I have followed the Emergent Church (EC) phenomenon for several years now. I have not read all the books that are coming out with popular EC themes and titles but I have read several of them carefully. I have also used one or two of these books in my classes and openly shared in dialog with writers such as Brian McLaren, who is often seen as the leader of this movement by outsiders. Insiders respect Brian a great deal but they understand that the depth of leadership, and the varied important voices in this movement, is much wider than Brian. One of the most popular writers in EC circles, as one example, is Scot McKnight. Scot is anything but a young gun for a modern "cool" movement.

I have recently taken my own public hits for being "too emergent" yet I am not deeply involved in this, or any other, movement in any meaningful sense. I am certainly not an apologist for the EC movement nor do I intend to write emergent books. (I do count many emergent leaders as friends and desire to listen to them and learn from them as much as possible.) I think the general response to EC from the Christian right and the Christian left is generally wrong and often grossly unfair. There are some holes in the foundation of EC, at least among some, but these can be repaired. There are some speakers and writers in the EC blogosphere that would do well to study the ancient church much more carefully and thus they might get a much fuller grasp on historical/biblical theology. But again, this can be fixed in time and within relationships. Attacks will fix nothing!

One thing clearly characterizes much of the emergent literature and the speakers that I have heard. They are all suspicious of modernity and of Enlightenment projects that privilege certain types of systematic theology and church life. This suspicion is one I share and thus there are some people on the Christian right who think I am emergent.

Jason Byassee, a wonderful writer and editor for the Christian Century, and a solid orthodox theologian from the Methodist Church, has done as much to fairly critique emergent material and spokespersons as anyone that I know presently. Jason and I had lunch last week and discussed these, and other, items of personal interest. He also gave a sterling paper at the Wheaton Theology Conference titled: "Emerging From What, Going Where?" (You can secure an audio of this address by contacting Wheaton College who sells an MP3 of the whole event for only $15.00. Contact their AV department via the Web or by telephone.) Jason gave a simple overview of the movement’s very brief history and then offered some insightful critique.

He showed how this movement began as a younger generation of church planters sought to engage the post-modern culture and were met with outright rejection from most of the evangelical establishment. Emergent writers can and do make outrageous claims, and some are much worse at this than others, but this widely announced rejection is often hostile and grossly distorted. Some merely mock these younger leaders as fostering a kind of cool Christianity with candles and hip clothes and weird hair styles. Mainliners, on the other hand, see EC as the newest gimmick from the right. Some now embrace it as a way to stop mainline decline.  Byassee writes that the emergent movement "is trying to bring the wealth of the church’s ancient traditions—often neglected by evangelicals—into creative collaboration with the insights of post-modern culture for the sake of fruitful interaction and Christian faithfulness." I could not agree more!

Is this movement a cultural flash-in-the pan or could it be an example of fruitful ancient-future interaction that many more of us should consider? Byassee leans to the second response and so do I. Brian McLaren and Tony Jones, among others, have found a wide vein of disaffection among younger evangelicals. They have spoken to it with a growing measure of effective skill. Most of these writers (with Tony Jones being a very clear exception) are not deeply trained in theology and biblical studies but all of them are immersed in culture and understand the kinds of questions their peers are really asking. They also understand the missional context of what is happening in a post-Christendom America and this insight alone makes the EC movement important for all of us who love the church and want to reach people. Byassee concludes that: "Their work should not be treated as theological treatises to be picked apart at conferences." Like him I see these emergent voices as the word of an activist movement of church planters who desire to see "new forms" of church life, forms that may well help us reach unreached people.

There is much to criticize in this movement but those who want to speak to the next generation had best take these men and women seriously and with more Christian love and respect. (Women, thankfully, do have a prominent role in emergent, a role they were clearly not given in much of conservative evangelicalism until very recently and even then it remains quite limited.)

Two articles are worth reading on emergent: "Five Streams of Emerging Church," by Scot McKnight (Christianity Today, February 2007) and "Emerging Model: A Visit to Jacob’s Well," Jason Byassee (Christian Century, September 19, 2006). I also recommend the new book: An Emergent Manifesto of Hope (Baker, 2007), edited by Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones. It may infuriate you at points but at least by reading it you will get the main ideas of EC. If you are going to critique this movement these are good starting points. Most of the critics on the right have not bothered to read this movement carefully and thus these critics level massive broadsides against something that is still quite small and young. I prefer to interact, to listen and to give these friends time. The broadside approach looks and feels like old fundamentalism dressed in modernist epistemology. The more open approach, that wants to listen and learn, gets labeled as "liberal" by people of fear and personal suspicion who react to all new forms that do not fit their notion of how things ought to be.

Any church historian worth their salt knows movements come and go but major changes, the kinds of deep changes that shape the church to be more faithful and effective in new contexts, must be carefully studied before they draw sharp conclusions. We have made major gains in biblical and theological studies. We have creeds we can and should study and use. We also have the Spirit to lead his people. People on a journey in grace understand that the world is very messy and that sin inside the church means that we will never get it just right in any time and age.

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  1. Martin Downes April 16, 2007 at 6:00 pm

    From the “right” Mark Driscoll has been very critical of EV, even calling it “liberal.” Are his criticisms wide of the mark in your estimation?

  2. John H. Armstrong April 16, 2007 at 9:48 pm

    I count Mark Driscoll a personal friend yet we do not agree on some evaluations of either people or EC related issues. His character is impeccable and his passion for Christ clear and strong. He is a faithful expositor of the Scripture too. You are correct about his criticisms of EC. He actually prefers not call himself emergent and in the new book Listening to the Beliefs of Emergent Churches (ed. Bob Webber, Zondervan) you can see his views clearly stated in his own words. I tend to think his critique is much sharper than my own but as I have noted I am not promoting or defending, simply seeking to listen and respect those who are understanding the nature of our present post-Christendom context.

  3. Martin Downes April 17, 2007 at 5:30 am

    I’ve read that book and found it quite fascinating. I mentioned Driscoll since you seemed, if you don’t mind me saying, quite dismissive of criticisms of EC from the right, almost to the point of regarding them as totally invalid.
    I also find it intriguing that you are the label “modernist” in a way that would be totally antithetical to its historic use. Back in the 1920s the modernists were the liberals who were trading away confessional orthodoxy and shrinking confessionalism. It seems to me that one is more likely today to hear the term modernist being applied to people who confess too much with too much certainty. Isn’t that somewhat ironic? (By the way I have read my Nancey Murphy and Grenz & Franke on these issues)

  4. Doug Pagitt April 17, 2007 at 8:49 am

    John, thanks for your good words and your spirit.
    We have not had a chance to connect personally but I hope we will have the chance.
    Good things to and through you.

  5. John H. Armstrong April 17, 2007 at 9:04 am

    We did meet once but you may not remember it. We were in the same room for the Zondervan authors interaction in June of 2005. We did not get to chat personally (one-on-one) but I sat at the front table of the horseshoe two people down from the facilitator, Martin Marty. I would love it if we could talk further. I will attend the Midwest Emergent gathering in July and you are welcome to contact me anytime should you be in Chicago. I am also in the Twin Cities in September for a meeting in Minnesota in a Methodist Church pastored by a former Unitarian minister who is now very orthodox and preaches the gospel faithfully. I get these unique opportunities because I am learning that the body of Christ is so big and wonderful. So, I would welcome us meeting Doug.

  6. John H. Armstrong April 17, 2007 at 9:12 am

    You make an interesting point about modernism. Like so many terms it can be used in several ways. Modernism in theology, in the 1920s, referred to progressivism and the influence of thinkers like Schleiermacher. This led to some denials of core historical truths; e.g., the resurrection, the two natures in Christ, etc.
    I am using the term philosophically to refer to the whole modern enterprise of thinking and asserting truth claims that is rooted in Kant and the Enlightenment project. This kind of modernism provides the indubitable foundation for proofs and scholastic forms certainty, something that I think many evangelicals have accepted uncritically. The proponents of this kind of thinking were some of the fiercest opponents of theological modernism; e.g. Gordon Clark, Carl F. H. Henry, etc.

  7. Martin Downes April 17, 2007 at 9:19 am

    I had assumed that was the case (your use of the word). Could you enlighten me on when you think the label, once used as a synonym for “liberal,” was applied to those who opposed liberals (Hodge, Warfield, etc.).
    And sorry if I seem picky but you used the word “scholastic” to describe mid to late 20th century evangelicals. Is that not likewise anachronistic? Surely Protestant scholasticism predates enlightenment rationalism/philosophic modernism.

  8. John H. Armstrong April 17, 2007 at 12:14 pm

    The word scholastic has been used to describe a certain way of arranging theological systems and establishing first principles for centuries. It applies, to my way of thinking , to many who followed Calvin and Luther and to their heirs.
    Luther and Calvin recovered, in principle, a dynamic view of man’s knowledge of God. But Protestant orthodoxy almost immediately reverted back to the static notion of reason in how it framed the theology of the Scriptures. The Enlightenment then questioned both Catholic and Protestant categories as rooted in reason. By this process we got secularism and scholasticism as enemies. I am appealing for something different, something more ancient and apophatic in theology that restores mystery to its proper place in Christian thought. Apophatic theology says we cannot relate to God via simple human categories of rational thought forms.
    If you wish to see how evangelicals became so modernistic and scholastic secure Gary Dorrien’s excellent book, The Remaking of Evangelical Theology (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1998).

  9. Martin Downes April 17, 2007 at 3:57 pm

    I’ll make a note of Dorrien’s book and add it to my wish list.
    Having read Richard Muller on Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics I struggle to see how your thumb nail sketch (and I appreciate it is only that) fits with the picture he presents of Protestant scholasticism. Certainly this is not how he portrays the Protestant scholastic approach to reason and knowledge in his volume on Prolegomena or the one on Holy Scripture. Have you read Muller on this?

  10. John H. Armstrong April 17, 2007 at 10:50 pm

    I respect Muller as a genuine scholar of the era that he knows well as a historical theologian. But I profoundly disagree with his treatment of the issues related to the question of scholasticism. His own method is scholastic in the best (and worst) sense of the term. While I do respect him as a writer and believe that he knows his stuff historically I simply do not follow his treatment of how wide the gap is between Calvin and his heirs, thus I see a much wider break than Muller does.
    As you likely know this is an area of important debate among very good scholars of the Reformation and post-Reformation eras. I see the methods used after Calvin and Luther as reverting often back to pre-Reformation Catholic forms. The content of much of this theology is Reformed but the form used is something else. This is where the problem comes.
    This debate can also be seen in other ways. Heinrich Bullinger “improved” on Calvin in rejecting “double-predestination” and two covenants, for example. And Turretin reverted to the very style that changed the evangelical flavor of the earlier Reformed theology.

  11. andrew jones May 10, 2007 at 6:22 am

    thanks for the post, john. Like the Pagitt (dont listen to ANYTHING that man says . .. ) I am also looking forward to meeting you one day – maybe the next time i am back in USA or if you get over to Europe

  12. John H. Armstrong May 10, 2007 at 9:36 am

    That would be delightful. I follow your work with real interest and appreciation as well. My buddy Steve Brown refers to himself as “the old white guy.” I am not quite as old as Steve but I am frustrated boomer “suburban white guy” who wants to press the boxes people keep insisting I have to fit into. You guys all give me hope about what God is doing and may yet be pleased to do in the post-Christendom world of the West. New paradigms are obviously essential and we need a growing community to explore them as we seek to express the faith in ways that compel interest and deeper love for the Christ of the kerygma.

  13. Mike Clawson May 17, 2007 at 10:14 pm

    John, thanks for this. The EC really does need some fair, constructive critiques. I’m looking forward to hearing your own at the Midwest Emergent Gathering this summer. After reading this post I’m convinced that you’re the perfect person to do it.

  14. Bob Robinson October 6, 2007 at 11:37 am

    Thanks for this.
    FYI – I recently defended you against John MacArthur at Vanguard Church.

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