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The Emergent Church - A New Wave of Evangelical Identity

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The purpose of this article1 is to critique a relatively new wave of Christian identity known as the Emergent Church. It is a rapidly growing network of individual believers and Churches who would prefer to be understood as a conversation or a friendship rather than an organization.

Yet due to overwhelming interest, those who have joined the conversation have found it necessary to organize and designate leaders on the national and international levels. Other titles associated with Emergent include: post-evangelical, post-conservative, post-fundamentalists, post-foundationalists, post-propositionalist, and younger evangelicals. www.emergentvillage.com is a primary web site for emergent.

Emergent Church Leaders

The late Stanley Grenz has been recognized as the professor of post-conservatism. Roger Olson and Robert Webber have been branded the publicists of post-conservatism. Tony Jones is the U.S. National Coordinator for Emergent and Brian McLaren is arguably the most popular name associated with the work of emergent. Other names include: Leonard Sweet, Erwin McManus, Spencer Burke, Edmund Burke, John Franke, Rob Bell, Mike Yaconelli, Chris Seay, Carol Childress, and Dave Travis.

Critical assessment of Emergent

Before offering critical assessment of Emergent, it is wise to remember that such analysis should never be approached lightly. We are all one body. “We have the same Spirit, and we have all been called to the same glorious future. There is only one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and there is only one God and Father, who is over us all and in us all and living through us all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).

Yet our spiritual unity does not preclude our responsibility to critique new movements within the body of Christ. New waves of teaching and identity must be evaluated by the faith that was- once for all -- delivered to God’s people. The New Testament warns about the danger of being easily enamored with novel ideas. When believers are not firmly grounded in biblical truth, they vacillate like susceptible children who constantly change their minds about what they believe because someone has told them something different.

Emerging in Reaction

Emergent, like most new expressions within the Church, is partly a reaction to existing identities in the body of Christ. Some of the most influential leaders in Emergent have emerged from conservative and fundamentalist approaches to Christianity. It is apparent from their writings that these leaders feel betrayed by their upbringing. They reject the simplistic, biased and judgmental way they were taught to look at people in the world --many of whom seem more pleasant, humble and nice than the people from their fundamentalist Churches. Reacting to this background, they are determined to transcend the separatist spirit of Christians who seem to have nothing more important to do than to defend how right they are and how wrong everyone else is. With a chastened spirit of repentance, they reach out with open arms of tolerance and acceptance to those they were warned to separate from.

The Emergent Offer

Emergent offers what they believe to be a more generous orthodoxy.

Commendably, they believe the Church should be a welcoming and authentic community of creativity and learning—a place where people with different views are treated with the utmost respect and dignity (rather than being looked down on). They offer an eclectic use of traditions in worship—candle lighting, prayer stations, liturgy, symbols, meditation, sermons, songs and conversations. They desire to move beyond a creed-based identity to a spirituality-based identity. They recommend embracing and celebrating the mystery of the world, life and God rather than conquering it. They prefer theology as a quest for the beauty and truth of God rather than a search for propositional statements, proof texts and doctrinal formulations —used to measure those who are in and judge those who are out. Committed to what they call a missional focus, they see the world as something to reach out to not something to hide from and arrogantly renounce.

The Emergent Overreaction

Those who share a common conservative background (especially younger leaders) will be drawn to the concerns raised by Emergent.

Conservative and fundamental Church leaders have been guilty of reactionary extremes. Yet, as is almost always the case, reactions to reactions swing the proverbial pendulum to opposite extremes. Sadly, in the case of emergent, the desire to be perceived as accepting and non-condemning is being taken too far. In their effort to avoid being misunderstood by nonbelievers, they soft-pedal around the exclusivity of salvation through Christ alone. They are evasive on teaching about eternal punishment. They blur Scriptural condemnation of homosexual behavior. In the end, one is left to question the extent to which they embrace Scripture as the authoritative, univocal divine revelation for humanity.

Emergent’s Limited Generosity

The welcoming spirit of emergent is commendable but it is generously extended to everyone except conservative Christians. The best example of this is found in Brian McLaren’s, “A Generous Orthodoxy.” Mimicking the spirit of the culture, McLaren offers everyone (except conservative Christians) large doses of tolerance. Parroting the academic community, those considered liberal or on the left receive the most generosity from McLaren. This is significant because emergent is built on the assumption that evangelicals (of both the conservative and pragmatic stripe) have made far too many concessions to modern culture. It is often the case that the things we condemn in others we are guilty of in other areas.

Evidently, McLaren doesn’t recognize how cynical, sarcastic, and condescending he sounds toward those he deems old fashion, non-emergent Christian modernists.

The Emergent Overstatement

Emergent leaders emphasize a need for radical reform in the Church based on an understanding of postmodern culture. They operate on “the assumption that postmodernism has effected such a gigantic and irreversible shift in people’s thought patterns that the Church is faced with a fundamental choice: adapt so as to respond better to postmodernism, or be relegated to irrelevance” (D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with Emergent).

In this area of emphasis, emergent leaders should be cautioned against the kind of overstatement they deplore in other twigs of evangelical identity. First, the nature of the shift from modern to postmodern is highly debatable (see: D. A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church). Is post-modern actually most-modern? Perhaps we should really be talking about what Paul Vitz identifies as a Trans-modernism culture.

Secondly, while it is true that many spiritual leaders do not adequately understand the cultural changes that have occurred over the last several decades, many others have faithfully and effectively addressed those changes before Emergent ever emerged. I fear that Emergent, in an effort to emphasize the urgency of their mission has inadvertently disrespected the outstanding work of many leaders and ministries in this area of concern (see examples below).

Emergent and Postmodernity

A more troubling possibility is that Emergent leaders are not really interested in thoughtful biblical critique of postmodernity. Is it the Emergent enterprise to seek a better understanding of the shift to postmodernity and address it as a communicational challenge for the gospel? Or, have the Emergent leaders embraced the values of postmodernity because they actually consider them superior?

The most important value of postmodernity is the inadmissibility of all totalizing ways of viewing any dimension of life. Postmodernity, as a theory, refuses to allow any single defining source for truth and reality beyond the individual. The gospel clearly contradicts this value. While Emergent leaders raise legitimate concerns about adding too much to the gospel, they also must be careful not to reshape the gospel to accommodate this primary value of postmodernity. If the gospel is held hostage to the restrictions of postmodernity, it ceases to be good news. For further analysis, see: Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church, D. A. Carson, Zondervan, 2005.

Suggested reading

The Gagging of God: Christianity confronts pluralism, D. A. Carson, Zondervan, 1996.

Postmodernizing the Faith: Evangelical Responses to the Challenge of postmodernism, Millard Erickson, Baker, 1998

Truth Decay: Defending Christianity against the Challenges of Postmodernism, Douglas Grouthuis, IVP, 2000

Truth or Consequences: The promise and perils of postmodernism, Millard Erickson, IVP, 2001

Preaching to a Postmodern World, Graham Johnston, Baker,2001

Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern times, ed. Millard Erickson, Paul Kjoss Helseth, Justin Taylor Crossway, 2004


1 Copyright 2005 by Steve W. Cornell. This article is to be published in a forthcoming issue of Voice Magazine.

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church), Cultural Issues, Emergent Church