Emergent Ecclesiology of an Exodus Church

In my favorite chapter of my favorite book, by favorite author, Jurgen Moltmann writes:
"The peculiar character of the Christian faith [comes] to expression in conflict with the things that are socially axiomatic. If Christianity, according to the will of him in whom it believes and in whom it hopes, is to be different and to serve a different purpose, then it must address itself to no less a task than that of breaking out of these socially fixed roles." (Theology of Hope, pg, 324)


"Here the task of Christianity today is not so much to oppose the ideological glorification of things, but rather to resist the institutional stabilizing of things, and by 'raising the question of meaning' to make things uncertain and keep them moving and elastic in the process of history....Hope alone keeps life ...flowing and free."

That last sentence has kept me buoyed in many difficult days. These quotes are taken from the chapter, "Exodus Church." The allure of accommodating to power and social stability is mesmerizing. Imagine slaves in Egypt who defend their task masters, opposing Moses, only in order to keep the status quo instead of being launched into the unknown. 

From theologies like expressed by Moltmann, the church in the emergent age has chosen to look with discernment on the things of socially defined religious practice. What it has sought is a clear expression of what an eschatological church would look like. Since the church in the past centuries had been defined by society through alliances with monarchs and political movements, the opportunity to be defined by an alternative society,i.e. the reign of God. 

Richard Dadd: Flight Out of Egypt
While the theology of the kingdom of God, of heaven, the reign of God, the Day of The Lord, etc. is too broad to discuss here, the view of  Moltmann is expressed in the concluding chapter title to his Theology of Hope. We are to be an "exodus church". This expressly speaks of movement and going somewhere based on faith, but also implicitly of leaving that to which we have been enslaved.

In the twenty years following the publication of Theology of Hope, the church in the West continued to seek way in which it could practice its faith without challenging the social meaning of the church or "challenging the institutional stabilizing of things." But the struggle with diminishing returns and the grasping on the philosophical handle of postmodernist, the church began to see why doing the same old thing was no longer working. Largely, the world had changed. In the words of Al Roxburgh, "the sky is falling", which expressed the significant change that was socially taking place, but the to say that the ground under our feet had shifted, might be more accurate. 

The non-eschatological role the church had taken on began to collapse as the stabilizer of things became harder to accomplish. Think of the reign of the religious right in the 1980s, the emergence of all things "christian" from music, to bookstores, amusement parks and television networks. Rather than expressing an other worldly perspective, they sought to do what the rest of capitalism had done, form a business plan and make money using the same principles, while all the time talking about Jesus largely for those who already knew him. But the power of the Moral Majority and the Christian Broadcasting Network began to wane in the 1990s. So closely tied to contemporary social political power, these organizations did not realize the ship upon which they had boarded was leaving port. And while one would want to think that denominational churches with deep and rich traditions and sound orthodox theology moved in another direction - but they followed, too.

As the social institutions continued to loose stability, postmodern philosophy began to make more and more sense. The renewed importance of the local, the contextual, the pre-Constantinian traditions of the church began to strike a nerve. When, in 1989 Stanley Hauerwas and William 
Willimon published their book Resident Aliens, they spoke to the unease in the western church. With comments like: "it's not like the history of the church from 319 to 1520 was all wrong," and "the church speaks a truth that the world could not otherwise know" they addressed the short comings of the residue of the state church defined by a socially acceptable and rational theology. Rather, the church is composed of a unique story, frequently cooped or worse, forgotten. 

With the emphasis on the local and contextual, some Christian leaders removed themselves from the all the trappings of the enslaved, pre-Exodus Church. These dropped and dropping trappings included, but are not limited to:
  • Denominational polities based on other than theological organization
  • Large, maintenance oriented, mega-churches and churches that were larger than ones 'oikos'.
  • Congregational budgets which slanted toward personnel and buildings
  • Skepticism over seminary trained pastors
  • Reducing the weight of propositional faith claims
  • Questioning the interpretations of theological heritage that supported status quo
  • The imposed separation of the world into secular and sacred, especially in the area of the arts
  • Shifting of imagination from resourcing failing accommodation to new forms of church
One of the results of postmodern emphasis on local and contextual, on narrative instead of polities and on practices rather than propositions has been the reduction in denominational allegiances at the same time there has been a renewal in appreciation for the depths of different Christian traditions. As a result, there have emerged new expressions of some historical and even ancient Christian practices.

Neil Cole and Reggie McNeil moved toward a house church model emphasizing the early Christian gatherings. The Book of Acts serves not only as an historical description, but is also established as prescriptive norm. Many house churches have thrived and become networks as the fellowships outgrow the homes. Some have take the idea and recast the house church as a monastic movement and developed group homes reminiscent of the 1960 and early 1970s attempts at communes, known as intentional Christian community.

Several of these intentional Christian comunities share in "the 12 marks of new monasticism". The following list is from The Simple Way Community of Philadelphia. But this list can be found in many communities.
  1. Relocation to the abandoned places of Empire.
  2. Sharing economic resources with fellow community members and the needy among us.
  3. Hospitality to the stranger
  4. Lament for racial divisions within the church and our communities combined with the active pursuit of a just reconciliation.
  5. Humble submission to Christ’s body, the church.
  6. Intentional formation in the way of Christ and the rule of the community along the lines of the old novitiate.
  7. Nurturing common life among members of intentional community.
  8. Support for celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children.
  9. Geographical proximity to community members who share a common rule of life.
  10. Care for the plot of God’s earth given to us along with support of our local economies.
  11. Peacemaking in the midst of violence and conflict resolution within communities along the lines of Matthew 18.
  12. Commitment to a disciplined contemplative life.
Other emergent expressions have been moved by narrative more than proposition. Some of these have become places in which the arts play a prominent role. Churches like the Church of the Apostles in Seattle valued a variety of visual arts and located itself in a struggling neighborhood. One of the unique things about Church of the Apostles, is that it is an old mainline denominationally formed church. Along those lines, other denominations have experienced the development of emergent church networks. Adam Walker Cleaveland has had a significant impact on the creation of Presbymergent. Stuart Murray Williams has helped foster the Anabaptist Network. And there have been similar fellowships emerge within other mainline denominations.

While there has been a coinciding trend that the emerging churches have had a strong missional foundation, it is not always the case. There have been some churches of the emergent trend that while embracing the contextualization of the gospel, and being influenced by the deconstruction philosophy of postmodernity, have nonetheless not embraced missional theology. More on this later, perhaps.

The intention here was to give an historical and philosophical overview of some influences on the church that have led to the emergent development. Other issues to look at would also include the resurgence of evangelicalism in Great Britan, under significant influence by Stuart Murray. Also, one could look at the foundation in exegesis in that many emergent churches have a preference for gospel narratives, and the prophets, more than the texts of Old Testament royaly or epistles. Perhaps that can be for another discussion. But what is clear is that ecclesiology of many emergent churches, and the emergent discussion as a whole, has been the renewed emphasis on church reflecting the reign of God moreso than the reign of Caesar, or the reign of militarism, or the reign of Wall Street. The idea of eschatologically formed communities as alternatives offers the world a "truth it could not otherwise know".