community. And institutions – incorporations of our values and shared goals – are an inevitable part of life. I am not arguing here – contrary to Jonny’s interpretation – for a life beyond institutions, as we both know this is not possible. I am arguing for a new approach to corporate life though, at whatever zoom level you might take: small local groups and beyond.

One might use the Jubilee principle of regular, deliberate reorganisation as a spring board into this. What I’ve tried to do in the book is to look at how our attempts at permanence – and institutions tend to be about ensuring longevity – lead to various sorts of violence as structures and boundaries ossify. I then go on to argue that for a faith centred on death and resurrection we should be far less afraid of letting our church structures die and be reborn before they begin to be damaging and draining.

As I write in the book:

I strongly believe that while the Church has an eternal dimension, our manifestations of church should retain a deliberately temporal one. While maintaining healthy networked relationships with fellow-believers, the public expressions of our faith will emerge and spring up in marvellous ways to temporarily liberate a space or time, but will then disappear before they can petrify and harden.

In other words, I’m not arguing that relationships should be short-lived, nor that institutions – some formalising of these relationships around a shared goal or project – should not exist. Rather, I sincerely believe that while relationships are maintained in the informal work of eating and sharing lives together, the structures that form around them should be regularly deconstructed, and this will probably require the move away from full-time professionalised clergy.

Jesus’ ministry lasted 3 years. Was it ineffective? No. It was a TAZ, an intensification of life for all involved. And we should be glad that it wasn’t permanent – because surely a divine Jesus could have stayed around for ever? He knew that that would lead to violence. It always does.

So my concern about the move back towards more formal institutions and more ‘hard’ forms of leadership is that in opting for a more secure structure by becoming ordained, people are prolonging the current manifestation of an institution that – looking at the comments here – has caused a great deal of pain and frustration. Perhaps that’s romantic tosh, but remember: Jesus could have, but didn’t become a Pharisee.


[Related series: Leadership and Emergence where I look at the problem of leadership within an emergent system.]


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  1. Scot McKnight

    Kester,

    Really? “I’ll use sermons as an example. I have rarely met anyone who thinks sermons are a good idea. They can be amusing and enjoyable and informative, but on the whole everyone I speak to considers them anachronistic and ineffective in terms of education or enrichment. Yet sermons remain. Why? Because the aggregated effect of small amounts of inertia and uncertainty about how changes could be made can lead to a huge amount of corporate inertia.”

    Meet me. And hundreds of my friends who not only like sermons but think they are a good idea!

    If you have “rarely” met such people… I find the claim astounding.

  2. christine dutton

    I’ve been leading worship and preaching as a lay person for 20 years in the inherited church always trying to include the experimental and creative. I never write my sermons with the intention of being amusing or enjoyable – for me they are the starting point to breaking open the questions which arise from the scriptures in light of my own experience. I rarely make a conclusion and frequently offer a challenge – the debate starts as you say when the service is over and the engagement begins – I would love to see that engagement as more integral to the worship.

    I was teaching when I began preaching and couldn’t believe that people wouldn’t interrupt or ask questions or say when they didn’t understand like my pupils did, but as time has gone on I think that worship has become more relaxed and last sunday I had lots of different comments and reflections offered up which I could draw together and we could reflect on and I could refer back to later in the service. I’m all for greater participation in worship and think there is a richness in hearing different voices, I don’t think that that is incompatible with good preaching.

  3. KB

    Maty – succinct, but there is an element of truth.

    And Scot, yes, I am actually serious. There’s an element of hyperbole, and I’m glad that there are some places where sermons are well received and effective, but there are many many places where they are not. Getting people to own up and admit that is actually difficult though. Getting through the ‘yes I’m comfortable with this and it’s so familiar I can hardly see it’ to actually honestly critique how effective they are is tough, but I honestly think that a huge number of people find the traditional form to lack engagement.

  4. Gav

    Totally. In my experience sermons usually end up being a mouthpiece for the organisations/leaders dominant theology vocalising an overarching narrative for the herd to assent to, and an implied ‘in’ and ‘out’ reinforcing boundaries around what is deemed clean and unclean.

    What Christine describes sounds like a move in a better direction. I wonder how many preachers would honestly be up for some open questions whilst they are up there?

    I can’t think of many sermons I’ve heard that have really impacted or engaged me.

  5. Adam Moore

    I often say, there are only two things I don’t like about church services. One: the sermon. Two: worship music.

    Fortunately, that leaves me with a good 5% of the service to enjoy.

  6. Adam Moore

    That being said, I’m not interested in just critiquing church (or institutions). I want to change it. And that’s what caught my attention with Kester’s initial post. I did not read it as a critique of institution or church, but rather a lament that more groups were not pursuing truly new directions.

    I’m pretty much with you in where you’re going in this new post. But actually seeing this happen…that’s the difficulty. And that’s why your first post was discouraging to me. Where are the new groups who are rising up behind those who have died out (which is not necessarily bad) and those who have move into the institution (also not necessarily bad)? Where are the new groups who will keep this emerging and deconstructive institutional movement going…?

  7. Acetate Monkey

    I know this series is more than about sermons, but I must admit I’m ambivalent about them. I think I agree with Kester that they just seem to me to be very out of keeping with today’s ways of communicating. Mind you, so does standing around singing. On the other hand I find some things like the Christmas lectures or the Reith lectures interesting. Is that just my demographic and particular upbringing/interests? I suppose it depends what you mean by sermon: how interactive it is and how long. Watching TV or listening to Radio 4 can grab me but I suppose the TV has breaks every 15mins and I’m not socially constrained to sit still during the radio programme.

    I went to a great church service once (7 years ago). I can’t remember 99% of it, but what I do remember is that in the middle of the sermon the vicar guy said something like “and Jesus heals us…” at which point a lady with learning difficulties stood up, held out her hand and shouted to him “he didn’t heal my finger!”. I’d been a few times before and noticed how accepting the structures of the church seemed to be to her getting up and going in the middle (and other socially enexpected things). This time the guy stopped his flow and properly engaged with her in a gentle dialogue about her finger, the nature of healing and stuff. The best sermon ever- I have no idea what he was speaking about in the sermon but his actions at that moment spoke volumes.

    How do you propose institutions deconstruct/limit themselves Kester? Does it get planned into the thing (“we’ll do this for 5 years tops”) ala Jubilee, or does it require a brave visionary to say “let’s stop it now while we’re on a roll”. How did Vaux wind up?
    I have to admit that a small group I was involved with just atrophied out of apathy. I didn’t like how it was going, but rather than up-front change I just dropped out of that too.

  8. KB

    I think it’ll depend on the organisation and the task, but certainly for some churches a 5 year model might work well. We did 10 at Vaux, and used a thought-experiment towards the end:

    Imagine there was a button, and if you pressed that button Vaux no longer existed in public form, but it was ok and no one was hurt or pissed off. Would you press it?

    As soon as most would, I don’t think we had a choice. It’s something I expand on in the book – how any institution is effectively a map of an area, a representation of a thought-space, and as soon as a map is drawn it begins to get out of date. So at some point you have to a) burn the map or b) worship it as tradition.

  9. Acetate Monkey

    Interesting point, I see what you mean about the maps. Sorry if I keep skirting around things which you address elsewhere. Other is on my Amazon wish list as i have a book embargo. Hopefully come August

  10. rodney neill

    I went to an charismatic fellowship where the main elder/sermon preacher had a ‘born again’ experience of Calvinism being the true word of God so we had 5 years of hour long Sunday sermons on Romans viewed through a Calvinist lens – no room for discussion or opinions that differed from the leaders perspective. This constant barrage spurred me to learn to think for myself and I eventually left the church..semons are a dead thing that should be left in the past!!!

  11. ron cole

    Kester, I’ve considered myself a part of the ” emerging conversation ” ever since meeting Brian Mclaren some 14 years ago. I still don’t believe ” emergent/emerging/ emergence ” is done. I still find many people practicing faith that are no longer associated with the institutional church…but would associate themselves with the emerging conversation. Maybe rather than ” retreat ” it is much more dispersed. Like seed carried by the wind, it’s difficult to track. Also outside of denominational, and institutional moorings adds to the difficulty. You also mention longevity. Maybe we’re seeing more of a seasonal phenomena, where emerging communities will be small, sustainable, fluid. Also being more missional there maybe a constant morphing depending on the needs on its margins.
    I’m finding more that the institutional church is in retreat…becoming more insular, fortifying it’s theological stance, and resurrecting models that might have been successful 20 years ago.
    I really believe that sustainable will be the way of the future. There is so much good teaching on the world wide web, books, podcasts…do we really need sermons? Thirty plus years of church, I’ve heard every twist on scripture. Anyways, your latest book is on route, and I look forward to the read.

  12. Peter Rollins

    Just a quick comment as one who currently lives in the US. Back in the UK the sermon (at least in its dominent evangelical form, which I think is what we are mainly talking about) does seem to be past its sell by date. In the past perhaps the most educated person in the room was the preacher. The only one who had gone to university, who could read etc. But now this is no longer the case. The most educated people in the room are mostly scattered around it. Sermons that involve apologetics, ethical reflections etc. often come across as the idle thoughts of someone who has spent the day reading through a couple of books and surfing the net. But the weird thing is Scott is right when it comes to the US. It seems like there are lots of people here who actually like sermons! In fact you only have to scan the radio for a minute to find one. Not sure what to make of this!

  13. Bill Dahl

    OThe diaspora is alive and well…let’s restrain ourselves from counting that which our senses can comfortably capture. May every form of our faith flourish- and remain immune from our attempts to charactrize the swirl of His Spirit. Ahb..wondrous Mystery of Mysteries,..dance about us in the breeze, swirling your ruthless love among us. May we honor your desire to move as You desire- May we be swept up in the whirl of Your holy whim- wherever and whenever You so desire. May we remain comfortable befuddled by Your Ways.

    Have Your Way with us Great Spirit!!!

  14. Clare

    Whilst living in Liverpool I attended an Anglican church which has taken the step of eliminating sermons in favour of discussions. It was this element that most strongly attracted me to the church and my experience of it did not disappoint. It is so refreshing to explore issues of faith in an inclusive environment where people’s struggles and wonderings can be voiced and accepted as a legitimate part of the journey.