Culture and the Church: New Ideologies: Emergent Church

The Emergent Church is such an abstract movement of redefining Christianity that I want to go ahead and preface this post with the fact that this is written from my knowledge of the Emergent Church which has been acquired through several: Emergent Village podcasts, The Church in Emerging Culture by Leonard Sweet, Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy and The Secret Message of Jesus, and Truth and the New Kind of Christian by R. Scott Smith. 

The Emergent Church has been heavily influenced by the thoughts and writings of Brian McLaren. This movement started out to address as Brian does in A Generous Orthodoxyto unite a church that had been divided on many issues into a new version of Christianity deemed Emergent.  In this book McLaren, points out why he is a list of conflicting ideologies and how he can make them come together.  This movement began as a very noble cause to unite the bride of Christ in order to reach people with the gospel. 

The main discussion in Emergent theology is the issue of statements and some theology that the statements present.  The Emergent Church tends to put emphasis more on narratives such as the unfolding story of God at work which is seen to be evolving in order to reach a new postmodern context via the Emergent movement.  According to the Emergent Village website, the beliefs of the emergent church include beliefs in “God, beauty, future, and hope.”  The belief write up then goes on to state: “… but you won’t find a traditional statement of faith here. We don’t have a problem with faith, but with statements. Whereas statements of faith and doctrine have a tendency to stifle friendships, we hope to further conversation and action around the things of God.”  This statement and change from the doctrines of the faith which have been written and held by the church for centuries and are based on the unchanging truths of the Word of God leads to my major problem with the Emergent Church movement.  The Emergent Village site goes on to state four central values of Emergent (following italicized text comes directly from the website):

1. Commitment to the Way of Jesus

We are committed to doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. In the words of Jesus, we seek to live by the Great Commandment: loving God and loving our neighbors – including those who might be considered “the least of these” or enemies. We understand the gospel to be centered in Jesus and his message of the Kingdom of God, a message offering reconciliation with God, humanity, creation, and self.

We are committed to a “generous orthodoxy” in faith and practice – affirming the historic Christian faith and the biblical injunction to love one another even when we disagree. We embrace many historic spiritual practices, including prayer, meditation, contemplation, study, solitude, silence, service, and fellowship, believing that healthy theology cannot be separated from healthy spirituality.

Practices:

  • As Christ-centered people, to understand the gospel in terms of Jesus’ radical, profound, and expansive message of the kingdom of God.
  • As people seeking to be formed spiritually in the way of Christ, to learn historic Christian spiritual practices (disciplines), and to use them for the development of character, integrity, and virtue which flow from true communion with God.
  • As participants in the historic Christian faith, to be humble learners, to stimulate learning in others, and to give priority to love over knowledge, while still valuing knowledge.
  • As lovers of God and God’s truth, to seek wisdom and understanding, which are the true goal of theology, and to engage in respectful, thoughtful, sacred conversation about God, world, and church.

2. Commitment to the Church in All Its Forms:

We are committed to honor and serve the church in all its forms – Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal, Anabaptist. We practice “deep ecclesiology” – rather than favoring some forms of the church and critiquing or rejecting others, we see that every form of the church has both weaknesses and strengths, both liabilities and potential.

We believe the rampant injustice and sin in our world requires the sincere, collaborative, and whole-hearted response of all Christians in all denominations, from the most historic and hierarchical, through the mid-range of local and congregational churches, to the most spontaneous and informal expressions. We affirm both the value of strengthening, renewing, and transitioning existing churches and organizations, and the need for planting, resourcing, and coaching new ones of many kinds.

We seek to be irenic and inclusive of all our Christian sisters and brothers, rather than elitist and critical. We own the many failures of the church as our failures, which humbles us and calls us to repentance, and we also celebrate the many heroes and virtues of the church, which inspires us and gives us hope.

Practices:

  • To be actively and positively involved in a local congregation, while maintaining open definitions of “church” and “congregation.” We work in and with churches, seeking to live out authentic Christian faith in authentic Christian community.
  • To seek peace among followers of Christ, and to offer critique only prayerfully and when necessary, with grace, and without judgment, avoiding rash statements, and repenting when harsh statements are made. To speak positively of fellow Christians whenever possible, especially those with whom we may disagree.
  • To build sincere friendship with Christians from other traditions.

3. Commitment to God’s World:

We practice our faith missionally – that is, we do not isolate ourselves from this world, but rather, we follow Christ into the world.

We seek to fulfill the mission of God in our generations, and then to pass the baton faithfully to the next generations as well.

We believe the church exists for the benefit and blessing of the world at large; we seek therefore not to be blessed to the exclusion of everyone else, but rather for the benefit of everyone else.

We see the earth and all it contains as God’s beloved creation, and so we join God in seeking its good, its healing, and its blessing.

Practices:

  • To build relationships with neighbors and to seek the good of our neighborhoods and cities.
  • To seek reconciliation with enemies and make peace.
  • To encourage and cherish younger people and to honor and learn from older people.
  • To honor creation and to cherish and heal it.
  • To build friendships across gender, racial, ethnic, economic and other boundaries.
  • To be involved at all times in at least one issue or cause of peace and justice.

4. Commitment to One Another

In order to strengthen our shared faith and resolve, and in order to encourage and learn from one another in our diversity through respectful, sacred conversation, we value time and interaction with other friends who share this rule and its practices.

We identify ourselves as members of this growing, global, generative, and non-exclusive friendship.

We welcome others into this friendship as well.

We bring whatever resources we can to enrich this shared faith and resolve.

Practices:

  • To make an annual pilgrimage to an Emergent Village gathering; to give one another the gift of our presence at annual gatherings whenever possible.
  • To publicly self-identify with Emergent Village where appropriate and to represent Emergent Village well whenever we can; to exemplify the best of what Emergent Village strives to be and do.
  • To invite others to participate and welcome new participants.
  • To seek to be positive and constructive in caring for the Emergent Village friendship. To find some specific ways we can help the circle of friends in Emergent Village.
  • To stay reconciled to one another. To give one another the gift of commitment not to give up on, betray, or reject one another, but instead, to encourage, honor, and care for one another.
  • To stay informed about emergent locally and globally via the website and email updates.

Action:

We live out the four values of our rule through four lines of action:

  • We explore and develop ideas, theology, practices, and connections … through conversations, conferences, think-tanks, gatherings, retreats, publications, learning cohorts, online resources, and other means.
  • We resource individuals, leaders, and organizations – funding their imagination, stimulating their thinking, providing examples, events, literature and other resources to assist them in their lives and mission.
  • We communicate our calling, vision, learning, and activities to the growing Emergent Village community, and to other interested people around the world.
  • We provide ways for people to belong, identify with, and participate in this community, conversation, and mission at varying levels. We encourage the development of generative friendships, collaborations, and partnerships.

Reading through this excerpt from the website has lead you to one or two possible responses as a reader.  The first response is that you read through this and feel that the Emergent Church sounds like a great and glorious movement which you are jumping to become a part of.  This is a common response if you are in a place where you are fed up with  denominations, differences, debates, and divisions.  This has also taken off in a postmodern society where people have the mindset of tolerance and are attracted to a church movement that embraces this postmodern tenant. The second response is to be totally appalled by the lack of a biblical foundation in the midst of all of these values.  This response comes from someone with a strong background in a doctrine and theologically driven evangelical church.

I feel like in reading through this the good thing that comes to mind is the unity of the church in order to impact people with the gospel.  I would agree that churches divide and fight on many issues that do not matter, in that the Bible does not specifically address them, such as musical preference and political party.  There are issues however of doctrine and theology that the Emergent church has a tendency to throw out the window.  This deeply concerns me.  The thing that most concerns me in this entire list of statements is that there is no clear recognition of the importance of the Word of God in the mission, faith, and theological discussions of the Emergent Church.  In any discussion of theology, faith, and mission, there must be a standard that is defined as truth.  The Word of God has been given as the divine revelation of God written through human authors under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  To deny the place of God’s revelation and then try to do ministry and follow Jesus is something that scares me.  I applaud and appreciate the discussion on making outreach and evangelism more effective in a postmodern context that the Emergent church has offered, but I could never be emergent because I think that to be missional and follow Jesus without emphasizing His Word is really not following Jesus at all.  Instead, it is following a Jesus who you have made to be who you desire him to be.

  • You mention, In any discussion of theology, faith, and mission, there must be a standard that is defined as truth.

    I don’t see Emergent dropping the Bible as a standard of truth. What they’re dropping is any one particular man-made interpretation of the Bible as a standard of truth. We need to learn that other Christians will often interpret the Bible very differently than we ourselves do, and that their interpretation doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t true Christians, even when that interpretation may be a bit hard to swallow.

  • I think that in losing a focus on scripture and opening the door to open interpretation of the Bible is part of the tolerance that Emergent is trying to push. When you lose a focus on scripture, you lose a focus on the gospel. Their is a gospel that is specifically given in scripture (see Phillipians 2: 6-11). Jesus is God who died on the cross and rose again to pay the penalty for our sins. It is by grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone that we are saved. A loss of focus on the Word as the standard of truth can lead to a distorted gospel and a Jesus who is made in our own image instead of the nature of God.

  • I don’t think Emergent is advocating an “anything goes” kind of open interpretation of the Bible (I know I’m certainly not). What they’re advocating is more reading in community, the community being the church catholic as a whole being the guide to orthodox interpretation. I don’t know of anyone off hand in Emergent who is really denying the gospel as per Philippians 2:6-11Open Link in New Window, they’re just recognizing that that gospel manifests itself in some very different ways in different places, and with different people.

    For example, in Africa today there are some pretty funky manifestations of Christianity developing down there, and they’re growing fast. Some of them have “apostles”, miraculous healings, casting out demons, and resurrections from the dead. I read a couple of articles by Andrew Walls, and I think he’s right, if you look at it, it sounds like they in Africa are living in the Acts of the Apostles. But we North America Christians generally think this stuff is wacky. We “interpret” the book of Acts, we don’t live in it, those kinds of miraculous gifts are generally interpreted by us as not being around today. Are they wrong for believing that the Spirit is working today, just as he did in the early church, or does our Enlightenment trump their miracles? If they send missionaries here to America (as they already have begun to do) and they teach that “apostles”, “prophets”, miraculous healings, demons, and resurrections are here and now things, would you accept them as brothers or would you say they’re a cult group? These are matters of interpretation, and neither they nor we are wrong, we just see things a bit differently.

    Emergent believes there is such a thing as heresy. In the stuff you quote above they mention that they affirm “the historic Christian faith”, that includes more than just Augustine, that includes Irenaeus and Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, even Ephrem the Syrian, and those who criticized Augustine (such as Vincent of Lerins, best known for, “what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all”), the church councils, the Nicene Creed, and the various disputes and controversies with heresies over Gnosticism, Christ, the incarnation, the Spirit, even the role of icons, etc. The church’s interpreters of the Bible have never had a single homogenous interpretation of the Bible and the gospel it contains, but yet the community as a whole was able to hammer out issues despite different POVs.

    Ultimately, I don’t think the “open interpretation of the Bible” that Emergent is promoting is really about tolerance, it’s about humility, the recognition that our own interpretations of the Bible are questionable, more man-made than we would like them to be. Our views of the gospel are not necessarily the truth itself, but at best interpretations of the truth. Our interpretation of the gospel is often tentative, subject to change, and often does change.

    Hmm… sorry for being long winded, but your post got me thinking.