Seeking Church

Emerging Witnesses to the Kingdom

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Darren T. Duerksen, William A. Dyrness
Missiological Engagements
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    InterVarsity Press
    , October
     2019.
     272 pages.
     $32.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780830851058.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In April 2007 the International Journal of Frontier Missiology sponsored a discussion on “insider movements.” Following that meeting Rebecca Lewis provided a two-part definition of “insider movements” as any movement to faith in Christ where the gospel flows through preexisting communities and social networks, and where those valid expressions of the body of Christ, remain inside their socioreligious communities, retaining their identity as members of that community (“Promoting Movements to Christ within Natural Communities," IJFM, 24.2 [2007]). These new expressions of church identified as “insider movements” among, for example Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and other non-Christian religious communities, have raised vigorous discussion and debate in missiological circles well before Lewis offered that definition. In Seeking Church: Emerging Witnesses to the Kingdom, authors Darren T. Duerksen and William A. Dyrness advance the discussion with academic rigor and in the end they contribute an important multidisciplinary conceptual framework to inform the debate. Each author also brings their past mission experience to the text, Duerksen has worked in India and Dyrness in the Phillippines, which gives the book a gravitas informed by both the academy and experience. 

Duerksen and Dyrness argue that developing churches are engaged in a reverse hermeneutic. The normal course of the church’s self-understanding and practice, they suggest, would come from its ideas which then inform and shape its practice. The authors reverse the question by asking how those ideas may have been informed by the cultural context in which the churches exist. Churches are inevitably shaped by the social and cultural norms of the settings in which they exist. “While it is important for churches to define what they mean by church, we are arguing that it is wise and important for churches to recognize the cultural milieu in which their particular ecclesiology and ecclesial markers have emerged, and in which they continue to have relevance” (149). They continue to build their argument by engaging with the social-scientific work on emergent theory highlighting that social communities develop over time in ways which reflect specific historical and cultural dynamics, and the church is no different. The church in all its expressions is an emergent phenomenon where cultural influences, historical factors, and biblical understanding interact.

This is, they argue, a missiological process in which God has always worked through people and their culture to shape witness in the world. Chapters 2 through 4 develop the contours and importance of emergence theory and illustrate, through a case study, how the church has always been an emergent phenomenon. They examine the church, in both history and in the contemporary world of Asia and India, and the development of indigenous churches showing how they are shaped by emergent theory’s understanding of the interaction between cultural and historical forces with biblical understanding to form churches in diverse ways. It is this theological engagement and reflection on the sociocultural process of emergent theory which makes this book a significant contribution to the insider movement discussion.

Chapters 5 and 6 make a theological turn to biblical descriptions of the church as the body of Christ, a pilgrim people, and a community of the Spirit, and the authors consider ecclesial practices (initiation rites or baptism, worship and prayer, teaching and reading scripture, and communion) in light of emergent theory. They then bring their discussion together in chapter 7 by reiterating that context and space (place, location, social and historical realities) and theological principles matter (presence and embodiment or the idea of incarnationality and community). Next, they focus on markers of a transformative church, which are applied across cultures, are rooted in the home culture, and shape the church as an active agent participating in the transformative work already underway. The description of ecclesial marks are not exhaustive and the authors hold open the possibility that more could be added but here they argue for these five markers: the community (1) hears the story of Christ and obeys, (2) forms around the story, (3) responds to the story in practices such as prayer and worship, (4) seeks to live in shalom (peace) together and with the wider community, and (5) desires to witness to Christ and transformation.

Seeking Church is a rich multidisciplinary exploration at the intersection of ecclesiology and missiology that will engage academics, challenge theologians, and encourage practitioners. With a focus on emergence theory and the use of case studies this is no abstract ecclesiology that reflects on the church apart from its concrete identity and location. It is, rather, something contextually appropriate and applicable which moves the discussion of church, culture, and missiology toward how church actually emerges in and out of various contexts. It underscores the ways indigenous religion and culture inform the church, and there is a refreshing and important openness to what is good about such influences.

At the same time critics of emergent theory will be quick to question the claim that the church is an emergent phenomenon and whether or not churches that develop in this fashion have or are in any way informed by or recognizable as Christian, as measured by the markers outlined by Duerksen and Dyrness, and yet still reflective of the culture they are emerging in. The conversation the authors have between theological and sociological principles is rich and nuanced by experience that points to the possibility of communities that are both culturally distinctive and shaped by the Christian story, a community one could even call the church.

About the Reviewer(s): 

John Berard teaches in the sociology department at the University of Winnipeg and is completing a PhD in practical theology at Durham University, UK.

Date of Review: 
June 30, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Darren T. Duerksen (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is associate professor and program director of intercultural and religious studies at Fresno Pacific University.

William A. Dyrness (DTheol, University of Strasbourg; Doctorandus, Free University) is professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary.

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