Jesus walks into a bar …


hebrew-beerIt’s not often you hear of Sydney Archbishop, Peter Jensen, and Emerging Church author, Brian McLaren, being identified as co-leaders in the same ‘extraordinarily diverse and fast-growing Christian movement’ but that’s just what happened in the Sydney Morning Herald last Saturday in an article entitled, ‘Jesus walks into a bar …

My Dad drew my attention to it during my blogging hiatus, wondering if this was the sort of thing I was into. Well, having now read it my answer would have to be yes … and, er, no.

What I mean is, yes, exploring emerging expressions of Christianity is very much what I am into and I certainly identify with ‘some’ of what was explored in this article. I do network with some of the Melbourne based Urban Seed folk, for instance, as well as with Alan Hirsch and other Emerging Church leaders in Australia. But surly it is drawing a long bow to lump Emerging Church and Sydney Anglican experiments all together as part of a single movement as this author does, particularly given the repeated denunciations the Sydney Anglican hierarchy have launched at the Emerging Church movement over recent years.

Sorry, I just find it kinda weird. I mean, I’ve got first hand experience with both sides of the coin here, and having participated in a Sydney Anglican pub experiment in North Sydney … well … what can I say? Let’s just say I ‘ve drunk more booze at Baptist bible studies (seriously!) and was left rather sobered by the experience.

To Zwartz’s credit he does identify ‘two distinct strands’, but his typology of ‘mainstream churches trying variations on a theme’ and ‘a much more radical, iconoclastic reinvention of what it means to be Christian’  obscures as much as it reveals. We are very different, but not necessarily in the ways he describes.

Where should I start? Well, given that many of these more ‘iconoclastic’ Emerging Church experiments are criticised precisely for their reintroduction of icons and candles into Christian spirituality, I find his classification deeply ironic! Iconoclastic? Only if you forget the original meaning of the word! And does it escape Zwartz’s attention that many of these non-‘mainstream’ experiments are just as much under denominational umbrellas as his ‘mainstream’ strand? Are they truly less ‘bible-based’ as is implied? I think not. Not in Australia anyway.

Consider this by way of example, one of the best known Emerging Church experiments in Australia is Small Boat Big Sea, an experimental Christian community associated with Mike Frost, the vice principle of Morling College, the Baptist theological collage in Sydney. He’s hardly what you would describe as disassociated from the mainstream, given his role, or non-Bible based, given his teaching specialty is evangelism. And what about yours truly, where did I pick up my ‘iconoclastic’ style of using tarot imagery in explaining Christian spirituality? From Philip Johnson and Ross Clifford of the Community of Hope, the first whom was lecturing at the Presbyterian Theological College when we first met, and whom now lectures at Morling College, the latter whom is currently the national head of the Baptist Union in Australia. This ‘non-denominational’ anarchist owes his radicalism to the head of a denomination amongst others! LOL.

It is disingenuous to imply we ‘iconoclasts’ are unorthodox, or ‘iconoclastic’ for that matter; that sounds more like reactionary rhetoric to me than anything else. I think the real issue lurking below the surface here is actually the homosexuality debate – specifically, (1) that Sydney Anglicanism uses homosexuality as a litmus test for orthodoxy (more so than the Nicene Creed it would seem at times) and (2) many of the Emerging Church leaders mentioned in this article are aligned with the Uniting Church, a denomination renowned for it’s softer position on homosexuality. So here is a tip from a Sydney Christian: when you hear Jensen, et al, use the phrase, ‘bible-based’, take it as dog-whistle language for ‘no poofs’. I suspect this article may have panned out very differently if ‘iconoclasts’ hailing from more evangelical denominations had been interviewed more extensively. Then we may have been privileged with a glimpse beyond the interdenominational sexual tensions to the true heart of the matter – differing approaches to cultural contextualisation.

But, gay politics aside, surely one of Zwartz’s biggest omissions is the fact that Ruth Powell, the quoted spokesperson of the National Church Life Survey, is the wife of Glen Powell, co-founder of one of the earliest Emerging Church experiments in Australia: Cafe Church in Glebe, Sydney. Was he even aware of it?

All in all, though, I did appreciate the article. I find it fascinating to see how we are perceived (perceptively or otherwise) by the Australian media. With the prominence given to Hillsong, Pell and Jensen, Australians could be forgiven for thinking they represent the only styles of Christianity on the contemporary menu. Despite the problems with this article, I think we can take this as an encouraging sign that some at least are beginning to recognise that Australian Christianity is becoming more diverse along with Australian culture and that not all of us can be shoehorned into the old categories.

13 thoughts on “Jesus walks into a bar …

  1. Good reflections Matty. Although I thought the article was a tad soft. It lacked the ‘missional punch’ that I look for in emerging expressions of church. All in all it tended to leave me a little cold. But I do take your point, its great to have a third voice out there. Chrsitianty in this country is normally associated with those dicky dudes with the stoopid religious hats, or the guys in Gorgio Armani suits.
    Carn the revoloooshun!


  2. Yeah, what we need is a dress code that truly articulates our distinctiveness. What about a Nude Surfing Ministry! A media stunt like should grab some attention. Oh, I forgot, we were outed on that after a previous April Fools Day joke. LOL.


  3. It is good that the stereotypes are being challenged- so long as they are not replaced by other stereotypes- there is a need to keep breaking out of the box….
    So glad it is too cold over here to even contemplate a nude surfing ministry- the joke would be obvious- bet it raised a few eyebrows before people fell in!


  4. I read the article too. I am not entirely sure if it was intended by the author to portray all current outreach experiments (be they obvious EC approaches, Hillsong or Sydney Anglican evangelism) as a homogeneous phenomenon.
    I think that the general theme of the article was about concerted responses to the sociological and theological implications of cultural change.
    However I agree that the “emerging church” vocabulary could have been better nuanced.
    The journalist who wrote the article is Barney Zwartz. He has worked for many years on the Melbourne paper The Age. So “yes” he is acquainted with various Christian leaders and has obviously written about and interviewed Australian churchmen before.
    I believe that he is very familiar with the Christian scene particularly in Melbourne.
    He is a Christian by genuine conviction and a few years ago took on an editorial role in Australian Presbyterian Living Today magazine.
    Barney’s wife is Morag Zwartz and back in the late 1980s she wrote The New Age Gospel: Christ or Counterfeit? Morag’s critical stance on new age relied in part on doctrinal discernment and in part on the conspiracy-paradigm that Constance Cumbey used to interpret new age, current events and end-times prophecy.


  5. Oh Sally, if only that were true! I take it you haven’t heard of the sordid incident then? If you haven’t you really must read on, its a genuine classic! Read my post on ‘full monty emergence‘ then watch the Media Watch video clip. Sit on a solid seat so you don’t fall off. You can go direct to it here.
    I must confess I was the naughty boy who emailed the ABC link to after it screened so they could recirculate the full story around the globe. A source of much mirth at the time, and as you might gather from recent posts, it continues to provide inspiration for me on April Fools Days.


  6. Philip, thanks for filling in the background, gives me more to chew over. Like Alan, what makes me antsy is that the deep missional engagement with the Bible and Christian tradition that some of us ‘iconoclasts’ are working through was lost in the translation. I am wondering how we can explain ourselves better to the Australian media, in a way that’s easily digestible.


  7. I guess part of the problem is that the heterogeneity of the term “EC” makes it very awkward to parse in a simple uncomplicated way in a newspaper column.
    Add to that consider the grave difficulty an observer has of trying to understand the cultural and missional interests in EC if one solely relies on McLaren’s Generous Orthodoxy and the critique of D A Carson — the material gleaned from those two disparate texts would easily skew the portrait.
    If the schismatic motif of denominationalism is to be avoided, then for newspaper purposes the notion of EC probably needs a serious makeover.
    It would need to be described as a network of many networks of groups and individuals who have common affinities and aspirations. These affinities and aspirations coinhere in serious reflective attempts to
    (a). exegete and dialogue in contemporary post-Christendom cultures, and,
    (b). exploring and modelling renovative and missionally-informed experiments to make disciples in social contexts that have been palpably overlooked, misunderstood or unsuccessfully reached by the modern institutions of the western denominational church.


  8. Hysterical Matt, don’t know how I missed out on that one! – oh that we wouldn’t take ourselves so seriously!
    On another point I do worry about the definition of emerging church- it seems anyone can use the label- resulting in utter confusion. We have both emerging church and fresh expressions over here, and whilst fresh expressions is a part of the emerging church scene, they sometimes do and sometimes don’t fit the description- some fresh expressions are little more than slightly more modern worship services, others are radical and refesshing atempts to figure out what it means to be a 21st century church!


  9. You know Sally, I would say that some of what gets labeled as Emerging Church is little more than slightly more (post)modern worship services! Maybe the ‘fresh expressions’ fit better under that label than you give them credit for?
    The missionality of the Emerging Church is more aspirational than concretely realized in my opinion. I think we need to go deeper, and personally I would rather speak of incarnational Christianity, moving forward, than emerging church.
    You see, an ironic situation is developing Down Under in that, while it would seem that (as best as I can verify) I am poised to soon become the second highest ranked Aussie blogger who is still blogging on the Emerging Church out of Australia, I actually attend an ordinary Aussie-style Baptist church on your average Sunday.
    Now it could be argued that the average Aussie church IS an emerging church if an American yard stick were to be used (i.e. some Americans consider Hillsong to be emerging!?) but that is beside the point. I am not IN an Emerging Church per se. Yet the incarnational stuff I do is hardly at the soft end of the spectrum. So I reckon too much is made of the diversity emerging between churches, not enough is made of the diversity emerging within churches. Church planting is not the only way this stuff is percolating to the surface.


  10. I guess the key is not to critisise or seek to label- but simply to encourage folk into truly incarnational living no matter how they want to define themselves!
    Hillsong as Emerging Church- just a moment while I stop laughing- but to be honest I think that is where confusion lies- one Methodist Fresh Expression project in the UK is based around a bakery where people come together everyday to bake bread, to talk and to be together- it is based in Liverpool city centre- and truly missional and incarnational- the bread is made to share with others- very interesting stuff going on there , whilst another is simply a Methodist Church doing Alpha in a home group setting- hardly new! That is why I feel labels are unhelpful….


  11. Hi Sally,
    > “Hillsong as Emerging Church- just a moment while I stop laughing”
    You might be interested to hear that there are plenty of eager young graduates of Southern Cross Bible College (the AOG training facility in Chester Hill, Sydney) with strong EC and Hillsong influences.
    There are going to be some interesting churches cooked up with that mix.


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