Missio Dei - Evangelicalism and the New Politics
June 12th 2014, University of Chester
In this paper I will look at the key performance indicators that tend to be the major drivers within UK Evangelicalism. With this in mind I intend to consider the following:
1) How the evangelical model is primarily 'aspirational' and how this creates distinct markers that suggest to leaders and their congregations how human beings should be valued. Whilst this value is often presented as being viewed through the work of Christ upon the cross it is more likely to be seen in terms of an individual's usefulness to the vision.
2) How judgements are made about the success of a church, it's leaders, their vision, and the programmes they produce, based upon assumptions driven not primarily by key theological or ecclesiological factors but by both the aspirational model and the quantitative measurements as part of these key performance indicators.
3) The impact that the above has upon the mission of the church and its relationship to a social context. How such measurements present the church as a lifeboat as opposed to a city on a hill. In doing so value is linked more with crisis than community: people become commodities in the mission rather than participants in the community.
4) I will conclude with an outline of how the post-modern or emergent willingness to see deconstruction as a prophetic act shapes not only churches that embrace such labels but the wider evangelical conversation.
In doing so I hope to show an alternative method of measurement that seeks to incarnate the gospel towards having a positive social impact.
Context - What is evangelicalism?
There was a day, not too many decades ago, when this was perhaps an easier question to answer than it might seem today. Following the suggested exclusion of notable figures such as Rob Bell (1), in the US, and Steve Chalke (2), in the UK, it seems that some would have us believe that evangelicalism is a well defined theological landing point.
Rather than a singularly defined place, however, it is in my opinion more of a continuum of belief and practice. It would seem that the very fact of being able to call oneself a 'conservative' evangelical would open up the possibility of using the descriptions 'moderate' and 'liberal'. In this regard the majority of evangelicals will find people who are either conservative or liberal when viewed from their own perspective. Individuals have a tendency to describe their own position as the 'centre' or 'correct' place to stand.
The ease with which some in the evangelical world use the word heretic to describe those with whom they disagree tends to present a benchmark orthodoxy that simply does not exist. I would suggest that with the passage of time we see more of an 'evangelical morphodoxy' rather than an agreed orthodoxy.
Having said this there are some things we can say about evangelicalism in the UK, highly influenced by the USA, with regard to the perceived markers of success.
i) Evangelicalism tends to be 'aspirational'
It is not hard to see this aspirational model in the 'redemption and lift' (3) aspects of inner city evangelical churches. Converts are made and then through a combination of discipleship programmes, group feel, and healthier lifestyles people are encouraged to feel that they can 'better themselves' in terms of education, career, and wealth creation.
In many of the larger churches, and the conferences they promote, a sense of 'you too can have this' is suggested in the preaching and the writing of key leaders. The resemblance to pyramid selling or multi-layer marketing is worth noting here; mainly because it is the success of the few that fuels the dreams of the many.
ii) Key Performance Indicators (KPI's)
As churches grow in the development of their programmes and influence they often adopt business practices that seem to have been well proven in secular contexts. At a base level this is not altogether wrong but there are times when such methodologies are not as easily transferable as is sometimes suggested.
Although very rarely presented in an overt way it is not too difficult to see clear KPI's in operations within some of the larger churches in the country. This is significant because these are often presented as the gold standard to which smaller churches should aspire.
These KPI's would include: Numerical Growth, Individual Decisions Made, Theological Consensus, Agreed Narrative, and Accepted Praxis.
Evangelical churches are looking to grow numerically. Members are encouraged, and sometimes cajoled, into bringing other people to church. I have been in meetings where the senior leader has asked the congregation 'how many people have you brought to church over the last year?'
In addition I would suggest that it is not unusual for church leaders to employ 'double counting' in presenting their churches as probably more successful than they are by counting attendees of Sunday morning and evening services without clarification of how many of them are present at both meetings.
Individual Decisions Made
There is a culture of meetings concluding with an altar call drawing people to make either first time commitments or re-commitments. My own experience of these altar calls suggests that they are somewhat patchy in regard to what people are being asked to respond to and how they are subsequently measured and reported. Calling people to respond to receive prayer because they are 'feeling empty' is one thing but when this is recorded and reported as a person 'responding to the gospel' it is quite another.
Fifty years ago declaring that 'this church believes.....' may have seemed a fairly straightforward activity. Since the growing influence of post-modernity I would suggest that this is less of a fruitful exercise. For sure a group can produce a perceived homogeneity in terms of the accepted belief by preaching in a way that suggest dissenting voices will not be tolerated or by removing such voices from the group; as we have seen with Bell and Chalke. This does not mean that homogeneity exists however. It is more likely that individuals will either appear to conform by remaining silent or will choose to remove themselves from the group; either way it can become an almost self-fulfilling prophecy - a Franklin's Gambit (4).
Within evangelicalism there is unspoken code suggesting how individuals are to tell their faith stories. Such narratives should follow a pattern of 'I used to be sad or bad but then I met Jesus and now all is well'. In this environment participants with either retell their stories in a way that fits with the pattern or repress any aspects that do not comply.
There are those that comply and those that don't! And church leaders decide which are deemed to be acceptable. This could include moral or ethical issues but invariably acceptable behaviour is seen as habits that help to fulfil the vision of the church.
A recent tweet by a church leader expresses this perfectly 'in church in the will of God. Simple!' (5)
The link suggested between attendance, giving, serving, and conformity is so ingrained in the evangelical subculture it is often overlooked.
So preachers challenge their congregations not to be 'pew filling Christians' but to be 'true disciples. Yes this still happens. I heard it again recently on a podcast sermon from a church leader in Norwich. (6)
iii) Revenue streams
I would add a further point here but it doesn't necessarily affect all evangelical churches. It is however a potential problem for all groups given the aspirational model described earlier. When churches are being driven to grow numerically, increase their influence, and develop their stock of properties it can lead to a need to increase the number of revenue streams that are in place.
The issue here is that every service becomes a possible revenue stream and therefore it can take on a whole new meaning. I had a senior leader confess to me that he wished he could cancel his church's Sunday evening meeting but was unable to do so because they relied upon the offering.
This was not said out of wrong motives or cynicism but out of a genuine sense of responsibility for the commitments they had.
The Queen thinks the world smells of magnolia paint
Some years ago I was working on an RAF base in Norfolk close to where we lived. I happen to be there about a week before the visit of the Queen. As part of her tour around the base she was due to inspect one of the married quarters which sat close to the main entrance.
My contact invited me to take a look at the house that had been prepared for this VIP visitor. It seems the RAF were keen to show her majesty how this section of her loyal servants lived.
The room, of course, had been given somewhat of a makeover in order to create a good impression; new carpets, freshly laid lawn (borrowed from a local cricket pitch), a chandelier in the lounge. In addition to this the toilet that had been soundproofed just in case HRH needed to spend a royal penny.
Of course it goes without saying that whole house had been repainted: mostly with magnolia paint. This kind of unreality is what the Queen experiences everywhere she goes.
Each of numerous hospital wards, charity buildings, factories, and other assorted venues will have been freshly painted just prior to her visit. Hence the phrase 'The Queen thinks the whole world smells of paint'. I added the word magnolia after my visit to the RAF base and magnolia being the standard cover-all colour of choice by builders and decorators up and down the United Kingdom.
It is not directly the queens fault of course; the Palace doesn't demand cricket pitch standard lawns and soundproofed toilets. In addition she cannot truly know what she doesn't know.
In a similar way each of us 'smells' or views the world in our own unique way and we don't completely know how other people perceive things.
Now consider this in the relationship between church leaders and congregation members. If measurement looks like the picture describe above then it is highly likely that people will present their lives as fitting with suggested requirements of the church.
Attendance, responses to appeals, assent to theological stances, telling of one's faith story in the pattern demanded, and the appearance of acceptable practice become part of the magnolia paint that people are likely to use in order to make it feel to the leaders that all is in keeping with their stated vision.
Skilled leaders will actively seek to produce a culture of honesty in their congregations so that they 'smell' the magnolia paint when it is added. I speak of honesty here not in terms of morality or ethics but what is often called 'situational honesty'. People may well be morally true but still unable to reveal what they truly think because of the social pressures of the group.
The possible results of evangelical KPI's
Here I will highlight some of the possible results of the KPIs I have describe above. This is not an exhaustive list and only represents my observations but I do think that it could be useful in initiating the kind of conversation that leads to a healthier situation.
Having a too heavy emphasis on numerical growth can lead to what I have called 'private evangelicalism' in some congregation members. People may well agree with the theological positions stated by the church but in practice they may have stopped actively engaging in inviting other people to the church. Using the pyramid selling metaphor they have exhausted their initial list of people they have influence over (their low hanging fruit) and now they settle in to attendance without feeling the need to make conversations about church with those who do not attend.
Individual Decisions Made
During the earlier periods of a church plant it may well be that there are a good number of new people attending who are ready to respond to a clearly presented gospel message. As this number declines the need to offer appeals at the end of a meeting can drive the leaders to widen their pulpit calls to include a variety of felt needs. Here people respond to 'feeling lonely' or 're-committing themselves' to God. This can easily become what Pete Rollins has called a religious addiction (7).
During a recent debate the elder statesman of the charismatic house church movement tried to convince me that the Evangelical Alliance spoke for all two million UK evangelicals. It is hard to imagine a more preposterous suggestion in that neither EA nor individual church leaders can truly say they speak on theological matters for all of their congregations. People join, attend, remain at, and leave churches for a variety of reasons. Very few are because either the preachers is good/bad or because of some stated theology. In this regard any comfort that leaders find in a sense of theological consensus needs to be handled carefully lest they think that the smell of magnolia paint represents the true aroma of their world.
My daughter attended a large church conference and in her description of what took place she said there were 'plenty of trophy testimonies'. I quizzed her further and she revealed that many of the stories on offer where various versions of the usual well packaged positive salvation and lift message. This of course does not make them false but it does continue to suggest that these types of experiences are the only ones that have currency in the church.
When was the last time you heard someone share a story that didn't end with a nicely packaged ending. If someone has not been healed would we welcome their story of doubt and darkness. I would suggest not. I am reminded of Leonard Cohen's line in the song Hallelujah: 'love is not a victory march, it's a cold and very broken hallelujah'.
One wonders whether in this side of eternity all of our hallelujahs are both broken and beautiful. They are certainly not all welcome to be expressed in many evangelical churches.
I recently heard the comedian Jeremy Hardy (8) speaking about the Christian Union at his university. His painted a picture of a group that was insular, highly sexualised, and essentially dysfunctional. He could of course be biased but on reflection I am not so sure. I was considering this when thinking about my own youth group back in the 1970's. It was full of really genuine people but it also had its fair share of dysfunctionality. Only an average number of original couples that eventually married are still together all these decades later.
I don't say this as a criticism but that what we have often found is that in an attempt to conform people will likely hide all manner of behaviour patterns that are deemed as unacceptable to the group. Many of these would not be seen as problematic in the wider community but in the church they are the things that are not easily admitted.
Added to this is conflation of 'commitment to God' and 'adherence to the church' that often happens. The 'A' team in many evangelical churches are those who have regular attendance, who tithe, who serve in various ways, and whose lives appear to be in order.
All of the above, I would suggest, help create a three phase engagement pattern of individuals within a local church.
Three Phases of Engagement
"Without a vision the people perish" (9) so goes the oft (mis)quoted biblical proverb. In our church experience it has been used by leaders to suggest that 'the' vision of the church leader(s), and therefore the church, is worth fighting for; it is possibly even more important than the hopes, dreams, and lives of the individual church members.
Paul Scanlon, who for many years headed up the Abundant Life Church in Bradford, England, wrote in his book 'Crossing Over' (10) about his vision of moving from their existing building to a larger complex built on their campus site. He spoke in a sermon about those who left the church during this period and used the phrase 'we lost them in the car park'.
Paul isn't alone in finding it preferable to overlook the stories of those who seem resist to change. There are countless times that my wife and I have been at leaders meetings and felt the surge of power invested in the delegates to return to their pulpits and join Isaiah in setting their faces 'like flint' (11) in ignoring the dissenting voices in our congregations in order to fulfil our destiny: the metaphors and narratives might change but the meanings don't.
Mark Driscoll the controversial leader of Mars Hill Church in Seattle stated that 'there are a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus' in describing how commitment to the vision is more important than the needs of dissenting voices. (12)
Over time we became increasingly weary of such teaching as we realised that it didn't really resonate with the picture we see in Jesus who would not only 'lay down his life' (12) for his sheep but would willingly leave the ninety-nine in order to find the individual who had become lost (14).
On considering both our own experiences and the stories told to us by others we have begun to see several patterns emerge in many of the scenarios where the vision has been held up as the highest reference point for success.
It is worth noting that church engagement is not a single entity; it is certainly not an upward journey of increased adherence. This is, of course, true of all human organisations but has particular resonance for our church context. I would like to suggest that there exists an organisational entropy when it comes to a person's engagement to a group, community, or vision. Most of the models that I have seen explaining how to secure human engagement tend to paint a picture of an onward and upward journey toward increased adherence. I am not sure that this is either possible, or even perhaps desirable.
I would want to suggest a three phase journey experienced within a community:
Each of these phases have particular narratives, drivers, and feelings associated with them.
Phase 1 - Enthusiastic
In this phase the church member tends to believe in the vision expressed by the leaders. They are immune to, or choose to ignore, many of the ways that leaders act that cause disengagement in those in the other phases.
When leaders speak in hyperbole they choose to nod in agreement and repeat the messages to new people. When they are asked 'what's not to like about this?' they cannot think of anything but a positive response.
In churches that have a tendency to be highly driven by vision there is often little room for doubt to be expressed. Sermons might contain conversation halting statements like 'you cannot out give God'. In this context any questions raised about the church tithing policy are painted as representing a lack of faith.
In addition membership, or commitment to the church vision, is conflated with faithfulness to God and so it is not rare to hear statements like 'if you are not in church you are not in the will of God' (15). Again this stops honesty and further discussion by placing a heavy weight on disagreement. Now you are not just disagreeing with the church you are disagreeing with God. (16)
There are several possible reasons why those in phase 1 find it easy to ignore what seems obvious to others. Sometimes it is because of the promise of perceived benefits to be found within churches that adopt an aspirational model. It likely will be suggested that adherence to the vision will result in the possibility of the individual's personal vision or goal being fulfilled; leading a team, speaking from a platform, playing in the worship band or the like. The model often fails because it tends to adopt the same numbers game model used by TV talent shows. That is; promise enough people personal fulfilment and a few will have the talent or gifts to make the dream a reality. These then become the trophies of success that encourage others to believe in the process.
In addition to this are other motivational factors such as the need to belong or the desire to be part of something successful. Again it is hard to resist the comparison with pyramid selling schemes at this point.
Whilst the individual's journey is progressing towards the aspirational goal it will be relatively easy to ignore what those in other phases find difficult.
This enthusiasm and adherence is fuelled because leaders will encourage those who appear to be in phase 1 by including in them in conversations, valuing their input, and involving them in what appears to be an inner circle; at least at a surface level.
Phase 2 - Realistic
I would suggest that it is almost impossible to remain in phase 1 for an extended period of time. In fact most leaders do not reside in the Enthusiastic phase even if they appear to do so. Pete Rollins (17) speaks of this when he highlights the presence of twin, competing narratives within organisations. The headline narrative of a church, he says, might be 'God heals' but the unspoken or hidden narrative that most people, including the leaders, really live by is 'God heals: but if you are really sick go to the hospital'.
In the realistic stage there is a greater influence upon the individual from this unspoken narrative. The dissonance between the message from the platform and what people see in practice becomes harder to ignore. The outward behaviour of people in this phase may at times still look like that of the inhabitants of phase 1 but internally questions are being raised and the process of disengagement has begun.
Even so people in this stage will still likely stay in the church. This is driven by a variety of factors. It might be that the fear of being rejected might hold them to the group. This in turn is fuelled by the leadership's well-defined descriptions of what is 'in' and what is 'out'. Added to this are the oft pejorative descriptions of what the 'other' looks like. The implication is that other church's are not where the real blessing is to be found.
Sometimes people stay because of the possible effects upon other family members or because they may well be on church staff and so are tied financially to the vision.
Leaders, if they perceive this is happening, will tend to treat this group differently that those in the previous phase. Rather than people feeling included they will have a sense of being used to fulfil the vision. Their value is therefore linked with their usefulness to the ultimate goal.
Any hints of dissension will be tolerated because it is likely to be hinted at rather than overtly stated. Behaviour that does not fit with the standard set as the norm will be challenged from the platform. We were in a large church some while ago and the senior leader announced from the platform that '161' people had arrived at least two minutes late for church that morning (18). The congregation were then 'encouraged' to give their full commitment to God; in essence conflating church attendance with obedience to God.
If this narrative dissonance is not acknowledge by the leaders and steps made to address the issues caused it will not be long before the member moves into Phase 3 and becomes apathetic.
Phase 3 - Apathetic
With an increasing sense of awareness of the narrative dissonance described above it is almost certain that people will find the need to disconnect emotionally from the central vision of the church.
People will have a greater awareness of feeling like a commodity in the process of moving towards the vision. Seeing others being 'lost in the car park' tends to make those who remain feel used too. How you treat those who leave has a direct effect upon those who stay.
Leaders will often ignore or even demonise those who are in phase 3 in an attempt to create a narrative that undermines any complaints that they might raise. Once someone is painted in a bad light it is easier to ignore their voice.
Because people in this phase may find it hard to hide their true feelings they are likely to be described in pejorative terms such as divisive or negative; possible even worse.
Eventually, if employed, they will be dismissed. If a lay member they will be discouraged from having a voice thus making it almost impossible for them to stay. In a sense this is like the ecclesiological version of constructive dismissal.
It will feel as if the only two choices they are left with is to either remain silent but internally disconnected or to leave the church altogether.
In the above I am not suggesting that the motives of the leaders are always in question. I think the wider culture of theological training, denominational fervour, and leadership teaching encourages the behaviour described.
Whether fair motives or foul, however, the result is that individuals and families are sometimes sacrificed on the alter of achieving the vision: even if we just call it losing them in the car park.
Both the aspirational model and the key performance indicators used to govern our appreciation of success have an effect upon how individuals see themselves and how they value others.
The KPI's take what appear to be transferable ideas from the business world and project them upon the church. Part of the problem is that they appear to be the most useful or direct approach to church 'success'. This is often a mistake in business and it is certainly problematic when it comes to church.
Professor John Kay from Warwick University covers this in his excellent book Obliquity (19). He looks at how business that make the most direct objective their goal often remain unsuccessful. For example those companies that make profit their main aim do not fair well in making a profit.
In contrasts he suggests that business that make other things their main goal, producing good equipping, providing an excellent service, often find themselves making a profit. In order to make his point he says that the 'happiest people are not those who seek to be happy'.
He takes this idea further by proposing that companies that make greed an essential part of their culture are often ruined by the greed of their own employees.
Here perhaps lays the problem with evangelical churches that aim to do the most obvious things, for example grow numerically and generate good income, they often fail to produce a sustainable model of church that people want to remain in.
Conversely churches that look to create a healthy culture may in fact see the kind of surprising growth and income that results in people being attracted to the church community.
This is not to suggest that the task becomes simple but that the culture will no longer be influenced by the usual and direct KPI's but by the broader goal.
It seems, according John Kay, that the oblique approach may be more effective than the direct aim.
I would describe the three main motifs in the standard evangelical approach as: Growth, Notoriety, and Franchise.
As we have seen there is a pressure for churches to grow numerically.
Even when churches are relatively small it is the larger churches that often provide the suggested goal.
In terms of the pressure to be noticed within our local communities, and sometimes wider community, in order to display an alternative community.
In the way that leaders look for models that become blueprints for their own practice. This fits with the aspirational idea described above where smaller churches seek to emulate the patterns seen in the larger churches.
This is often modelled in the way that larger churches often plant new churches that display more of a franchise approach than an incarnational one. In business it would result in every outlet serving the same sized chips. In a church context it tends to be seen in the choice of songs, presentation style, and programmes.
In response to this I would want to offer the challenge of the pattern I see in the way of Christ:
i) Growth v Death
Where we might look for Growth in evangelicalism it could be said that Christ took the way of death. This counter intuitive approach is not just seen in the cross but bit the kenosis where we see the second person of the Trinity letting go of all that would define (20).
In here we might find the dying to live metaphors displayed by Christ (21).
ii) Notoriety v Hiddeness
Where we might look for our churches to have notoriety we see in Christ a distinct sense of hiddenness. It is hard to resist the idea that if God in Christ wanted to be noticed it might have been better to be incarnated at a time when the internet had been invented. As it is the majority of people on the planet at the time of Christ's death and resurrection had not heard of him and would not have been offered salvation by the time of their own deaths. In many ways he was just another trouble causer on a roman cross.
Here we might see his dismissal as the carpenters son (22).
iii) Franchise v Incarnation
When reading the gospel narratives I am often struck by the distinct lack of methodology employed by Jesus when he encounters people in dialogue, healing, and debate.
Even when teaching on the kingdom it is easy to get a sense that he is at one point suggesting that the Kingdom of God is like some scattered seed (23). Then before his followers could build the First Church of the Scattered Seed he suggest it might be like a single mustard seed (24). It is almost as if Jesus is saying there isn't a code but their is a counsellor.
The Emergent Need to Question
It is fair to say that evangelicalism has had several reactions to the deconstructionism of the emergent conversation. Some have been offended; as if God should not be questioned. Others have been shaken; as if the whole of their belief in God might be brought into question.
Now in the main the emergent part of evangelicalism has not produced churches or networks comparable with the kind of churches that the KPI's suggest as successful.
This has meant that some have concluded that the emergent church is dead; or at the very least terminally ill. It's not unusual to see commentators describe it as 'the failed emergent experiment' as if a few of us tried to do things differently and had no perceivable effect.
Recently during a Facebook debate with the charismatic church elder statesman Gerald Coates on the LGBT issue he told me that the 'liberal' church was on the decline. The context of the debate, where some of us emergent evangelicals challenged his stand against marriage equality, reveals that he wasn't taking about good old fashioned liberals here but this new brand of progressives and inclusivists that are no longer willing to tow the party line.
So is the emergent church a 'failed experiment'? Are liberal evangelical voices on the decline?
Here are just a few thoughts:
1) It is important to note here how new movements tend to see themselves within the context of the general culture that they are trying to critique. In addition we need to see how the prevailing seats of power respond to these voices.
The recently deceased British politician Tony Benn spoke of how new ideas are treated by the established power base:
"It's the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you're mad, then dangerous, then there's a pause and then you can't find anyone who disagrees with you."
Although his remarks were made about the general political and social scene there does seem to be something of a familiar ring to them.
During the early 70's the Charismatic Movement in Britain was fighting for its place in the wider church by suggesting that every new 'wave' of God is resisted by the previous one. In support of this argument they showed how Methodists rejected Salvationist, who rejected Pentecostals who were (at that point) rejecting the Charismatic Movement.
I would suggest that Benn's statement could be somewhat true at each of these stages. At first the charismatic churches were ignored, then called crazy. They were soon declared as evil only to find themselves within a few years as key players within British evangelicalism. (To be fair this does not quite equate with acceptance by everybody as Benn suggests but I think the wider point is valid)
Yet here we are all this time later and key establishment figures like Gerald (in fact just recently his Facebook status declared that he had just been invited to Downing Street for talks with the Prime Minister) are re-enacting something of the very scene that they experienced all those years ago; this time against progressive/liberal evangelicals (often known as emergent).
I haven't seen any evidence that Gerald and other critical voices have acknowledged this example of history repeating itself.
2) At the moment very few liberal/progressive/inclusive evangelical commentators are self identifying as 'emergent'. I suspect it is because, as often happens with labels, the word has lost some of its original meaning. After all there was a point when the self proclaimed defender of 'real' marriage Mark Driscoll was described as emergent.
In the earlier days of the conversation many people gathered around the idea of deconstruction (sometimes demolishing) the perceived norms found within the traditional evangelical places of safety. Of course being drawn together by an agreed dissatisfaction with the status quo does not mean that everyone will agree on where one should land after the conversations have been had.
Some have revised there positions to remain within the structures that they critiqued. Some have used terms such as missional to offer an understanding of how the methods might change whilst the trajectory remains the same. Others have cut loose from the pain of rejection and found a home in other parts of the church more traditional understood as liberal. There are some of course who have wandered away from a formal expressions of church completely.
Now I don't completely hold with the narrowness of the old charismatic argument that suggests that the new wave is always resisted by the previous one. I think it has something interesting to say but it tends to suggest that God is only working in one way at any given moment. It think this was a little presumptuous back in the 70's and is still so now.
I do think however that what many are seeing as the 'failure' of the emergent movement could be what Benn describes as the 'Pause'. After all we have been ignored, we have been described as both mad and dangerous.
3) I also think that part of the DNA of the emergent disquiet with the status quo was to redefine the markers of ecclesiological success.
When someone who sees church success as being primarily, but not exclusively, large numbers, a visible presence, a seat at societies debating table, looks at the emergent church they will no doubt feel justified in declaring it a failure.
Although I cannot speak for everyone I do know that some of us have come to the conclusion that our goal is, in keeping with an incarnational motif, more about hiddenness rather than notoriety.
During Jesus' lifetime the majority of people on the planet were unaware of either his existence or his teaching. Even within his own culture the significance of his presence was not fully understood.
In stark contrast to this are the usual markers of church success in a charismatic, Pentecostal, evangelical context. The goal seems to be distinction, size, excellence, and popular fashion. Churches are counted as successful if they are growing numerically and produce presentational excellence; with large screens, pa systems, and lights. Added to this is the regular challenge for individuals to be distinct from the world around.
This may not be true of all, or even most of the charismatic and pentecostal churches but when one considers the influence of larger churches upon the rest we would do well to recognise the aspirational nature of this context. The language, markers, models, processes, and visions of the larger churches are presented as the gold standard in many quarters.
So the pressure on many church leaders is to produce an alternative to the culture within which they work. Church youth clubs are funded rather than supporting existing local community venture. Departments and programs become feeds leading toward the centre; the church congregation.
In contrast to this I would like to suggest that the incarnation is more about emersion within the community rather than separation from it. Perhaps building bridges rather than walls represents the way of Christ.
The gospel message in the usual context sounds like an invitation for those, outside, to come, inside, and become like us. An incarnational message is more about a journey taken by the church towards the community. So if you judge the emergent church by whether it is being noticed, or by the use of the label, or by whether it has produced large vocal churches you might well conclude that it has indeed failed.
You would do well to consider, however, that the questions that we have raised and the conclusions we have drawn are out there. They are in the minds of many of the people who fill more traditional evangelical, charismatic, and pentecostal churches. They might not vocalise it because to do so might be too much of a risk. You might think that they all agree with your stated evangelical set of beliefs but I am not too sure. So has it failed? I am not so sure we have! We might just be in the 'pause', described by Tony Benn, waiting for whatever comes next. We might be surprised by the revolution that has already taken place.
As we have seen the aspirational model described above cannot work because the suggested aspiration cannot be achieved by everyone. The larger churches often run academies and internships that tend to attract people from other churches who wish to serve in a larger environment. From this pool a smaller group is creamed off the top to produce a few key leaders, worship leaders, and musicians leaving the rest to fulfil their 'reasonable act of service' (25) in less visible ways. In essence they become commodities in the system.
It is interesting to consider that even though larger churches are presented as the gold standard most smaller congregations would not have the talent pool to produce the suggested high quality performance.
In this environment success is seen as primarily numerical growth with the other factors as a supporting cast. Church members become 'sales agents' and people in the wider community become 'potential customers'.
Members who do not conform are looked upon with disdain and people in the community who do not convert are seen as 'out'. Value is therefore no longer an ontological fact but it is linked to behaviour.
Rather than the growth of a healthy community in which people can be honest and order their attendance in accordance with their personal circumstances, we have visionary endeavours that see individuality as an inconvenience that needs to be dealt with.
Perhaps, somewhat counter-intuitively, the direct approach may well be producing a culture that is at odds with the kingdom inaugurated by Jesus Christ.
What is required is a re-evaluation of the KPI's used to describe success and a restatement of the ontological value of every person in light of the imago dei. Perhaps then the idea of more holistic missio dei will be more well placed.
(1) John Piper's tweet declaring 'Farewell Rob bell' following the publication of his book 'Love Wins'
(2) The removal of Oasis Trust from the membership of the Evangelical Alliance - http://www.eauk.org/current-affairs/media/press-releases/oasis-trust-membership.cfm
(3) "Redemption and lift" coined by Donald McGavran as quoted in 'Conspiracy of Kindness: A Unique Approach to Sharing the Love of Jesus' By Steve Sjogren pg 97
(4) Described by Professor John Kay of Warwick University - http://www.johnkay.com/2010/03/20/decision-making-john-kays-way
(5) Derek Smith - King's Church, Bolton - @derek_smithno1
(6) Goff Hope - King's Church, Norwich - part of the Newfrontiers network
iTunes - Podcasts - King's Community Church: Sundays at City ...
(7) Pete Rollins - The Contemporary Church is a Crack house
(8) Jeremy Hardy being interviewed at Greenbelt
(9) Proverbs 29:18
(10) Crossing Over: Getting to the Best Life Yet by Paul Scanlon Thomas Nelson
(11) Isaiah 50:7
(12) Mark Driscoll - Sermon
(13) John 15:13
(14) Luke 15:4
(15) Derek Smith - King's Church, Bolton - @derek_smithno1
(16) Dr. Robert J. Lifton - Criteria for Thought Reform
(17) Pete Rollins speaking at the Greenbelt Festival
(18) Charlotte Gambill - Following a sermon by Andy Hawthorn of the Message Tribe at Life Church, Bradford
(19) 'Obliquity: Why Our Goals are Best Achieved Indirectly' John Kay Penguin Books
(20) The kenosis described in Philippians 2
(21) John 12:24
(22) Mark 6:3
(23) Mark 4:26
(24) Matthew 13:31
(25) Romans 12:1