What About the Emergent Church? (1)
Bob Young, May 2006

I attended a minister's meeting last week and was asked to comment on the emergent church phenomenon. I was encouraged by some of those present to visit several websites and web-logs ("blogs") where authors, including brothers in the churches of Christ, are writing about the emergent church and urging that we in churches of Christ "get on the bandwagon" or be left behind. With increasing pressures and questions raised, I feel compelled to write. You can decide whether what I share is helpful or not. In this first article, I summarize and expand materials from D. A. Carson.

Identifying the Emergent Church
Those in the Emergent Church movement believe that significant changes have occurred in our culture so that a new concept or version of church is emerging, especially in the younger (emerging) generation. [See my 2003 article, Worshiping the Mysterious God, for background]. This "emerging church" seeks to address the worldview changes that have occurred in our society to more effectively reach the contemporary culture. We are urged to discard traditional thought forms and expressions as mere reflections of a culture now old. We are urged to adapt to, or at least accept, an emerging (changing) view of realities, so we can reach those in this new emergent cultural group. The movement is gaining momentum by capitalizing on the intellectual haziness of postmodernism, blurring previous lines of distinction and bringing together new groups.

Traditionalists generally see the Emergent Church movement as a protest movement. Many of the leaders come from conservative, traditional, evangelical churches, often with very fundamental backgrounds. The subtitle of Yaconelli's book, Stories of Emergence: Moving from Absolute to Authentic, indicates one of the major characteristics of the movement-an effort to move away from the absolutes of a previous worldview (including absolute, objective truth). From Burke (theOoze.com) and others, one can easily see in the writings of those sympathetic to the Emergent Church movement a rejection of leadership models based on authority (too linear and analytical), a call to reach out more compassionately and authentically to a hurting world, and a rejection of the success models often connected with the Church Growth Movement. The appeal of these concepts and their biblical foundation is not difficult to see, but coupled with these is a call to be a "community that tolerates differences and treats people who hold opposing views with respect" (Burke).

Rejecting Modernism
One view which many of those in the Emergent Church seem to share is that modernism is bad (and postmodernism is good, or at least better than modernism). Despite the danger that modernism may place human rationalism above the authority of God's word, the efforts of modernism to honor and understand the word of God should not be too readily discarded. A major distinction between modernism and postmodernism in the current conversation is epistemology, the process of knowing. Carson's summary is helpful (Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, Zondervan, 2005).
Modernism is often pictured as pursuing truth, absolutism, linear thinking, rationalism, certainty, the cerebral as opposed to the affective which, in turn, breeds arrogance, inflexibility, a lust to be right, the desire to control. Postmodernism, by contrast, recognizes how much of what we "know" is shaped by the culture in which we live, is controlled by emotions and aesthetics and heritage, and can only be intelligently held as part of a common tradition, without overbearing claims to being true or right. Modernism tries to find unquestioned foundations on which to build the edifice of knowledge and then proceeds with methodological rigor; postmodernism denies that such foundations exist (it is "antifoundational") and insists that we come to "know" things in many ways, not a few of them lacking in rigor. Modernism is hard-edged and, in the domain of religion, focuses on truth versus error, right belief, confessionalism; postmodernism is gentle and, in the domain of religion, focuses upon relationships, love, shared tradition, integrity in discussion.

A New Shape for the Church?
Those in the Emergent Church movement believe that the contrast between the former (modern) culture and the new (postmodern) culture and changes in epistemology-understanding what we can know, how much we can know, and how we know it-demand a new kind of church able to address the postmodern world. Lost in the discussion generally is whether the cultural shift to postmodernism is good or bad. Carson (Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church) describes the tendency toward rejecting all that one does not personally like in his reaction to McClaren.
"…he can use "post-" as a universal category to highlight what he does not like: "In the postmodern world, we become postconquest, postmechanistic, postanalytical, postsecular, postobjective, postcritical, postorganizational, postindividualistic, post-Protestant, and postconsumerist."

McClaren has become one of the primary spokespersons for the movement, and it seems much of his goal is to undermine or eliminate the certainties historically characteristic of Western Christianity. The problem is that eliminating uncertainty leaves one nothing dependable to provide foundations. Relativism, the denial of absolutism, ultimately makes faithfulness to the Bible unnecessary (and impossible), as long as one's version of Christianity (or Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, or any other religion?) is relevant to the believer. McClaren's corrective is to reject absolutism but to build into his relativism the ability to embrace some of the past, presumably what one subjectively wishes to retain.

Whatever the shape of the church which comes from such thinking, it is clear that the shape will not necessarily be informed by God's word or will, since such is now at the mercy of human needs. Human experience has replaced human rationalism as the lens through which the word of God is understood and applied. (At least human rationalism was based on the idea that what the Bible says matters, even if understanding the message was too dependent upon human interpretative skills.)

McClaren cites Bosch's book, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, as a guide. Toward the end of the book, Bosch lists eight perspectives that speak to our situation and give us some direction.

The association of absolutism with modernism means the (absolute?) rejection of modernism in favor of another (postmodern?) worldview. As Bosch outlines, this new paradigm is tolerant of faith (doctrinal) disagreement, urges dialogue with all others, questions every version of truth, honors other religious views, and refuses to judge. It is hard to tell whether these guidelines will provide a new shape for the church or an amorphous church.

Rejecting the Current Church
The Emergent Church movement not only stands against modernity, but against many of the current practices of the church. Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations, would replace the seeker-sensitive focus which attracted baby-boomers to churches with new models able to reach people who do not seem to be attracted to traditional approaches and stances. (The Seeker-sensitive movement is now old enough to be one of the "traditional" approaches.) Carson's summary (Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church) of Kimball is helpful.

Much of what Kimball writes has value in our contemporary world. For example, Kimball's wish for sermons God-centered and not human-centered is laudable. One hopes every activity of the church is God-centered. What can go wrong in biblical exegesis, sermon preparation, small groups, and many of the other activities the church must engage in week after week is that the focus is no longer on God but is instead on human beings. One must, however, ask whether the emergent church proposals are in fact God-focused or whether human felt-needs and desires have become supreme.

Carson's view of the challenge is helpful.

Carson concludes,

[More of my personal reflections in the next article.]

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Last updated May 20, 2006