What is the "Emerging Church"?

What is the "Emerging Church"?

"I think God had a PR problem."  So said a young investigator of Christianity to me recently in response to the question, "Why do you think Jesus came?"

While certainly inadequate as a motive for the Incarnation, it’s a fair take on Christianity in the 21st century: God appears to have a public relations problem. Lots of people claim to speak for God, but those who get the most attention tend to make  Christianity, and thus the rest of us, look bad. As a result, thoughtful, theologically-minded, culturally-conscious Christians - like many in the WRF - feel pinched between a church they love and a world they understand, but which understands them not. Or simply despises them.

Of course, this situation is nothing new. The church’s ancient identity—as “in but not of” the world, or better, “for but not of” the world—presumes a delicate tension that has always seen error at both extremes. Some barricade the church against heresy, thus weakening its witness; others blur the lines to reach the world, thus watering down its historic message. Both are present today, and both are fighting for the microphone as the authentic representatives of Jesus.

Within the last decade or so, a new movement has surfaced from within the broadening banks of evangelicalism to address this increasingly public, and intensely personal, tension. Known as “Emergent,” or the “Emerging Church,” it may appear to be a fad, the latest incarnation of seeker-sensitive methodology that tries to make the church more palatable to the world.

But it’s more serious than that, both for good and for ill.

Despite a distinctly fashionable outward image, the Emerging Church is driven by philosophical and theological convictions. Proponents are not just asking questions; they are proposing answers. Some of these answers involve dramatic redefinitions of Christianity.

How should believers in the WRF respond to this movement? Cautiously and charitably, with a willingness both to challenge and to be challenged ourselves. Since Emergent is young, eclectic, and still in process, the immediate challenge is simply understanding it.

What is the "Emerging Church"?

First we must distinguish the Emerging Church from the broader category of younger evangelicals in their 20s and 30s, or so-called postmoderns. Not every church filled with young, urban hipsters or unconventional forms of worship is an Emerging church, nor does every church that enters the Emergent “conversation” (a term they prefer over movement) subscribe uniformly to its agenda.

Precise definition is not easy. Having read dozens of books, articles, Web sites and blogs, I still can’t describe it in a single sentence. Or five. Even the movement’s organizational network (www.emergentvillage.com), doesn’t help much: “Emergent is a growing generative friendship among missional Christian leaders seeking to love our world in the Spirit of Jesus Christ.” Huh?

Others are struggling to understand it, too. National magazines including Christianity Today, Christian Century, and Modern Reformation have devoted cover stories to the movement, and in July 2005, PBS aired a two-part television report on it. In addition to dozens of books by Emergent authors, 2005 saw the release of at least two books attempting to evaluate its influence. D.A. Carson’s Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications is a sober critique by an outsider to the movement, while Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger’s Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures is a thoroughly researched survey by admirers within it.

These two books could not be more different, but together they can help us understand the movement. For Carson, its distinguishing characteristic is protest, picketing the church on three primary fronts: its bondage to cultural conservatism, its attachment to modernist approaches to knowledge, and its more recent sellout in the form of seeker-sensitive megachurches.

A cursory reading of any Emergent writer will confirm a “whiff of protest” throughout. While the bulk of his book effectively challenges Emergent’s interpretation of modernism and postmodernism, Carson also sharply critiques two influential Emergent writers, Brian McLaren in the U.S. and Steve Chalke in the U.K. His final chapter suggests that the Emergent phenomenon may be partly explained by the familiar false dichotomy between truth and experience.

A Brief History 
Gibbs and Bolger identify nine common practices of Emerging churches, and they include a helpful summary of the movement’s history. According to the authors, while some of Emergent’s older leaders came of age in the “new paradigm” churches of the 1960s and ‘70s, the real starting point was the mid-1980s, when Gen X ministries began catering to youth culture. Often organized as churches-within-a-church, they adopted cutting-edge ministry methods but generally retained the structural DNA of their parent megachurches.

By the late 1990s, the generational model was losing traction as a way of explaining those they were trying to reach. Then, at a 1997 meeting of the Young Leaders Network, a Christian para-church organization, influential pastor Doug Pagitt turned the discussion to the subject of postmodernism. Light bulbs appeared over heads around the room, and postmodernism has been the organization’s focus ever since. The Young Leaders Network soon morphed into the Terra Nova Theological Project, which eventually became Emergent. Its leaders went from niche marketers of religious services to global heralds of a massive, irresistible paradigm shift. Heady stuff.

If isms make your eyes glaze over, allow me to oversimplify: Modernism is a centuries-old philosophical climate that presumes certain knowledge can be gained through human reason and accurately expressed with words. Postmodernism is the transitional era that unmasks the false hope of modernism, creating deep skepticism about all claims of knowledge. Though they don’t endorse it entirely, Emergent leaders believe postmodernism offers the church a fresh opportunity to rediscover a humbler, more robust expression of Christianity.

Since movements are dynamic by definition, the concept of trajectory can be useful for our analysis. In the case of the Emerging Church, we find a trajectory that passes through some laudable points of practice, but lacks the resources to control its own momentum. Thus in each area we can sincerely affirm, we also find extremes that must be opposed.

Missional toward Compromise

If there’s one word that positively represents the Emerging Church, it’s missional. Though not proprietary to the movement, the word missional emphasizes a return to the church’s identity as existing for the world—to be God’s stewards over creation, to be a light to the nations, to be witnesses of the inaugurated kingdom of God on earth.

One of Carson’s sincere affirmations of Emergent is its determination to reach non-traditional people who would otherwise never darken a sanctuary door. A common mantra among Emergent leaders is “belonging before believing”—the idea that postmodern people require long exposure to Christianity from within the church before they can make a commitment to believe. This approach has much to commend it.

And yet, unbounded by a full biblical doctrine of the church, the missional impulse can lead to dangerous compromises. “Belonging before believing” can become an excuse to be always seeking, but never finding. The call to renounce sin can devolve into a temporary truce. The peril of unbelief, including adherence to other religions, is often minimized.

But compromise is not the only option. Tim Keller described what he calls “post-everythings” and their allergies to conventional approaches to ministry. They gravitate toward narrative, emphasize experience, and resist religious proofs. But rather than reshape the Christian gospel to fit postmodernism, Keller offered several practical and theological resources within the Reformed tradition that are already equipped to address post-everything sensibilities. These include the overarching narrative of Biblical Theology, Jonathan Edwards’s insight into the religious affections, and Cornelius Van Til’s presuppositional apologetics. Emergent writers may correctly diagnose postmodern sensibilities, but their prescriptions tend to conform rather than transform.

Community toward Moralism

Emergent writers emphasize a return to the importance of the local church as both an intimate, extended family and a positive presence for good among its neighbors. Thus we find a strong emphasis on showing compassion through tangible deeds of mercy and justice. While sharply critical of conservative evangelicals’ involvement in American politics, Emergents advocate public activism in social causes such as environmentalism, international human rights, and reduction of Third World debt. Despite the clear red state vs. blue state lines here, biblical justification for many of these social concerns is not only easy to find, but shameful to deny.

Tragically, however, the Emergent trajectory tends to overshoot the mark and careen toward moralism. While we would expect to find some abandonment of unpopular biblical standards—and we do find some—more striking is the movement’s heavy emphasis on certain types of behavior. The first of Gibbs and Bolger’s nine Emergent practices is “identifying with Jesus,” by which they mean personal and corporate imitation of the character of Christ. This involves deliberately shifting focus away from the Pauline letters and toward the Gospels, where we all find rich instruction on how citizens of the kingdom should live.

The result, however, is that the theological significance of Christ’s atonement—the completeness of our justification, the assurance of our adoption, and the transforming power of His grace—is distanced from our calling to grow in holiness. Not unlike old liberalism, Emergent trumpets a number of worthy virtues, but neglects to explain and proclaim the very truths that make those virtues possible.

Image away from Word

Battling Gnostic tendencies that have plagued the church from day one, Emergent leaders emphasize the goodness of creation and the necessity of Christians’ involvement in cultural activities, especially the arts. Painting, sculpture, music, dance, theater, film, poetry, and literature can be significant ways of fulfilling the creation mandate and representing God’s kingdom to the world. Emerging churches rightly seek to tear down boundaries between sacred and secular vocations, as if only full-time ministry “counts” for the kingdom.

And yet, without minimizing that affirmation, the Emergent emphasis on the visual and concrete can easily swing too far from the word-centered nature of Christian faith. The God of the universe is a God who speaks, both in history and through his Word. Christians are people who interpret our whole lives bodies, relationships, thoughts, and things) according to those words. Emergent worship forms such as candles, icons, incense, and meditation stations, easily lead to a corresponding decline in biblical proclamation.

Emergent writers criticize the emphasis on the verbal and written as a product of Enlightenment modernism. Yet postmodern approaches to language are clearly more dangerous. Deconstructionism, its predominant literary theory, seeks to sever the link between words and the things they signify, so that defining words is seen as an exercise in power rather than submission to reality. While no Emergent writers would endorse this theory in full, their usage often reflects its influence. Gross oversimplifications, subtle redefinitions of common terms, and elegant vagaries are maddeningly common. For example, they regularly dismiss their critics for “labeling” or “in-grouping and out-grouping,” but are somehow unaware of their own dependence on caricatures of other Christians for nearly every argument. Captive to the preeminent postmodern virtue of tolerance, stark value judgments are concealed behind seemingly charitable phrases like “I’m just not interested in … or I don’t have time for a Christianity like that…”. Unwary readers are often simultaneously inspired and confused, sensing that something is off but unable to put their finger on it. The problem is a low view of language, and a low view of language leads to a low view of our speaking God.

Ancient away from Authority

Since Emergent leaders believe that most Christianity in the modern era has been tainted by modernism, they attempt to find points of contact in pre-modern church history, especially from patristic and medieval spiritual practices. Fueling this trend is an ecumenical impulse that evangelical or fundamentalist traditions alone are unable to capture the wisdom of the one, holy, apostolic Church. In general, it’s a helpful corrective. Their desire to practice an “ancient-future” faith can help to address contemporary evangelicals’ ignorance of, or even antipathy toward, Christian history.

In practice, however, the Emergent approach toward history is selective and simplistic. It’s selective because they plunder the practices of various traditions without having to submit to any of them. It’s simplistic because they fail to recognize the extent to which these practices carry the presuppositions of their traditions with them. Examples include the ascetic, anti-physical roots of monastic spirituality, and the pagan, syncretistic strains within Celtic spirituality. Uncritical adoption of such forms creates a patchwork theology that strains at its seams and ultimately fractures our vision of the character of God.

Here, Reformed theology has rich resources to offer the Emerging Church. The problem with modernism is not logic, language, or linear reasoning, but independent human reason as the final arbiter of truth. Reformed theology insists that God’s revelation of Himself in Scripture is the proper starting point of all true knowing. Though we never know perfectly, as God does, the Spirit working through the Word can sanctify our minds to know God’s world reliably. With this reliable knowledge we can apply vigorous, systematic reasoning to expose the underlying coherence of God’s world.

Despite vocal professions of affection for Scripture, the Emergent understanding of its nature is precariously unstable. Convinced of postmodernism’s victory, they naively dismiss the historical conflict over inerrancy as a clash of equally misguided modernisms. In place of a carefully-formulated, historically-tested doctrine of Scripture, they offer only vague affirmations of the necessity of community for its interpretation.

Again, there’s an element of truth here—biblical interpretation is most faithfully done in community. But the wider community of history, while given a seat at the table, is not allowed to vote. Without submitting to historic, confessional anchor points, individual communities will inevitably find “another gospel” within the pages of Scripture. Emergent leaders who are eager to reconcile with liberal Protestants may soon find they have too much in common.

A Legitimate Challenge

Despite these grave concerns, the presence of the Emerging Church represents a legitimate challenge. Most obvious is the fact that a large percentage of our churches are still ill-prepared to minister to the growing population of postmodern people. When Emergent leaders argue that some of our traditional church practices are incomprehensible to them, we can’t always chalk it up to the antithesis between church and world. Sinful rebellion is certainly one, but not the only, reason they may recoil at our organs, pew pads, pledge cards, tracts and treatises—or even our “contemporary” praise choruses.

However we label this era, whether it’s postmodern, hyper-modern or post-postmodern, sweeping social and cultural changes are taking place in our world. For good or ill, many venerable sources of authority no longer hold the same degree of trust. Neo-paganism and other forms of Gnostic, syncretistic spirituality are quickly replacing secular humanism as Christianity’s biggest rival. The eternal Word will never lose its power, but we must still find ways to take it to our changing world.

There’s an old story attributed to Dwight L. Moody, who was once criticized for his methods of evangelism. He responded, “I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.” Reformed Christians may be right about how to reach new generations, but are we doing it? Are we seeking to rescue other professing Christians from the jaws of error? Are we willing to submit our own thinking to the scrutiny, correction, and ridicule that inevitably come from publicly joining the conversation?

Most important, are we building friendships with postmodern non-Christians, the type who bristle at the sight of steeple and pew? Do we even know such people? Are we bringing the gospel to them in dialogue, listening for their responses so we at least know they understand? And if they place their faith in Christ, are our churches prepared to embrace them without requiring a second conversion into a church culture that may have less to do with the gospel than we’re willing to admit?

The Bottom Line

As a response to Christianity’s PR problem, Emergent has clearly blurred the lines between church and world in troubling ways. Given their lack of confessional anchors, some Emergent leaders are likely to depart further from biblical standards, even scandalously so. And while history’s verdict on postmodernism remains outstanding, the movement seems likely to shift and redefine itself according to new categories in the coming years. Nevertheless, an opportunity remains for us to be sharpened and shamed by the important issues they are raising, and to bring the rich resources of confessional Reformed theology to the table, for their good and for ours. As sinners redeemed by the sovereign mercy of God, we have precious treasures to steward. The glory and honor of Christ, and the utter lostness of our neighbors who bear His image, demand nothing less.

Walter Henegar is Pastor of Atlanta Westside Presbterian Church (PCA), a church plant in Atlanta, Georgia (USA), and is a member of the World Reformed Fellowship.