Essay / Culture

Emergent Allergies: Bigger is Better

If anything, for emerging churches, smaller is better. But why? Like any renewal movement in the church, the emerging church movement hearkens back to the good ol’ days of Acts 2. These were days of community, economic simplicity and radical discipleship, days when the church was the church and the world was the world. But, these were also days when ‘the Lord was adding daily to the number of those who were being saved.’ Funnily enough, there seems to be an emergent allergy to numerical growth.

What’s wrong with growth? A little history helps here. It seems that a disproportionate number of emerging church leaders were once leaders of or heavily involved in seeker churches. Here, in distinctly modern (or late capitalistic) fashion, the consumer (aka ‘seeker’) encountered a niche church whose method of outreach focused on meeting felt needs and making church more attractive and less, well, weird. Now, there’s a lot of bad-weird in the church that deserves dumping. But, there’s a lot of good-weird, too. In titling one of his books The Word Made Strange, John Milbank reminds us that, maybe, the Word is too much with us. It is so familiar that we have become immune to it.

What we (both those within and those without the church) really need is defibrillation. We need to be shocked back into an awareness of the strangeness of God — a God who, yes, meets our needs, but one who does that through the horror of a state terror device. He’s a God who blesses by killing. And, according to many emerging churches, seekers do not need pacifying or coddling or even cuddling. They need to be confronted with the gospel in all its richness, strangeness, pageantry and glory. ‘So,’ the line runs, ‘let’s so be the church that people will be nervous about joining us, that they’ll understand how serious the call is, even as they see the wonder and joy of life in the kingdom.’ A far cry from the ‘let’s entertain them and hope no one notices we’re a church’ model, to be sure.

Emerging churches discern a dichotomy at work in big (let’s call them mega-) churches. You get bigger, or you get better. But you can’t have both. This need not be the case, of course; and so the dichotomy is ultimately false. But if you see it play out enough, you start to buy it. So, many emerging pastors adopt a philosophy of ministry that is merely the mirror of the seeker churches they left. Instead of bigger, they opt for better; but the basic assumption that you can’t have both bigger and better in the same church holds. Where seeker churches siphoned off discipleship for the sake of evangelism, emerging churches too frequently avoid evangelism in their zeal to be a community of discipleship.

And so, to mention another form of this allergy, ‘church growth’ is a four-letter word for many emerging churches. In addition to some of the reasons above, church growth feels to these churches like the domestication of the converting work of the triune God into fool-proof techniques. (That is, if you follow these steps carefully enough, you won’t need the Holy Spirit!) Emerging pastors have had enough experience with egomaniacal church leaders to wonder whether growing a church isn’t as much a function of narcissism (‘my church has 2000 people on a Sunday, and seven services!’) as it is a desire to see people worship God in spirit and truth.

But at the end of the day, emerging churches fear numbers too much. Too many of them have bought into a false dichotomy of quality and quantity. They have seen seeker churches with all of the latter and none of the former, and think the only option it to pursue the former and disdain the latter. With all the necessary caveats in place (praying a prayer does not a disciple make), lots of people trusting in Jesus and living a kingdom-oriented life is a good thing. Furthermore, their (laudable) emphasis on close, authentic community can quickly descend into an insular clique ironically disengaged from the world. Here is where the missional emphasis of the emerging churches saves the day. The missional church lives ecstatically — literally, it lives by and in being drawn out of itself as the Father sends it out in the power of the Spirit and in Jesus’ name to love and serve in the world. Many emerging churches follow this pattern beautifully in a way that suits their neighborhood and their God. But some run the risk of thinking and talking so much about what they’re about (or even what they’re not about) that the gift and task of mission is forgotten.

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