Is The Emerging Church Hopelessly Utopian? [2]

Utopia2In the previous post, I outlined John Gray’s recent conclusion that, post-Iraq (and thus, essentially, post Neo-con), post-Communism, post-Marxism, post-Nazism, the grand utopian ideas of the 20th Century had proved themselves failures, and that we should all give up on grand political visions. I paralleled that with some of the disenchantment I’ve seen expressed about the ’emerging church’ movement.

Commenting on that, Matt says:

“With a few exceptions, the utopias of the c20th were of an all-encompassing top-down nature, rather than the organic communities of the c19.

I think this is pretty spot on, and actually lines up nicely with the later sections of the Prospect article on utopias, where the writer points out that:

“During the 19th Century, many utopians tried to create perfect societies in small settlements, often in the ‘new world’ of the US. […] The real harm came in the 20th Century, when utopians abandoned the idea of withdrawing from the world and instead attempted to remake it.”

I think this model is actually helpful. We can see two visions of the emerging church through it: the ‘withdrawal’ model (no giggling, please 😉 or the ‘re-making’ model. Both have been seen to fail in history. The withdrawal model because the very act of attempting to create a pure society carries within it its own destruction, especially when disillusionment with the leader comes (which it always does). The re-making model fails because it is essentially futile. We can’t bring heaven to the whole earth yet. Energy saps, and people drift away.

So what’s the way forward? Do we admit the EC vision has been hopelessly utopian, and give up?

The Prospect article continues with a review of another book – Jay Winter’s Dreams of Peace and Freedom (subtitle: Utopian Moments in the 20th Century) – which I think offers us some direction. Winter wants to ‘resurrect a more modest strand of visionary thought, what he calls “minor utopias” […] He describes these as visions of partial transformation that “sketch out a world very different from the one we live in, but from which not all social conflict or all oppression has been eliminated”‘

So one way forward is for us to think of the emerging church in terms of such a ‘minor utopia’. In other words, we retain the powerful vision, but are more realistic about the bounds and reach of that vision. It’s always going to be partial transformation, and dirt is always going to remain.

As I outline in the book, the characters that help us to remain involved in ‘dirt’ are the Tricksters, and thus, if the Emerging Church is going to pull back from the ‘hopelessly utopian’ place, it must keep in touch with its tricksters; it must avoid trying to harden boundaries and purify its ground. In other speak, I think that means it needs to pro-actively avoid ‘denominating’ – moving towards a settled, denominated state. (See earlier post on this.)

Some ideas about how we might practically do that, I’ll try to cover in the next post.


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10 responses to “Is The Emerging Church Hopelessly Utopian? [2]”

  1. I thought your chapters on dirt and tricksters were the strongest, though I may just be justifying my own snarkiness and constant contrarian perspectives. In any case, refusing to see oneself as mainstream will surely help resist those who would comodify the contributions of the EC, and should keep us from taking ourselves too seriously (including as some kind of utopia).

  2. Dana Ames

    Another difference is that the C19 utopias were usually about withdrawing to the countryside- there was no hope for the city. Emerging people are certainly not abandoning the city.
    Is “minor utopia” an oxymoron? 🙂
    I think your way forward is a good one.

  3. Kester asks: “is the Emerging Church conversation just another hopeless utopia? Should we just abandon any grand vision and admit that it’ll probably just end up hurting people?”
    An ‘intuitive ecclesia’ is emerging from the digital matrix. But some are trying to “denominate” this organically arising community. Small groups of clergy/theologians continue to form organizations to further their “Emerging” agenda, while a far grander “collective intuition” is emerging without control or pre-definition.
    With this, a radically new kind of leader is coming into view, empowered by depth of service to the growing virtual community – by an ability to effectively connect the heart of Christ amidst religious diversity – by an ability to virtually (ubiquitously) inspire local-physical expression of Jesus among the poor, hurting, and marginalized.
    As your posts imply, we can no longer force our dying institutional models onto the emerging digital ecclesia. New generations of virtually connected Xns (and pre-Xns) cannot function within 20c corporate architecture. The new ecclesial architecture is shared, participatory, global, ubiquitous, built on selfless service rather than inherited power.
    So.. yes, our feeble attempts at building some kind of “Emerging Church” will likely prove to be hollow and void – no different than any other historical attempt towards spiritual utopia. Let’s learn from the past, take our hands off the controls, allow God to run the show, and let an organic church emerge free from inherited lay/clergy distinctions: by ordinary people, for ordinary people, serving each other for God’s sake.

  4. …did you mean to say “…settled, non-denominated state”?
    A Utopia seems to need the negative society by definition. The “emerging” church needs what isn’t working in order to define itself. That which calls itself “emerging” may be dangerously discordant rather than hopelessly utopian.
    Some might use Thomas More’s word “utopia”. The unifying thing is the belief that God is getting us there.
    Jesus made it all messy by having his own forms of boundaries and ground purifying. How did He know what to do? only by seeing what “the Father is doing”. Somehow, and there lies the rub, we can do the same.

  5. i wonder if much of the emerging church is a little adolescent in its thinking… no-one else has ever felt this deeply about anything, no-one else has ever been this misunderstood, no-one else has ever been as moved, or as passionate, or as heartbroken for the world… Let’s be real, lots of people have, in every generation.
    and some keep that passion for life. i’m trying to search out those who have and use them as my role models… base christian communities in latin america, for example… i think they can teach us how to be as faithful as we can be, right where we are now.
    [but then i’ve never really recognised myself within the emerging church, so i’m speaking as an outsider!]

  6. I’m reading a fascinating book by Stephen Tomkins, “A Short History of Christianity.” It’s a very easy and consise read that echoes Cheryl’s comments – we are by no means the first to think woe is me. I marvel how Jesus’ words continue to resonate throughout the world despite all the church crud that’s transpired. Another component to these utopian communities such as the Shakers was that while they strove to be self-sustaining by selling their wares, I don’t recall a flood of self-promotion via packaging their community a.k.a. Emergent Church (TM) via publishing deals, conferences, and the like. Yes, we need media (Books, CD, visual arts)and opportunities to gather collectively. At first I objected to The Wittenburg Door deconstructing “emergent church” but now I see that there’s a bit too much missional madness going on that needs to be reigned in.

  7. Thanks for responding to my earlier comment… I don’t have a prospect membership so can’t see the full article, but I think the Utopian societies in the US in the c19th are incredibly interesting, not least because we don’t have so much of a history of them in the UK. I was talking to someone a few weeks back and saying that Shane Claiborne seemed to me to be very much operating out of that tradition.
    The ennui may be part and parcel of the utopian process – and not just for ECs – but we’re still praying “your kingdom come on earth…” Where it seems to me that it went wrong for a lot of the C19 groups was that their reaction to initial success was to try and codify and control everything, write it down, analyse it, repeat it. The Shakers went from what was pretty much complete charismatic revival in the 1830s and 40s to a set of rules about worship that would have prevented anything similar from happening again within about 30 years… Maybe it’s the dirt (and risk) that keeps things going?

  8. I haven’t studied the New Monastic movement outside of interviewing Shane but the loose structure of similar communities that includes the Simple way doesn’t seem to be formally tied into the US emergent church movement.

  9. Don’t you just love the chinese whispers aspect of the blogosphere. More on utopias from ‘Kevin Brewster.’
    Great work 😉

  10. still waiting for the emergent vs. emerging church distinction bud.