Putting Mission in Perspective in the Emergent Discussion

There is a great deal of interest today in what is called, rightly or otherwise, "the emergent church." What is it, how should we respond to it, and what is its future? I am a student of revival and mission, having studied both for about forty years now. I am deeply interested in the emergent church phenomenon, whatever it is and whoever speaks for it. It shows promise of being a movement that might well be a precursor to real awakening. It also appears to be a misisonal model that could well be used to help the church in the West reach the emerging generation with the gospel.

The problem with the emergent church discussion is evident to all who seek to enter it. Those who promote it are zealous and usually ideologically nuanced in ways they do not always admit. Those who oppose it are much the same, thus there is a lot of heat and not enough light. Far too often the basis for praise or criticism is rooted in anecdote and fad. When this happens one person becomes the target for the whole discussion; e.g. Spencer Burke, Brian McLaren, Doug Padgitt, etc.

Solid reflection upon important missiological principles is all too rare in this debate. What is desperately needed is historical and theological perspective. Such would keep us from the arrogance of thinking that we are the first generation to face such missional contexts and problems. We desperately need a balanced, critical and fair-minded interaction with the leaders and materials from this movement.

I have found the leaders in this emergent movement and conversation to be far more willing to enter this dialogue than the critics of it. I am, for sure, concerned about some writers and ideas that I have encountered under the title "emergent" but I welcome the chance to ask questions, to learn and to see what God is really doing in and through these young leaders. We should not fear the earnest pursuit of truth in Christ, ever. And we should not fear new missional paradigms even if they are not our Christendom paradigms. If "the church exists for mission as fire exists for burning" (Emil Brunner) then this discussion must go forward in the love of Christ. My generation needs to learn to enter this conversation in humble dialogue, which seems so foreign to many of us. Love requires it. And Christ’s mission suffers on our watch if we do not love one another as we are taught by Jesus’ prayer for us in John 17.

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