Several people asked me what I knew about the Emerging Church, and I found it difficult to give a definitive answer. Originally, my knowledge of the Emerging Church was fairly limited, but my inquisitiveness caused me to delve further. What I discovered after digging deeper was at times refreshing, at times provocative, and at times maddening. Some of what I read was at best undiscerning, and at worst, heretical. Finding quotes such as “Is the Bible the best God can do?”1 and “The point of the cross isn’t forgiveness,”2 I felt I had to speak out on this topic. You are invited to read along as the story of the Emerging Church unfolds.
In an ABC News Nightline report on
the Emerging Church, Host Martin Bashir begins the show with a bit of
journalistic sensationalism by stating “...a brand new breed of church is
pushing the envelope in a whole new way.”3
Correspondent Laura Marquez then goes on to report on several Emerging Churches,
accenting rock music, a setting more resembling a coffee house than a church, an
Advent wreath made out of a tire, and a dog accompanying its owner to Communion.
While these attributes may be descriptive of some Emerging Churches, they are
more “novelty” than helpful insight. In this 8-part article, I will attempt to
separate the fluff from the fact, emphasizing what it is the Emerging Church is
saying about itself, and comparing that conversation with Scripture to determine
if what is being said is sound. The postmodernists reject both the Christian and modernist approaches to the
question of truth. According to postmodern theory, truth is not universal, is
not objective or absolute, and cannot be determined by a commonly accepted
method. Instead, postmodernists argue that truth is socially constructed,
plural, and inaccessible to universal reason.
has been understood and affirmed as truth, argue the postmodernists, is nothing
more than a convenient structure of thought intended to oppress the powerless.
Truth is not universal, for every culture establishes its own truth. Truth is
not objectively real, for all truth is merely constructed–as Rorty stated, truth
is made, not found.
The Emerging Church, also called the Emergent Church, had its start in the last quarter of the 20th century. It began in recognition of a need to witness to postmodern people, a group that is sometimes difficult to connect with. To understand the Emerging Church and its witness, a prior exploration of modernism and postmodernism will be helpful.
Modernism’s beginning has been variously reported from the end of the 18th to the last half of the 19th century.4 A symbolic inauguration of the age of modernism occurred in 1793 when the “Goddess of Reason” was enthroned in the Cathedral of Notre Dame during the French Revolution, profaning the Cathedral and proclaiming reason as the new “god.” Man was now master of his universe. For many, scientific query, linear thinking, and a belief in the supremacy of man erased the need for a superstitious or spiritual explanation for the workings of the natural world. An unshakeable faith in mankind’s ability, which at times led to arrogance, permeated the era. This ascendant worldview had its influence on theology as well. Revelation’s role as a source of truth was supplanted by reason in some liberal circles.
In reaction to modernism and its individuality, postmodernism has gradually developed.5 The modern dream has not panned out. Science and reason have not made our lives less complicated, or answered all of life’s questions. The truths of modernism have failed to satisfy, and disillusionment has led to a rejection of truth in general. A simplistic definition of postmodernism would thus be a rejection of all-encompassing truth claims (called metanarratives). To quote one theologian:
The postmodernists reject both the Christian and modernist approaches to the question of truth. According to postmodern theory, truth is not universal, is not objective or absolute, and cannot be determined by a commonly accepted method. Instead, postmodernists argue that truth is socially constructed, plural, and inaccessible to universal reason.
What has been understood and affirmed as truth, argue the postmodernists, is nothing more than a convenient structure of thought intended to oppress the powerless. Truth is not universal, for every culture establishes its own truth. Truth is not objectively real, for all truth is merely constructed–as Rorty stated, truth is made, not found. 6Tagging along with the postmodern dismissal of universal truth is the concept of deconstruction. The dictionary definition of deconstruction is as follows:
A philosophical movement and theory of literary criticism that questions traditional assumptions about certainty, identity, and truth; asserts that words can only refer to other words; and attempts to demonstrate how statements about any text subvert their own meanings: “In deconstruction, the critic claims there is no meaning to be found in the actual text, but only in the various, often mutually irreconcilable, ‘virtual texts’ constructed by readers in their search for meaning” (Rebecca Goldstein). 7
All broad, sweeping claims of truth are viewed with suspicion, and are often considered a means by which the author or those in power exercise control over others. Whether you are referring to a newspaper article, a speech, a religion, a folk tale, a corporate mission statement, or a TV sitcom, they all need to be deconstructed to root out their hidden meaning and agenda. This last statement seems a bit “over the top,” but is a common facet of postmodern thought. Carried to the extreme, deconstructionists “‘argue that all writing is reducible to an arbitrary sequence of linguistic signs or words whose meanings have no relationship to the author’s intention or to the world outside the text.’ NEWSWEEK, 6/22/81.” 8 , 9
Since, according to postmodernists, communication is considered problematic at best due to the vagaries of human language and the differing world views and cultures of the speaker and the listener, deconstruction is made to appear acceptable. If you can never know the exact meaning of what someone has said, why not deconstruct it and assign it a meaning that works for you and your group! Deconstruction becomes an exercise in political correctness or conformation within the context of your own affinity group.10
So how does all of this tie in with the topic at hand, the Emerging Church? First, many of those whom the Emerging Church attracts to one degree or another share a postmodern worldview. But at the same time, the majority of them are not hard-core postmodernists. The average Jane or Joe has never heard of deconstruction. They would likely not say that truth is unknowable, although they may seriously question truth claims, and share other postmodern ideals. Secondly, since Emerging Church leaders are attempting to reach out to “postmoderns,” their approach to the entire Emerging discussion is tailor-made to fit the postmodern worldview. Not just a few of those Emerging Church leaders have been greatly influenced by the same postmodern ideals, both in their practice and in their beliefs. It is in this area of practice and beliefs that the ensuing parts of this article will concentrate, but for now a more thorough description of the Emerging Church will be offered, without critique, often using their own words.
The Emerging Church is a loosely woven fabric of individuals and communities (churches) of all sorts of beliefs, that stretches worldwide.11 The name “Emerging Church” is something of a misnomer, since the “church” is not a denomination or group of individuals with one set doctrine or a common set of beliefs, and there is therefore no one spokesperson for the Emerging Church. Many of them like to call themselves a “conversation,” or a “movement.” Some of those in the conversation are individuals from what I’ll refer to as the “mainline” denominational churches that merely want to use Emerging ideas to “tweak” their worship services or start a satellite church in order to retain and attract younger members. Others are drawn to the more “relational” and “missional” aspects of the Emerging Church as opposed to a doctrinal stance, and may or may not be new Christians. Some are attracted to the “novelty” aspect, as depicted on Nightline (although not all Emerging Churches fit that description). Still others reject the practices and/or theology of the mainline church and are seeking to transform or completely “reimagine” the church. Some of the leaders in the Emerging Church are former pastors from conservative church bodies who have “liberated” themselves from those strictures.
To a certain extent, the metaphor
“the squeaky wheel gets the grease” applies here. The Emerging conversation is
so broad and varied that it is difficult to assess how many within the movement
are mainline types, how many are hard-core postmodernists, and how many people
fall in-between. Unfortunately, it’s usually the more aberrant and
sensationalist types of people, places, and events that make the headlines, and
that seems to be the case with the Emerging Church as well. While there are
conservative Emergents who are out there speaking and writing, such as Pastor
Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill, the Emergents towards the other end of the spectrum
seem to get more of the attention, such as Brian McLaren and Tony Jones. It will
therefore necessarily be towards the “liberal” end of the Emerging spectrum that
I will concentrate in this article, because that is where heterodox doctrinal
The squeaky wheel gets the grease. For now though, I’ll present a composite
description of what might be considered an “average” postmodern Emerging Church
The Emerging conversation often revolves around the desire to change the church to make it more holistic, communal, and culturally relevant to a postmodern paradigm:
The emerging church phenomenon is exploring fresh ways to revamp and recontextualize the gospel message to postmodern people.13
The emerging church is a quest for a more integrated and whole life of faith. There is a bit of theological questioning going on, focusing more on kingdom theology, the inner life, friendship/community, justice, earth keeping, inclusivity, and inspirational leadership. In addition, the arts are in a renaissance, as are the classical spiritual disciplines. Overall, it is a quest for a holistic spirituality.14
...offering the things that postmodern people are hungering for: identity, meaning, particularity, belonging, community, spirituality and the good news of salvation!15
There is a sentiment that the mainline churches are languishing in the postmodern world:
But we have run out of gas with modern Christianity. I think it’s pretty much done all it can do and said all it can say.16
Due to its cultural entrenchment, the church no longer relates to the surrounding culture, hence its increasing marginalization and perceived irrelevance.17
...the mortar-happy church of the last half of the 20th century is ill-poised to face the promises and perils of the future.18
There is a move away from modernism:
We have moved from the modern to the postmodern/emerging; from the linier/absolute to the non-linier/subjective; from science/evidence to spirit/feelings; from intellect/truth to experience/real; from order/dictated to chaos/reality.19
And a move away from doctrine:
The eclectic approach of the emerging church is also in sync with the wider culture’s approach to spirituality, which has become divorced from institutional religion and the control of dogma.20
They emphasize a narrative approach to theology:
The individual stories of each member and the collective story of the faith community are seen in the context of God’s story as it unfolds throughout Scripture. Theology becomes a dynamic, unfolding reflection of God’s dealings with people in the changing circumstances of life.21
I am becoming more and more convinced that the missional/incarnational church will not gain any traction unless we learn to read the Bible and the Christian story in a new way. In short, narrative theology has to replace systematic theology as the primary mode of thinking about Christian faith.22
“Church” as a Sunday morning event is de-emphasized in favor of a more missional definition of “church”:
They feel they don’t have a context for going to church because they are “being church.”23
Evangelism is not seen as a program but as a communal living out of the gospel in everyday routines.24
Being "missional" simply means being outward and others-focused, with the goal of expressing and sharing the love of Jesus. The church was not created for itself to remain inward-focused, but actually created to worship God and to spread His love to others. We each were created for a missional purpose. Therefore, we won't have a "missions department" because the whole church itself is a mission. Jesus clearly told the church to "go and make disciples" (Matthew 28:18-20). For us today, this command is not exclusive to overseas missions alone (which we will support wholeheartedly since global missions is extremely important) but is foremost to be lived out in our own communities, families, and day to day lives.25
I no longer believe in evangelism. To be postevangelism is to live our lives in Christ without a strategy but with the compassion and the servant posture of Jesus Christ. We do not do evangelism or have a mission. The Holy Spirit is the evangelist, and the mission belongs to God. What we do is simply live our lives publicly as a community in the way of Jesus Christ, and when people inquire as to why we live this way, we share with them an account of the hope within us.26
Community is a place for spiritual development:
The standard of success will be based on “Are you in a community?” versus “Are you doing x, y, and z so that you will grow closer to God?” While personal disciplines are important, they grow meaningless apart from a team of spiritual supporters.27
Community: We believe that salvation brings people together as a reflection of a triune God: Father, Son and Spirit. Saved from sin by faith through grace, the people of God are able to live in unity as was intended by God in the beginning.28
I am a part of a community, and I have accepted a view of the world from them.29
“I truly believe that community is where real spiritual formation happens. Most people come to faith not by an isolated effort but through living day by day with people of faith such as their families or friends.”30
There is an emphasis on being more “genuine,” which means avoiding insincerity or phoniness:
Be Transparent - Be ready to express your humanity and accept your flaws. We are a people who desire to “become” and not live in “one is.” We desire growth and learning, not dogma and doctrine. Transparence means that there are no secretes [sic] in the Postmodern world.31
They seek to be inclusive:
“We are very Christocentric, which means that while we recognize God’s presence in other religions and in people of no faith, we still see Jesus as the most perfect revelation of God and therefore the surest route to God.”32
They include both Christians and non-Christians in the same groups. This avoidance of differentiation is another common characteristic of emerging churches. They do not want to create “us and “them” distinctions, which they feel would be both discriminatory and destructive of group participation.33
And they are experiential:
we [sic] expect that right-brained expressions will increase (music, poetry, art, drama) as left-brained expressions (apologetics, proposition, reason) learn how to share the stage. The whole person is engaged, and worship becomes multi-sensory: sight, sound, smell, touch and taste are utilized to a greater degree, not to tantalize, but to engage, focus, inspire, communicate and express.34
While no Emerging Church will necessarily display all of the above characteristics, this gives us a good starting point. In Part 2, we will begin to examine specific beliefs of the Emerging Church. The topic of our discussion will be the Bible, and how some elements of the Emerging Church have “mistreated” Holy Scripture.
Written by Scott Diekmann
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1. Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005) 44.
2. Bell, 108.
3. “Faith Matters,” Nightline, narr. Laura Marquez, ABC, 13 Jan 2006, ABC News Video, 03 Mar 2007 <http://abcnews.go.com/Video/playerIndex?id=1505555>.
4. Some Emergent authors place Modernism’s beginning as early as the 16th or 17th century. I believe part of their motivation for an earlier time line is to link the Reformation with modernism, thereby discrediting the theology and doctrinal orientation of the Reformation. This attempt would be an example of deconstruction. While there are examples of rationalism overriding Scripture during the Reformation, they are limited. During the modern era, many Lutheran theologians railed against modernism.
5. Let me remind the reader that an Emerging Church “member” is not necessarily a postmodernist.
6. Albert Mohler Jr., ”Ministry is Stranger Than it Used to Be: The Challenge of Postmodernism,” www.AlbertMohler.com, 28 Feb 2007 < http://www.albertmohler.com/article_read.php?cid=2 >.
7. “deconstruction,” The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004, Dictionary.com, 31 Jan 2007 < http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/deconstruction >.
8. Bill Crouse, “Deconstructionism: The Postmodern Cult of Hermes,” Christian Information Ministries, 28 Feb 2007 <http://www.christianinformation.org/article.asp?artID=73>.
9. If deconstructionists believe their own philosophy, why do they bother writing it down, since no one would be able to understand what they mean? Postmodern people have no problem with these types of contradictions and ambiguities. With the abandonment of Truth with a capitol “T,” and the arrival of truth that is socially constructed, ambiguities are to be expected. Your truth may not be the same as my truth - they may contradict, but that’s O.K. While a modernist might refer to the law of noncontradiction in this situation, or an apologist might refer to suspension of disbelief, a postmodernist will happily accept the contradiction.
follows is a narrative on deconstruction with a more attractive spin on it from
Emergent blogger Bob Robinson: “If postmodernity is right that all
metanarratives are social constructions, then deconstruction is the only right
thing to do to them–in order to understand how those local communities built
these concepts in the first place. We need not fear postmodern
deconstruction–for it is beneficial because it tears down what Bruce Benson
calls the ‘Graven Ideologies’ of modernity. Once our modern idols have been
destroyed, we Christians will be capable of living a more pure Christian faith.”
Bob Robinson, “I’m Situated in a Local Community, and That’s Okay!”, Vanguard Church, 28 Feb 2007 <http://vanguardchurch.blogspot.com/2005/09/im-situated-in-local-communityand.html>.
Taylor remarks: “The emerging church movement is not a North American phenomenon
only. There are thousands of emerging Christians in Western Europe and the South
Pacific–and to a lesser extent, there is development in Asia, Africa, and South
Justin Taylor, “What Is the Emerging Church Movement? Part 4,” Between Two Worlds: A Mix of Theology, Philosophy, Politics, and Culture, 28 Feb 2007<http://theologica.blogspot.com/2005/11/what-is-emerging-church-mo_113226673241032906.html>.
13. Frank Viola, “Will the Emerging Church Fully Emerge?,” EmergingChurch.info, 22 Mar 2007 <http://www.emergingchurch.info/reflection/frankviola/index.htm>.
14. Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005) 42; quoting Mark Scandrette of ReIMAGINE! in San Francisco.
15. “Survivor for Lutherans,” emergingchurch.org, 14 Jan 2006 <http://www.emergingchurch.org/lutheransurvivor~ns4.html>. This site is currently disabled, as of 28 Feb 2007.
16. Eric Hurtgen, “There’s A Bigger Story: Brian Mclaren [sic],” RelevantMagazine.com, 28 Feb 2007 <http://www.relevantmagazine.com/beta/god_article.php?id=1012>.
17. Gibbs and Bolger, 18.
18. Leonard Sweet, interview with Tamara Cissna, “‘God Sent a Person, Not a Proposition.’: A Conversation With Len Sweet,” George Fox Journal Online, 1.3, Fall 2005, 28 Feb 2007 <http://www.georgefox.edu/journalonline/archives/fall05/emerging.html>.
20. Gibbs and Bolger, 222.
21. Gibbs and Bolger, 164.
22. Benjamin Sternke, “Narrative theology and the missional church,” ben’s blog, 01 Mar 2007 <http://benjaminsternke.typepad.com/benjaminsternke/2006/09/ narrative_theol.html>.
23. Gibbs and Bolger, 100
24. Gibbs and Bolger, 108
26. Gibbs and Bolger, 135; quoting Karen Ward of Church of the Apostles in Seattle.
Hall, “Leader’s Insight: NASCAR and the Emerging Culture,”
LeadershipJournal.net, 01 Mar
Livingstone, “How can you trust the Bible?” 12, 01 Mar 2007
<http://chitv.org/ourprograms/Adult Classes/The Story/howcanyoutrustthebible.pdf>.
30. Doug Pagitt, Church Re-Imagined: The Spiritual Formation of People in Communities of Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 23-24.
31. John O’Keefe, “church xp, the upgrade - part one, the introduction;” formerly available at ginkworld.net.
32. Gibbs and Bolger, 123; quoting Simon Hall of Revive in Leeds, U.K.
33. Gibbs and Bolger, 109.
34. Paul Soupiset, “Toward an Emergent Church Values Set III: Re-centered, multi-sensory Worship,” soupablog, 04 Mar 2007 <http://soupiset.typepad.com/soupablog/2004/06/toward_an_emerg_3.html>.
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