February 2, 2010
A Movement or a Fad?
Why we're worrying too much about Emergent, Organic, and Missional Church.
The difference between a fad and a movement is that a movement produces long term enduring change. A fad, on the other hand, feeds off something that already exists: a cultural awareness, a disenchantment, or even a novel idea and expands on it. Through media, publishing, and viral exchange, it becomes a sensation that sells books, creates a lot of activity, makes people feel something exciting—but in the end it doesn’t produce enough substance to sustain lasting change in history.
Often, in the midst of something new, we can not tell the difference. Whether it is a fad or a movement won’t be known for many years. I am sure many thought John Wesley and what was derisively called “Methodism” was just a fad. It turned out to change the landscape of protestant Christianity (especially in North America) for all time. Anyone who is an evangelical lives beneath its shadow to this day.
In the last 10 to 15 years there have been a few tidal waves of reaction to North American evangelical Christianity: Emerging Church and its founding Emergent Village, the Organic (or Simple or House) Church movement, and of course Missional Church. There has been a lot of blog commotion recently over their demise or decline of these expressions. In each case I suggest we are worrying too much.
When we see things fall apart, split into factions, or splinter off personalities, we should not worry. What is of substance will last if it is rooted on the ground in real life communities. What was merely a fad needs to die anyway. Let those people move on with what they’ve learned and be part of something real. Yet we often see people clamor to keep the fad going. Perhaps these folk were invested in the benefits accruing to them as part of the fad. People like to keep the feeling alive of being involved in something important. But fighting too keep something going is itself a sign of a fad. The people fighting for it should let it go and devote themselves to what is happening on the ground.
I am in no position to judge whether Emergent, Organic, or Missional is a fad or a movement. But I have a few observations based on recent blog developments. With each observation the question is, “Why are these people worried so much?” Is this wasted energy – a sign that this is nothing but a fad? “Chill,” and let’s get on with the faithfulness on the ground. The fruit will bear witness eventually.
On Emergent Village:
When Tall Skinny Kiwi (TSK) announced he was dropping out of Emergent there was an strong reaction. I personally see no reason to take the “friend of Emergent” banner off my blog. I still have a lot of friends in that camp. People like Brian McLaren and Steve Knight have been good friends and have helped me personally. I see no reasons to announce a break. But Andrew Jones had some good reasons that I’m not sure I understand. What’s the fuss? Why are people fretting so much over Emergent Village staying together? Are these folk too invested? For all the wrong reasons?
If Emergent is a fad, a bunch of publisher induced hype, if its conversations never really affect a sustainable, tangible progress of God’s justice in the world, we will know soon enough. If on the other hand, the leaders of Emergent work on the ground in real life movements of God in Mission, its fruit will be undeniable. Perhaps this is what Tony Jones is doing? He’s leaving the label to do work on the ground? Perhaps not. I don’t know. But for now I see no reason to worry about him or Emergent, just encourage him and everyone in it towards faithfulness in mission by the Holy Spirit. Perhaps this is what TSK is getting at for himself when he expresses “the need for some of us to move on from the label and get on with the job.” If so bravo!
On the Organic Church:
When Mark Galli starts worrying over at CT and Out of Ur about the demise of Organic church, I ask why fret? He worries “about the energetic men and women at the forefront of the movement. Will they become embittered and abandon the church, and maybe their God?” Come on? These men and women are working on the ground in real church communities. The fruit of their work will be visible when the time comes. Up until then I am sure these folk are not worried. So why should we be? I like what Neil Cole has to say in response to Galli’s article: “I do not live for success but to follow Christ every day. If, when my life ends, I have only a handful of followers of Jesus that can carry on his work, I will not be ashamed to meet my Lord.”
On the Missional Church:
Much has been written about the problem with the word “missional” (see here for instance). It’s meaning has become diluted. It is being misused as a new market niche in church. A whole synchroblog was created to answer the question “What is Missional?” Some fret about the word losing its meaning. Nonetheless, I personally gravitate towards the Missional movement. I find it rich in theology and history. The word means a lot to me. I admit I get agitated when I have to explain myself a lot more when I use the word, nonetheless I still find it compelling. I think the best tack is what I’ve learned from Bosch, Newbigen, Guder, Hirsch, Frost, Roxburgh and many others: work within the church that God has placed me, be as discerning and thoughtful as I can with the resources God has given, and let the fruit speak for itself. For me, there is already much fruit.
Those of us who publish books, write blogs, and speak at conferences are always tempted to find an image or be part of something marketable. It gives one power with publishers. There’s also some kind of sick enjoyment that comes from seeing our name in print. I have regularly had to nail any such temptations (as meager as the temptations have been) to death. That’s part of my necessary spiritual formation. Sorry, it’s true. Each one of the above “labels” has the potential to attract such spiritually malforming bandwagoning. We should resist such grasping for attention by refusing to worry so much about the sustainability of a movement that may only be a fad. For the seeking of any such attention through any of the above ‘labels’ is a sure sign that we have lost sight of Mission and the “movements” have already become mere fads.