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One of the most important elements of the Emergent movement, an element that DA Carson unfortunately didn’t address, is that many of these folks think the gospel has to be worked out at a local level and in a particular place. DA Carson’s book focuses on the epistemology of Brian McLaren but, in so doing, misses what I think is foundational (dare I use that word in another sense?) to the entire movement: its ecclesiology. These last few blogs have focused on ecclesiology, and I am looking at it through the lens of Doug Pagitt’s book, Reimagining Spiritual Formation, and therefore the life of Solomon’s Porch.
Here’s the issue as I see it: the gospel will come into a physical/spiritual expression in different ways in different places because the gospel cannot be equated with those expressions. I can’t emphasize the importance of this point: the gospel and the manifestations of the gospel are not one and the same. What will appear in one place (say a strong emphasis on artistic expression) may not appear at all in another place (where there may be more emphasis on social justice or on teaching or on any number of things).
The gospel is the same, and I’m not sure this is the place even to try to define the gospel, but the manifestation must be particular and local. For Solomon’s Porch the gospel is pretty close to participating in the story of God, as made known in Scripture and the world.
Within this conviction is another: transportable church models are potentially dangerous. If one believes in a seeker-model, one might be tempted to import Willow Creek type things to a community that neither has Willow Creek’s particular giftedness nor will the local community need such a ministry. In other words, copy cat ministry is Verboten among the Emergent folks.
Take Tony Jones or Andrew Jones or Doug Pagitt or Brian McLaren — take them and look at their communities and you will not see the same thing. Why? because they each are trying to let the gospel bloom in their local gardens.
Pagitt, for instance, has led Solomon’s Porch — and “led” is not as democratic a word as I need — into a very artsy expression; they compose their own songs; they “do” their own sermon-making; they reach into the missional needs of their own community; and we could go on and on.
Let us not forget this: what is particular and local involves the particular and local leaders who are in turn shaped by that particular and local. Community is not amorphous: it has particular shapings from its leaders.
But, there is something unusual about this Emergent sense of the particular: it is not about “preaching the gospel” in a local place and then seeing what happens and then calling that the “particular.” This implies that one already knows what the “gospel” is; the Emergent folk tend to be more radical than this, and they want to say that the “gospel” itself is particular and local and that one cannot put “gospel” and “local manifestation” into tidy and different boxes and analyze them separately. This is precisely what the Emergent movement is not saying. Since God is a person, the community becomes the place where the gospel is seen and experienced.
Two observations: it is unlikely that past church reflections are entirely looked over in this process for just as orthodoxy has its own defining moments that will stay with us forever, so also does ecclesiology have its own moments. And, I think there needs to be dialogue over time about “what works” and “why it works” among the Emergent folk so that things can be learned about gospel work among postmodernists. For all the emphasis on the local, there are some important similar threads between these local churches.
In addition to these, we need to recognize that the Emergent emphasis on the particular leads each of us to do more “local work” on what makes up our community, what needs it has, and how we can manifest the gospel in our own community. The manifestation of the gospel in the inner-city will have a different emphasis than those in the suburbs (and I don’t want to walk down that path just yet, but there are differences, and I’m keen on Christian Smith and Michael Emerson’s Divided By Faith). One of the themes of the Emergent movement is to quit worrying about what other churches are doing, especially big “successful” ones, and to start focusing on what can be done in our own back yards.
Next blog: holism.