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The 'Emerging Church': Listening in on the Conversation (1 of 2)

Books discussed in this series:
Mobsby, Ian. The Becoming of G-d: What the Trinitarian nature of God has to do with Church and a deep Spirituality for the Twenty First Century. Monograph Series. North Essex: YTC Press, 2008.
Sanguin, Bruce. The emerging Church: A Model for Change & a Map for Renewal. Kelowna: CopperHouse, 2008.

In any area of study, it is important to listen to the voices of those who actually partcipate within, or embody, the particular topic being studied. Thus, for example, when engaging in liberation theology, it is important to actually listen to ‘the Poor’ rather than simply listening to those who claim to represent the poor; or, to provide another example, when engaging in theological reflections related to ‘disabilities’, it is important to listen to those who called ‘disabled’, rather than simply listening to those who claim to present the disabled; and so on and so forth.
Therefore, given the hype, controversy, affirmations, and allegations that have swirled around the emerging church ‘conversation’, I figured it was about time that I actually spent some time listening to the voices of some of those who claim to speak from within this movement. Consequently, I am very grateful to Mike Morrell from the Ooze for providing me with review copies of The Becoming of G-d by Ian Mobsby and The emerging Church by Bruce Sanguin.
As with most large movements, the title of the movement is one that is claimed by many diverse people and groups. Hence, many things come under the name of the ’emerging church’. Really, the title might be best understood as that which is claimed by an organism in the process of developing rhizomatically (to use the language of Deleuze and Guattari). This, then, explains the consistent backlash against those who raise criticisms against the ’emerging church’. It is hard to criticise (or praise) something so diverse and when one criticises those on one end of many spectra, those on the other ends inevitably cry out. Consequently, having experienced or seen something of the ’emerging church’, one should be careful about applying one’s own experiences of a part, to the whole.
This divergence (perhaps the movement could also be called diverging church?) is well-illustrated by reading these two books back-to-back. The respective authors, Mobsby and Sanguin, take markedly different approaches to most things — their foci, their talk of God, their ecclesiastical models, their hermeneutics, and so on. However, there appear to be some things that they do have in common — and it is, perhaps, these commonalities that might be aspects of the emerging church more broadly. Therefore, in this post I will critically review Mobsby’s book, in the next post, I will do the same with Sanguin’s book, and then I will conclude with some tentative comments about the emerging church movement (in general) as that movement is represented by these two authors.
Review of Mobsby
As the subtitle makes clear, Mobsby’s book is focused upon developing an ecclesiology and a concomitant spirituality rooted within a trinitarian understanding of God. The central contention of the book, stated overtly in the preface, is that ‘God is seeking to draw us into deeper forms of spiritual community and relationality through God’s own, experientially revealed nature.’
In the first three chapters, Mobsby details a trinitarian understanding of God. Chapter One focuses upon the historical experiences of God (with a particular focus upon experiences related in Scripture, and the influence of the Cappadocian Mothers and and Fathers), which lead people to speak of God in this way. Mobsby then concludes that rooting our talk of God in our experiences of God is one of the strengths of the emerging church which ‘counters the superficial drive for objective certainty that boxes God in’ and which ‘seek[s] a reawakening of the Christian faith as an orientation of the heart’.
In Chapter Two, Mobsby focuses upon the Spirit, also known as ‘The Sustainer’, as an active and significant member of the Trinity, in order to counter current ‘impoverished’ views of the Spirit found within Western churches. Mobsby contends that one of the benefits of restoring the Spirit to the Spirit’s proper place is that the Trinity becomes a proper model of unity in diversity as, for example, the Spirit contains many attributes commonly considered as ‘feminine’ and so, inclusion of the Spirit in the ‘Godhead’ helps to de-gender God. Furthermore, this focus upon the Spirit leads to more passionate worship, and more innovative Christian living.
In Chapter Three, Mobsby then further explores the nature of the Redeemer and the Creator (titles Mobsby prefers to the more androcentric titles of ‘Son’ and ‘Father’). When speaking of the Redeemer, Mobsby emphasises the dual nature of Jesus, which he argues leads to a focus upon ‘incarnational theology’ (which focuses upon Jesus as a human servant and as a lover of the poor, and which, therefore, leads Christians to live in a similar way) and upon ‘redemptive theology’ (which focuses upon Jesus as divine and leads to an emphasis upon repentance and discipleship). When speaking of the Creator, Mobsby affirms a panentheistic theology which affirms God and his ongoing work, as that which grounds and sustains all of creation (which then leads to a focus on environmentalism and good stewardship).
In chapters Four to Seven, Mobsby then further applies this trinitarianism to Christian living. Chapter Four, focuses on the models and lessons provided by the emerging church. In particular, Mobsby highlights nine core values that appear to be (providentially) common to emergent congregations, all of which Mobsby believes are shaped by a trinatarian approach to perichoresis and kenosis. Thus, Mobsby identifies emergent congregations as those who: (1) Take the life of Jesus as a model to live; (2) and who transform the secular realm. (3) As they live highly communal lives. (4) Welcome those who are outsiders. (5) Share Generously. (6) Participate. (7) Create. (8) Lead without control. (9) And function together in spiritual activities.
Thus, drawing from Avery Dulles’ book, Models of the Church, Mobsby argues that the emergent church is a combination of the ‘Mystical Communion Model’ and the ‘Sacramental Model’, while also stressing the idea of the church as an alternative community. By this, Mobsby does not mean a church withdrawn from society, but a church that includes the excluded. Therefore, he stresses both the need for some sort of internal ‘rule’ or ‘rhythm of life’, while also stressing the need for mission and creative engagement with contemporary culture.
In Chapter Five, Mobsby points out the contemporary resurgence of interest in ‘spirituality’ and ‘spiritual experiences’ and how, when connected with recent technological developments, this leads to a new form of transcendence and the birth of the ‘hyper-real’. It is this hyper-real realm of ‘techgnosis’ that he wishes to transform (or modify) by combining it with ancient forms of mysticism and liturgy (hence the name ‘Ancient:Future’). Thus, whilst we must be careful about the dangers of ‘spiritual tourism’ and a ‘pick and choose’ spirituality, Mobsby states that:

Rather than spelling the end of religion, the concept of techgnosis gives me even greater faith in God’s presence, and it encourages my belief in the impossible… Personally I do believe that God, through the person of the Holy Spirit, is beckoning us through the joint effects of consumerism and techgnosis.

In Chapter Six, Mobsby connects ‘orthpraxis’ and ‘sacramentality’ in order to affirm our engagement in contemporary culture (‘Rather than fear culture and difference, we are called to trust that God is very much present in our world and in our culture’), and in order to especially affirm our engagement in political, environmental, and social circumstances by utilising ‘godly play’ and the means of ‘lectio divina’. In particular, Mobsby asserts that we need to engage with those whom we consider threatening (for himself, Mobsby includes the following as his ‘top six hates’: ‘aggressive and abusive homeless people, alcoholics, rascists, Islamic, Hundi, Jewish and Christian fundamentalists, those who demean women, and those who are homophobic’).
In Chapter Seven, Mobsby addresses the challenges facing this sort of human community within our current culture of individualism. In particular, Mobsby stresses that each of us, as individuals, are lessened when we are divorced from community — ‘community becomes an important environment for the realisation of our unique potential.’ Again and again Mobsby stresses this point: community is where we can each achieve our individual potential, health, and wellness (thus, Mobsby also stresses the connection between church communities and ‘therepeutic communities’). Key to all of this is the pursuit of an ‘authentic spirituality’, which is understood as a spirituality that ‘works’. Thus, in this and other ways, Mobsby notes that many in the emergent church are reacting to their up backgrounds in fundamentalist circles. Therefore, over against this background, and over against the culture of individualism, Mobsby concludes by stressing the becoming of community (through sharing and inter-dependency), of belonging (through openness and honesty), of forgiveness (through mentoring), of hope (through ‘healthy, culturally relevant expressions of worship, mission and community’) and of justice (through shifting from consumption to production and from taking to giving).
Finally, in Chapter 8, Mobsby concludes by stressing the importance of unity in diversity, and once again stresses the importance of trintiarian thinking and the approach of the emerging church. Chapter Nine functions as a postscript and contains a collection of poetic trinitarian devotions.
What, then, are we to make of all these things? On the one hand, I am glad to see Mobsby diving into some of the unique aspects of Christianity — say the Trinity and the Sacraments — in order to try and live out a vibrant faith of mission and discipleship within today’s world. I also appreciate Mobsby’s emphasis that the ‘new monasticism’ seems to hold the best way forward for the emerging church (Mobsby appears to include ‘new monasticism’ within the emerging movement — and I think he considers his church to be a new monastic movement — but I would actually see these as two different movements).
On the other hand, I actually find it quite difficult to know what to make of Mobsby approach to Christian living. That is to say, his work is so full of hot contemporary theological catch-phrases — perichoresis, kenosis, trinitarian, incarnational, play, orthopraxis, sacramentality, etc. — that I’m left wondering what exactly all of this looks like in the day to day life of Mobsby’s Moot Community in the UK. My concerns is that this sort of language simply ends up functioning as an ideological gloss for positions arrived at by other means. Or, to put that another way, my concern is that Mobsby makes Christianity, and trinitarianism, relevant by taking themes that are already trendy within our contemporary Western world, and adding a layer of Christian overcoding to that discourse.
This, then, leads me to what is probably my biggest concern with Mobsby’s approach — his emphasis upon relevance. Again, another word fraught with ideological implications, I think we need to carefully define what we mean by ‘relevance’ or ‘irrelevance’ (something that I don’t think people on either side of this discussion have spent enough time doing). However, it seems to me that ‘relevance’ for Mobsby, means taking things that are currently hot within our contemporary society, and putting a Christian spin on those things — thus, within the Club scene, Mobsby speaks of Christian DJs putting on better shows than others, within the hipster scene Mobsby speaks of Christian churches structured like cafes, which act as hubs of their communities (actually, this seems to be the type of church that Mobsby likes the most, as he speaks highly of it on multiple occasions), and so on. Mobsby’s justification for this approach is that God is always present and active within our world, and so by embracing these things, we are simply embracing the work God is already doing amongst us.
The result of this is a largely acritical approach to contemporary culture, which fails to consider that (a) God might not be as present as we would like God to be; and (b) other forces are also operating within our culture, and these forces are acting in the service of Sin and of Death. What is needed, but absent, in Mobsby’s approach, is a much more careful analysis of the various things he embraces. For example, Mobsby’s love of technology (‘techgnosis’) fails to account for all the warnings we have received about technology from people as diverse as Jacques Ellul, Martin Heidegger, George Grant, Neil Postman, and Slavoj Žižek. My fear is that this approach to church becomes little more than a cry that ‘Hey! Christians can be cool too!’ Further, given the reactive nature of much of the emergent church (as Mobsby notes, many members are reacting to their own conservative backgrounds) this wouldn’t be surprising but it isn’t particularly commendable. Indeed, given that so much of this is reactive, I would want to be a little more careful about crediting so much of what is done to the creative workings of the Spirit. Not that there is really anything wrong with having Christian raves and coffee shops — it’s just that the Spirit’s creative work might look like a little more than that.
This connects to the second thing that bothered me about Mobsby’s approach. Although Mobsby stressed justice issues, and spoke about the need of journeying in company with the excluded, I found that his approach, and his target audience, seems to be more about embracing hipsters than it is about embracing, and being embraced by, the Poor. Again, I would have to see how all of this actually plays out in Mobsby’s community, but my fear is that we, once again, have a lot of trendy rhetoric about social justice but very little real action or, most importantly, solidarity. Hence, when one reads Mobsby’s list of his ‘top six hates’, we notice that street-involved people are well-represented within that group (and that the list looks like a who’s who of the people hated by most ‘left-leaning’ folks today). So, Mobsby hates ‘aggressive and abusive homeless people’ but he doesn’t say anything about the people and structures that dehumanise and abuse the homeless, thereby driving them towards aggressive and abusive patterns of survival; Mobsby hates ‘alcoholics’ but he doesn’t say anything about the patterns of abuse and generational sin that perpetuate alcoholism; and so on. For someone who wants to talk about justice as much as Mobsby does, this is unacceptable — and really does make me wonder if he is just spouting a lot of hot air.
Finally, my third concern with Mobsby’s book is his pragmatic approach to spirituality — his emphasis upon needing a ‘spirituality which “works”‘. Again, on the one hand, I agree that we should be experiencing God in our Christian life together, but to focus so heavily upon a spirituality that constantly produces positive emotions, or some sort of ‘genuine’ experience, or whatever, seems to reflect Western pragmatism and impatience (i.e. we only pursue that which produces results, and only that which produces results now). The risk here is that of an overly realised eschatology. There doesn’t seem to be much room for experiences of godforsakenness, for the ‘dark night of the soul’, for the ‘not-yet’, or for stubbornly doing, and redoing things, not because of the results they produce, but because of our call to the faithful.
So, all in all, I am glad to have read Mobsby’s book, it is a useful glimpse into the emerging church, but I am left with a number of concerns and unanswered questions.

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  • September Books « On Journeying with those in Exile September 29, 2008

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