The Emerging Church (part 1)

feature-article.gifThe purpose of this article is to make some observations about that new movement of postmodernism called the emerging church. There is a striking oxymoron in that first sentence, as the movement dislikes using the word “church.” I have encountered numerous names in my reading such as: Axxcess, Quest, Warehouse 242, Solomon’s Porch, Ooze, Matthew’s House, Landing Place, Water’s Edge, Levi’s Table, Tribe, Three Nails, Sanctuary and New Ground, The Bridge, ReIMAGINE, Thursday PM, Jacob’s Well, House of Mercy, Vine and Branches, and Apex. I believe you will get the idea that the emerging church does not want to be known by the regular biblical title of the gathering of the Lord’s people. Many of those who meet in these groups have an antipathy to the church, feeling that they have been hurt, shortchanged, wounded, or misguided by it.

I don’t think I have ever read an article that started with a bibliography. However, I will list the bibliography first for two reasons. First, I intend to judge the movement by what its representatives have written. Second, it will simplify my references for I will merely give in parentheses the page number of the author I quote. I will begin with The Emerging Church, by Dan Kimball. Kimball, a popular speaker in emerging church circles, comes out of a Bible church background on the West Coast. I will also refer to Emerging Churches, by Fuller Seminary professors Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger. Their book is valuable because it is a collection of interviews with emerging church leaders in Great Britain and the United States, providing a broad sampling of emerging views. The next source is The Church in Transition, by Tim Conder. Conder is pastor of Emmaus Way, which is an emergent mission of the Chapel Hill Bible Church in North Carolina. He is a recognized emerging church spokesman. The next book is Everything Must Change, by Brian D. McLaren. McLaren is the individual before whom the movement seems to bow in reverence. I almost called him “the theological guru.” However, the word theological does not fit with the emerging church. I would say that he is the recognized theoretician of the movement. I also read Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, by D. A. Carson. Carson’s book differs from the rest in that it is a theological criticism of the movement.

While it would be helpful to begin with a clear definition of the emerging church, it is nearly impossible to do so. Emerging church leaders refuse to define it. Conder says, “There is no single model for the theology and practices followed by all emerging churches” (24). Kimball echoes that thought by stating, “Instead of one emerging-church model, there are hundreds and thousands of models of emerging churches” (14). Gibbs and Bolger attempt a definition: “Emerging churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures” (44).

“Culture” is a key word for the emerging church, as the movement’s driving force is to make the gospel acceptable to the twenty-first century culture. When you realize that our culture is shaped by unbelief, evolution, and immorality, you will have some real doubts about this new gospel. When the culture shapes the gospel, truth will inevitably “go down the drain” with the culture.

How does one organize a discussion of the multi-faceted entity known as the emerging church? I have chosen to do it by making ten statements about it that seem obvious from the writings of its proponents.

The Emerging Church denies the reality of truth.
You do not study postmodernism very long before you realize that the heart of the “ism” is the rejection of truth. Kimball says, “All truth is not absolute, community is valued over individualism, and thinking, learning, and beliefs can be determined nonlinearly” (49). Later in his book Kimball inserts a highlighted quotation from Oprah Winfrey: “One of the biggest mistakes we make is to believe that there is only one way. There are many diverse paths leading to God” (181). Any Bible-believer knows that is a direct contradiction of Acts 4:12—”Neither is there salvation in any other for there is none other name under heaven, given among men, whereby we must be saved.” The postmodern can put those two statements side by side and value both. Strange!

Gibbs and Bolger state, “It is not that postmodern people do not want truth per se, but whose truth?” (68). For the emerging church God has lost the right to state truth by precept, for the experience of community determines truth. Gibbs and Bolger say, “Emerging Churches became increasingly dissatisfied with using the Bible in a modern way” (69). This statement shows that they are not satisfied to use the Bible as a source of truth.

In 1 Timothy 3:15 Paul speaks of “the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” The church’s business is to uphold the truth before a needy world. In the light of that verse it seems rather strange to hear Gibbs and Bolger say, “Emerging church leaders are under no compulsion to stand up and fight for truth” (124). A few lines later they state, “Standing up for the truth or fighting the culture wars has no appeal to emerging church leaders” (124). It seems that there is a rather large disconnect between 1 Timothy 3 and the emerging church philosophy.

Contradictions do not bother the emerging church. One of their worship practices involves repeating historic creeds such as the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds. I have no problem with repeating a creed; but is not the recitation of a creed an affirmation of truth? To say, “I do not believe in absolute truth; but I have received a blessing from reciting a creed based on absolute truth” is a contradiction. Is there not some dishonesty there? The emerging church denies the reality of truth.

The Emerging Church partakes of the mumbo jumbo of postmodernism.
Postmodernism has a new set of dubious practices that defy all logic. One of these is the practice of deconstruction/reconstruction. Kimball describes it thus: “Postmodern philosophers began teaching that even language cannot have fixed or certain meaning but should be deconstructed, that is, pulled apart and rearranged” (58). Most believe that Noah Webster performed a great service for the English language with his 1826 dictionary. After all, communication depends on the precise definition of words, although postmodernists deny it. The words which spring to my mind are confusion, dishonesty, and foolishness. Kimball goes on to apply this practice to hermeneutics by saying, “Since language is constantly shifting, according to postmodern thought, there can be many interpretations of a word or text, not just one meaning” (50). If I understand his meaning correctly, Scripture can mean whatever I want it to mean. Just in case you think I am stretching what Kimball intends, he goes on to say that in the emerging church “biblical terms like gospel and Armageddon need to be deconstructed and redefined” (175). Paul defines the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3–4 and Revelation 19 explains the battle of Armageddon. Why does either Scripture need to be deconstructed and redefined?

The silliness of the whole scenario is brought out by the statement of Gibbs and Bolger that, “One must dismantle the old, clear the way, before one can build something truly new” (28). To see what is really meant by this, listen to their description of the Apostle Paul’s ministry after it has been deconstructed and reconstructed. “If we state the agenda of Paul’s mission in modern terms, it seems clear that he was building an international, anti-imperial, alternative society embodied in local communities” (61). That description has the odor of some sneaky deconstruction/reconstruction on the book of Acts. It might otherwise be known as intellectual dishonesty.

Another genre of mumbo jumbo popular in the emerging church is the use of terms like stories, narratives, metanarratives, counter-narratives, and reframing. These are postmodern concepts. The Bible is viewed merely as a series of stories. For instance, Gibbs and Bolger say, “For them the Bible presents a fascinating collection of stories that together make up a big Story that stretches from before creation to beyond the end of time” (70). Later they state, “God communicates with humanity, not primarily through the form of propositions but through a story illustrated by parables, riddles, sayings, and folk songs. It is a story that is still unfolding and in which we have a part at this point of time” (70). The Bible has many historical accounts that might be termed stories, such as parables, which illustrate truth. Yes, the Bible has stories, but to describe the Bible merely as a collection of stories deliberately ignores commandments, instructions, warnings, and prophecies. It appears that the emerging church prefers preachers to be tellers of stories, not preachers of righteousness and truth.

I take it that narratives are stories—historical accounts—that teach. Conder defines metanarratives as “overarching, unified stories of truth and meaning” (161). “Framing stories” seem to be the context in which we view things. Brian McLaren, a great proponent of framing stories, frames the “story” of Jesus as a social crusader, interpreting every incident and parable in that light and thereby turning Christ into a Martin Luther King. By changing Jesus into a peace activist, he changes Jesus into another perverted image. As I have said, Brian McLaren is the featured spokesman in the emerging church movement. You find him quoted repeatedly. Though he is reputed to be the teacher of things “new,” I picture him as the reincarnation of Walter Rauschenbusch, shamelessly twisting Scripture to produce the Jesus of his imagination. He writes like an old-fashioned modernist of the 1930s variety. I have probably given too much space to these terms of secular postmodernism. But I hope that I have made clear that the terminology of the secular postmodernist is a tool that corrupts the Scriptures. The emerging church partakes of the mumbo jumbo of postmodernism.

The Emerging Church maximizes the life of Jesus while minimizing His death.
A repeating phrase in the literature of the emerging church is the couplet “kingdom living.” This means that Christians should imitate the life of Christ when he was on earth. Gibbs and Bolger ask the obvious question: “How did emerging churches come to emphasize the gospel of the kingdom?” Answering their own question, they reply, “It began as a change of focus from the Epistles to the Gospels as a way to understand Jesus more profoundly” (48). My question is, “When did the Lord authorize that shift? And why did he bother to inspire the epistles if they are to be ignored?” Kingdom living seems to take precedence over soul salvation in the emerging church. Kimball says, “We must speak about the kingdom in our evangelism because post-Christians are more concerned with the kingdom in this life than with the kingdom in the next life” (203). On the same page he defines emerging church evangelism: “Evangelism offers an invitation into the kingdom instead of a way to get to heaven.” For all my disagreements with Kimball, I have no doubt that he is right about emerging church evangelism not offering a way to heaven.

Gibbs and Bolger state this thrust of the emerging church this way: “What do we mean by ‘the way of Jesus’? Simply the life of Jesus and his engagement with his culture, as embodied in community and given verbal expression in the Sermon on the Mount, is prescriptive for Christians” (44). Later they say, “We don’t dismiss the cross; it is still a central part. But the good news is not that he died but that the kingdom has come” (54). They quote Dieter Zander, a West Coast emerging church leader: “This is the work of the rest of my life to form communities of people that produce apprentices of Jesus who live in the gospel and communicate and draw others in a matter of course to the way they live” (55). Later they say, “The idea of a kingdom focus instead of a church focus is a huge paradigm shift, one that does not come easy” (62). Yes, that is a huge shift—particularly in light of the fact that the New Testament epistles give us a church focus, not a kingdom focus.

I have no problem with seeking to put into practice the example that we see in the life of Christ. However, the emerging church’s approach ignores the fact that Christ did not come to be an example to follow but a Redeemer to trust. He came “to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). In reading the emerging writers one gets the idea that the gospel ended just before the crucifixion and resurrection. There seems to be resentment against the apostles in the Book of Acts for preaching a gospel of individual salvation rather than one of social betterment. Paul’s great explanation of the gospel in Romans and the rest of the epistles were scarcely mentioned in any of my reading. Brian McLaren, in Everything Must Change, spends considerable time in the beginning chapters excoriating early missionaries to Africa for preaching a gospel of individual salvation rather than a message of social betterment. Speaking of these early missionaries he asks:

“Did North American church leaders teach the early colonists to treat the Native Peoples with love and respect? Did they consistently and with one voice oppose slavery because it was an assault on the dignity of fellow human beings? Later in our history, did they express outrage over the exploitation of factory workers or the second-class status of women? Did they stand up for refugees and immigrants? Did they oppose white privilege, segregation, anti-Semitism, stereotyping of Muslims, and other forms of ethnic prejudice? Did they see the environment as God’s sacred creation that deserves to be cherished and conserved?” (20)

Two comments need to be made here. Those missionaries were sent to Africa with the commission to preach the gospel of salvation, and that is what they did. In the course of their relationship to the natives they did many of the things McLaren mentions. However, the author’s words clearly show his preference for a social gospel over a saving gospel. Later, in the same discussion, McLaren says, “We described God’s kingdom in terms of God’s dreams coming true for this earth, of God’s justice and peace replacing earth’s injustice and disharmony” (21). Could one who believes in a sovereign God speak of “God’s dreams coming true?” Mark my word, McLaren is spiritually dangerous and his fingerprints are all over the movement. What he offers is indeed a religion in which “all things must change,” for it is not Christianity. The emerging church maximizes the life of Jesus while minimizing his death.

The Emerging Church is looking for a new theology.
When I began to study the phenomena of the emerging church I thought that it was mainly a change in method. The movement desired to change worship to include candles, incense, art, and sensory experience. However, I began to realize as I read more that the desired changes go far deeper. I learned from operating a Christian school that one’s philosophy of education should determine methods of instruction. However, I also observed that a change in one’s methods of instruction would influence one’s philosophy of education. What started as a change in methods resulted in a change in theology. Conder clearly expresses the idea:

“I feel strongly that the transition of the existing church is not merely about programs and practices. Instead, this journey is about adjustments in thought and theology that accompany the practices of transition. Changes in our worship service or ministry practice run the risk of being inauthentic, shallowly rooted, and short-lived if there’s no re-exploration of our theology, with new questions framed from a postmodern perspective and theological issues unearthed in transition. Strong fears and oversimplifications in theological dialogue can short-circuit a transition before it ever begins” (15).

Gibbs and Bolger use different words to say the same thing: “In other words, theologies given birth within modernity will not transfer to postmodern cultures” (34). They approvingly quote Dave Sutton, “I needed to find a totally different theology” (311). Conder frighteningly says, “I believe that in the context of the emerging culture, as in any other culture, the message has changed and is continuously changing” (53).

The message of salvation has remained constant through the ages. We learn that message as the apostles preach it in the culture of first century Rome. We recognize that message as Luther emerges from his monkish circumstances in sixteenth century Germany. We hear the familiar sound in the nineteen century as D. L. Moody declares it in England and America. We hear that message again as a vacation Bible school teacher explains it to a child. It is “the faith once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3)—the Word of God.

I am struck by the twenty-first century arrogance of these statements. After 2000 years of church history, we now learn we must subject theology to culture? When we call upon the worldly culture of the end times to redefine our theology there is something seriously wrong. The sinful world has no business defining doctrine for the church.

August 2008
This article is continued in the next issue of the Visitor.


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