Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Preliminary Thoughts on the Emergent Church

Four years ago, when I attended my first National Pastors’ Convention, I first heard about the Emerging or Emergent Church. It was an “add on” to the convention sessions I attended. I perceived it to be sessions designed for those commonly considered Gen-X or Millennial. Walking through the area designated for the Emergent Church sessions, it became clear there were “older” preachers interested in those sessions as well.

Four years later Zondervan Publishing produces a complete line of books and materials for the Emergent Church. Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, and Dan Kimball are, pardon the expression, emerging as leaders. At least one Cincinnati Christian University graduate, as demonstrated in Gibbs and Bolger’s The Emerging Church identifies himself with the Emergent crowd.

Writers, preachers, and an assortment of scholars finally became aware of the Emergent Church in the past year or so. D.A. Carson, research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, is just one of these. Zondervan published his largely negative critique just last year. Dale van Dyke critiqued Bell’s book, Velvet Elvis, on his web site, www.reformation21.org last February. The leaders of Xenos Christian Fellowship in Columbus, Ohio, also panned the Emergent crowd on their web site. Christianity Today evaluated the movement in November in an article entitled, “The Emergent Mystique” by Andy Crouch.

With all of the attention focusing on the Emergent Church, I felt like I need to say something about it. At this point, however, my observations are preliminary and not all that well thought out. But let me give it a go!

1. Don’t stereotype Emergent Churches. Some of the criticisms leveled at these churches assume that all of them are alike. While there are similar characteristics found in many of these congregations, they are not all alike in doctrine and methodology. Furthermore, they are not fully consistent in all they do or say. I have found that the one thing consistent with human beings is their inconsistency. When we stereotype, we project the idea that all of those identified as this or that are exactly alike. Therefore, when you see the characteristics identified remember that these apply to the Emergent Churches in general but do not necessarily apply in specifics.

2. Many, but not all of the Emergent leaders, are young. That means their theological base is not fully formed. It also means they do not always see the consequences of their thinking. Brian McLaren is only one exception and anyone who reads his material must admit that trying to nail down his thinking is like trying to nail down a helping of jello. Reading McLaren makes me uncomfortable. I reject some of what he writes because he comes from a Calvinist background making some of his foundational assumptions questionable. Other ideas he proposes makes me uncomfortable because I sense he has serious questions about Scripture. That makes me nervous. Still other ideas make me uncomfortable because they challenge some of my own preconceived ideas. Rather than turning me off, however, these things prompt me to rethink my stand and go back to Scripture.

The same is true with Rob Bell. I heard Rob Bell give a fascinating exposition of Leviticus 16 at one of the National Pastors’ Conferences. He made the Old Testament teaching about the Day of Atonement come alive. There was no questioning of the historical significance of Scripture or any attempt to see that biblical teaching as metaphorical – typical, maybe, but not metaphorical. Still, reading Velvet Elvis and watching one of his “Nooma” DVDs made me uncomfortable. Again, I’m not exactly sure why, but some of his statements raised the hackles on the back of my neck as he challenged my presuppositions.

3. Robert Webber doesn’t go back far enough. Robert Webber spoke at the North American Christian Convention Regional Conferences in 2005. His books The Ancient-Future Church and The Ancient-Future Gospel are interesting books. Webber used those books as the basis for his message at the conferences. As I listened to him attempt to identify himself with the Acts 2 church, it became clear he had no idea what that was all about. Nearly every effort on his part to go back to the early church reached the Second Century and screeched to a halt. He talked about the Acts 2 model, but identified it with the second century. He needed to go back to Acts 2!

Dan Kimball’s seminal work on the Emergent Church speaks often about the “ancient Scriptures,” the “ancient Church,” and the “ancient Faith.” When I first read his material, I was interested in an approach that sounded much like our own Restoration Movement concerns – redigging the ancient wells. It became clear, however, that it wasn’t all about “restoring the New Testament Church.” It was more of an attempt to reclothe the second century church with post-modern clothing. Frankly, I like some of what he said, but wasn’t thoroughly convinced.

4. Contemplation and Spiritual Formation isn’t all bad. My daughter first turned me on to Dallas Willard. I first read The Divine Conspiracy and then Spirit of the Disciplines and Renovation of the Heart. I just finished Revolution of Character by Willard and Don Simpson published by Navpress. Those critical of the Emergent Church would have us think Willard and others want to take us back to the monastic contemplation of the Desert Fathers and other early monastic movements.

Come on guys! What Willard calls for is the fulfilling of all of the Great Commission. Churches, especially our mega-churches, have done a great job winning the lost rather than just shuffling members from one church to another. The problem, as Willard sees it, is that the contemporary (I’m not using the term modern on purpose) church hasn’t followed up in an effort to “teach them to observe all things.” We have made church members but not disciples. I used to think there wasn’t a difference, now I know better. Let’s face it, most church members come to church rather than being the church. They are as much or more citizens of this world than they are the Kingdom of God. All too many, I think, are Christians in name only who go through the motions, observe the rituals, but whose life can’t be changed to the likeness of Christ because they are too concerned with “what’s in it for me” than in following Jesus. I sat with Willard for 16 hours over two years and know he stresses teaching the content of Scripture, passing down what was taught (2 Timothy 2:2), and setting aside time for letting it sink in so you can live it out. He doesn’t call for “navel gazing.” He calls for the practice of spiritual disciplines that help the Christian realize God wants him to construct a whole new worldview – a biblical worldview.

5. The emphasis on experience bugs me. In Canton we talked about how people wanting to worship God wanted to “feel” the presence of God. It was decided, not by an active decision but by practice, that the way to do that was to turn the bass up on the soundboard so that everyone’s innards vibrated during worship. This whole thing about a “worship experience” bothers me! I don’t mind contemporary music, but I don’t see it as worship. I like some of the old favorites and the mellow gospel choruses of the 80s and 90s, but I don’t see them as worship either. Worship is a response to the heart and doesn’t depend on externals. It is how I respond to God and His Word every day, not just on Saturday evening of Sunday morning.

One young man taking my Romans Class said that now that he was a Christian he was waiting for God to “tap him on the shoulder and tell him what to do.” As I sat talking with him, I said I can tell you that right now and I don’t have to tap your shoulder to do it. He asked me to clue him in so I said, “God wants you to live out your faith right now where you are.” All of those folks out there seeking some sort of religious or mystical experience just need to open their eyes and do what God commands in Scripture – be a Christ-follower, do what He says, and live your life to His glory. You don’t need a deep bass voice speaking from heaven to tell you that.

6. The church today is just as rigid as it ever was. We have fought the music wars and music lost. In most, but not all, Boomer churches attempts at changing to reach younger generations is met with just as much disdain and antagonism as they met in the 1960s and 1970s. Craig Bird said, “Many of today’s church leaders who as youth battled to get guitars and drums into the sanctuary now disdain Millennial innovations as irreligious.” Peter York said, “The church is as rigid today as it was in the 1960s. What do some of the younger generations want? Believe it or not, they want to sing some of the old songs of the faith. They might dress them up or change the arrangements, but they don’t disparage the songs their grandparents love.

Gen-Xers and Millennials also like the “feel” of candles and a sense of authenticity rather than show. It is said they don’t like mega-churches, but 10,000 gather every weekend to hear Rob Bell in his converted shopping mall in Michigan. Somehow that doesn’t compute. If my own daughter and son-in-law are any indication, they do like services that feel more personal, intimate, and close. Friends and connections mean a lot more to them than they do to me. That’s personality based. I have a few good friends, they have a lot of friends and they are close to them.

What am I saying? I’m saying that what goes around comes around. Boomers who prefer the professionalism of the contemporary mega-church fight their own children who want to introduce some of the “old things” back into worship. I’ve seen all this coming. I’ve wondered for years what will happen when the Boomers reach retirement age. Now I know! Churches need to change some of their methodology to reach a different generation – just as we do on the mission field – but they must never change the eternal message.

7. We’ve been fighting for a strong view of Scripture for years. Questioning the nature of Scripture isn’t something new to the Emergent Church. Whether it is the Liberals of the 19th Century or the Neo-Orthodox of the last Century, there are always those who misuse Scripture. Back in the 1970s, when I was in graduate school, we fought those who said, “The Bible contains the Word of God rather than the Bible is the Word of God.” There were those who said Genesis 1-11 was just story or myth. It’s only a short jump from such things to Genesis 1-11 is a metaphor. I don’t believe that and most Christians don’t either. Just as most believers weren’t fooled by Liberals or Neo-Orthodox, they won’t be fooled by those who today attempt to make the Bible a human product or simply a metaphor for life. Skeptics, rebels, and the foolishly misguided may succumb to such things but we’ll never be able to protect everyone. We have to preach the truth, hold Scripture as the inerrant Word of God, and reach those we can. Listen. I’m not saying we shouldn’t defend the Scripture, but those who want to wander off after foolish teaching are going to do it. We’re told not to throw pearls before the swine. There are too many lost people to get tied up arguing with a few who don’t want to see God’s Word as absolute objective truth.

Those of us in the Restoration Movement have something to offer today’s search for truth. We need to keep our heads on straight and refuse to allow ourselves to get distracted. What can we offer? Here’s a couple of thoughts.

1. We have always emphasized biblical theology (story) over systematic theology. Hey, I like systematic theology. I’m working on a book that is a popularized combination of systematic theology and evidences. Until 1960 most Bible Colleges in the Restoration Movement offered no courses in systematic theology at all. Instead, we studied The Scheme of Redemption by Robert Milligan or something similar. We generally taught Bible doctrine in Bible classes.

Now I know this isn’t the same as “the Bible as narrative,” but it could be. I think it is important to help people get a picture of God’s plan for redeeming man or, you could say, the scarlet thread that runs through the whole Bible.

2. We have always emphasized the ancient-future church. For more than 200 years we’ve been crying out that the way to unity is to return to a recognition of biblical authority. We just need to call out that it isn’t enough to return to the Second Century, we have to go back to the First Century. Our non-denominational, Christ-honoring plea shouldn’t get bogged down on needless details (except those that bring us into relationship with Christ or are clearly taught) and focus on returning to New Testament norms. Let me give you an example. It is clear in the New Testament that Elders were to guide the church. Paul outlined their character qualities (qualifications) in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Examples of their function permeate the Epistles and can be seen in Acts. Other than that, however, we aren’t given explicit directions on how to select these leaders or their relation to a church staff or a lot of other things for that matter. The trans-generational principle is that God wants Elders to oversee the church. The specifics on how that’s done he leaves to us. He wants us to “sing and make melody in our hearts,” but he doesn’t tell us if we should use an organ, piano, jews harp, or something else. (Contrary, of course, to what some of our brothers say.)


Jim Swindle said...

Thanks for your comments. The current controversy over emergent/emerging churches reminds me of one of the best truths I've ever learned: The only key to a real Christian life is Jesus himself. Other things, such as emergent churches, may be a useful corrective if we're out of balance, but only Jesus is the key.

Jennifer said...

Very thoughtful post. There is much that troubles me about the "emerging church," but I do understand that this is a label applied to quite a continuum of thought, one end of which seems to me to be restricted to what I call "surfacy" things having to do with the culture of a worship service, e.g., the use of candles or increased prominence of artistic expression. Praise God that He made us creative individuals capable of worshiping Him in diverse ways!

On the other end of the spectrum, the questioning of the authenticity and/or literal interpretation of Scripture disturbs me, as does the tendency to place "authentic community" above Christ.

But almost unrelated to this topic, I am fascinated by the distinction you drew between systematic and biblical theology. I must confess I do not know what the distinction is. I have noticed that "systematic theology" volumes tend to come from the Calvinist perspective; do non-Calvinists tend to write "biblical theologies"? What is "biblical theology" as opposed to "systematic theology"? I don't mean to imply that Calvinists are non-Biblical of course, as I do believe that most Calvinists (and most Arminians) are attempting to be biblical. Just FYI, following Picirilli, if forced to label myself I would say I am a "Reformed Arminian."