OST is closed for business but its spirit survives on my blog.
Tom Sine, The New Conspirators, Conversation I
In his first ‘conversation’ Sine describes the four streams (emerging, missional, mosaic and monastic) that he believes make up the ‘lively edge of what God is doing in our constantly changing society’. He cautions that these are loose definitions, that there is plenty of disagreement among leaders about the characteristics and boundaries of these movements, and that they are in any case for most part experimental and underfinanced - ‘so we need to cut them a little slack’.
The emerging stream is traced back to the UK in the late 1980s and early 1990s when a number of young leaders, variously defining themselves as post-evangelical or postmodern, ‘took initiative to begin the world over again’. The movement was marked by a desire to reflect on culture and faith, a preference for narrative rather than propositional forms of theology, a distrust of the ‘old certainties’ of modernity, a sense of mystery and wonder in worship, a recovery of ancient symbols and practices, and a search for ‘the sacred in the profane’. It has not seen the sort of numerical growth that the house church movement enjoyed in the 1970s and 1980s, but the extent of its influence is immediately apparent at events like Spring Harvest and Greenbelt. Since then the emerging movement has spread to New Zealand, Australia and the US. A number of innovative North American church plants are listed, but there has also been a growing interest among young leaders from mainline denominations.
Sine clearly has trouble extracting a coherent understanding of the emerging church from the spectrum of definitions that are out there. He offers, however, a list of leading characteristics, including the preference fofr ‘gospel as story’, emphasis on the arts, experiential worship, a call to a ‘more authentic, embodied, whole-life faith’, a community orientation to mission, and so on. No one quite knows where the movement is going. The book An Emergent Manifesto of Hope has some thoughtful essays. D.A. Carson has reservations about the writings of Brian McLaren, but if the critics would get to know emerging leaders personally, they would find that many of them ‘actually take Scripture more seriously than some of their detractors in their call for “ortho-praxy” - not only intellectual assent to faith, but a more authentic living out of a biblical faith in believers’ entire lives’.
‘Whereas the emerging church movement was birthed by practioners reinventing the church for a postmodern context, the missional church movement was birthed out of the academy.’ The missional stream has its origins in the work of Lesslie Newbigin, but it is The Gospel and Our Culture Network and the book Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, edited by Darrell Guder and Lois Barrett, that effectively initiated this shift of focus among primarily traditional churches in the US away from internal programmes towards mission. The movement has strong support in US seminaries and has done better at addressing the relevant theological questions than the emerging stream; but interestingly Sine finds the ‘missional’ character more consistently evidenced in emerging churches than in ‘many of the churches that identify with the missional label’.
The mosaic stream is defined by diversity: Hip Hop churches at one end of the scale, large multicultural city churches at the other. ‘God is indeed raising up new conspirators who are determined to create churches that look like God’s multicultural kingdom.’ These churches are characterized, on the one hand, by the ‘rich gifts of different cultures’, and on the other, by a determination to acknowledge a history of prejudice and redress injustices.
This final stream of renewal differs from the other three in that it has no interest in church planting, tends to be represented by an older demographic, and it raises more questions about what it means to ‘be disciples of Jesus, be the church and do the mission of the church’. There are middle class monastics who are drawn principally to the spiritual practices of the movement. And there are groups ‘who view following Christ as living in community, working and living incarnationally with the poor and taking time for serious spiritual practices’. A more recent expression of the monastic stream is the ‘new monastic movement’, which began in Raleigh Durham in 2005. Sine quotes Jason Byasee’s description of the new monastics as ‘living in the corners of the American empire… a harbinger of a new and radically different form of Christian practice’.
This simple summary of the four streams into which Sine’s new conspirators are divided omits the material that makes the analysis lively and interesting - the conspirators themselves, many of whom Sine appears to know personally, and the various conspiratorial things that they have been doing. The conversation reads a little bit like a quick spin around the Google Earth of post-evangelical radicalism, with brief descriptions of salient names and organizations popping up and quickly vanishing.
The analysis seems fair, though clearly the boundaries between the four categories are permeable. It’s important to recognize that the label ‘emerging church’ as it is currently employed does not do justice to the full breadth of the ‘lively edge’ of renewal. But I wonder, then, what we should call the ‘conspiracy’ as a whole, the four streams combined. I still like to think of these various developments as the more explicit signs of a church that is broadly and slowly emerging from the Christendom paradigm.