Posted by: Andries Louw | 11 February 2009

Negotiating identity between orthodoxy and emergence

“But who are you?!” asked one of the members of the St Nicholas greek orthodox congregation in Brixton, Johannesburg. We had been asking them all kinds of questions about the orthodox tradition. We were a group of visitors, mainly active or interested in the emerging church conversation. Her simple question, asked towards the end of our conversation, in a way summed up the issue of emergent identity for me. I could almost sense her saying: “We know who we are. We have been around since 33 AD, yet we are the ones having to answer all your questions. You are the new kids on the block – who are YOU?!”

Steve Hayes and me

The question triggered spontaneous laughter among all sitting around with snacks and coffee in hand. There was nothing hostile about the question but it put the issue of emergent identity on the agenda. Hat-tip to Cobus van Wyngaard, associate pastor at the dutch reformed church Kameeldrif for arranging the visit and thank you to Steve Hayes for the generous hospitality with which we were received. Steve is the orthodox deacon who led the Vespers service (Saturday evening service) this past week-end.

My only previous visit to an orthodox church was in the early nineties, when our ecumenism lecturer, Gustav Gous took us to this very same venue in Brixton. Maybe the reason why I haven’t visited an orthodox church again since then is because it was a bit of a shock to my evangelical and reformed system first time round.

This time was different however, maybe because I had already had the previous exposure and because I’ve grown a bit. It was a very special experience for me, a sacred experience loaded with symbolism. I almost had the sense of being transported back in time, of walking into an early church gathering (of maybe around the 3rd or 4th century?)

The sight of the paintings, icons, candles and the clergy’s clothes, the sound of the choir and the chanting of the priests and congregation, the constant movement of the clergy who kept appearing from and disappearing behind doors, their walking around the open space of the building, their blessing of the parishioners, the members crossing themselves every time the Trinity was mentioned in a chant, the smell of incense, which towards the end was enriched by that of cinnamon as a special cake was brought in, all combined to create a multisensory drama of worship.

At the end of the service the cake was served to us. As I closed my mouth around a freshly baked portion and tasted the cinnamon and nuts, I could sense the sacred act of worship flowing over into the everyday acts of eating and chatting.

Much of the conversation afterwards was taken up by the question of contextualisation. Cobus wanted to know how this congregation contextualises the gospel. One response was that most of the members don’t live in the area and that they don’t think they are making a significant impact on the Brixton community. Another explained the concept of orthopraxia, which is the practical living out of orthodoxy. For him it meant the way he treats his staff and customers in his pharmacy. Yet another said that the SABC had recorded some of their services which are also available on CD.

Father Athanasius asked “What context?” He pointed out that there are so many different contexts and that the church shouldn’t just change to fit the context. Different respondents emphasised that the variety of prayers covering all aspects of life have remained relevant throughout the ages and that there is no need to change these. I got the impression that they were saying we run the risk of losing our identity if we change too easily.

This brings me back to the title of this post. Linguists use the term negotiating meaning to describe the process when a language learner can’t speak or understand enough of the new language to communicate well and then combines her existing ability in the new language with gestures and words from her own language. It is a very natural phenomenon.

One of the features of the emerging conversation is that it’s difficult to define. It eludes definition. Participants seem to embrace the uncertainty, the preliminary nature of answers to questions and the open-endedness of the conversation. It is probably fair to say that the identity of the emerging church lies to some extent in its non-identity. But as the word emerging suggests, it is moving towards an identity.

Reggie Nel, minister of the uniting reformed church and senior lecturer at Unisa, mentioned the absence of a sermon, which in the reformed tradition is the central element of the service. The response was that there is a sermon in the Sunday service and that even the Vespers service had a theme – the Publican and the Pharisee. I remarked that I am struggling with certain theological elements in the orthodox tradition and our hosts assumed correctly that I was referring to the centrality of “the mother of God” (Mary) in the worship service. Add to that the reverence for the icons of the saints. One of the members said that they don’t worship the saints but that they kiss the icons in loving memory, almost like one would think dearly of deceased family members.

Arthur Stewart of NieuCommunities, a nieu-monastic protestant ministry, remarked that the element of mystery in the orthodox service was also typical of emerging worship. Roger Saner, who also has close links with NieuCommunities added that there was nothing digital in the service. One of the members noted that during a recent power failure their service was not affected at all. And so we were just starting to negotiate identity when the “But who are you?!” question came. We agreed that we needed another time to continue this conversation.

Listening to the orthodox seemingly hesitant response towards the question of contextualisation, I was suddenly reminded of the image of the gyroscope. James Collins & Jerry Porras wrote the following about continuity and change in their book, Built to last – Successful habits of visionary companies (Introduction to the 2000 edition, p XV):

Even the visionary companies studied in Built to Last need to continually remind themselves of the crucial distinction between core and noncore, between what should never change and what should be open for change, between what is truly sacred and what is not. Hewlett-Packard executives, for example, speak frequently about this crucial distinction, helping HP people see that “change” in operating practices, cultural norms, and business strategies does not mean losing the spirit of the HP Way. Comparing the company to a gyroscope, HP’s 1995 annual report emphasizes this key idea: “Gyroscopes have been used for almost a century to guide ships, airplanes and satellites. A gyroscope does this by combining the stability of an inner wheel with the free movement of a pivoting frame. In an analogous way, HP’s enduring character guides the company as we both lead and adapt to the evolution of technology and markets.”

The lesson for the emerging church is clear. One of the hallmarks of the emerging conversation is the desire to be relevant in a post-modern world. This remains a valid pursuit but we need God’s wisdom to discern between “what should never change and what should be open for change”. Note the use of terms such as sacred and spirit by Collins & Porras in a business context. How much more should we as the body of Christ treasure our core identity in Him!

I have been saying for many years that the church needs to change, not so much because society is changing, but rather because we have degenerated so far from our original identity. We need to change back to what we were before the church became an institution. We need to rediscover our roots. These are also prominent emergent sentiments.

It is exciting to be alive in a time like this. We need more cross-pollinating experiences such as this one, more conversations, more community and especially more prayer, Bible reading, meditation and practical ministry to hurting people. We will negotiate our identity in motion, as we are impacting our environment in community with one another, living lives of worship before God.

Other blogposts about the same event that I am aware of:

Please let me know if you also blogged about this (by commenting here or by emailing learnmylanguage at gmail dot com) and I will add your post to my list. Please also copy this list to your post.

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Responses

  1. […] Negotiating identity between Orthodoxy and emergence by Andries Louw. […]

  2. Hi Andries,

    cool. enjoyed your post. You wrote:
    >The lesson for the emerging church is clear. One of the hallmarks of the emerging conversation is the desire to be relevant in a post-modern world. This remains a valid pursuit but we need God’s wisdom to discern between “what should never change and what should be open for change”.

    Absolutely! You’ve hit the nail on the head. A group of us here were doing emerging/missional in the 80s and 90s before Hirschy and the others considered it. They thot our rave church, cafe church, new age church, Jesus Buddhists etc were too radical!! teehee.

    We were fully relevant. But then our people kept changing, and our communities had to keep changing cultures. Got too disruptive and disuniting. So what culture holds us together?? You can do emerging for 5-10 years and then you have to face this issue…

    >I have been saying for many years that the church needs to change, not so much because society is changing, but rather because we have degenerated so far from our original identity. We need to change back to what we were before the church became an institution. We need to rediscover our roots. These are also prominent emergent sentiments.

    Agree about the roots, but you may benefit from reading the earliest non_NT church documents like St. Ignatius which show the church was always institutional. And one of the realities is that all emerging groups end up becoming institutions by day 4 because people are like that. The question therefore is: what institutions are healthy. We’ve discovered that emerging groups last max 5 years. Most 2 years. So 2000 years is a challenge. What does that mean…

    >It is exciting to be alive in a time like this. We need more cross-pollinating experiences such as this one, more conversations, more community and especially more prayer, Bible reading, meditation and practical ministry to hurting people. We will negotiate our identity in motion, as we are impacting our environment in community with one another, living lives of worship before God.

    Its sure exciting. Then when 90% of emerging people drop out… Ugh. After a few years the excitement wears thin, then you have to discover sustainable identity.

    Hope that stimulates the converstaions a bit further.

  3. Hi John, thanks for your comments from Down Under! This is exactly the kind of input needed to take the discussion further. I hope to respond in more detail later. Blessings.

  4. Most people in the Emerging conversation would put their disillusionment with the church as one of the most important reasons why they started looking for something different…

  5. Thanks Andries, Fr John and Cobus for continuing the conversation.

    I’ll add that everyone at St Nicholas I have spoken to who was there was very enthusiastic, and thought we should have more such gatherings. We have Vespers every Saturday night, of course, but having a visitors night and discussions with the visitors they found very interesting and stimulating, and they have asked that we make it a regular thing.

    Haven’t heard from the Nieu Communities crowd, but everyone else seems to have enjoyed it, so I hope they did. It would be interesting to hear the reactions of some of the apprentices, many of whom as new to South Africa.

    So I hope the conversation will continue, both electronically and face to face.

  6. […] Andries Louw […]

  7. Interesting article and responses…

    Who are we…?
    What are we looking for…?

    Stop looking, cause what we look for is right here, now and forever.

    ‘Experimenting’ (the term I call it) is dangerous, and you are prime targets to be so easily deceived & tricked in your minds thinking you are doing right.
    It’s a very dangerous game to play and in the end could land one up very far from the simplistic answer you were looking for, even tho you may be doing ‘worldly’ good.

    In general:
    I highly admire the togetherness of christian groups.. and how they manage to attract their numbers.
    But I somehow am very wary of the energy and drive behind the way they go about their travels and findings.
    I do worry on the conclusions & resulted actions they collectively decide on – based on their feelings, strongest influential talker in the group, the church that had the biggest impact, the church that felt the best, the church that made the most sense, the church that had the best singers, readers, preachers, the nicest iconography…
    what ever met your “this is good” standards on the day.

    The answer has always been with humanity, and will never change..
    The answer does not need to be “customized” for todays society, does not need to be changed to suite your modern day needs, does not need to change to suite your self-feelings, desire and wishes… for these all pull us away.
    The answer is timeless and doesn’t change with our worldly insignificant modern changes

    The only thing that changes, is that our spiritual fathers’/guides/church can have more mercy on our souls and modernized bodies and give us less of a cross to bear – less penance, less fasting, less rule… and hope that we come to our senses and ask for mercy.

    It’s up to you to want to open yourself and then you can be helped, and then you can progress, and then you can ask for the spiritual farther/guide/church for a blessing for more of a cross to bear.

    … has one ever really opened oneself!

    The original teachings directly from our Saviour are still with the Orthodox church to this day
    So instead of playing “telephone-telephone”, let’s go to the source – the Orthodox Church.. cause if you not at the source, you might get a scrambled message.

    The road will be hard (temptations and lack of humility and love)… but with the little grace we receive along the way, it will give us great joy and direction and spiritual food to “forward” even harder.

    If I have offended anyone, may I ask your forgiveness and I pray that everything I have put down here is as our Saviour would have wanted it.

  8. About contextualization and relevance: What if you asked your arm, or your eyes, the same question? Maybe when you are just being, just out there living as a Christian in the post-modern world, you are already contextualizing and being relevant, but because it’s your whole way of life, you can’t really define it. Like breathing, it’s mostly unconscious until someone or something makes you aware of it.
    Being truly Christian/Orthodox is exactly about living a Christian life, whether the world around is Christian or not.

  9. Please don’t do what the Roman Catholic Church has done in its accomodation to the world! Please don’t protestantize yourselves! If the RC is any lesson, the accomodation will not be followed by reinvigoration, but by flight into sects, as the spirit takes hold and people invent for themselves the kind of faiths they’d prefer, and then the splintering begins, as well as the uncountasble loss of souls.

    Above all, keep your Mother in the center, and turn more to her in prayer. There is nothing more preferred by the devil than to see her–and womanhood–dethroned.

    If you wish change, make change in the intensity of your prayer life, in the energy of your penance for sin, in your apostolic work. Don’t change your faith! To agitate otherwise is to do harm, great harm.

    Yours in Christ, with much love,
    A RC trying to reconstruct what we de-constructed.

  10. … the sacred act of worship flowing over into the everyday acts of eating and chatting.

    Pie in the sky when you die and cake on your plate while you wait: love it! Thank you; and is this not what worship should be: something that overflows into the very ordinariness of life, transforming everything in its wake?

  11. Just created a tinyurl to this post so that I could twitter it: tinyurl.com/orthomerge

  12. “I have been saying for many years that the church needs to change, not so much because society is changing, but rather because we have degenerated so far from our original identity.” Yes, we are called to change because the resurrection calls us into a new creation. Interesting post.

  13. Hmm, very cognitive post.
    Is this theme good unough for the Digg?

  14. Just passing by.Btw, you website have great content!

    _________________________________
    Making Money $150 An Hour

  15. An interesting series of comments here, Andries! Great meeting you in person at the service…it’s going to be interesting to navigate the tension between what needs to change and what needs to stay the same. Grace to you as you figure that out! I’ve blogged about the service here: http://www.futurechurch.co.za/item/it-was-all-greek-orthodoxy-to-me

  16. […] journey was the Vespers service at the Greek Orthodox Church in Brixton. I blogged about it in my previous post. Some week-ends we just stayed at home as a family, praying, reading and enjoying each […]

  17. The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21 Century Church, by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch

  18. For a year, my sister & I traveled in faith around the world (including with Andries Louw!), and God blessed us with the opportunity to fellowship with all kinds of communities of Christian Faith. What an amazing & enlightening experience.

    Through 100s of Divine appointments, Spirit-filled testimonies & diverse worship opportunities, God used this journey to more fully introduce Himself (and His Body) to me.

    Although, as we lived, breathed & walked in faith, we also personally witnessed what many individuals in the Church wrestle with — their identity, diversity AND unity as a Body of believers, as children of God & as a functional family of Faith, despite and/or including our differences.

    God works, His Spirit moves & His Son emerges in mysterious ways, including through our varying degrees of worship. As long as we keep focused on Him AND truly love each other through the thick & thin (as He loves us), we’ll be fine.

    So how do we do that? What does that look like to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” Eph 5:21? How can we be the healthy, wholesome Bride we should be for our Bridegroom? How can we “negotiate” such a diverse identity?

    How about rejoicing such a diverse identity!

    Let’s unite under Him, listen with Christ-like hearts, dismantle our prejudices, and be willing to learn from one another… After all, since we were each made in the image of God, we’ve all got something to teach each other about Him.

    Furthermore, let’s be gracious & compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in love… as much as humanly possible.

  19. another short must-read for “negotiating” identity & unity:

    A Credible Witness: Reflections on Power, Evangelism and Race, by Brenda Salter Mcneil

  20. Looks like you are a true pro. Did ya study about the matter? lawl


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