The Emergent Church: Emerging from What?

(Originally printed in the Spring 2005 Issue of the MCOI Journal beginning in page 10)

By Peter Simpson

What should the relationship be between the church and culture? How should the constancy of the church adapt to the fluidity of culture? The church must find some way to communicate God’s message within the cultural contexts in which it finds itself. These concerns provide impetus for thought-provoking conversation in today’s church. The emergent church claims many changes need to be made to the modern church’s perspective and approach if the church is to have a meaningful impact on the emerging culture. How do these suggested changes help the solution? And which of these changes could bring further problems?

Our brothers and sisters in the emergent church are to be admired for their desire to live out Jesus’ example of love and acceptance. But I am troubled by the point of view some have of truth, Scripture, and salvation. It seems that in attempting to reach a postmodern culture they have adopted too much of the postmodern perspective.

In the ensuing pages, I will take a brief look at the emerging culture and then give an evaluation of the emergent church’s perspective of postmodernism, truth, Scripture, and salvation. Please keep in mind that, just as in any diverse group, the emergent church has advocates with differing points of view. I have attempted to represent the views of a few of them. However, I have also placed a heavy emphasis on the ideas of Brian McLaren, since his writings seem to have great influence among the rest.

The Emergent Church’s Perspective of the Emerging Culture

… an emerging and developing worldview and culture pursuing what is beyond modernity. It holds there is no single universal worldview. Therefore, truth is not absolute and many of the qualities embraced by modernism no longer hold the value or influence they once did.1

William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland delineate it as:

… a form of cultural relativism about such things as reality, truth, reason, value, linguistic meaning, the self and other notions.2

It is important to note that none of the writer’s for the emergent church whose materials I read claim to hold this particular form of postmodern philosophy. But this is the situation in which the emergent church finds itself.

The postmodern approach to learning differs from a modern, linear, logical method. Experience, instead of knowledge, becomes the basis for truth. Leonard Sweet expresses the dissimilarity this way:

“People today are starved not for doctrines but for images and relationships and stories.”3

The differences between the two mindsets can be seen in the following sequences of learning: modern=facts influence belief which influences behavior; and postmodern=experience influences behavior which influences belief. This paradigm shift is most vividly seen in the change from spectator/television to interactive participant/internet.4

In stark contrast to modernism, the postmodern world readily accepts spirituality and the existence of God, but unfortunately its perspective is often unbiblical and indiscriminately syncretic. While this may permit conversations that would not be possible with, say, an Atheist, there tends to be the additional barrier of an overarching distrust of organized religion.

The Emergent Church’s Response to the Emerging Culture

First and foremost the emergent church is concerned about presenting genuine Christianity in a way the postmodern culture understands. They see their task like that of any culturally-sensitive missionary who endeavors to translate and embody God’s Word in another community.

In an effort to restore trust, the church’s main apologetic is love and authenticity. Dan Kimball says, “We need to realize that our primary form of evangelism will be the church’s [sic] simply being what the church should be.” They desire to be churches that are “known for their love, for the way they pray, for how they share Jesus, instead of being known merely for a style of preaching, music, artwork, or candles.”5

Love and authenticity are the means through which they live out their purpose: to be missional, that is, to exist to serve, to infuse their communities with the good news of God’s kingdom.

If you were to attend an emergent church “gathering” (a term they prefer instead of “service”) you might first notice candle light and the subtle aroma of incense. As you enter the main room, you may find that the chairs or pews are arranged in a circle. Perhaps there is a stained-glass depiction of Jesus’ baptism projected on a screen, and some people are praying in the corner. And whether you take this to be common or strange, the experiential elements are not to be taken as an end in themselves. They are to aid each person to genuinely worship and encounter God.

Before looking at the “doctrinal” side of things, there is an additional objective of the emergent church that is worth mentioning. They are convinced that the church should be a creator of culture. Erwin McManus, pastor of Mosaic in Los Angeles, says:

Our intention is not simply to relate to culture but to create culture … Without realizing it we have slipped into the view that the world creates culture and that the church reacts to it…But is it possible that the church was intended to be the cultural epicenter from which a new community emerges, astonishing and transforming cultures through the power of forgiveness, freedom, and creativity?6

What a tremendous vision he gives us: Christians who bring beauty to their communities while reflecting the creativity of God in whose image they were made, and remade!

Pertinent Aspects of the Emergent Churches’ Philosophy and Doctrine – Are They In Postmodernism But Not Of It?

I suspect that up to this point you find little in the emergent church’s response with which you disagree. So now let us consider their perspective on the more fundamental issues of postmodernism, truth, Scripture, and salvation. Please remember that the positions I am about to describe represent only the views of a few key leaders. Many of those whom I read said little that disagreed with my conservative, evangelical, mostly-modern conceptions. That said, much of what follows can be attributed to Brian McLaren. And although I will disagree with this brother on many points, it is not my intent to make McLaren the bad guy. He is grappling with some complex ideas in crucial areas of Christian faith and practice at what very well may be a pivotal point in history. I am grateful for his courage and humility; they have been an inspiration to me.

There is a thread which unifies the emergent church’s perspective in each section that follows. It is that of epistemological [epistemology is the study of knowledge and how we justify that and what we know] humility and, perhaps, even uncertainty. (I say perhaps because I suspect that most of the emergent church authors are much more certain than they admit.) Generally speaking, their uncertainty seems to have two motivations. First, it is a response to the perceived arrogance and indifference of the modern church. And second, it is part and parcel of being affected by the unhealthy skepticism of postmodern thought.

Postmodern Philosophy

Since there are many different understandings of what postmodernism is, McLaren takes special care to define his version as “emerging postmodernism.” The addition of emerging emphasizes McLaren’s ideas concerning the current transition from modernism. He purports the common assumption that postmodernism is the opposite of modernism (i.e. irrational as opposed to rational,) is not accurate. Postmodernism should not be thought of as “antimodernity” but as moving beyond modernism. Instead of discarding rationality, it unites it with imagination and faith. The long, arduous debate between the two is declared a stalemate and more important issues can be addressed. Postmodernism does not reject the progress and optimism that modernism promised; but it is both optimistic and pessimistic about progress. McLaren believes this change of paradigm is an excellent opportunity for Christians to influence an era.7

McLaren distinguishes his version of postmodernism from two others. It is not the neo-nihilistic and relativistic postmodernism that denies the existence of truth. Nor is it a second version (which he denominates “adolescent postmodernism”) which adds consumerism and political correctness to the relativist pluralism of the first version.8

Emergent postmodernism, then, is not analogous with that of Derrida, Lyotard and others. Rather than calling it a philosophy, McLaren prefers to call it a “formative spirit and mentality.”9 It sees relativist pluralism—the idea that all opinions are valid—as a type of chemotherapy (a radical treatment to stop the growth of “modern reductionistic rationalism”). Afterward, the resulting “emergent thinking” will be better than both rationalism and relativist pluralism. Additionally, emerging postmodernism hopes to provide a better alternative to consumerism, thus improving all life on the planet. It pays special attention to marginalized minority groups by striving to break down the many cultural barriers that have hindered their progress and kept their voices from being heard. However, emergent postmodernism does not see this political correctness as an end in itself but seeks to move beyond it.10

Truth and Knowledge

Part of emergent postmodernism’s move beyond modernism includes a move away from epistemological certainty, a notion that is resisted by postmodernists. While this may strike terror in those of us with a modernist bent, McLaren sees this as an excellent opportunity for a return to faith and spirituality.

McLaren clearly states that he does not adhere to absolute relativism. He does not maintain that truth is a construct of language; but he does hold that while absolutes do exist they cannot be proclaimed unequivocally. This uncertainty is demonstrated in our incomplete knowledge of a transcendent God. The recognition of this is part of what he calls a generous orthodoxy.

“A generous orthodoxy … is humble; it doesn’t claim too much; it admits that it walks with a limp.”11

But this is okay; uncertainty is not to be feared. Since absolute certainty is unattainable and we are only capable of relative certainty; therefore, to some degree, we all live by faith.12 Here McLaren sees one of the benefits of postmodernism. The secularism of the Enlightenment separated reason and religion; postmodernism will let religion back into the conversation. It brings dignity back to spirituality.13

Another facet of the emergent church’s understanding of truth is in response to modernism’s tendency to objectify or impersonalize truth. Instead, as Erwin McManus sees it, truth is personal, something that goes beyond both modern and postmodern conceptions.

Truth is neither relative nor objective. The biblical view is that truth is personal, relational, and subjective. The critical difference, of course, is that we are not the subject. God is. Jesus stated emphatically that he is the truth … He is the source of all truth. Our experience of an objective reality is the result of the very character and nature of God.14

McLaren also appreciates this personal aspect of truth.

The kind of knowing that applies to God is not simply a matter of objective neutrality plus proper tools of research, plus the right text to be researched, plus due diligence. Knowledge of God involves being transformed into the kind of person—humble, inquisitive, teachable, obedient, practiced—who is capable of knowing the holy.15

McLaren’s statement here seems to expose the real motivation for many of his comments about truth and knowledge. The kind of knowledge characterized by objective, sterile research cannot replace a vibrant relationship with God.

RESPONSE – TRUTH

What concerns should we have about the concept of knowledge that the emergent church espouses? Is there a problem with a preference for relational knowledge over detached knowledge? There does not seem to be, so long as the personal character of that knowledge is not wholly founded on the subjective.

What is more troubling is the emergent church’s uncertainty. G.K. Chesterton succinctly diagnoses this epistemological aliment:

What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition … [and] settled upon the organ of conviction, where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.16

In this same way, McLaren believes he is doing religion a favor by declaring a stalemate between rationality and imagination and faith. But instead of raising imagination and faith to their place of proper respect, he demotes rationality with uncertainty.

Not all proponents of the emergent church make this claim of uncertainty; and many have found the emerging culture is open to truth. Kimball notes:

I am finding that emerging generations really aren’t opposed to truth and biblical morals. When people sense that you aren’t just dogmatically opinionated due to blind faith and that you aren’t just attacking other people’s beliefs out of fear, they are remarkably open to intelligent and loving discussion about choice and truth. When Jesus and his teaching are offered as solid truth in the midst of a confusing and shifting world, people actually respond positively and with great relief.17

Scriptures

With all that said about truth, what is the emergent church saying about the Scriptures? Everyone that I read believes that God’s Word is the truth. McLaren reflects on a lifetime of studying the Bible and says that, “[his] regard for the Bible is higher than ever.”18 Of course, regard can mean many things.

Regard does not mean treating the Bible like a textbook or encyclopedia. According to McLaren, the modern church often approaches the Bible scientifically by seeking to dissect propositions from it. The modern church has often confused knowledge of the Bible with knowledge of God, as it suffers from the delusion that information can save and transform.19

McLaren cautions us not to regard our interpretations too highly. He points out occasions in church history when Christians have used their interpretations of Scripture to sanction cruelty and slavery. So our interpretations cannot be infallible. If our interpretations are fallible, then the authority must reside elsewhere. The real meaning of the text must be God’s intended meaning; hence, the ultimate authority resides in God. Perhaps the main issue is the authority of God, not the authority of the text, with God’s will, intent, desire, wisdom, and kingdom being of greater importance.

McLaren also disapproves of a liberal interpretation which strips the Bible of what is unwanted and conforms it to a contemporary worldview. The hermeneutic he promotes sees the Bible’s value to teach and inspire us through the old stories and experiences of wise people. Its different cultural perspectives help us to distinguish flaws in our contemporary culture.

But he admits the Bible does leave us with a few problems. Is the biblical account of Creation literal? Are we to continue to promote male-dominated social and ecclesiastical structures? “Does the Bible recommend sanctions against homosexuals, and if so, what sanctions and why?” Do we have to believe the entire Bible to avoid Hell, or are there parts which are optional?20

Furthermore, the Bible tells our family story. It communicates identity and mission. Giving answers is not the point. It should be seen as narrative, a multi-faceted, multi-versioned, multi-themed story about the person of Jesus Christ. Great value is found in the growth which comes through struggling and interacting with it. You could compare it with a math textbook (ironically) which has the answers in the back. While the mastery of the content is important, it is not the end. The goal is the acquisition of skills for use in real-world applications.21

RESPONSE – SCRIPTURES

The fact that our interpretations can be fallible does not imply that they must be incorrect. Certainly, we need to realize that we can be wrong and should temper our claims with humility and love. However, McLaren’s position seems to assume that God does not give us the ability to get at his intended meaning. Is this not a part of what Paul means by “accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, NASB)?

McLaren admits there are certain parts of the Bible which in some situations cause us problems. Now wait a minute! This sounds suspiciously like what he accused the liberals of doing. Is it fair to single out evolution, feminism, homosexuality, and deconstruction as valid areas for questioning? Or is he just doing this to appease probable objections? Instead of conforming to contemporary culture, he seems to be conforming to the interpretive community. At one point he says:

“Where we can’t reconcile contemporary experience and the Bible, we can honestly admit that we just don’t know, having confidence that we will be led in time to better understanding.”22

Again! I thought that the Bible was valuable for getting an outside perspective on our contemporary experience. Are we to claim ambiguity until our culture changes and the conflict with biblical teaching goes away? I do not see how this does not entail the liberal approach to which he objects?

Before proceeding to the next section I must make one more observation. At many times in his writing, McLaren (and others) attribute to modernism the tendency to neatly classify things as either-or. In contrast, he prefers the more inclusive postmodern tendency of both-and. Yet, in McLaren’s presentation of the Gospel as story in The Church in Emerging Cultures: 5 perspectives, he wants to focus on the story and not the propositional truth contained therein. Why cannot this be an instance of both-and?

Salvation

The emerging culture tends to have a pluralistic view of salvation and cannot fathom how (in the Christian perspective) “good,” spiritual people—Gandhi, the Dali Lama and others—would not go to Heaven. How does the emerging church respond?

McLaren claims the Gospel of the modern church is too exclusive and individualistic and, hence, does not accurately reflect Jesus’ teaching. “The way conservative Christians talk about ‘personal salvation’ seems to me to try to persuade by exclusion.” He claims Jesus’ message to the Jews was that their “view of salvation is entirely too narrow … nationalistic. God’s vision is global … to all nations.” Hence, there is something lacking in the modern emphasis on the salvation of individuals. The emphasis should not be on who is right and who is wrong, but on a willingness to share what we have found and experienced with others who are interested.23

He also rejects a universal “everyone’s in” salvation. While the exclusive view can cause division, prejudice, and war, the universal view can lead to an apathetic response to injustice and evil. But the Good News of the Kingdom is for everyone. It is a continuation of God’s original covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12) “I will bless you … and through you, all nations will be blessed.” Everyone is blessed. McLaren qualifies this: “I am not saying it brings equal benefits to both. Nor am I saying that all Christians avail themselves equally of the benefits” [italics his]. But when Christians live loving and generous lives, their neighbors and communities benefit.24 But who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell? God knows the answer. McLaren would rather emphasize the task of living out God’s will on earth.25

RESPONSE – SALVATION

I commend McLaren for his desire that none should be lost. Nevertheless, the New Testament seems to be quite clear about the responsibility of the individual before God within the greater community. And while each Christian should be a blessing to his neighbor during this life, there is still a great difference between being warmed and filled and being adopted as God’s child.

His desire to not drive anyone away from Jesus is admirable. However, we cannot forget that Jesus will at times be a stumbling block, an offense, no matter how He is truthfully presented.

Conclusion

In concluding our one-sided conversation, Erwin McManus’ comments serve us well:

We must never allow ourselves to be deluded by our own sense of accuracy or rightness. Whatever the culture, era, or generation, it is essential that we examine our practices, rituals, dogmas, and traditions and measure them against God’s intent as communicated through the Scriptures.26

This is an intent I believe we can know.

We must remember that God has given us a mind and a heart. And we are to use them equally. In doing so, we can emphasize the value of story and be opposed to the dehumanizing aspects of modernism without having to resort to postmodernism.27

I do think that an adjustment in our apologetic strategy is in order. The apologetic approach to people of a modern perspective focuses on helping them past intellectual barriers. It seems that in many cases the barriers the people of the emerging culture face are the very Christians themselves—you and I perhaps. Therefore, we must be careful that we are not the offense. Should Christ be the offense, then so be it. This is expected. But we should not deceive ourselves into thinking that aspects of our lives never hinder unnecessarily.Ω

Peter Simpson invests his life in the youth of Siguatepeque, Honduras where he and his wife, Maileen, have been serving as missionaries with World Reach, Inc since 1996. In developing leaders among the Hondurans, he seeks to affect a change in thinking that is broad in scope and Christian in quality.

 

© 2018, Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc. All rights reserved. Excerpts and links may be used if full and clear credit is given with specific direction to the original content.

  1. Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003) 58
  2. J.P. Moreland & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2003) 145
  3. Leonard Sweet, Andy Crouch, et al., The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives, Leonard Sweet ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003) 35
  4. Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 186-187
  5. Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 205, 15, 17
  6. Leonard Sweet, Andy Crouch, et al., The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives, Leonard Sweet ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 240, 246
  7. Brian McLaren, “Why I Still Use the Word Postmodern,” Emergent Village http://www.emergentvillage.com/index.cfm?PAGE_ID=797&EXPAND= (accesses May 27, 2004)
  8. Brian McLaren, “The Three Postmodernisms: A short explanation,” Brian McLaren http://www.anewkindofchristian.com/archives/000071.html (accessed May 27, 2004)
  9. The ideas of philosophers such as Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault, and Ludwig Wittgenstein are the backbone of postmodern philosophy. Basically (and certainly overly simplified) they hold that meaning, knowledge, and truth reside in and hence find their derivation in language. This has at least two consequences. First, meaning, knowledge and truth do not have an objective basis that transcends language and culture. And second, the definitions that each culture/subculture has for these three are legitimate, i.e., there is no overarching, objective truth
  10. Brian McLaren, “The Three Postmodernisms: A short explanation,” Brian McLaren http://www.anewkindofchristian.com/archives/000071.html (accessed May 27, 2004)
  11. Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004) 155
  12. Brian McLaren, Finding Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999) 54
  13. Brian McLaren, The Church on the Other Side (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000) 191, 194
  14. Leonard Sweet, Andy Crouch, et al., The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives, Leonard Sweet ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), quoting Erwin McManus on p.256
  15. Leonard Sweet, Andy Crouch, et al., The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives, Leonard Sweet ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), quoting Brian McLaren on p.158
  16. Leonard Sweet, Andy Crouch, et al., The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives, Leonard Sweet ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), quoting G.K. Chesterton on p.135
  17. The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 76
  18. Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 159
  19. Leonard Sweet, Leonard Sweet, Andy Crouch, et al., The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives, Leonard Sweet ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003) 249-254
  20. Brian McLaren, Finding Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 242-243
  21. Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christian (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001) 52-53
  22. Brian McLaren, Finding Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 243
  23. Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christian (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001), 124-131, 62
  24. Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 109-111
  25. Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 112-114
  26. Leonard Sweet, Leonard Sweet, Andy Crouch, et al., The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives, Leonard Sweet ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003) 244
  27. J.P. Moreland & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2003), 152

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