I thought it was about time I wrote something for those of you out there who are “emerging” as new kinds of Christians even though you are not members of “emerging churches” as such; for those of you better classified as “emerging” mavericks within “established churches”.
The forgotten stories of the stayers
I think there are a lot of untold stories out there, stories full of pain and gritty determination, stories more people need to hear. In fact I know that’s the case because I’ve heard a number of such stories from some of you.
It has tended to be in private though. I am very conscious that although much has been written on emerging churches, and a moderate amount has been written on churchless Christians who forsake community altogether, very little has been written about those of you who don’t fit conventional church but choose, for whatever reason, to stay within it. I think a significant reason for this is that the emerging church conversation is heavily weighed towards Missional ecclesiology. We mavericks simply don’t have as much to offer in that area do we? Other than an ecclesiology of endurance! But for what that’s worth that’s just what I am going to offer now.
So why do you choose to stay?
- I know some of you stay simply because you have no other option, other than going solo. It may simply be that no emerging churches are within a commutable distance, and for whatever reason you are not in a position to plant one yourself.
- I know there are others who find even the most innovative emerging churches are still culturally alien, even when they are geographically accessible. I have seen this amongst many post-liberals and converts to Christianity. For you, difference between the established churches and the emerging churches might be a much of a muchness for the time being.
- Then again, maybe you stay for the sake of those close to you, for partners or kids who would be just as alienated in emerging churches as you are in established churches. Maybe your partner is more conservative. Maybe the emerging churches within reach are all young singles focus and do not cater particularly well for young families. Even if your preference is for reflective worship and street mission, it could be your life stage just doesn’t allow for it without neglecting others who’re important to you.
- Maybe you stay simply because you realize that if all the mavericks left the mainstream it would suck the lifeblood out of it all that much quicker. So you choose to stay out of a commitment to serving the whole body of Christ.
Irrespective of the reasons, you find yourself in a community where you experience little in the way of communitas, where it’s a struggle to belong. How to you survive? Or even thrive? Here are a few lessons I have learned over the years:
1. Focus of Jesus. One of the ways people can really come unstuck (and I have seen it happen many times) is to invest too much in overly romantic visions of church. Then fall down when the church lets them down. Two things to remember here: firstly, you are the church as much as anyone else; and secondly, the church is not God, so don’t expect it to be. When this happens, take it as a wake up call that you have begun to idolize church, and repent, that is, re-orientate your focus back to where it should be, on Jesus.
2. Practice Forgiveness. Don’t let anger descend into bitterness. That’s not to say anger is not legitimate at times, but be wary of sinning in that anger. Remember that Jesus calls us to love our enemies – even when they’re family. Remember also that you are not perfect either so if you condemn them for imperfection you condemn yourself.
3. Critique constructively. There is a place for critique. Just make sure it is constructive, that is, loving, and seeks the best for everyone.
4. Choose your battles wisely. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Get perspective. I personally invest very little energy in encouraging established churches to shift their worship styles, even when I find running fingers down blackboards more pleasant. There are bigger issues at stake in this day and age.
5. Choose your timing. Similar to the last point, there are times to get fired up and times to just let things slide to more opportune times. Wait for God’s timing and don’t bang your head to hard on brick walls in the interim. Save you noggin for when it counts.
6. Give credit where it is due. Look, not everything about established churches is bad. Constantine is not responsible for all the disasters in world history. Give the establishment some space to sharpen you.
7. Contextualize Christianity for yourself. You may have little scope to practice more culturally sensitive forms of Christianity in church services but who said it was all about church services anyway? It is important to remember that personal worship is featured in the Bible alongside corporate worship. Explore ways of contextualizing Christianity for yourself. But do note what I have previously said on the distinction between this and syncretism.
8. Forge support networks. Don’t think you’re alone. Tap into wider support networks within and beyond your immediate community. I have personally found cell groups, mentors, parachurch networks and affinity groups to be of immense value in surviving church. In fact that is one of the reasons I blog.
9. Take your pain to God in prayer. Don’t seek to do everything in your own strength. Read a psalm then lay your heart out. There is real power in this practice.
10. Look for the extraordinary in the ordinary. Celebrate your small victories. Notice the blessings you do have. Therein lies hope and reassurance.
Maybe you can think of more? Maybe this has touched something in you and you’d like to speak to some more? Remember, if you don’t want to comment publicly you can always email privately. Just don’t think you’re alone.