Emerging Churches by Gibbs & Bolger, B+ (Book Review) ~ BitterSweetLife

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Emerging Churches by Gibbs & Bolger, B+ (Book Review)

Review: Huge Data Bank, Debatable Relevance

In Emerging Churches, Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger (blog) consolidate a huge amount of first-hand information. Their goal is to accurately depict what is transpiring “on the ground” as Western churches experiment with new methodologies to penetrate postmodern culture. This attempt to track and applaud grassroots gospel movements is refreshing; however, since their interviewees and focus ministries are not subjected to biblical assessment, the relevance of their findings is up for debate.

Gibbs and Bolger poured five years of research into their book, an attempt to fairly represent the current practices of "emerging churches"—and they sort a very impressive array of data en route to describing nine practices that “characterize” emerging churches. To accomplish this, they eliminated practices that were modern or preexisting, looking for those with postmodern “missiological significance.”

Gibbs and Bolger are successful in presenting a snapshot of the admittedly diverse emerging church strata of Christianity, but the Achilles heel of their research is that they are forced to both set the conditions for emerging churches and then unearth churches that seem to fit the criteria—which has been gained from studying those selfsame churches. In other words, “emerging church” becomes a loosely defined and somewhat self-referential term. Who are the emerging churches? Those people are. How do we know? Because they display the characteristics of emerging churches…

The book’s value for developing church planting practice is inevitably limited, because the mere fact that people are doing these things does not necessarily mean that what they are doing is fruitful, worth emulating, or reflects biblical fidelity.

Missing in Gibbs’ and Bolger’s equation is a prescriptive view as far as best practices or biblical foundations. Admittedly, Emerging Churches is meant as a survey, not a textbook. Gibbs and Bolger admit this, even addressing the question, "Are We Critical Enough?" (11): “We are not starry-eyed about emerging churches, meaning we do not believe all emerging churches perform extraordinary activities at all times. Our primary concern throughout this book is to listen…” This listening and reporting function makes the book a largely uncritical, descriptive work, with a tacit assumption: These emerging pioneers should be carefully observed and learned from.

The book’s value for developing church planting practice is inevitably limited, because the mere fact that people are doing these things does not necessarily mean that what they are doing is fruitful, worth emulating, or reflects biblical fidelity. For example, is the impulse to “stay small” a healthy relational trait or an abdication of the Great Commission? Is the emphasis on non-visible, non-assertive leaders an outgrowth of Christ’s servant-leader model, or a concession to postmodernity? At what point does verbal witness need to be added to relational love for the gospel to be actuated? Can one be “genuinely open to being wrong about parts and perhaps all our beliefs—while at the same time being fully committed to them?” (132). Such questions are never posed.

This lack of theological assessment becomes somewhat frustrating, especially since Gibbs and Bolger state that the leaders interviewed “demonstrate a strong commitment to the Bible as their guide for the journey but are seeking to read it with fresh eyes as they shed the constrictions of modernity…” (11). This commitment is not always evident in the sound bytes generated by the interviewees, however, and the reader is left to assume that doctrinal foundations are present.

Where authors like Alan Hirsch and Ed Stetzer would wince, and writers like Brian McLaren and Kester Brewin would nod, Gibbs and Bolger make no comment.

Sometimes, however, this is difficult: “We had a guy from the Manchester Buddhist center come to Sanctus1 a couple weeks ago and talk about Buddhist approaches to prayer. We didn’t talk about the differences between our faiths. We didn’t try to convert him. He was welcomed and fully included and was really pleased to have been invited” (133). Where authors like Alan Hirsch (The Forgotten Ways) and Ed Stetzer (Planting Missional Churches) would wince, and writers like Brian McLaren (A Generous Orthodoxy) and Kester Brewin (Signs of Emergence) would nod, Gibbs and Bolger make no comment.

Ultimately, Emerging Churches is an enlightening survey and a significant research accomplishment. It presents new models of church and new perspectives on mission that provoke thought. However, the book’s failure to subject the collected data to theological appraisal prevents it from rising to the level of usefulness its subtitle implies: Creating Christian Communities in Postmodern Cultures.

Yes, it has
emerged on the Master Book List.



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2 comments:

Matt Christenot said...

Excellent review. I couldn't agree more.

Ariel said...

Thanks, Matt. I've been reading so much on this topic lately that I wake up at night having nightmares about missional emergencies and incarnational decentralization and other things that sound like they could cause heart attacks.

Pinning down thoughts and coming to conclusions are a must-do for sanity's sake.

 

Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife