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The Emerging Church, Part 3: The Experiential Road

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  In Part 2 of our discussion, we considered how “truth” in the Emerging Church is being discovered through a cooperative effort of community, story, and the “interpretation” of God’s Word. Holy Scripture has therefore lost much of its authority, creating a void that is being filled by methods other than “going to the book.”

The Experiential Road

  One way the Emerging Church is filling the void created by the loss of the authority of Scripture is through experience. Those who have abandoned or avoid propositional truths are much more inclined to attempt to discover truth through experience. Here are quotes from several authors sympathetic to the Emerging Church:

...they are extremely experiential. That is, they learn, grow, develop and commit based on their own experience with truth - not according to someone else’s encounter or someone else’s retelling of an encounter. Based on the postmodern preference for the experiential, postmodern people might worship best in an environment that encourages and enables them to encounter God (and the truths of God) firsthand. ...our goal in the Celtic service is to let people encounter God through prayer, reflective music, meditation, and the engagement of all five senses.”1

...they draw from deep and ancient Christian traditions. Candles, incense, darkness, labyrinths, physically acting out various features of the Christian message and experience, even dead silence are some of the specific features of EM [Emerging Movement] worship.2

...we can no longer afford to lead with formulations. people [sic] today are moved by their experiences of faith much more than by rational arguments or doctrines about faith (no matter how ‘true’ or precise).3

  The experiential nature of the Emerging Church is best seen in their gatherings (the Emerging Church word for “church service”). Some of their emphasis in this area is good. God created us with five senses, and those five senses, where they help us to focus on the Gospel message of Jesus Christ, are an adjunct to worship. Take art as an example. Stained glass windows are a staple of many churches, and often depict or symbolize biblical scenes. Many Emerging churches emphasize art, including that created by their church members, displayed in their church and sometimes on the internet. When this artwork isn’t a distraction, but rather points us to the Gospel, it can certainly be God-pleasing. At times though, the experience sought is not one which points to the Gospel, but one which points inward.

The Testimony of the LORD is Sure

  God speaks with us as a loving father through our own unique human way - using words. He spoke directly to Adam and Eve. He spoke in Old Testament times through the Prophets, initially by repeated oral transmission, and ultimately by the Old Testament Scriptures - the written Word. He then spoke to the world through Jesus Christ - the Word incarnate. Ultimately, the writers of the New Testament wrote down God’s revelation to us in the form of the Gospels, the book of Acts, the Epistles, and the book of Revelation. He also speaks to us today through the faithful preaching of the pastor - the spoken Word.

  God has also chosen to come to us through the Sacraments, the visible Word - Holy Communion and Holy Baptism. There He offers us forgiveness of sins via the spoken Word, together with bread / body, wine / blood, and water. All of these taken together, Scripture, Communion, and Baptism, are called “the means of grace.” They are the means through which God graciously offers to us forgiveness of sins and eternal life, and renews and strengthens our faith – in other words, everything spiritual that we need in life. They are the only means by which God chooses to come to us today.

  The outward reality of the Word and Sacraments are precisely the way in which God works on our inward experience; that is the way to a true Christian experience that frees us from a life of bondage to works of the Law, liberating us for a missional life of service to our neighbor. The Word is life. Listen to Jesus’ words in John 6:63: “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”

  Dan Kimball, an Emerging Church pastor makes this comment:

Modern thinkers want things orderly and systematic because they learn in a logical and progressive manner. They prefer, generally, to sit and listen. Emerging post-Christian generations, on the other hand, long to experience a transcendent God during a worship gathering rather than simply learn about him.4

  His thought is common among many Christians, both inside and outside of the Emerging Church. People are looking for something “more,” and they are turning to their own emotions and experience to find it. There is no denying that emotions do play a role in our Christian walk. I am often exhilarated as the congregation sings the Sanctus:

Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabaoth; heaven and earth are full of Thy glory. Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He, blessed is He, blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord. Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna in the highest.

  But human emotions are not the way to “experience” God. He has not equipped us with an emotions-based sixth sense capable of communing with the spirit world. Emotions are internal to us and subjective, influenced by a myriad of factors and often unreliable – they are not a means of grace. Our only reliable way of experiencing God is for Him to come to us externally through His means of grace. It is through His Word, and trust in the promises He offers, that my troubled heart is stilled. In the ebb and flow of my faith, if I have doubts, I know I can look to the promise on which that faith is based. Whether or not I “feel’ or “experience” the Holy Spirit acting in me, I trust in God’s promises. Those promises are sure. They are unchangeable:

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.
John 6:47

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God,
Ephesians 2:8

"It is the LORD who goes before you; He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed."
Deuteronomy 31:8

  God promised Abraham that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars. Yet Abraham was 99 years old, and his wife Sarah was well past the age of childbearing. When Abraham considered their health, what he saw was a man “as good as dead” and an infertile wife. From an experiential and emotional standpoint, he and his wife were “worn out.” Yet Abraham ignored the physical evidence and trusted God’s promise, and a year later Isaac was born. Abraham believed the LORD, and God counted Abraham’s faith as righteousness. In much the same way we are to put our trust in God’s promises, rather than in our own experience and emotions.

  Whatever we know of God, God has revealed to us. Our knowledge of Him is completely external to us. We cannot approach God of our own accord, because he dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see (1 Timothy 6:16). There are certain things that man can know of God through God’s revelation of Himself in the realm of nature and of human history. God’s invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, are clearly perceived, being understood through what has been made (Romans 1:20). His witness of Himself is seen in the blessings He continues to pour out on mankind; rain and fruitful seasons, that satisfy our hearts with food and gladness (Acts 14:17). He reveals Himself in His continued governance of all nations (Acts 17:26), and His rule of His earthly kingdom by Law, having written that Law on all people’s hearts (Romans 2:14-15). But that is essentially all we can know of God via natural knowledge. All other knowledge of God, including His plan of salvation for us, is acquired through the power of the Scriptures.

  Those in the Emerging Church “long to experience a transcendent God,”
5 and are looking for “a full sensory immersion in the divine.”6 That experience can only be found through God’s divine power:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.
2 Peter 1:3-4

and that divine power is in the Word of God:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
Romans 1:16

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
Isaiah 55:11

To paraphrase Dr. John Theodore Mueller:

The Word of God doesn’t operate in a natural way through logic appealing to reason, or through rhetorical eloquence, appealing to emotions, but in a supernatural manner, inasmuch as the Holy Spirit, who is inseparably combined with the Word, persuades the human mind of the divine truth through the very Word which it contemplates.7

As St. Paul says, “and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:4-5). God’s power is not separate from the Word of Scripture. “...The Holy Ghost does not operate beside or outside the Word, ...but always in and through the Word,”8 to effect in us

  • faith,

So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
Romans 10:17

  • regeneration,

since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God;
1 Peter 1:23

• and renewal,

for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Philippians 2:13

Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation–
1 Peter 2:2

  If you are looking for a truly spiritual experience, savor God’s Word and Sacraments. Study God’s Word. Revel in it. It is a lamp to your feet and a light for your path. Fix it in your hearts and minds. Impress it on your children. Talk about it when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. It is truth. It is sweet. Eat it up. He who eats this bread will never go hungry. Drink it up. He who drinks this water will never go thirsty. Indulge in the Lord’s Supper. The bread that we break and the cup of blessing that we bless are a participation in the body and blood of Christ. Delight in your Baptism. Through Baptism you are baptized into Christ’s death, that you may also rise with Him and walk in newness of life.

  To summarize, it is through the Holy Spirit, indissolubly joined with Scripture, via the means of grace, that Christians “experience a transcendent God.” No appeal to a solely internal emotional experience will do. God comes to us. Experience is trustworthy only as it is captive to “the knowledge of him who called us.” “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23).

  The Emerging Church, as it seeks to experience God internally through human emotion, may fail to find Him, “for we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). At the same time, where their “experience” involves the clear Word of God, they may indeed find Him in spite of their method. They are, however, also attempting to experience God in a place where they will never find Him – mysticism. It is this topic that will be considered next, in The Emerging Church, Part 4: The Mystical Road.


Written by Scott Diekmann

Continue to Part 4

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.


1.     Chad Hall, “Forward to the Past: Ancient Christianity and the Future of the Church, ”CoolChurches, 24 Mar 2007 <>.

2.     Scot McKnight, “What is the Emerging Church? Pro-Aplenty,” Jesus Creed, 24 Mar 2007 < >.

3.     “Service and mission” page,, 24 Mar 2007 <>.

4.     Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003) 121.

5.      Kimball, 121.

6.    “Now Ready for Prime Time Players: Reinventing Christianity for Our Day,” Let Us Reason Ministries, quoted from Leonard Sweet’s Soul Tsunami: Sink or Swim in New Millennium Culture, 24 Mar 2007 < >.

7.     John Theodore Mueller, Christian Dogmatics (St. Louis: Concordia, 1934) 133.

8.     Mueller, 134.

Sola Scriptura     •     Sola Gratia     •     Sola Fide