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

Having completed the review of Mobsby, I will now review and reflect upon The emerging Church by Bruce Sanguin.  I will then conclude with some comments upon the ’emerging church’ movement more broadly.
Review of Sanguin
Sanguin’s book has a different objective than Mobsby’s.  While Mobsby was primarily interested in applying a form of social trinitarianism to Christian living, Sanguin is interested in helping pastors to engage in a culture-shift in order to find the abundant life promised by Jesus.  Thus, Sanguin wishes to see traditional mainline churches evolve  in centres of Spirit-animated creativity within the culture of postmodernity.
The language of ‘evolving’ is important to Sanguin, because he bases his understanding of ‘creative emergence’ upon the evolutionary model of nature.  So, he writes, ‘We are meant to evolve.  If the Spirit is involved in the evolutionary process — as I believe is the case — then we need to start thinking about our lives in Christ through an evolutionary lens’.  Thus Sanguin wishes to find churches meeting the challenges of postmodernity by shifting from a ‘redemption-centred theological model’ to a ‘creation-centred, evolutionary Christian theology’.  This is accomplished  by embracing the evolutionary principles of novelty, self-organisation, and a combination of transcendence and inclusion (by which Sanguin means that the new transcends the old, but includes everything that was good in the old — ‘everything that has worked in the past is brought forward’).  Hence, embracing an evolution and engaging in culture-shift is the way in which be become more truly our own selves.
Key to this shift is a movement from a ‘redemption-centred theological model’, which leaves people as passive recipients of otherworldly salvation, to a ‘creation-centred, evolutionary Christian theology’, which emphasises the grace found in nature, and emphasises our role as creative actors within the world.  From within this model, redemption is understood as that which liberates us to becomes ‘centres of creative emergence’, for ‘our problem is not innate sinfulness.  It’s foolishness.  We’ve lost our way… What we need is spiritual wisdom, not the removal of original sin.’
Okay, that takes us to the end of Chapter One.  I will spend less time on the other chapters because the key principles are laid out at the beginning, and the following chapters go on to function as a road map for those engaging in a culture shift.  Thus, Chapter Two speaks of the importance of hand-picking a ‘think tank’ to initiate this process, Chapter Three speaks of establishing non-negotiables , Chapter Four he speaks of engaging in self-definition by establishing a vision and a mission, Chapter Five speaks of establishing a value statement to guide the ethos of the congregation, and Chapter Six speaks of understanding the various ways in which people in your congregation understand Christ.
Chapter Seven is definitely the oddest chapter, and it speaks of ‘morphic fields’ which cause space to function as a ‘generative matrix’ for our own becoming.  Our own congregational morphic field is understood as the corporate personality of the congregation, or, as Sanguin also calls it, ‘the angle’ of the congregation.
Chapter Eight then lays out the psychological foundation for leadership stressing the importance of counseling psychology, and personal therapy, in order to develop four key interior conditions: self-definition, connections across differences, emotional intelligence, and an awareness of our (Jungian) ‘shadow’ side.  From the psychological, Sanguin moves to spiritual foundations for leadership in Chapter Nine, stressing the importance of stillness, theological reflection, compassion, and creativity.
From foundations for leaders, Sanguin moves to pitfalls for leaders in Chapter 10, and especially criticises models that require the pastor to be the care-giver for the entire congregation.  Noting that most people can only effectively care for ten to twelve people, Sanguin argues that the pastor should be more of a spiritual leader than a personal caregiver, and that other networks of care should be affirmed and developed within the congregation  Chapter Eleven then goes on to speak of how to care for those external to the congregation, like new comers.  He speaks of the importance of having good music, exciting and encouraging sermons, employing various forms of media and so on.
Finally, in Chapter Twelve Sanguin speaks of how to establish a board.  He then concludes by stressing the importance of approaching congregations as centres of creative emergence, and includes a postscript mapping out some of the mistakes he has made along the way.
This, then, is how Sanguin summarises what he is trying to do:

culture-shifting — moving from a membership paradigm to a discipleship paradigm; from a redemption focus to a creation-centred focus; from a pastoral care model that demands that clergy function as personal chaplains to a model based on small group ministry; from seeing the role of the laity as helping out the minister to implementing the spiritual principle of ministry anywhere, anytime, by anybody; from asking people to serve on committees, to inviting them to participate in spiritual-gifts-based ministry; from a bureaucracy of mistrust to a bureaucracy of trust.

Again, as with Mobsby, I am glad to see Sanguin seeking a living, vibrant expression of faith that engages with the world in which we live.  However, I do have a number of concerns.
First of all, Sanguin’s evolutionary model strikes me as naively optimistic.  Stated simply, it appears to assert that ‘every day in every way we are getting better and better’ (to quote Coué ).  Yet this fails to account for how evolution actually plays out in nature.  Evolution has been a violent process — survival of the fittest — wherein the strong prey on the weak, the healthy devour the sick, and where the strengths of the defeated are not necessarily taken over and further developed by the victors.  Thus, to use a social development example (since Sanguin’s evolutionary model applies to these situations), perhaps the Romans in the late Empire thought that they were the most evolved of all Romans… yet they were overwhelmed by the Goths and Europe was plunged into the ‘dark ages’ as many of the insights of Antiquity were lost for hundreds of years.  Consequently, I don’t think we can be as certain as Sanguin that all development is good development.  Instead, we need some sort of criteria to guide our development, but these criteria seem to be most absent in Sanguin’s book, since he simply asserts that our process of development is guided by Spirit, whom we can trust to take us where we need to go.
Furthermore, I found this evolutionary model to be an odd starting place for what Sanguin wants to do.  However, I think (but am not sure) that Sanguin starts here because he is operating from a paradigm that prioritises nature, and wishes to see us as all connected, and as all part of one big process.
This leads me to my second point.  I have some questions about the Christ affirmed by Sanguin.  Sanguin posits that people at various stages of their own evolutionary development understand Christ in different ways.  Thus, those on the lower levels understand Christ as a warrior.  Move a little higher and we have the traditional Christ as a divine scapegoat, a little higher still and we get the demythologised Christ as a CEO.  Then, in the upper stages of evolutionary development, we have people who affirm an egalitarian postmodern Christ, an ecological cosmic Christ and, ultimately, ‘the Mystical Christ.’  This is how Sanguin describes those at this most recent stage:

At this level, the world is experienced — not merely conceptualized — as one.  A follower of Christ does not merely perceive this universe as an integrated whole.  She knows herself to be a form of the integrated whole, the part in whom the whole is manifest.  The great diversity of life is also an expression of the Holy One.

This perspective is then supported by appeals to the Christ of John’s Gospel (who prays that we may be one, etc.) and to Paul’s understanding of our being ‘in Christ’.
Now, apart from the fact that Sanguin is doing violence to the texts at hand (more on that in a minute), what this actually looks like is a Christian gloss over an amalgamation of New Age spirituality, pantheism, and Westernised Buddhism.  What we have here is actually an affirmation of unity-within-diversity that puts an end to any real (or metaphysical) difference.  Now, this may work in some religious traditions, but to some how connect this thinking to Christianity (even in an ‘evolved’ form) suggests to me that this evolved form of Christianity is so different than that which came before, that perhaps it is best not to call this Christianity at all.  Maybe that just confuses the issue.  (But, then again, this raises the question of who has the right to define what is truly ‘Christian’ so maybe I’d rather not open up that can of worms.)
However, it is worth pointing out that this abolition of any real difference then leads to a negation of difference between religious systems.  Thus, for example, Sanguin speaks of how his church is populated by progressive Muslims as Muslims, Sikhs as Sikhs, Christians as Christians, Buddhists as Buddhists, and so on.  Sanguin sees this as a practice of ‘radical hospitality’ (which is why he also continually stresses that pastors should only speak ‘good news’ from the pulpit) and which, I suspect, is why Sanguin’s favourite name for God is Spirit.  The term is sufficiently vague and broad for Sanguin’s purposes.  Unfortunately, I do have questions about this type of hospitality.  To begin with, I think that it is self-defeating.  As Vinoth Ramachandra has noted recently, communities that downplay difference are often more traumatised, and react more violently, when something truly different appears; whereas communities that recognise the genuine depth of differences are more likely to respond peaceably to traumatic situations.  Furthermore, I question the liberating potential of this approach as it seems to be one that staunchly affirms the status quo.  While it may welcome slaves as slaves (without requiring them to change), it also appears to welcome Pharaoh as Pharaoh (without requiring him to change).  Thus, I think we need to listen to those like Miroslav Volf who remind us that sometimes exclusion must precede embrace.
Third, as I mentioned above, I have some concerns about how Sanguin reads Scripture.  Although Sanguin affirms ‘the whole of Scripture’ as a part of his non-negotiables, he continually stresses a metaphorical reading of the texts… which basically allows him to do what he wants with whatever he reads.  Thus, we have the ‘Mystical Christ’ of John and Paul, we have Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness understood as an internal psychological struggle (‘Satan’ being Jesus’ own internal ‘shadow’ side), and we have a reading of Lk 9.62 which suggests Jesus’ homelessness isn’t so much real as a metaphor for how he is ‘caught up in an evolutionary momentum’.  All of these readings simply slot Scripture into a previously established paradigm, which it then affirms.  What is lost is the truly transformative potential of Scripture, for Scripture is denied the ability to challenge our paradigms or, for that matter, to confront us with things that we do not wish to hear.
Bruce Sanguin and the place where he serves (Canadian Memorial Church & Centre for Peace), are located in a fairly wealthy and especially trendy neighbourhood in Vancouver (the city in which I live).  So, if Mobsby’s target audience appeared to be the hipsters, Sanguin neighbourhood is mostly composed of young business professionals — ‘yuppies’ who wear yoga pants, and spend a lot of time doing their hair before they go to the beach, the gym, or the spa.  So, if Mobsby is writing on behalf of the bohemian bourgeoisie, Sanguin is writing on behalf of the bohemian bourgeoisie.
However, let me add two provisos to this last comment.  First of all, I don’t think that this is anything wrong with ministering to, and with, hipsters or yuppies — far from it, all people should be invited to embody the good news of the lordship of Jesus Christ.  So my reason for raising this point is not to invalidate ministries to these populations.  Instead, I mention this because I believe that there is nothing particularly ‘radical’ about what Mobsby and Sanguin are doing.  It seems to me that they are both seeking ways of living as Christians and as members of the dominant culture in which they find themselves.  Ironically, this means that both Mobsby and Sanguin are participating in the same process that their predecessors did in the early to mid twentieth century.  That ‘traditional church’, against which both Mobsby and Sanguin are reacting, was simply the type of church that fit well with ‘modern’ culture.  Now, the ’emerging church’ is simply the type of church that fits well with ‘postmodern’ culture.  So, for all their talk about being ‘radical’ or ‘subversive’ the main thing that Mobsby and Sanguin are subverting is the culturally conditioned church of modernity.  This strikes me as a rather superficial form of subversion which fails to account for the power structures that have emerged or evolved in postmodernity itself.  So, given another forty or so years, I wouldn’t be surprised if these models of ’emergence’ pass away, along with this stage of postmodernity.
Secondly, by comparing Mobsby and Sanguin in this way, it is not my intention to say that they are approaching God, the church, and society in the same way.  As I noted in my introduction, there are major differences between their approaches.  Indeed, given Mobsby’s emphasis upon the Trinity, and Sanguin’s emphasis upon Spirit, I wouldn’t be too surprised if they had fairly negative reactions to each other.  (But, then again, hipsters and yuppies have always had fairly negative reactions to each other — even though they both perpetuate the system as it is.)
Now, by raising these criticisms, I am not saying that there is nothing good or admirable in the approaches taken by these authors.  Far from it, both should be commended for their focus upon valuing all of creation, engaging in acts of social justice, and welcoming those who are on the margins.  Sometimes I take these things so much for granted that I forget that a good many Christians need to hear about how important these things are, and how integral they are for Christian living.  But, yet again, I do get concerned that the forms of charity they represent are simply part of the means of ensuring that things continue to run as they are.  However, this need not be the case.  I reckon all of us began our charitable endeavours in fairly superficial ways — giving money at church, handing out bag lunches, buy a Christmas turkey for a poor family, etc. — so it’s just a question of following this trajectory and not just setting up camp at the place where we already are.  So, in this regard, let’s hope that the emergent folk continue to emerge and evolve!

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  1. Great Reviews on both Mobsby and Sanguin. Does either writer offer any def. for ‘nature’ or ‘postmodern’? I often find myself involved with a variety of christianities (i, myself can “rightly Pass” as a Roman Catholic, to borrow a trope from Derrida), and find these terms thrown around a lot without much explanation. thanks, Daniel
    dannya@[email protected]

  2. Hey Dan,
    I have not read Sanguin’s book and my experience with the emerging Church is limited but checking out excerpts from google books I am familiar with some of the concepts and thinkers he mentioned (Ken Wilbur, Don Beck) and have some thoughts.
    “Now, apart from the fact that Sanguin is doing violence to the texts at hand (more on that in a minute), what this actually looks like is a Christian gloss over an amalgamation of New Age spirituality, pantheism, and Westernised Buddhism.”
    The subject that the author seems to be speaking of brings up the issue of the role of Mystical Theology in the Modern Church. Without endorsing all the bells and whistles that the author brings up in my view what he seems to be speaking of would be linking the classical conception of salvation with a modern Teilhardian evolutionary paradigm. Salvation in the Orthodox Church to this day revolves around the deification of the soul through participation in the Life of God and is typically conceptualized in a threefold pattern of purgation, illumination, and union. The life of prayer is seen as a progressive one leading into a more formless vision of God. Balanced with the liturgical life of the Church there isn’t much tension between the active and contemplative life as is seen in the history of the Western Church. Denys Turner argues in “The Darkness of God” that this was the dominant paradigm in the West as well until the rationalization of theology under Aristotelian influence.
    “Now, this may work in some religious traditions, but to some how connect this thinking to Christianity (even in an ‘evolved’ form) suggests to me that this evolved form of Christianity is so different than that which came before, that perhaps it is best not to call this Christianity at all.”
    In my mind the problem with modern theology is that there is actually very little continuity with it and what came before. Modern theology is like a pendulum swinging back and forth between opposites with no way to ground itself in a way of life or a way of being. Christianity’s dive into the immanent plane has certainly yielded new insights (liberation theology etc) and those are important and should not be neglected but the contemplative heart of the faith is its grounding and the exclusion of one or the other is to the overall detriment of the Faith.

  3. daniel:
    Neither author provides a definition for nature, although in general when they speak of ‘nature’, I think they are thinking of ‘God’s (good) creation’. As your question implies, this is rather problematical and, ironically, tends to be the attitude taken by those who have actually had very little real contact with nature (which is often ‘red in tooth and claw’).
    Also, I’m pretty certain that neither author defines ‘postmodernity’ — like ‘nature’ they take it to be something given and something good.


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