The Emerging Church ” – Then and Now!

We are hearing a great deal these days about the “emerging Church”—though no one seems able to say exactly what is emerging. Perhaps that is because we are going through a huge seismic change. A friend suggested recently that the Church is entering a third era. The first was the apostolic Church through the third century AD and the second was the institutional Church, expanding and dividing from Constantine through the Reformation until now.

And who quite knows what is emerging? Will the “seeker” Church movement last? Will there be a new “monasticism”?

This week I read with chastened conscience and hopeful spirit of the Church that emerged after Easter and Pentecost: a Church marked by “great power” and “great grace” as they witnessed to the resurrection (Acts 4:32-35).

The “great power” of their proclamation was matched by the “great grace” of their community. Not only did they share the gospel; they also shared their possessions. In verse 32 we read, “No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own.” Those who owned real estate sold and shared the proceeds. The startling result of this was that “there were no needy persons among them” (v. 34).

We long for the great evangelistic power of the early Christians. But do we also want the great economic grace?

I remembered and reread what the great Methodist evangelist E. Stanley Jones wrote of this first “Christian socialism” in his insightful Mastery. This book tells about how the early Church was mastered by the true master, namely, Jesus.

Jones was not an advocate of socialism. In his epigrammatic style he wrote that these early believers were “right in seeing that distribution should be according to need.” However, Jones continued, “They were wrong in thinking that having everything in common was the method of providing distribution. They were fundamentally right and marginally wrong.”

Having all things in common, he wrote, has been tried through the centuries, both by Christian groups and Communism, and has failed.

But neither is individualism the answer. Beyond individualism and Communism is the kingdom, marked economically by distribution according to need. People need what they need: not less, not more.

These thoughts challenge me, especially living in the United States where in 2005 the pay of the average Chief Executive Officer was 430 times that of the average worker! In such an economy, can the model of the first emerging Church be relevant? Can it be practical?

Max DePree thought so. While heading Herman Miller (one of Fortune Magazine’s ten “best managed companies”), this Christian executive leader advocated “inclusive capitalism” and insisted that the highest paid executive in his company would be paid no more than twenty times the lowest paid worker. That was grace in action.

Perhaps our post-Easter prayer leading to Pentecost should be, “Spirit of God, descend again upon our hearts. Fill your Church once more with great power to preach the gospel and great grace to practice kingdom values.”

Leighton Ford is president of Leighton Ford Ministries, which focuses on raising up younger leaders to spread the message of Christ worldwide. He served from 1955 to 1985 as associate evangelist and later vice president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Ford is honorary life chairman of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, having served from 1976 to 1992 as chair.