The time has come to say a few things about the Emergent Church movement.
Perhaps to some of our readers the name itself means nothing. To those in the Grand Rapids area, all I would have to mention is the names Mars Hill and Rob Bell, and they would have some notion of what I was referring to. The Mars Hill Bible Church complex is but four blocks from my own church in Grandville, and has become the mega-church with the greatest name recognition in this metropolitan area (though “mega-church” is one of the descriptions its leaders would just as soon avoid). In part, the movement began as a reaction to the slick Madison Ave.-packaged, salesmanship approach adopted by so many mega-churches. Those who began the movement felt that too many of those Willow Creek clones were as phony as the makeup their speakers and professional entertainers put on under the glare of the lights and hype. Their motto is, “Let’s get back to the authentic gospel and to the authentic Christ, who mixed with the common people in the market place, and put Christianity back into contact with mainstream culture and life again.”
Still, Mars Hill’s attendance numbers (they keep no official membership roles—which is exactly part of its attraction to many) has exploded over the past few years, numbering now in the thousands, qualifying it as a mega-church. And Mars Hill is but one of many springing up around the States and throughout the U.K. as well. Its main spokesmen and preachers, bright, articulate, and personable, are creating quite a stir. They are writing books (such as Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell, and A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren, to name just two) that are on the best sellers’ list of religious books. In the Grand Rapids area it seems as if every person disgruntled with what is going on in his own church or denomination is heading to Mars Hill. There is something there that attracts the disfranchised, spiritually-confused, and disenchanted multitudes.
So the questions—what is this movement all about, and how does one assess it in the light of God’s Word? And as well, what is it that so many find attractive about this new church movement?
We are not the only ones asking these questions. Since an article entitled “The Emergent Mystique” appeared in the November 2004 issue of Christianity Today, there has been no lack of critiques and analyses offered by men from a rather wide range of backgrounds, and some very insightful critiques at that. A recent book by D.A. Carson, entitled Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, offers an excellent overview of the movement and has much to commend itself to the interested reader. Just be forewarned that there are some chapters that are filled with philosophical terms and distinctions. This of necessity—since the leaders of the Emergent movement themselves use philosophical language and categories to describe present-day society and those with whom they are trying to interact and whom they desire to influence. According to them, Christianity is faced with a crisis in epistemology, i.e., how people attain and process knowledge, the church going about it one way, while a larger and larger section of society is going about it another. And there goes your ability to communicate.
Why the nomenclature “Emergent,” or “emerging,” is used to describe the movement is indicated in part by the title of a book by the movement’s main spokesman, Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity. Its point is, a Christianity of a new sort is being proposed and, according to its leaders, is in the process of finding and defining itself. It is emerging out of the stifling structures and restrictions of “institutionalized” churches, as they are viewed, churches that seem to exist only to keep themselves in existence and their members on the roles, and to be financially solvent. The emergent leaders do not mind at all likening their movement to a butterfly emerging out of its cocoon, ready to spread its wings and fly. Freedom from structure and restrictions is their mantra—Christianity coming into its own for twenty-first century, postmodern man (more on that last phrase later—kk). This is a Christianity that is free at last to soar.
Such language is buoyantly optimistic. A larger question must, however, be asked, namely, how true to biblical, apostolic Christianity is the movement? One may speak about freedom all one wishes, but when it comes to true Christianity, freedom cannot be separated from truth—the truth, if you will—the truth that Christ said will actually set one free (John 8:32).
The question that must be put to the movement’s spokesmen is, what about the truth? What truth or truths do its spokesmen and teachers acknowledge, confess, and bind themselves to? Which do they deny? In fact, do its preachers and spokesmen even acknowledge that there is such a thing as knowable, definable (shall we say, creedal) truth at all?
And it is here that the Emergent Church movement’s wings fall off. What becomes plain upon close inspection of the movement through its writings and practices is that while the Emergent crowd may fancy themselves to be flying free, the reality is they are in flight from truth. And that is not freedom, but bondage and self-delusion.
The sad truth about the movement has become painfully clear—not only are fundamental doctrinal truths being questioned by its preachers, and by implication, denied, but the very fact that truth is knowable and definable is itself being challenged, and by implication, denied. They acknowledge that God as the infinite and eternal One is Truth, and knows what the Truth is. But for finite, sinful creatures made out of mere clay, to say, “We know what the truth is! We hold to the truth!”—that is dismissed as sheer arrogance. About what the truth is, they say, we must enter into conversation and dialogue. In fact, according to statements by their spokesmen, that is all they claim to be involved in at the moment, conversation about biblical and doctrinal things. And from such dialogue, what the truth is, for the twenty-first century church that is called to minister to this post-modern generation of ours, will finally emerge—maybe!
In reading the books by the movement’s leading figures and comments made by its adherents in interviews, it becomes plain that what it really comes down to for many is, who are you to impose your truth, or your interpretation of what’s true, on me and us! The movement is anti-authoritarian, to say nothing of anti-structural, to the core.
Just how deeply this anti-establishment spirit runs in those attracted to the movement was made crystal clear when, early this past summer, a committee composed of some the movement’s leading figures announced in a news release that it had appointed Tony Jones as the National Director of Emergent (an organization put together to keep the various sections of the Emergent movement in contact with each other). There was an eruption of protest from the movement’s membership, labeling such an appointment as a virtual betrayal of everything the movement stood for. A short week later a memo was sent out seeking to mollify and correct.
Some of you read the last post regarding the recent appointment of Tony Jones as “National Director.” Before the official press release was sent out the decision was made to instead use the title “National Coordinator.” This felt more in keeping with both the spirit of Emergent and the overall purpose of the role.
Having a Director sounded to many suspiciously like going back to what most had joined the movement to escape from, namely, having someone around in church affairs who might have the authority to intrude into their freedom, that is, their freedom from having anyone tell them what to do. A “coordinator,” on the other hand, was more acceptable. He evidently just responds to what others tell him to do.
A seemingly small matter, but symptomatic of the whole.
Mr. Phil Johnson, the same who was mentioned recently in these pages in connection with the Free Offer as one who charges us with a brand of hyper-Calvinism, also happens to be sharply critical of the emerging church movement and has made some worthwhile observations.
In a speech entitled “A Critical Look At the Emerging Church Movement,” he offers the following assessment.
Virtually all the literature, style, and philosophy associated with the emerging subculture are shot through with conspicuous elements of worldliness, man-centered worship, the narcissism of youth, liberal and neo-orthodox theology, and the silly, ages-old campaign to be ‘contemporary’ at all costs.
And I hope you realize that very few of this movement’s most obvious features are truly inventive. The philosophy and even some of the novelties of style are really not that much different from what was happening during my junior high school years in the youth group of the liberal Methodist church I grew up in. We had the candles and contemporary music and every kind of religious paraphernalia you can imagine—but not the gospel. Methodist church leaders, who had abandoned the gospel years before, desperately sought a way to make the church seem “relevant” to a younger generation in its own language. There has always been some segment of the church or another that is desperate to keep up with the shifting fads of culture and looking for novel ways to adapt Christianity to the spirit of the age. That has been true at least since Victorian times. Spurgeon wrote against it.
Johnson’s point is that, however ‘new’ and ‘unique’ the movement claims to be, when it comes to doctrinal apostasy and innovations in worship, there is really nothing new under the sun. What is going on in the emerging church movement is not really a new Reformation at all, whatever Rob Bell in his bookVelvet Elvis might argue and claim, but simply a repackaging of old errors and complaints in a new color and disguise, all the while making grandiose claims.
The movement, with its leaders and worship styles, is a diverse group. Criticism about what is going on or taught in one section of the movement is often rejected by another as not applying to itself. “They (or he) does not speak for us all.” But there are certain basic things that the various sections and leaders hold in common, about which there can be little argument. And chief amongst these basic convictions is that evangelical, as well as Reformed, Christendom is badly out of touch with contemporary society, and therefore simply is unable to relate to this present emerging generation in any soul and gospel- benefiting way.
According to the emergent church’s spokesmen, their coming on the scene has to do with culture, a culture that is involved in such a massive shift in its way of thinking that unless the church and its preachers and members adapt themselves to this shift in the area of language, worship style, and overall approach, Christianity will become little but a footnote to the twenty-first century, irrelevant to the “cultural tsunami” that is sweeping everything in its path.
In fact, this is exactly the title and theme of a book written by a Leonard Sweet, entitled Soul Tsunami: Sink or Swim in the New Millennium Culture. In Sweet’s words,
The Dick and Jane world of my ’50’s’ childhood is over, washed away by a tsunami of change…. While the world is rethinking its entire cultural formation, it is time to find new ways of being the church that are true to our postmodern context. It is time for a Postmodern Reformation. (p. 17, Zondervan, 1999)
And there is that word again—postmodern. In order to understand how the leaders of the emergent church view themselves and their mission, one must understand to what this decidedly philosophical, descriptive term refers. What exactly is it that is supposed to characterize our present society with its culture, which therefore warrants its being labeled postmodern, in distinction from the ‘modern’ age that preceded it?
This we intend to consider next issue.
Admittedly, to this point we have made some broad charges concerning the Emergent Church movement and where it stands with respect to “truth,” but with little evidence to substantiate our claims. This also we intend to address and remedy next issue.