April 20, 2004

The Ecclesiological Cycle: A rock and roll parable


(On March 30 of this year, Anna Aven made a great post to her blog, emerging ecclesiology, in response to a reader who asked, "What is the Emerging Church?" You can read it here: The Emerging Church According to Anna. Reading it prompted an interesting metaphor in my mind: the historical Church as rock and roll music...)

There are many who would say of the Emerging Church, "If you can define it, then you don't really know what it is." Of course, people said the same thing about rock and roll in the 1950's and punk rock in the 1980's. Today both have gone "institutional." That's not a value judgment; it's simply a statement of fact. There's some great rock and roll being made out there and some great punk. But there's also the RIAA, $75 concert tickets, and boy bands. That's what happens when something goes from "grassroots" or "popular" to "institutional." When any new form is done "emerging," it immediately begins to "institutionalize."

Some decide to take the good with the bad and live within the institution. Others decide to be revolutionaries; they leave the institution and "start over." Hence new forms are established for the old message; contemporary expressions emerge for ancient passions. These new forms and expressions, if they have the vigor to survive their own birth, will almost inevitably go on to become institutional after a generation or two. Rock and roll, born in the fifties as a popular synthesis of older but obscure forms, became an institution not long after the "British Invasion," and maybe as a reaction to it. Go and watch a few "Monkees" reruns if you don't believe it...or for that matter, read any good biography of Elvis Presley.

Punk grew out of (among other things) a reaction to the institutionalization of rock and roll. Today punk is more of a fashion statement than a social movement (See Helene Stapinski's piece for the International Herald Tribune, "In punk rock's birthplace, a new breed of devotees" for an almost shockingly suburban look at this phenomenon.)

I'm certainly no expert in the history of the Christian church, but it seems to me that this cycle has repeated itself at least four times since Christ ascended, and that we're riding the leading wave of the fifth. Institutionalization in the Jewish church spawned catholic Christianity. Sometime after the conversion of Rome and the rise of the Papacy (when catholic Christianity became Catholic Christianity) came the monastic movement. Coagulation within monasticism spawned the Reformation; once the reformed Church was institutionalized through (among other things) the rise of denominationalism, the modern missionary movement erupted out of it. If the institutionalization of the 19th century missionary Church is 20th century Evangelicalism, then our "Emerging Church" is simply the beginning of a new iteration of the same old pattern.

As Jesus said, "Unless a kernal of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds" (John 12:24 NIV). I'm stretching the context, I know, but perhaps old ecclesiological forms must "go to seed" for the Church to pass on its essential genetic material to the next generation of Christ-followers.

Here's a thought that saddens me: What will the Emerging Church look like when it goes institutional? And here's one that excites me: What can we do to stave off that inevitible shift?

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