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"Deep Church"

"Deep Church" April 27, 2011

Some students (current and former) and I have been reading and discussing a new book entitled Church in the Present Tense: A Candid Look at What’s Emerging by Scot McKnight, Peter Rollins, Kevin Corcoran (editor) and Jason Clark (Brazos Press).  It’s an enlightening and stimulating volume of essays related to the concept of “emerging church.”

My favorite essay so far is by Jason Clark who is coordinator of the Emergent UK online resource network, pastor of Vineyard Church Sutton (UK) and adjunct professor at George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Oregon.  It’s title is “Consumer liturgies and their corrosive effects on Christian identity.”

It could just be called “Deep church.”  The essay is about the problem of consumer religion: “Consumer culture relates to beliefs as commodities to be used and marketed.”  Clark asks “what kind of church leads to cruciform identity, to the unmasking, and undoing of the myth of individualism that consumer liturgical formation produces; what kind of church leads instead to an exchange of stories, replacing fictions of self-creation with the true story of life lived in Jesus with others?” (53)

Clark’s answer is “deep church”–one that fights against the radical individualism and consumerism of contemporary culture, especially their influence in the church, and develops an idea of the church as “the public of the Holy Spirit, a way of life together, where the church is mission, within Christ for the world.” (57)

I wish Clark had filled it in with more detail.  We (the students and I) speculated about his proposal and tried to fill in the missing details.  It’s clearer what Clark is against (and we are all against it, too) than what he’s for.  Terms such as “cruciform and canonical church” that goes beyond the “hydroponic ecclesiologies of consumerism” are intriguing but hardly helpful.

I find Clark’s diagnosis of contemporary church life, especially in America, insightful.  It is caught up in the consumer mentality EVEN WHEN it claims to go against that.  As one of the students pointed out, all the alternatives to “hydroponic churches” that seek authenticity are also products of a consumer mentality insofar as they make church up as they go along.  PERHAPS, one student suggested, the only alternative to this consumer church mentality is the road to Rome!  I happen to disagree as I think the Anabaptist approach to ecclesiology is better able to overcome consumerism without falling into tyranny.

One thing is clear.  Many thoughtful Christian people are seeking a “better way to do church.”  Some are jumping to the church of Rome or to Eastern Orthodoxy in reaction to the rootless, consumer-driven churches they grew up in.  I understand that impulse, but I don’t think it’s the right solution.  It’s an over reaction.

I think we can find a path out and forward in the Radical Reformation–not necessarily any specific existing Anabaptist denomination but the ecclesiological pattern of the original Anabaptists that, I believe, was a model of “deep church.”  Such contemporary theological luminaries as John Howard Yoder, James McClendon, Thomas Finger, Dennis Weaver, Stanley Hauerwas and many more have rediscovered this heritage and explored it as a possible resource for developing what Clark calls “deep church.”

So what might that look like?  I grew up in a church I call “urban Amish.”  I wouldn’t necessarily want to return to it or use it as a model EXCEPT that it had a certain ethos that I can only describe as deep community.  The church was a democracy without individualism.  When people joined they knew they were making a commitment to walk with this community in availability, vulnerability and accountability.  When someone grew too distant from the community, elders or deacons would “call on” them and ask about their spiritual lives and commitment to the church.  Shame was not used to keep people in line, but there was a high expectation of involvement and commitment and agreement with the mission and purpose of the church which was to be the salt and light of Christ in the city.

I think of the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C., made famous by the book Journey Inward, Journey Outward a few decades ago.  Membership required a certain number of hours of involvement per week.  Both there and in the church of my youth nobody was beating anyone over the head except with reminders that “this is what you agreed to.”  But there was room for people to dissent; these were not cults.

I see a trend among disillusioned evangelicals toward Rome.  A few years ago it was toward Constantinople (Eastern Orthodoxy).  I don’t see that as the solution.  I propose disillusioned evangelicals explore the Anabaptist tradition or what James McClendon called the “baptist” (with a little “b”) tradition.  Even “big B” Baptists could benefit from it!  It’s an ecclesiology that focuses on community, history, tradition (without traditionalism!), accountability, ecclesial practices, counter-cultural witness, etc. 

Clark’s chapter provides an excellent description of the problem.  I don’t know that anyone has yet provided an equally profound description of the solution I’m talking about.  If I find it, I’ll definitely let you know.  Maybe you’ve found it and would like to mention it here?

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