A Fair Critique of Emergent

John ArmstrongEmergent Church

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.