The Emerging Church – Part 1

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(April 2006 – Volume 12, Issue 4) 

The emergent church is a rather slippery name for a rather slippery movement. By slippery, I mean that the movement is so new (originated in the late 1990s), so fragmented, so varied, that nailing it down is like nailing the proverbial Jell-O to the wall. There are no official leaders[1] or headquarters;[2] some have said that there are thousands of expressions yet only a few churches have sold out to the concept; and even those claiming the name can’t agree on what is going on.[3] Brian McLaren, the closest thing to a spokesperson for the movement so far states:

Right now Emergent is a conversation, not a movement. We don’t have a program. We don’t have a model. I think we must begin as a conversation, then grow as a friendship, and see if a movement comes of it.[4]

Having said this, there is still much common ground that can be identified. The name “emerging church” speaks of a church which is, guess what, emerging from something. This means, it is coming out of the more traditional understanding of the church and emerging into a postmodern expression. What it will actually become is still a matter of speculation, but its adherents see it as a postmodern church for a postmodern culture. Of course, even this gets tricky because the prefix “post” has become all too trendy. We hear not only of post-modern, but also of post-Christian, post-Protestant, post-analytical, post-liberal, post-conservative, post-everything. The problem with “post” is that it describes what you are not much better than it describes what you are. If you are no longer modern or Christian or liberal or conservative, what are you? McLaren believes that defining postmodern is premature[5] – we don’t yet know what form it will take, so defining the postmodern church is even more problematic. Emergent church leaders do not all agree on where the church goes from here but they all believe that it must go somewhere, for they believe the modern church cannot connect with the postmodern mind. How this fleshes out will be dealt with later in our study; for now we can say the emergent church is a movement chasing a culture.

Dan Kimball, author of The Emerging Church, says this is necessary because “the basis of learning has shifted from logic and rational, systematic thought to the realm of experience. People increasingly long for the mystical and the spiritual rather than the evidential and facts-based faith of the modern soil.”[6] Kimball suggests that the seeker-sensitive church, the church that chased the last generation’s culture, is already out of date: “The things that seeker-sensitive churches removed from their churches are the very things [postmodern] nonbelievers want to experience if they attend a worship service.”[7] The postmodern wants to reconnect to the past. They want traditions and religious symbols rather than slick excellence, polished performance and state-of-the art structures found in modernity. That translates into a very different look and feel. For example it is not likely that you will find a sign along the highway pointing to the First Baptist Emergent Church. Names like Baptist and denominational ties are too modern. Popular emergent church names are Solomon’s Porch, House of Mercy, The Rock, Jacob’s Ladder, Circle of Hope, Ikon, Vintage Faith, New Beginnings and Mosaic. They sponsor websites like vintagefaith.com, emergentvillage.org, and theooze.com. The emerging church appears to be the latest flavor of the day in a church age which allows itself to be defined by its culture rather than by Scripture. D. A. Carson reminds us:

What drove the Reformation was the conviction, among all its leaders, that the Roman Catholic Church had departed from Scripture and had introduced theology and practices that were inimical to genuine Christian faith. In other words, they wanted things to change, not because they perceived that new developments had taken place in the culture so that the church was called to adapt its approach to the new cultural profile, but because they perceived that new theology and practices had developed in the church that contravened Scripture, and therefore that things needed to be reformed by the Word of God. By contrast, although the emerging church movement challenges, on biblical grounds, some of the beliefs and practices of evangelicalism, by and large it insists it is preserving traditional confessionalism by changing the emphases because the culture has changed, and so inevitably those who are culturally sensitive see things in a fresh perspective. In other words, at the heart of the emerging reformation lies a perception of a major change in culture.[8]

How does the Christian community go about chasing down the culture? Either through methods or message. The emerging church does both. Beginning with methodology, the leaders of the movement view the under-thirty generation as profoundly spiritual. They are interested in religious experiences and feelings. They want a sense of the supernatural. They are not interested in systematic theology, tightly woven apologetic arguments or logical reasoning. But they are attracted to spiritual mystery. Kimball quotes Garrison Keillor, who makes no claim of being a Christian, as saying, “If you can’t go to church and at least for a moment be given transcendence, if you can’t pass briefly from this life into the next, then I can’t see why anyone would go. Just a brief moment of transcendence causes you to come out of the church a changed person.”[9] Despite the fact that Keillor could not be more wrong if we are interested in true biblical transformation, the emergent leaders see this as the gateway to reaching the postmodern generations.

The Baby Busters (born between 1965 and 1983) and Mosaics (born between 1984 and 2002) are tired of “church-lite,” consumer spirituality, church buildings that look like warehouses or malls, CEO pastors, educational programs structured like community colleges and church services that are reminiscent of a Broadway musical. They want the transcendent, as Keillor says. So the emergent church loads up on such things. There is a return to what Kimball calls the “vintage church” which combines some excellent things such as singing of hymns, display of the cross and reading of Scripture with (questionable at best) medieval ritual, prayer stations, labyrinths, candles, incense, icons, stained glass, contemplative prayer, mantras, Benedictine chants, and darkness. Kimball makes the point that postmoderns want to experience God with all five senses – as the vintage church did. It should be pointed out, however, that the vintage church to which Kimball refers is not a return to the New Testament church. The vintage church has been waylaid by medieval Catholicism, which we must remember may have experienced the spiritual through the senses, but nevertheless was an apostate religion. Simply providing an unbeliever with a religious experience, which they might interpret as an encounter with God, may do them more harm than good. But just as the seeker-sensitive church saw felt-needs as the means of linking with unbelievers, so the emerging church sees spiritual experience as that means. The philosophy is basically the same, just the methods have changed.

Emergent leader Leonard Sweet describes the emergent church with the acronym EPIC. “E” stands for experiential because postmoderns desire more than listening and thinking. They want to enter into worship as an experience of the senses. This is why medieval rituals appeal to them. “P” speaks of participants as opposed to observers. They want an active faith. Rather than a sermon they might hold a “conversation.” “I” relates to image-based. Projected images, artwork, film and video are all attractive to this generation. They are sight-oriented. “C” means communal. They desire a strong sense of community. They are “people” persons. Instead of going to church they want to be the church.[10] There are some good things here but there are problems in the details, as we will see.

If this was the end of the story we might even find comfort in what is basically a reaction to the stripped-down model of Christianity that the seeker-sensitive church has given us for the last few decades. But as Rob Bell is quick to inform us, “This is not just the same old message with new methods. We’re rediscovering Christianity as an Eastern religion, as a way of life.”[11] This is something new in the cultural-identifying churches. The seeker-sensitive church loudly proclaimed that they were fine-tuning the methodology but were not tampering with the message of the evangelical church (even though they were). The emergent church is concerned about methods but they are even more concerned about the message. They believe that conservative evangelical Christianity has it all wrong. From the Scriptures to essential doctrines to the gospel itself, the church so far just doesn’t get it. And the emergent people include themselves in the same camp. As Brian McLaren states, “I don’t think we’ve got the gospel right yet. What does it mean to be saved?… None of us have arrived at orthodoxy.”[12]

Emergent Philosophy

Before we jump into the doctrinal distinctives of the emerging church we must first detail the philosophy that undergirds the movement. What we see, read and perceive is filtered, at least to some degree, through our presuppositions and worldview. The worldview of the emerging church is decidedly postmodern. Attempting to combine postmodern philosophy with biblical theology is a tricky business, as one might imagine; we should not be surprised that unanimity in the understanding of this attempted merger will not be found. Nevertheless, some common threads are evident throughout the movement.

Truth Claims

Truth claims are held with suspicion within postmodernism and we find a precarious juggling act in emergent circles as they try to reach a wary culture with the claims of Christ. The emerging church is concerned about presenting genuine Christianity in a way the postmodern culture understands. Since the very heart of postmodernity is rejection of absolute authoritative truth, yet Christianity claims to be the proclamation of absolute authoritative truth, a head-on collision is almost unavoidable. What is to be done? Something has to give and that something seems to be truth. McLaren presents their view:

Ask me if Christianity (my version of it, yours, the Pope’s, whoever’s) is orthodox, meaning true, and here’s my honest answer: a little, but not yet. Assuming by Christianity you mean the Christian understanding of the world and God, Christian opinions on soul, text, and culture…I’d have to say that we probably have a couple of things right, but a lot of things wrong, and even more spreads before us unseen and unimagined. But at least our eyes are open! To be a Christian in a generously orthodox way is not to claim to have the truth captured, stuffed, and mounted on the wall.[13]

This is almost a complete capitulation to postmodernity’s concept of truth. After 2000 years of the study of the completed Canon, we Christians find ourselves in a position of having maybe a “couple” of things right – and I am sure that those couple of things would be up for grabs. This uncertainty about the truth carries over to the Scriptures themselves, of course. Rob Bell and his wife Kristen, in an interview with Christianity Today, reflect this view. They started questioning their assumptions about the Bible itself – “discovering the Bible as a human product.”[14] “I grew up thinking that we’ve figured out the Bible,” Kristen says, “that we knew what it means. Now I have no idea what most of it means, and yet I feel like life is big again – like life used to be black and white, and now it’s in color.”[15] To the postmodern mind it is more important to, as Rob Bell says, “embrace mystery, rather than conquer it.”[16]

But how does a truly postmodern Christian live? How do they know what to believe? How do they deal with the issue of truth? How do they assimilate the realities of life? By creating their own reality. McLaren, if he could have his emergent dream come true, would “help students construct their own model of reality, their understanding of the universe and story we find ourselves in. And – this is SO important – we’d teach them that their model isn’t reality; it’s just a model. It must be open to correction, adjustment, improvement, even revolution” (emphasis his).[17] Experience, not Scripture, becomes the basis for truth. “People today,” Leonard Sweet writes, “are starved not for doctrines but for images and relationships and stories.”[18]

There is no absolute truth or ultimate reality in the emergent agenda. Even Scripture is appreciated for its mystery, not its presentation of truth. Yet one has to wonder what Jude had in mind when he wrote, “I find it necessary to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (verse 3). The emergent church leaders are asking us to embrace a faith without truth, a Bible which has value due to its mystery, and a reality that is individual, subjective and changeable. This is touted as a new and improved version of Christian living. I fail to see the attraction, not to mention that no such understanding of truth is supportable by the Scriptures.

Deconstruction

The scholar would define deconstruction as Carson does: “It has to do with a literary approach, that hunts down tensions and inconsistencies in a text (those who deploy deconstruction insist that all texts have them) in order to set them at odds with each other and thus deconstruct the text, to generate new insights that might actually contradict what a text ostensibly says.[19] At the other end of the spectrum, Humpty Dumpty gave his version, “When I use a word, it means what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”[20] In everyday language deconstruction means that we can never be certain that we have the right interpretation of words. What matters then is not what the author or speaker said, because that doubtfully can be discerned; rather the important thing is what did the reader/listener experience. Deconstruction guts words of their meaning and redefines them according to one’s own preference. This is obviously convoluted but it is a central piece in postmodern thought.

How does this work out in the postmodern church? In order to be consistent with absolute truth (or, better, lack of truth) the emergent thinkers must dispose of dogmatic truth claims (i.e. doctrines). They must purge the church of an exclusive gospel,[21] an authoritative Bible and irritating doctrines such as hell.[22] Also on the cutting floor is the doctrine of original sin. McLaren writes, “The church latched on to that old doctrine of original sin like a dog to a stick, and before you knew it, the whole gospel got twisted around it. Instead of being God’s big message of saving love for the whole world, the gospel became a little bit of secret information on how to solve the pesky legal problem of original sin.”[23] Before the emergent church leaders are done all the essential teachings of the Bible have been deconstructed, redefined or dismissed. And what has been put in their place? Oddly, but consistent with postmodern thinking, nothing but mystery and questions. Even McLaren admits, “What will appear beyond the deconstruction remains to be seen. Perhaps something better will emerge – that is my hope and prayer, but the outcome is by no means certain even now that I have finished writing this book.”[24]

Pluralistic Relativism

If nobody is right then everybody is right. This is the logical conclusion of the postmodern worldview. The emergent church thinkers are reluctantly willing to accept this concept, at least for a time. McLaren states:

Because I and others, while we aren’t “for” pluralistic relativism, do see it as a kind of needed chemotherapy. We see modernity with its absolutisms and colonialisms and totalitarianisms as a kind of static dream…. In Christian theology, this anti-emergent thinking is expressed in systematic theologies that claim…to have final orthodoxy nailed down…. Emergent Christians see pluralistic relativism as a dangerous treatment for stage IV absolutist/colonial/totalitarian modernity (to use language from cancer diagnosis), something that saves a life by nearly killing it.[25]

Since truth and Scripture have been deconstructed all that is left is relativism. Until we figure out where to go from here we will have to be content with that. We may or may not arrive at a better place some day, but at least objective truth claims are being eradicated – and that is a good thing. So says the emergent church leaders. More next time.

 


[1] Recognized, but not official leaders of the movement at this time include: Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Dan Kimball, Doug Pagitt, Leonard Sweet, the late Mike Yaconelli, Spencer Burke, Erwin McManus, Tommy Kyllonen (aka Urban D) and Donald Miller. Some see Richard Foster and Dallas Willard as key mentors for the movement.

[2] Some of the promoters of the emerging church include Youth Specialties, The Ooze and The Emergent Village.

[3] See Andy Crouch, “The Emergent Mystique”, Christianity Today, November, 2004, pp. 36-41, This article described the excitement and chaos at the 1994 Emergent Convention in Nashville.

[4] Ibid., p.39.

[5] Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christian, ( San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001), pp.19-22. In many ways the emergent church can trace its birth to the publication of this book.

[6] Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church, ( Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), p.60.

[7] Ibid., p.115.

[8] D. A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, ( Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), p.42.

[9] Kimball, p.143.

[10] http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week846/interview.html

[11] Christianity Today, p.38.

[12] Ibid., p. 40.

[13] Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy ( Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), p.293.

[14] Christianity Today, p.38.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] McLaren, A New Kind of Christian, p 162.

[18] Leonard Sweet, Andy Crouch, et al., The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives, Leonard Sweet, ed., ( Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), p.35.

[19] D. A. Carson, p.84.

[20] Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass (http://www.sabian.org/Alice/lgchap06.htm.).

[21] Kimball, p.175.

[22] McLaren’s book, The Last Word and the Word After That, is primarily a deconstruction of the doctrine of hell.

[23] Brian McLaren, The Last Word and the Word After That, ( San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005), p.134.

[24] Ibid., p.XVIII.

[25] McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, pp.286-287.

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