Review: The Church in Emerging Culture, ed. Leonard Sweet

Sweet, Leonard, ed. The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives. Grand Raids, MI: Zondervan 2003.

Occasionally I’ll take the time to browse library shelves for recent publications on themes related to my interests in the contemporary church and visual culture. Today I encountered a book on the so-called emerging church, which offers an analysis of where church fits into our western society.

Five contributors take part in a discussion on the church: Andy Crouch, Michael Horton, Frederica Mathewes-Green, Brian McLaren, and Erwin Raphael McManus. Each of these writers has earned a special place within a readership anxious about the future of our churches amid dire statistical evidence. Sweet begins the discussion with a critique of Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture published in 1951. Much of the rest of the book deals with the significance of living in a postmodern society and finding a place for the key issues in systematic theology within this new framework: Who is Christ? What is the place of culture? What is the significance of the sacraments? What is postmodernism? What is modernity? What can we say about the Mall of America?

The book was published almost ten years ago, which gives us an opportunity to examine the degree to which their assessments of church-live have borne out. I’m not a part of the inner-circle of theologians and church leaders who are re-thinking and re-imagining our churches.  But, as far as I can tell, most congregations lag far behind the trends outlined here.

Together, these authors argue we are in a changing cultural landscape in which we are much more spiritual, engaged by personal experiences, and attuned to images. Our forms of spirituality are much less informed by religions, less directed by authority, and less attuned to words.

That line on the back cover of the book—that we now live in a society more aware of images than words—caught my attention.  Actually, the striking part for me was the authors’ inability to engage how of visual culture and popular media relate to the mission of the church.  Churches are only incrementally better equipped to engage visual culture than ten years ago and reluctant to participate in popular media.  More problematic for me: the authors are trying to understand how churches relate to everything outside and around them without really changing the way we do liturgy and worship.


Frederica Mathewes-Green, The Open Door: Enter the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer.

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