Democracy & the Great Emergence

The energy of the Great Evangelical Revival of the 1700s generated ripples in society being felt to this day. In the 1800s and 1900s the UK’s electoral reforms and labour movements found their roots and their leaders in as a result of new lay leadership generated by the Great Evangelical Revival of the 18th century and drawn from the congregational life and leadership of the Dissenting and Methodist Chapels. Some might see it as ironic therefore that the “Great Emergence” among the 21st century churches could be regarded as a radical democratization of initative within the Christian community.

Is it ironic or is it that – as with democracy at large – it behoves every generation of Christians – whatever the behomoths of the time – to contend for the priesthood of all believers in their day. Is the priesthood of all believers – with everything about church-life and mission that such language implies – also a perpetual cause? I believe that there is something in that parallel. Indeed I have given some years to serving that spiritual democratization, seeing it as true to the Apostle Peter’s vision of the priesthood (IPeter 2) and the prophethood (Acts 2) of all God’s people.

John Wesley’s ordination of non-Oxbridge graduates, his emancipation of working men to positions of leadership, patterns of accountability which took no account of position or pay, and the Methodist practice of wealth-sharing earned the Wesleyans formal charges of “communism” and “collusion with the French!!” That’s how threatening was the societal change emanating from his empowering work among believers.

You might ask what I mean by a democratization of initiative? What might that look like for the churches? I believe that what we are seeing and what we must encourage is a new generation of believers – and I don’t just mean young people – is emerging; a generation that believes it can follow God’s leading and prompting to innovate and take initiative, without asking permission from church overlords. For a new generation the priesthood of all believers within Body of Christ and the feudalism endemic to most world cultures are moving further and further apart.

Giovanni Bernadone – a powerful democratizer of initiative – became known to the world as Francis of Assisi. His movement transformed the face of mediaeval Christianty and speaks a prophetic word even today.

When Francis went to Rome to speak with Pope Innocent III it was not to ask permission to continue, rather to ask that Innocent III enable them to continue without perpetual molestation from mainstream believers who thought they were doing God a favour by burning down Franciscan church communities – which like all classic monasteries operated outside of the feudalism of Catholic episcopal order. Francis was so strident on this that his little brothers had to keep him from speaking directly to the pope, feeling that his tone would offside the Roman pontiff! The godly pope saw God’s hand on the mendicant movement and accorded them his blessing and a recognition as “penitents”.

The Franciscan discovery that apostolic authority might simply mean obedience to jesus in the apostolic Scriptures is resurfacing around the world. This is why many commentators are describing (perhaps rather North-West centrically) the great emergence as a “second reformation.” For a fuller answer take a look at my other post “Changing Culture Changing Church.”

As I reflect on the metaphor of democracy today I want to flag three perhaps uncomfortable implications implied by that metaphor:

Democracy is a movement away from the forces of self-interest. It is often striven for as a means to secure policies that serve THE GOOD OF ALL IN ITS SOCIETY.

Democracy is not anti-leadership. Rather it is about the placement and accountability of LEADERSHIP in order that it be EXERCIZED IN THE INTEREST OF THE PEOPLE

Democracy is not a movement away from an old order to disorder. It is fundamentally a movement towards the expression and organizing of a NEW ORDER!
Perhaps these observations may not be to the taste of those who might prefer to reject all sense of religion being “organized.”However, if my obeservations are correct, and if there is indeed a democratizing “new order” energy to this “great emergence” then perhaps it has in store for us a more revolutionary time than we have yet imagined..