Transformational Possibilities and Congregational Realities

Contrary to what some scholars such as Steve Bruce have suggested, people are not discarding the idea of God. Post-moderns in the Emerging Church have not abandoned God nor Jesus or the Bible, per se. Nor have they given up meeting in community with other Christians of like mind. True, they resist the authority of the church institution, which likely explains the official membership decline, but post-moderns are actively seeking, pursuing, and demanding personal religious options, wherever it might lead them—even off typical religious roads.

Post-moderns (and Sacro-Egoists) do demand relational freedom with God and disregard the traditional religious “box,” and they give others the same courtesy. As Ward claims,

And so in the emerging church movement there is a sense of anything goes. For those for whom tradition or inherited forms are in fact the obstacle to being effective churches and a barrier to the mission of Jesus, it is a waste of time to listen to what the past might have to say about how the church should form its life.

A person might encounter the divine in prayer or singing, but also in hiking, gardening, yoga, etc. Middleton and Walsh also state, “But if our praxis is to be faithful to the story, this requires taking the risk of improvisation that is creative, innovative, and flexible.” Emerging Church adherents strive for holistic spirituality, which also includes the secular. They are often critical of rigid, traditional church culture for its limited and restricted offerings. They want and expect more, both religiously and spiritually, and are unwilling to settle for less than their personal goals reach.

Thus, it is not surprising that for both the Emerging Church and the Sacro-Egoist, an implicit commitment to all avenues of spirituality is often embraced. As Edward Bailey points out, there has been “a general shift in contemporary culture, towards acceptance of both the propriety and facticity of the implicit, the inarticulate, the unconscious, the mystical, the symbolic, the emotional, the popular, the corporate, the spiritual, the personal, the autobiographical, the anecdotal, and the confessional,” formerly taking secondary preeminence to the Church and the community of believers.

Concerning his own church, Blecher states, “We believe we are to be a distinctive counterculture and should live in an alternate way.” F. Leron Shults states, “In addition to taking good news to others, the church ought also to be open to learning something new and good from authentic encounters with difference.” Dan Kimball states, “If we really care about people outside the church, we won’t be weaklings. We will be passionate about our mission to break out of the Christian bubble.”

Both radical individualism (Sacro-Egoism) and the Emerging Church movement are growing and engulfing more and more of Christian culture in the Western World.

As Tickle puts it,

What is not nearly so easy to discern just yet is how the Great Emergence will interface with the results and consequences of such realignments; and more than any other of North America’s Christians, it is emergent themselves who are going to have to reconsider Emergence Christianity. They must begin now to think with intention about what this new form of the faith is and is to become; because what once was an engaging but innocuous phenomenon no longer is. The cub has grown into the young lion; and now is the hour of his roaring.

In the post-modern, Sacro-Egoistical, Emerging Church world, each interested individual determines the religious value of any activity or experience—not just the institution. This allows for greater options in meeting the religious and spiritual needs formerly restricted by community convention, more, or deontological ethos. Edward Hammett remarks, “There are many who are spiritually minded and many who are serious about their spiritual journey who cannot find their place in most of the existing institutional churches.”

Socially savvy churches reach out to the Sacro-Egoists in society, and beckon them to come share and develop their spiritual journey in a safe, nurturing, and diverse environment of radical individualism that sometimes operates outside traditional convention. This is not a singular event anymore in churches in the Pacific Northwest; the vast majority of congregations are finding ways of accommodating and addressing the radical individualistic needs/demands of their parishioners.

Fr. William, a Catholic Priest from Grants Pass, OR, asserts,

Regarding personal choice of attire or appearance, I generally leave those issues alone. Attire can be an expression of one’s opinion about life, but one’s dress, attire, or tattoos do not make a person. If I do decide to talk to the individualist, I will suggest to the person that others may likely find his/her attire distracting and that they should consider various how they may be drawing attention away from Jesus and onto themselves. When this doesn’t work, I challenge them more directly, but I remind them that they are always welcome here at our church. Church is a place for sinners and the sick. It is not a place to make political protests or become the focus of other’s attention.

Jeffery, a youth pastor at a Conservative Baptist church of around 100 people just outside of Springfield, states,

We are pretty easy going as far as wardrobe goes, but I do get some comments or looks about the hat on my head that I wear inside the building. My tattoos, which are clearly visible sometimes, attract a stare or two also, but I haven’t had any bad confrontations about my formerly taboo customs. I often wonder how our church would react if an openly gay couple starting to attend, but we really are not that diverse out where we live.

Bill, the senior pastor at a non-denominational megachurch church in Tualatin, OR, states,

Recognizing that Radical Individualism is a value that permeates the western world, we have made some intentional efforts as a result. We focus on the core or essentials of our belief in God and choose not to have the ‘non’ essentials divide us. In the end, we believe followers of Jesus need to stack hands on the essentials of the good news of Jesus Christ, but when He will return, what style of music we use in worship, what kind of clothes you wear to church, if you like tattoos or don’t–these are not worth fighting over.

Chris, a youth pastor at a non-denominational church in Longview, WA, comments,

The “fierce independence” (see Tournier quote) of young people today is truly their way of coping with life being on their own, struggling without the help of the (perceived) absent adults in their lives. Raised as consumers from infancy (even in the church) they are told that their needs are supreme and meeting those needs is the calling of life.
While peer relationships among teenagers are vitally important, we are trying to meet their true-God-given needs for community in networks of intentional relationships.

These churches do not only affirm or accommodate Sacro-Egoism, though. They also attempt to promote and nurture the faith of the community or institution as well.

Fr. William states,

On the occasion when a radical individualist initiates a challenge against my faith, Church, or traditions, I will respond with a challenge back. The difficult thing is not to talk about the quality of the person or use name-calling, but rather stay on point about their philosophical and theological concepts. When I can have an honest discussion, I try to focus on the logic of the individualists’ argument and respond to those ideas. Ultimately, any argument needs to find its foundation in the person and actions of Jesus Christ. He was not an individualist, but rather a good Jew who served to his dying day and beyond at the tomb through to his Ascension and finally at the throne to sit at the right hand of his Father. Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins perfectly demonstrates that one’s own desires should be submissive to God. Jesus was not a radical individualist. He was all about his Father’s agenda for the people.

Of similar mindset, Pastor Bill states,

We also believe that God made us as relational beings and our personal spiritual journeys are not meant to be lived out in isolation. In fact, much of the guidance given to the early church in the New Testament assumed that Jesus followers would be living in community. All of the ‘one another’ passages in the New Testament–i.e., love one another, forgive one another, etc.–assume Jesus’ followers would not isolate themselves into a ‘just God and me’ lifestyle. So, we encourage our church to be in community in small groups that grow as family together, learn to love God more, and reach out to serve and love on their local community. This pushes against the constant pull of radical individualism and we devote time for the building up of spiritual leaders within this community environment over time.

Pastor Chris concludes,

In my experience, young people today are in the triple-bind of growing up in fractured and falling-apart families, finding themselves the target of a consumer-driven culture that feeds their narcissism, and so starving for relationships without any understanding of what true community actually looks like. In many of our churches (even my own), we fall into the trap of doing “consumer church,” trying to offer many options that are often focused on felt-needs. This isn’t a failing all by itself, but it must be balanced by a call to community that is other-centered and not self-centered.

Phyllis Tickle writes, “It is not unreasonable to assume that by the time the Great Emergence has reached maturity, about 60 percent of practicing American Christians will be emergent or some clear variant thereof.” Currently in the U.S.A., this would amount to 188,637,007 people living out their faith in an implicit, individualistic, Sacro-Egoistical manner. Such a reality will have profound repercussions on what it means to be a believer and/or to attend church in post-modernity.

Clearly, the Emerging Church movement has challenged the former religious establishment, usurped some of traditionalism’s authority in Western Society, and created personally empowering tenets based on its own interpretation of religious expression and community. A broader question is whether the power of the Emerging Church’s radical individualism will eventually eclipse all vestiges of communal and/or institutional Christianity, and what this will mean to the church culture in the future.

Historically, all new religious movements, no matter how individualistic or charismatic, become organized and institutionalized. Can the Emerging Church burst this time-worn pattern? Can “one” be distinctly “one” among so many of similar mindset?

In true Sacro-Egoistical style, the Emerging Church is attempting to do this through commitment, diversity, creativity, experimentation, and liberation, leading the Western churches into new and uncharted territory.


  • John Knox

    Dr. John S. Knox is an assistant professor of biblical studies at George Fox University in Newberg, OR. He has taught on the Bible, Church History, and Religion for over a decade in traditional and online environments. He recently wrote a Christian History fiction novel called The Letter of Alon. He and his wife, Brenda, have been married for 22 years, and have two amazing boys.