|n the mid 1990s, many evangelical congregations paused to assess their impact on young adults. They came to the sobering realization that they definitely weren’t “scratching where it itched.” A generation just wasn’t there. At least not in most churches.
As evangelical pastors and seminary professors wrestled with possible solutions, they put their heads together in an ongoing “conversation,” as they dubbed it. They felt the way most denominations had “done church” in the past clearly was no longer effective in our postmodern era. Radical new methods and models were needed.
These thought leaders began to imagine what the church would soon look like. In part they chronicled what was already happening. But in even greater measure they attempted to predict the form and structure—or lack thereof—of the “emerging church.”
But what is the emerging church?
In an article published in the Criswell Theological Review in the spring of 2006, evangelical Mark Driscoll, a ground-level participant in the conversation, defined the emerging church as “a broad category that encompasses a wide variety of churches and Christians who are seeking to be effective missionaries wherever they live.”* Ed Stetzer, a noted missiologist, classified those involved in the conversation as “Relevants, Reconstructionists, and Revisionists.” In his article Driscoll elaborates on Stetzer’s three categories:
“Relevants are theologically conservative evangelicals who are . . . interested in . . . updating such things as worship styles, preaching styles, and church leadership structures. Their goal is to be more relevant; thus, appealing to postmodern-minded people. . . .
“Reconstructionists are generally theologically evangelical and dissatisfied with the current forms of church (e.g. seeker, purpose, contemporary). . . . They propose more informal, incarnational, and organic church forms such as house churches. . . .
“Revisionists are theologically liberal and question key evangelical doctrines, critiquing their appropriateness for the emerging postmodern world.”
Adventists Facing Similar Concerns
Seventh-day Adventists face a similar absence of young adults in far too many congregations, and the emerging-church conversation has definitely been heard by our denomination.
So where might we fall with respect to Stetzer’s categories? Probably few Adventists would argue against trying to make our worship services more varied and the overall church experience more appealing to all ages (“Relevants”)—though we might disagree about what should be changed and how. A substantially larger group of Adventists would resist liberalizing theology (“Revisionists”).
Since a more liberal theology is part of the package, as far as several emerging-church luminaries are concerned, a number of evangelical leaders have vocally expressed their concerns—which has led to the emergence of a theological “reformer” group within the emerging-church conversation, seeking to ensure that important doctrines aren’t lost or diluted as a result of innovations.
Even the “Reconstructionists,” who want to change methods and structures while preserving theological purity, aren’t without their detractors. As both a long-serving pastor and a pragmatist, I question that some of the alternative structures being advocated are truly workable—especially long-term. Let’s take the case of house churches as but one example.
I’m all for creating “subcongregations” within a congregation. Small groups built around common interests can provide a wonderful opportunity for social and spiritual bonding. Not many people come to church just for the spiritual nourishment they receive—even if they may think that’s why they come. If there’s no social connection, few will continue to attend indefinitely. So social-spiritual small groups can add much to a congregation’s effectiveness.
Moreover, where there’s no formally organized congregation and no church building, house churches can play a highly beneficial intermediate role. And certainly house churches often play a major role in repressive regimes where assembling more openly is forbidden. But the foregoing examples are altogether different from encouraging current churchgoers to abandon their affiliation and interaction with a viable congregation to form a house church. Or to encourage starting one from scratch in the shadow of a viable congregation.
Practical Cases in Point
Let’s imagine that six retired couples decide to leave their congregation and start a house church. They love it. They share common interests. They have a similar outlook on life. They love getting together. In fact, they love their group so much that they’re hesitant to invite others to join them lest the newcomers disrupt the pleasant equilibrium they’ve established. And certainly they don’t relish the idea of subdividing a year or two down the track because their group has grown too big. They don’t want to lose the wonderful sense of camaraderie that means so much.
While theoretically the house church should be more evangelistic than a congregation, that may not be the reality in many cases. Generally speaking, inviting someone to visit a congregation poses no threat to the one inviting. Not so with a house church. Because of the small numbers at a house church, additions, subtractions, and personality mix have great potential to dramatically alter the dynamics. The absence or presence of even one person can make or break the group.
Should the group subdivide because of growth, the participants in one or both of the new entities may well discover that the adjusted collection of personalities doesn’t provide the sparkle once enjoyed. Since house churches are a relatively recent arrival in North America, statistics are sketchy at best. However, what statistics are available don’t suggest house-church longevity. While individual house churches may minister exceptionally well initially, their overall sustainability remains in question.
The erosion of a house church can come in many ways. Suppose one of the participants dies. Instead of having six retired couples, we now have five couples and a “misfit.” That sounds extreme, I recognize. But in a surprising number of cases it’s highly difficult for a single person to fit in with a group of couples.
Similar problems can emerge if the house church is composed of young marrieds. The group is so small that a divorce or the arrival of a baby can change the dynamics considerably. What started as a wonderful venture of homogeneous participants can become diverse in ways that destroy its appeal. In fact, as children of a house church grow older, the social component of their life becomes more important. They typically want a larger pool of friends. They may want activities that are more specifically of interest to them. They may even like a greater variety of adults to act as teachers and mentors. The house church may cease to meet those needs.
Even fledgling church plants often face a similar phenomenon. I observe how several large Adventist congregations in my area exert a perpetual “gravitational pull” on young families who attend smaller churches. The small congregations struggle to get young families to join in the first place. Then, as the children grow older, they’re drawn into the orbit of those larger churches that provide consistent quality programming for children and youth. In today’s consumer world, the house church—or even the small church that sits in the shadow of larger churches—stands little chance of holding a young family.
Resilience of Traditional Congregations
One great advantage of a viable congregation is its sheer numbers. A widow isn’t going to feel like a fifth wheel—because there are other widows there. Young married couples aren’t going to feel shunned because they now have crying children—because other young married couples have children. And children and youth aren’t going to be as bored—because the congregation has much specifically for them.
Please don’t misunderstand my concerns and reservations. I’m all for innovation. Few congregations don’t have ample room for improvement. We need more intentionally to seek to minister to specific subsets of the congregation and of the community. I’m all for ensuring the best spiritual-social nurture possible. I’m all for variety. But I fear that some seemingly innovative emerging-church options won’t play out as envisioned. At least not long-term.
Too often, strategies work well only initially. Or for only one generation. But they may not easily move to the next level. For example, a church that targets a single age group may minister wonderfully. But what do they do with those who’ve “outgrown” the target market? Where does the “no longer qualifies” group go? A viable congregation doesn’t face that problem—because it already provides a full range of ministry across the age spectrum.
Even innovative nondenominational experiments such as Willow Creek have had to perpetually reinvent themselves as they grow, as they become more institutionalized, as they move into the second and third generation of existence, as they have more ecclesiastical history with which they must deal. These facts don’t negate the usefulness of such ventures. But they do remind us that with growth and the passage of time certain sociological phenomena come into play. These inevitable changes and challenges need to be anticipated as much as possible and factored into the “cost to benefit” analysis before we proceed with our innovation.
The reality is, Christian congregations have withstood the test of time rather amazingly. Despite dramatic cultural change and significant social upheaval over many centuries, congregations have remained surprisingly resilient. Thus I’d hate to see them written off too readily as failures or as passé.
To Change or Not to Change?
We face a unique period in church history. We need to be more intentional than ever. We need to make changes in our modus operandi. We need to provide varied ministries and approaches to reach an increasingly diverse population. We need to more effectively woo and nurture all segments of our society. But I suggest that an adjusted, invigorated, intentional, revived congregation is probably still the best venue—or at least the best hub of support—for engaging in such activities.
I’m not sure that the emerging church is going to actually achieve much of what has been envisioned for it. At least not on a grand scale. I’m not sure that many of the structures and approaches it advocates are the best vehicles for achieving its admirable goals. Despite the unique worldview held by today’s younger generations, I’m not sure they’re cut from as different a cloth as many think. There are still principles of human interaction that have universal application and appeal. Authenticity, grace, practical kindness, and love have always been highly winning aspects of the Christian faith. I believe they still are.
Ellen G. White said: “If we would humble ourselves before God, and be kind and courteous and tenderhearted and pitiful, there would be one hundred conversions to the truth where now there is only one” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 9, p. 189). Simply living out that statement would be a great start in safeguarding our relevance.
So where is the emerging church headed? We don’t really know. It’s a learn-as-we-go venture—despite the many concrete predictions that have been made. The emerging-church conversation has clearly identified a number of real problems—problems that definitely afflict the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Could it be that the proposed solutions are a mixed bag, ranging from spot-on to out in left field? If so, the advice of Scripture is particularly apropos: “Test everything. Hold on to the good” (1 Thess. 5:21).
James Coffin is senior pastor of the Markham Woods Adventist Church in Longwood, Florida. This article was published June 10, 2010.