Just spent the last couple of days meeting with colleagues in Oxford, at Regent's Park College. We were looking at the issues for theological education arising from the flux and diversity of expression in church community that has come to be called emerging church, or fresh expressions, or whatever catch phrase we care to use in the vain attempt to catch in neat definition this phase of the church's life in contemporary Westernised Christian culture.
Stuart Murray Williams is one of the central figures trying to interpret, understand and evaluate what is of permanent value and what of transient interest in the plethora of alternatives on offer for those no longer satisfied with 'inherited church' or 'traditional church' or 'mainstream church'. See - even the non emergent status quo is now accruing nuanced definitions! And given the long list of options from cafe church to to Sci Fi church, Post-Alpha church to Cyber church, from menu church to common purse community, it was an important exercise to try somehow to grasp the significance of whatever is happening, in a culture that values the 'whatever' word.
Not rehearsing it all here, but several really important questions are at least worth posing:
What is necessary for any group to legitimately claim for itself the word church as a valid descriptor of what it is and how it expresses its life? What is the ecclesial minimum for a group to call itself church?
How important is sustainability in any of these new developments in Christian mission and community? If it is a transient phase is that necessarily a sign of failure? And if some of these survive and become self-sustaining is that validation, 'if it is of God it will prosper'?
If a group aim to accommodate a culturally specific group (Goth church for example), how does that relate to the catholicity of the Church? If Christian community is inclusive, how does that square with groups whose nature, aim and identity are so specific and culturally focused that by definition others would find them all but inaccessible?
If these new and imaginative and creative initiatives are part of a search for a more authentic and participatory way of being Christian community engaged with surrounding culture, what are the criteria for such authenticity?
Given that fresh expressions of emerging or emergent church are self-consciously developmental, uncontrolled and organic, what is it that nevertheless enables them to define themselves as Christian? Where are the theological and spiritual parameters, and who sets them?
And the specific question for theological education as formation and preparation for ministry in such a cultural flux - what impact should such developments, and the need to understand them, have on curriculum content, styles of teaching and a theological understanding of ecclesiology and Baptist Identity?
All good questions - much sharp discussion - several tentative conclusions - and most importantly, food for thought and reason for dialogue.