The Emerging Church: Can We Talk?

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Since the late 1990s a conversation has been going on about the emergent church. Opinions and reactions range from one end of a broad spectrum to another. Personally, I have longed to see someone deal with these issues fairly from the perspective of a deep commitment to the ancient Christian faith. Now this has been done. A good friend, Dr. Jim Belcher, has written the book I will recommend to many: Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional (IVP). This fine book will be out later this year.

The late Robert Webber spent considerable time among the leaders of the emergent discussion. Many found him to be a friend to those who were seeking for new ways to relate the gospel to our time. Yet these leaders never really heard the true passion of Bob, who once said to me, "John, I fear this is a huge reaction against traditional conservative evangelicalism without a serious foundation consciously rooted in the ancient Christian faith." I believe Bob was right. Emergent has been primarily about a reaction. Unless this movement embraces "mere" Christianity very seriously it will come to very little over time.

Defining emergent Christianity is notoriously difficult. Much like the Jesus Movement in the 1960s, which touched my life powerfully, and then the Church Growth Movement in the 1970s and 1980s, a movement I studied directly under the leading voices of that time (which led me to plant a church), this new movement has representatives of all sorts. Some are moving toward theological positions that are remarkably close to old liberalism while others are still quite conservative in their theological beliefs. Postmodernism impacts all of this but few of the emergents I know are "hard" postmodernists.

Even the use of the term "emergent" is suspect. Who is and is not emergent? I have been called emergent by one leading conservative minister who refuses to acknowledge how broad a brush he has used to make his point. Yet I do not know one single emergent writer who would call me emergent. I am not a "conservative traditionalist" (as this one man would define it) but I am certainly not emergent. I am a mainline minister, of Reformed conviction, who holds to evangelical beliefs (in the main) and yet I would call myself, before all else, a "mere" Christian. I do this in the same spirit we saw in yesterday's post about C. S. Lewis.

All of this underscores how unhelpful labels can really be. They generally end serious conversation and lead to war. If I can label you then I can attack you and get others to agree with me. Some ministers, of my personal acquaintance, intentionally use this method because it works to build their own ministries and to raise money. (It also sells books!) I have to fight my own cynicism when I hear and see things like this. I can tell you that I have no respect for such thinking and have a serious problem with the kind of people who promote this way of thinking. It is sectarian to the extreme.

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 Emergent Christianity, or emerging Christianity, are reformation movements that come out of the 1990s. The source for most of this movement is evangelicalism. Many in Gen-X found much to not like about the evangelical church. (I agree with them on this point.) They began to protest, a good Protestant response, much of what they saw. The writings of these men (they were/are mostly white men) found fault with a lot of what my generation had done in the church. These men held conferences, wrote books and sought to let their views become more widely known.
In time the movement got the label: emergent.

By the early years of this decade a large scaled push-back began to emerge from more traditional evangelicals. A raft of books appeared and conferences were held to respond to these emergent writers. Some of the responses are still rolling out (blogs are filled with this) and this reality makes for a whole new set of books and events. It is like a ping-pong game. Having lived through the 1980s and 1990s, when the enemy was pragmatic evangelicalism, I can tell you that there is a kind of "fierce" (angry) evangelicalism that believes every new wind that blows along for about five years or more must be strongly opposed. This wind is seen as the new enemy of the church. This is the case now with emergent Christianity. It is endangering multitudes thus traditional conservatives have to rally the troops and sound the alarm. Much of this, from my perspective, is not new. It is the same thing I saw in my lifetime of ministry, especially when I was most active in the world of conservative Calvinism.

Conservative Calvinism knew it was "true evangelicalism" (or at least the best form). Because of this we lived on the margins, always showing what was wrong with everyone else. We produced conferences, talk shows, magazines and books. The target was often Willow Creek, or marketing and the related centers of evangelical renewal. The fact that I now talk about this makes some very unhappy with me since I was an insider to these historical events. The fact that I have acknowledged the barrenness of this approach, and my own sinfulness in embracing it, really angers a few. But my story is my story. I was there. I helped lead the charge and I now wish I had never done it.

What eventually rescued me was "mere" Christianity, or catholic, apostolic and ancient faith. I experienced the Spirit's work in creating and preserving the church in and through the creeds and the Holy Scriptures. This reality spoke to my deepest fears and an intense longing for someplace to live and love besides the "constant polemic" of the conservative Reformed world. I did not walk away from the influence of John Calvin, who I still esteem very highly even though I disagree with him on some points. I did intentionally leave the kind of Calvinism that created an "angry" God who hated sinners and loves only the elect. I did leave the kind of Calvinism that has lost all practical connection to common grace. And I did leave the kind of Calvinism that treats other Christians as the enemy.

This is why I engage the emergents with love and respect even though I am sometimes troubled by the things I read in the popular writers of this movement. Because I respect these men, and want to listen to them, I am seen as compromised. This is the problem. Theology done without the whole church always leads to deep suspicion and a lack of regard for others. I know no other theology now than "evangelical and ecumenical" theology. The discussion about God, the Bible and the core truths of Christian practice, must all be conducted within the context of listening to others who come from traditions within the church that are not my own.

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