Explaining Emerging (Part 5) – Ancient / Future

Today, I will briefly reflect on another recurring theme in emerging circles – it is that of being “ancient / future”. That is to say we look to the church’s past to guide us for its future. Now it could be argued that most evangelicals do this to some extent or the other, often looking back to a “golden age” of the church for inspiration. So reformed Christians might look back to the time of the Reformers, or the Puritans, Pentecostals look back to Asuza street, and Restorationists have sought to follow the example of the earliest church in the book of Acts.

But emergents have turned the focus to parts of church history less familiar to many evangelicals. So for example, the prayers of Celtic Christians, the liturgies of eastern orthodoxy and the meditations of Christian mystics would be the sort of source material used for an emerging service. The creeds of the early church fathers are also considered very important, and the use of “icons” is becoming more prevalent. They are more likely to be in tune with the “Christian calendar”, observing its seasons and days and following its pattern of Scripture readings in their meetings. The liturgy rejected as dead ritual by many evangelical churches is being reintroduced, albeit often with a modern twist.

Why this look to the past? The stereotypical evangelical response is that we don’t need to look to church history except to learn from its mistakes – it is the Bible that sets our pattern. But in these ancient writings the emerging Christian finds the depth of spirituality that they feel is lacking in the superficiality of what they have found in evangelicalism. They are looking for “deep church” that helps them in their “spiritual formation”. Spiritual formation is essentially the fancy new name encompassing a Christian’s discipleship, sanctification and private devotional life. Emerging churches recognise it as so important that they are increasingly appointing “spiritual directors” to help church members in their walk with God. Some emerging churches are going so far as to experiment with new monastic communities, with houses where Christians can devote themselves to prayer and serving the poor.

If my experience of church is anything to go by, I would say that the influence of previous generations does seem to be weakening in many evangelical churches. The old hymns are no longer sung, and the only authors being read are those who top the Wesley Owen best-seller list. It is this vacuum of historical context that the emerging appreciation of ancient Christianity is seeking to fill. There are of course many in evangelical churches (often Anglican or reformed ones) that are still very much in touch with their history, but for those who are feeling a sense of disconnect, this emerging emphasis comes as a welcome relief. They find that they draw fresh inspiration for their personal prayer and devotional lives from sources that had previously seemed irrelevant and archaic.

Personally I do not feel that this desire to look back to our roots is a threat. Of course, we need to exercise discernment in what material we make use of (and arguably such “discernment” is not a priority for emerging churches, as they seek to embrace tradition from a wide range of streams). But I think that many evangelical churches could greatly enrich their worship times by including more Scripture, more read prayers, more liturgical elements even (not too much though!), rather than simply running through the current top of the Christian pops worship songs with the odd verse and brief prayer thrown in. There is also I believe a desparate need to help people in their personal discipleship (i.e. spiritual formation), rather than simply providing “leadership training”, “finding and using your gift” training or even “theological training” (not that I am opposed to such things).

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