I’ve been making my way through Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger’s book, Emerging Churches. They do a great job summarizing the significant aspects or themes of the various forms of Emerging Church.
One of the important contributions of the emerging church conversation/movement in western culture is the identifying of and responding to the rampant consumerism that has infiltrated the western Church. Here are a couple of poignant paragraphs:
“Much of marketing practice borders on manipulation by creating needs. Until one sees or experiences a product, one often does not ‘need’ it. The creation and the presentation of a product create the need. When churches decide to make entertainment their main focus, they create a continued expectation and desire for more. Marketing is not neutral; it fosters human desire as much as it satiates it“ (Emphasis mine).
A couple of paragraphs later, they write:
“Marketing churches may say they are only meeting the felt needs of individuals. But like all marketing organizations, they have a strong say in what those felt needs are. They create desires as much as they fulfill them. In that respect, they cease to be a neutral provider and instead are using their power to control individuals. Their consumers are wired to seek the fulfillment of their needs. They adopt cultural narratives that say that every person lacks something, is impoverished, and needs a particular product to be satisfied.”
And one more paragraph:
“Churchgoers associate the consumer church’s products with ‘need satisfaction.’ There are areas of an individual’s life that are ambiguous and insecure, to which the church seeks to respond by creating and offering products that will address those gaps. Consumer churches present a relationship with Jesus as the answer to widespread feelings of angst. Thus, Jesus is turned into a product that satisfies needs. The problem is that Jesus won’t satisfy individual needs, for the gospel is primarily about God’s agenda, not ours. For true satisfaction to take place, needs must be reformed and transformed to correspond to the gospel.”
These paragraphs make me think about a few things. First, the Church’s delving into marketing is as bad as delving into white magic. I know that sounds harsh. But Gibbs and Bolger make a valid point — marketing is not neutral. (David Fitch made a similar point about “effective leadership.”) Marketing is not a skill, technique or art form that one can simply use without any kind of moral and ethical ramifications. In fact, using marketing is a moral decision in and of itself. It is manipulation just like forms of magic. Regardless if one uses it for “good,” it is still contrary to God’s kingdom and will eventually violate people’s integrity. It creates a power structure that is inherently broken, easily influenced by evil, and can quickly take on a life of its own. Marketing creates needs as much as it satiates them. Therefore, it becomes similar to drinking salt water. A person thinks he or she is quenching one’s thirst. But in actuality, the thirst is getting worse and worse.
Second, Jesus’ good news of God’s kingdom coming to earth was never about satisfying individual needs. Rather, it was about aligning one’s life around God and satisfying God’s intentions for his creation. And in many cases, it requires those who enter and receive God’s kingdom to die to themselves. It requires laying aside felt or perceived needs as potentially illegitimate. It requires trusting that as God’s kingdom comes and makes everything right, it will reorganize human life in such a way to bring about God’s good purposes for our lives, not our own.
Another thing that comes to mind is that those of us in the emerging church must think and act carefully in our response against consumerism. It’s easy to shift from a consumerist model in which the local church and its leaders functioned as service providers and shift to a decentralized “do-it-yourself” (DIY) model where everyone is simply in charge of his or her own spirituality. That may work well for those of us with adequate training — who read the theology books, study Scripture, lead worship, and other activities. But, quite frankly, it leaves everyone else in the dust. And it wasn’t Jesus’ model.
Jesus, in reconfiguring both image-bearing humanity and presence-bearing Israel around himself and in anticipating the fullness of God’s New Creation upon the earth, created community. Building community wasn’t a principle for effective leadership. Jesus didn’t do it because it was the most effective way of transmitting his ideas to his students. If so, he would have gathered more students into a network of groups.
Rather, Jesus chose twelve men. As N.T. Wright has shown, every Israelite immediately understood Jesus’ symbolism. Just as Yahweh chose the twelve tribes of Israel to be his people, Jesus was reconstituting Israel around himself through twelve men. And it is especially important to note that Jesus wasn’t one of the twelve. As he calls the twelve around himself, he embodies Yahweh dwelling in the midst of the twelve.
Why bring this up? I believe that proper understanding and implementation of community is a primary answer to the consumerism in the western Church. For Jesus, community was the embodiment of the good news of God’s kingdom. It was the embodiment of humans living as the image of God. It was the embodiment of being God’s transformative presence in the world. It was the embodiment of the Trinitarian reality on earth. It was the embodiment of the human journey toward the fullness and likeness of God in human form. It was the embodiment of God’s future New Creation.
It’s important that our emerging faith-communities become collaborative communities of generous creative producers gathered around the living and resurrected Christ. Together we must follow Christ, discovering new vision, new theology, new expressions of faith, new liturgy, new ways to serve, new ways to resist, new avenues of formation, and new ways to embody God kingdom.
We are not to be a support group of individual DIYers. Rather, we are to be a family (another symbol Jesus reconfigured around himself), journeying together, creating together, and serving and supporting one another in the process. And we do this by unashamedly bringing our gifts, our stories, our personalities, and our full lives into this process. And like Jesus and his original twelve, our faith-communities become local embodied expressions of genuine humanity, called to join Yahweh in responsibly serving his world.