While many aspects of the EM church’s environment offer opportunities, there are also threats to be overcome on the journey to healthy, sustainable development.
Common Threats to Church Plants
Firstly, as most EM churches are new churches starting from scratch, they will face many of the same threats as any other church planting team. George Lings and Stuart Murray identify some of the issues that are often unexpectedly troublesome: the pressure of keeping motivation alive; the attrition of weekly setting-up; ceaseless creativity in worship; a constant multifaceted learning curve; a widening agenda as the church matured; and a misunderstanding by surrounding churches.
Threats Faced by Churches Attempting to Reinvent Themselves
However, there are also challenges for churches not starting from scratch. Northern Community Church of Christ is an EM church formed by five COC churches joining together and rearranging themselves into several missional congregations with different cultures and target areas. Their pastor, Phil McCredden, writes about some of the challenges of moving from traditional church to a missional church with many congregations:
- Maintaining unity – traditionally, ‘unity’ has been viewed or created by all the people in the church attending the one service and participating in the same style of worship; now, they are looking for alternative expressions of unity – eg. combining for all church celebrations, seminars, prayers, and cross-congregational ministries.
- Getting to know other people – rather than expecting to be close with everyone across the spread of congregations, they suggest churchgoers focus on intimate relationships with people within their own congregation.
- Respecting different congregations – rather than deciding one is inferior or superior to another, or that one congregation is central or another is outdated, congregations need to be equally valued as outworkings of the church’s vision and mission.
- Measuring success – congregations should not compete for ‘success’ through numbers; some congregations have an upper limit to maintain intimacy. Rather, growth is achieved by planting new congregations.
- Allocating paid ministry resources – congregations are valid as they connect with the mission and vision of the church. It is not necessary for the full-time pastor to attend every meeting of every congregation.
- Allowing risks – acknowledging that stepping out and doing something different is risky, but the challenge is to look past potential pitfalls to see opportunities, and to make decisions and release resources because of a shared faith in each other and in God.
- Accepting failures – admitting that real risk-taking means there is a possibility of real failures along the way, but that even mistakes can teach important lessons. The challenge is to keep trying and heading in the right direction without giving in to discouragement.
Another threat the EM movement faces is created by the fast-accumulating EM literature. While it has helped spread their ideas, the weakness mentioned earlier of revolution-inciting language, unfair stereotyping and false dichotomies has caused massive strain in relationships with people working from other models and churches. Denominations wanting to discuss how they might incorporate and support EM thought and churches are struggling to find new names for this kind of church, because the words ‘emerging’ and ‘missional’ have taken on such negative connotations. Moynagh argues that ‘creating dissatisfaction’ is an important aspect of helping people see the need for and act towards change. Yet he encourages us to tell the story that affirms the divine deposits into both established and emerging forms of church, so that we can walk the line between creating dissatisfaction and creating despair.
Another potential threat brought on by the massive spread of EM literature is that their ideas will be adopted so quickly that people don’t actually critique them or make the change to a more missional worldview – they merely tack on some “worship tricks” to their existing way of thinking about church, and so the deeper change called for by EM pioneers is lost in the frenzy to jump on the latest bandwagon. Dan Kimball shows his awareness of this risk, and in his book urges the readers to resist the temptation to skip to the practical part and first read the section that challenges readers to deconstruct their understanding of church and culture – “if we don’t understand the causes of the symptoms, our treatment is likely to be merely cosmetic, lacking in effectiveness”.
Rifting Relationships with Churches and Denominations
Because of the rift created by EM literature and various other factors, another threat to the EM church is that it will lose credibility and be alienated from other churches. Michael Horton wonders if “modern evangelicalism taught us all for too long to uproot ourselves from this faith we have received and act as though we were ourselves the first to discover it”, and Tony Jones describes his own struggle, working in an established church yet meeting with missional church planters: “often I became frustrated with my fellow church staff members who seemed apathetic and pudgy compared to these edgy church planters, and I’m afraid I didn’t hide my disgust well. My challenge was to become missional myself (as well as be more forgiving of my coworkers).” Earl Creps looks at it sociologically and speaks of himself doing ‘worldview therapy’ between two groups of people who are immersed in different thought patterns and subcultures – offering “anger management for Pentecostal leaders under 35 and grief recovery for those over 35”.
Carson likens the situation to part of what Paul was addressing in his letters to the Corinthians, “two parties have a corner of the correct position, but are treating it as if it were the whole”. The threat of alienation from people with other viewpoints and churches leaves EM churches more vulnerable to becoming caught up in their own ‘pet theologies’ and even helpful perspectives on the faith, but forgetting about other parts that were taken for granted in their established churches, when what is needed is both – “you should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former”. McLaren asks, “can the gatekeepers of modern evangelicalism see these brothers and sisters as resources, pioneers, a research-and-development wing of the movement…or will they see them as a threat?”. But I would broaden the challenge: both EM and established churches need to be willing to move outside the corner they find themselves in and meet in a wide open space where they can see more of God at work (even in the midst of our failing and confusion) and have more opportunities to reach out to the world. A probing question is ‘can the EM church run with the baton passed on by modern evangelicalism, without trying to disqualify their predecessors’ part in the faith simply because it entailed different terrain?’
Maybe part of the healing of the rift can come if both EM and established churches can be honest and vulnerable with one another – if established churches can admit that changing cultures and churches is at times scary and unsettling for them, and if EM churches can admit that they need support and input from established churches – in a Melbourne Church of Christ EM church leaders gathering, church plants were described to be like teenagers – they want parent churches to leave them alone and allow them their independent ‘rebellion’, but they still want ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ to take an interest and peek their head in the door every so often. The different churches need to find ways to affirm and appreciate their differences.
Another substantial threat the EM church faces is unsustainability. As Steve Taylor writes in his A-Z of the Emerging Church, “U = under-resourced. Mr Jones can’t even buy his kids birthday presents and he’s our guru. Enough said”. Moynagh points out that EM ideas are catching, but under-resourced. Many of the EM churches I visited in Melbourne had big dreams and small budgets. The EM churches that didn’t have as much pressure were those that had been established churches that had then chosen to sell property and restructure resources. But even some of these churches have a shortfall of hundreds of dollars a week and limited time before they have to make some tough budget-cutting decisions.
Although it would be ridiculous to claim that EM churches alone face the pressures of sustainability, they do have some unique issues to negotiate. Pastors in a Melbourne Churches of Christ EM church leaders’ gathering talked about putting together an EM ‘starter kit’ with different resources and ideas on issues such as ‘how to go about collecting tithe in a housechurch’. Furthermore, EM leaders and constituents are typically wary of manipulative talk about money (many of them would question the new covenant relevance of tithing), and the temptation is not to address it at all. A much larger proportion of EM churches are starting from scratch, and because of alienation and suspicion caused by the literature and misunderstandings, it is often harder to find support from outside churches and organisations.
So the challenge is, in the face of an instant-results, consumerist culture, to give and gather resources to take EM projects further. And while the pressure is on to have ‘salvation statistics’ that prove the EM church is a worthwhile investment, Richard Sudworth reminds us that we also need to be prepared to “take the long view. A constant thread in all these discussions has been the need for churches to invest in the long term as they step out with new forms of mission. The results are not instantaneous and require commitment, patience and the struggle born out of genuineness, not expedience”.
However, taking a long view into the future doesn’t help with the current pressures and bills. Moynagh provides a reality check when he states that “burnout can be a killer in emerging churches. New expressions can take a long time to mature, they can be hard work, they can prove disappointing, relationships can fracture and the pioneers’ own circumstances can become fraught”. So there is also a need to reassess: what resources does the church really need? What can be done without? How can we think outside the box to make our resources stretch further, or to get resources from a previously untapped supply?
Many EM churches are already providing creative solutions to resourcing. Northern Community Church of Christ in the Melbourne suburb of Preston takes on ‘work for the dole’ program participants, which gives them both a labour force and fresh ministry opportunities to people who were once ‘outsiders’ to church. Urbanlife church in the Melbourne suburb of Ringwood has managed to network with the community so successfully that businesses and property developers have included donations of labour, equipment and space in their long-term planning. Erwin McManus has changed the church structure of Mosaic in LA so that people don’t become ‘members’ of the church, but they ‘go on staff’ – which means that they find a secular job paid by an outside-church employer, but treat their work as their full-time ministry, meeting with mentors in the church to help them reflect and grow in their situation. Frost and Hirsch also raise an unconventional suggestion that congregations should not just look to pay ‘pastors’, but as part of taking mission and spiritual gifts seriously, seek to identify and financially support their gifted evangelists so they are released to do their work well.
Beyond just the financial issues, the EM church needs to consider if their core values can be sustained. EM churches often have an outlook that idealises and attempts to recreate the ‘New Testament church’ – an unrealistic outlook that fails to take into account the cultural distance of several centuries and continents, as well as the difference between starting a new faith movement and rethinking an established religion. Churches need to look carefully at their ideals to make sure they are both theologically and culturally appropriate, in order to prevent disappointment and disbanding later on.
Sustainability of the EM church’s core values is not only threatened by unrealistic ideals, but also by the pursuit of cultural contextualisation. As Clifton and Ormerod point out, if churches easily dispense with traditional structures and forms in order to quickly embrace the latest intellectual and cultural developments, then they run the risk of a rate of change so fast that their key values are abandoned without extensive reflection on what they are becoming and why. Furthermore, if change is too constant and rapid, it can erode the social glue of shared ideas and patterns of community that make people feel settled enough to stay together long term.
However, mere threats do not have to squelch success. As we have seen,
the threat of becoming financially unsustainable can actually be a helpful
trigger to rethink why and how resources are used in a certain way. Further,
social and ideological sustainability can be achieved by carefully setting and
returning to the core values and reasons for a church’s existence in the midst
of cultural change and adaptability. The church can then specify what their
goals are and what success will look like, and hence a sense of consistency,
enthusiasm and stability can be sustained as the church reflects on how they
are moving forward to achieve their goals.
Northern Community Church of Christ is an example of an EM church that has set specific success goals and consequently has now been able to write “It is already working” of their approach:
"Our experiment with a multiple congregation approach began a few years ago. Preston church of Christ, one of the original churches that formed Northern Community, laid the groundwork with a traditional congregation on Sunday mornings and a family focused one with a meal on Friday nights. Since then, as we have changed and planted new congregations, the model has continued to produce results:
• Our new congregations contain people who would not be part of our church if we did not have these congregations. We have connected with people that would not choose to walk into a church building, or even a home.
• We have engaged in church with people that are open to following Jesus but feel uncomfortable labeling themselves as “Christians”.
• We have lowered the average age of our church as we have successfully connected with younger generations in new styles.
• Within all these changes we have still maintained space for traditional expressions of faith.
• Our congregations have created multiple doorways to our church expressing many ways to discover and live out our faith."
Our final EM threat for this discussion is that of conforming to secular culture and becoming syncretistic. While I have already discussed contextualisation and engaging with culture as an EM church strength, without careful thought and balance it could be taken too far. As Moynagh points out, part of the need for changing our churches is that we no longer live in a standardised world – people have “it-must-fit-me” attitudes, and expect to live in a “customised world”. So the challenge is for the EM church to reach people where they’re at and offer a ‘service’ that is natural for them and their friends to be invited to and comfortable for them to attend – but also, people need to be discipled beyond ‘it-must-fit-me’ comfort zones, to look beyond simply ‘what do I want?’ to ask ‘what does God want?’. Ben Meyer warns against ‘strong syncretism’, where a religion is so immersed in culture that it has “little identity of its own, but is the sum of elements assembled from outside itself”. He instead advocates ‘weak syncretism’, where a religion, “having a distinct identity of its own, borrows, transforms what is borrowed, and enhances its native identity by this borrowing and transforming”. The EM church’s emphasis on ‘contextualisation’ is in theory, weak syncretism. But in practice, how can the EM church maintain contextualisation without compromising to strong syncretism?
One of Don Carson’s chief critiques of the EM movement is they are especially prone to syncretism because he hasn’t seen them produce “a critique of any substantive element of postmodern thought” – yet he acknowledges that Leonard Sweet in Postmodern Pilgrims “warns us not to embrace the postmodern worldview”. A major part of the problem is that postmodernity is so difficult to define – since Brian McClaren and Andy Crouch could not even agree on what postmodernity is, how could they even begin to critique it together and discuss which aspects are helpful or unhelpful for the Christian faith?
However, there are individuals and smaller groups who have more commonality in their definition of postmodernity, and these people are able to raise some societal issues affecting and infecting the church, with the hope that EM church can use their brand of postmodern Christianity to challenge them. For example, Moynagh suggests that the postmodern mindset can be used in EM churches to help them overcome issues such as fragmentation, a menu mindset, passive consumerism (church as entertainment), Sunday school as substitute parenting, overdependence on programmes rather than personal development of faith, and breaking the ‘me-mould’ (meeting with my personal saviour, having my worship experience).
But as well as borrowing from what postmodern culture has to offer churches, there is also the need to be challenging and transforming postmodernity into something increasingly more like God’s kingdom. Positively, EM leaders acknowledge that sometimes the proclamation of God’s kingdom will seem offensive or counter-cultural, yet in order to follow the radical Jesus we will need to be confrontational for the right reasons – Jesus came to bring not peace, but a sword; he overturned the business tables at the temple; and when he exorcised a demon-possessed man, people were upset about what happened to the pigs. Following in Jesus’ footsteps, Paul stepped on people’s toes by exorcising a slave girl and her masters were upset because they lost their fortunetelling income. We need to admit that to some people the gospel is the fragrance of life, but to others the stench of death, and no amount of contextualised air freshener is going to change that!
But critiquing one’s own culture is difficult, and there are many blind spots. My only suggestion for minimising these blind spots is that we should keep ourselves humble, in fellowship and discussion with people of other cultures and perspectives, and dependent on the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures to lead and challenge us. Perhaps a devotional way of fostering self-awareness and openness to correction is to think of different prayers and attitudes we can choose between, much like Jesus’ parable of the tax collector and Pharisee who were both praying at the temple. When we come before God, one person may pray “thankyou that I’m not like those narrow-minded modernists who think they can box truth and sell it in attractional consumeristic giftwrap”; another may pray “thankyou that I’m not like those syncretistic postmodernists who have an unsettlingly loud call for revolution and abandon the grasp of truth”; but still another may pray “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Redeem me from where I have sold out to my culture. Lead me out of darkness and into your marvellous light, that I may show others the Way”.
 George Lings and Stuart Murray, Church Planting: Past, Present and Future, Grove Evangelism Series 61, (Cambridge: Grove Books) 2003, p.21
 McCredden, Phil “Facing the Challenges of Many Congregations” (Northern Community Church of Christ document with no date, but still current when given to me in November 2005)
 eg. Claire Dawson was employed jointly by the Victorian sectors of the Uniting, Anglican, and Church of Christ to research new EM churches, but it was constantly requested that the terms used in the paper be changed to something ‘less controversial’ – hence ‘young mission-shaped churches’.
 Ibid., p.218
 Michael Moynagh, emergingchurch.intro (Oxford: Monarch Books) 2004, p.217
 see, eg. Jonny Baker’s blog. Online: https://jonnybaker.blogs.com/jonnybaker/text/worshiptricks.html
 Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan) 2003, p.16
 Michael Horton, commenting in an article by Brian McLaren, “The Method, the Message and the Ongoing Story” in Leonard Sweet (ed.), The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan) 2003, p.248
 Tony Jones, “Toward a Missional Ministry” in Mike Yaconelli (ed.), Stories of Emergence: Moving from Absolute to Authentic (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan) 2003, p.68 Earl Creps in ibid., p.157
 Don Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan) 2005, p.212
 Mt 23:23
 Brian McLaren, “We’re Not Finished” in Mike Yaconelli (ed.), Stories of Emergence: Moving from Absolute to Authentic (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan) 2003, p.224
 Held in Fairfield, Melbourne on November 17, 2005.
 Steve Taylor’s blog. Online: https://www.emergentkiwi.org.nz/archives/a_to_z_of_emerging_church.php; cf. Andrew Jones’ blog. Online: https://tallskinnykiwi.typepad.com/tallskinnykiwi/2004/02/finding_a_home_.html
 Michael Moynagh, emergingchurch.intro (Oxford: Monarch Books) 2004, p.91
 Held in Fairfield, Melbourne on November 17, 2005.
In Rob Bell’s sermon from June 12, 2005 – “Money Sunday: A Theology of the Clicks”, Rob preached about his journey of having to figure out how to challenge people on the money issue when he realised his church was giving below their own budget, and well below the offerings of churches of a comparable size and demographic. The sermon was downloaded from Mars Hill Bible Church’s web site: https://www.mhbcmi.org.
 Michael Moynagh, emergingchurch.intro (Oxford: Monarch Books) 2004, p.47
 Richard Sudworth, “Do You Have Any Principles?” Online: https://www.emergingchurch.info/reflection/richardsudworth/principles.htm
 Michael Moynagh, emergingchurch.intro (Oxford: Monarch Books) 2004, p.196
 Erwin McManus, “An Unstoppable Force” seminar at Morling College, Sydney, August 1, 2005.
 Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson) 2003, p.58
 Shane Clifton addresses the problem of idealist ecclesiologies in “Pentecostal Ecclesiology: A Methodological Proposal for a Diverse Movement” (unpublished paper) 2006, p.2
 Shane Clifton in “Pentecostal Ecclesiology: A Methodological Proposal for a Diverse Movement” (unpublished paper) 2006, p.20 reflecting on Neil Ormerod’s “Church, Anti-Types and Ordained Ministry: Systematic Perspectives” Pacifica 10 (1997)
 Phil McCredden, Northern Community Church of Christ document, 2002
 Michael Moynagh, emergingchurch.intro (Oxford: Monarch Books) 2004, p.17
 Ben F. Meyer, The Early Christians: Their World Mission & Self Discovery (Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, 1986), 186-196, cited in Shane Clifton, “Pentecostal Hermeneutics: An Open and Creative Approach” (unpublished paper) 2006, p.6
 Don Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan) 2005, p.36
 Leonard Sweet, Postmodern Pilgrims (Nashville: Broadman & Holman) 2000
 Don Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan) 2005, p.40
 See Brian McClaren’s interactions with the article by Andy Crouch, “Life After Postmodernity”, pp. 62-104 in Leonard Sweet (ed.), The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan) 2003
 Michael Moynagh, emergingchurch.intro (Oxford: Monarch Books) 2004, pp.119-142
 Mt 10:34
 Mk 11:15-18
 Mk 5:1-17
 Ac 16:16-22