A Feature Review of
The Gospel After Christendom: New Voices, New Cultures, New Expressions
Ryan Bolger, ed.
Reviewed by Kevin Book-Satterlee
Emergence always comes as reaction and adaptation from individual and collective historical narratives. The emerging church in its global forms is no different, reacting to the integrated historical narratives in a pluralized world. Ryan Bolger researches the emergence of church expressions, and has taken his investigation to include global narratives in The Gospel After Christendom: The New Voices, New Cultures, New Expressions. Bolger edits and synthesizes this book, which includes a vast number of authors writing about the emerging church in their specific context.
Certain themes repeat in the majority of the chapters, sometimes causing the book to become redundant, particularly in nuancing the slight differences between emerging church contexts throughout Europe. However, the repetition of themes – integrated relationality, communality, and flattened authority – provides solid ground for understanding the emergence of church in post-Christian contexts. To those who study emerging and missional churches in postmodern, post-Christian contexts, the findings of Bolger’s book are not surprising, yet the international, multi-contextual stories demonstrate the global necessity to think differently. From Latin America to Australia, Europe to indigenous North Americans, the institutional church is almost non-existent in the public narrative of postmodernity.
The emerging church across the globe comes in mostly small and intimate forms, yet the despite the decline of Christian engagement with culture mentioned throughout the book, each expression shows an encouraging attempt at the church reintegrating into its context, rather than taking it for granted. It is the growth of these small and intimate expressions of church that engage people who otherwise do not integrate their individualistic and consumeristic spiritual sensitivity with the mission of God.
Authoritarian leadership is not known for its intimacy, and as such, leadership based in a singular and hierarchical authority does not resonate with the post-Christian context. Many of the stories repeat the intentionality of flat leadership. The ever-present attractional (come to us) – missional (go to them) dichotomy is the driving undercurrent for emerging church expressions to engage locally, socially, and at the service of others. These churches, if they even center in a singular location, only do so occasionally and can be found in a variety of local social arenas “being church.” Another oft repeated theme is the local organic expression of worship. Rather than packaged and mass-produced worship models which have the intimacy of sporting events and rock concerts, worship for a post-Christian context begins with the social network and from it, derives almost without initiative, an authentic expression of the local community.
In all these themes, it is critical to question whether the emerging church throws the baby out with the bathwater. Perhaps, these communities see themselves as delving the sewers for the very baby that the Christendom church threw out by its hierarchical institutionalization, authoritarianism, and complete lack of intimacy. Nonetheless, the reaction to the perceived trends from post-Christendom and postmodernity – flat leadership, locally initiated worship, and social public integration is still in its infancy. Flat leadership models are constantly honing to determine appropriate levels of authority in leadership and where that authority is derived. Communality must engage people through a social network, but also, in a truly biblical expression, must avoid the inevitable homogeneity (see McGavran’s Homogenous Unit Principle and René Padilla’s refutation of it) by intentional and sometimes even contrived missional engagement with those not found in the original social network.
As mentioned above, the book has a tendency to become redundant. The nuances between each narrative are important, but perhaps would be better focused in a separate book, letting Bolger’s edited work be more of a summary of the findings throughout these expressions. As I live in Mexico, I am biased to think that Osías Segura-Guzmán’s chapter “Iglesias Emergentes in Latin America,” was perhaps one of the most interesting chapters as it deals with the rise of postmodernity and post-Christendom in the conglomeration of pre-modern, modern, and postmodern worldviews. Of particular importance is the recognition, that despite the insistence of western scholars’ linear understanding of worldview transition, Latin America experiences a collision of the three worldviews and a church must emerge accordingly in an increasingly post-Christian context.
Other chapters included in the book seem to be disjointed and not as well integrated as they could be. Again, I wonder if these would better be included in a separate volume or that Bolger might have condensed The Gospel after Christendom to the narrative experiments. All the chapters add valuable content to the overall discussion, however some left me disjointed and fighting to read through redundancy and discord.
One of the more innovative pieces to the book is the dialogical notes of the authors interacting with each other. Some of the included commentaries proved quite helpful to nuance, buttress, or even counter an author’s work. The dialogue also proved to be distracting at times, particularly single-affirming sentences that did little to add to the conversation. Eliminating just these alone would allow for better interaction between authors with the readers as a fly on the wall, and add to the flow of each chapter.
Emerging church expressions have matured, yet have much more maturing to go. Bolger’s book is a welcome piece to the development of emerging churches globally. I would like to see a future work to be even more multicultural, more international, and continue to challenge the current notions of postmodernity and post-Christendom. What are the emerging church implications for those who deal with pre-modern and postmodern worldviews or do not come from such a neat linear worldview transition? How does the emerging church in many cross-cultural situations, which looks very modern, adapt towards intimacy in cultures that not only value collectivism more, but also truly practice it? Why is the West not finding models for its own emerging churches from these expressions? Many other questions can be discovered and searched out. Ryan Bolger has been on a path to discover the emerging reaction to its current post-Christian context. This book is a good volume in the study and a good primer from which to launch further study.
Kevin Book-Satterlee is the academic coordinator of Avance, a missional apprenticeship program of the Latin America Mission.