Understanding the Emerging Church
Dr. Kevin Shrum
Identifying and defining the ‘emerging church’ is like nailing jello to a wall – it’s virtually impossible. In fact, leaders of the ‘emerging church’ movement refuse to allow it to be defined for fear that definition will lead to codification and codification will lead to institutionalization and institutionalization will lead to what we already have – insulated spirituality in closed communities disengaged from culture. This is why ‘emerging church’ guru Brian McLaren refuses to use the term movement to describe the ‘emergent church.’
As best as I can tell from my numerous readings on the subject, ‘emerging church’ is a term used to describe a new generation of believers who are coming out from under the rubble of a failed institutional church. This emerging generation of new believers is interested in discarding the unnecessary restraints of a church they believe has lost its ‘ancient faith.’ As ‘emerging church’ proponent advocate Dan Hughes argues, ‘The dominant churches have too often been on the wrong side of history choosing insular irrelevance over engagement; political complicity over prophetic dissonance; self-perpetuation over self-sacrifice.’
Hughes goes on to argue that the ‘emerging church’ is a rejection of the ‘revenue-driven faith franchises and religious corporations that are actively trading on the name and reputation of a homeless man will not be the source for personal healing, local renewal, ecological stewardship and international, interracial or inter-communal peacemaking so long as they find their purpose in the empty excellence of the various trickle-down spiritualities that make up Christianity, Inc.’
Emergent church gurus envision a more methodologically and theologically fluid spiritual movement that infiltrates culture rather than confronts culture from a juxtaposed position. Hughes argues, ‘We imagine a system…that is among us. Amidst these systems we privilege and savor the investment of physical touch and embodied time that is the space of our shared meanings.’
The terms are telling. The ‘emerging church’ uses terms/phrases such as ‘participatory spirituality whose modalities rest more in the patterns of day-to-day life than in the cycles of attendance and consumption,’ ‘modalities,’ ‘networks of relationships,’ ‘processes,’ ‘journey.’ These terms/phrases give rise to an understanding of Christianity that is less codified, defined, organized, institutionalized, corporate; more intuitive, relational, linear, communal, creative, etc. Ultimately, as Hughes argues, the goal is avoid the ‘privileged trinity of Christian industry – the spiritual discipline of devotional literacy, spiritual life as attendance, and the gospel as syllogism.’ In other words, according to Hughes, the three-part goal of the ‘emergent church’ is: 1) to avoid a closed, literary Biblicism that does not allow for theological experimentation, 2) to reject the obligatory participation in a local fellowship that limits cross-generational, cross-societal interaction and 3) to oppose the gospel as logical truth.
What are we to make of this movement? It must be acknowledged that the enticement of this movement is the rejection of the corporate, the institutional, the codified. The ‘emerging church’ movement is right in criticizing much of the current state of affairs in modern Christianity, especially in a supposedly ‘Christianized’ west. It is a known fact that too many local bodies of believers are disconnected from culture and that a brand-name mentality has invaded the modern church. In other words, the church has become like Wal-Mart or McDonalds – one on every corner packaging and selling spiritual commodities for busy spiritual consumers, devoid of personal concern and relational depth. The church has become the first church of the consumer.
Having acknowledged these appropriate criticisms, the dangers in the ‘emerging church’ movement are many. Let me deal with these dangers by using Hughes’ ‘privileged trinity of Christian industry – 1) the spiritual discipline of devotional literacy, 2) spiritual life as attendance, and 3) the gospel as syllogism – which he desires to replace with a new trinity, namely: 1) reconfigured…textures of hyper-literacy, 2) networked living and 3) enacted gospel.
Devotional literacy vs. textures of hyper-literacy
Those within the ‘emergent church’ movement decry definitive statements of faith. These statements are viewed as parochial, narrow, exclusive and non-condusive to true community and spiritual development. This is why traditional Bible studies, sermons, lectures are viewed with suspicion – they cut off dialogue, debate, investigation. Instead, ‘emerging church’ leaders/participants desire an ancient faith that is non-descript. To make declarative statements reminds them of the spiritual rubble they have chosen to leave where declarative statements were often made unsubstantiated. Declarative statements cut off and limit relationships with both believers and non-believers.
But if truth statements are rejected outright, how can we know the gospel itself since Scripture defines the parameters of the gospel in definitive terms? For example, Jesus definitively said in John 14:6 that He alone was the way to the Father. Acts 4:12 affirms this truth. Further, we know the parameters of the gospel as defined in one its earliest expressions stated in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11.
While the gospel is relational, it is also rational. It is not an either/or proposition; it is a both/and issue. The gospel is relational because it brings us into a vibrant relationship with the living God through the person of Jesus Christ as lived out in the Spirit. Yet, the gospel is rational in that it makes intellectual sense. It can be explained. The gospel is logical to the mind. The desire of the ‘emerging church’ is to move to what Hughes calls a ‘hyper-literacy’ where faith statements are less defined and more dialogical in relation to the Bible and other expressions of faith. This is dangerous because process becomes more important than principle, experience becomes the arbiter of truth and the journey of faith becomes a never-ending sojourn from one spiritual perspective to another. To illustrate, the plane circles the airport, but never gets to land. To land means to end the journey, to bring closure, to cut off debate.
Most dangerous is that experience trumps Scripture. The rational, logical and relational nature of the truth of Scripture is trumped by human reason, human experience and human envisioning. The ‘emerging church’s’ refusal to definitively declare the gospel and its antecedents is its’ Achilles heel.
Spiritual life as attendance vs. networked living
Having grown up in Southern Baptist churches, I have experienced my fair share of attendance campaigns and church stewardship emphasis. Some of these experiences were ‘cheesy,’ many were meaningful. It is understandable that the ‘emerging church’ would want to divorce itself from many of these institutional forms of the body of Christ. Instead of terms like institutional and organizational, emerging believers prefer terms like relational, network, systems, modalities, community, conversation. In other words, the ‘emergent church’ draws a line in the sand between institutional church life and Christian living within communal relationships.
Granted, too many churches spend way too much time and energy sustaining their own existence. Yet, isn’t it the nature of the church to organize itself for effectiveness and efficiency? For example, we know as early as Acts 2:42-47 that the church had developed a system of basic beliefs (the apostles’ doctrine/teaching), a system of ministry (selling their possessions and goods) and a system of meeting together (in the temple courts and house to house). Further, we know that as the church grew the need for an organized method of caring for the widows was necessary (Acts 6:1ff). In addition, we know that as the church spread Jerusalem and Antioch became centers of Christian teaching and ministry from which missionaries were sent to the nations. We also know that there was an organized meeting called the Jerusalem Council where centralized authorities decided the nature of the gospel in relation to both Jew and Gentile (Acts 15).
For better or for worse, the church begs to be organized because God is organized. He created in six, sequential, meaningful days; He called one nation to be His people; there are twelve tribes, twelve apostles, sixty-six books in the Bible, etc. It is interesting to note that church attendance was a part of the early church, as well. Somehow, the early believers new that 3,000 were saved and baptized on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41). Acts 4:4 notes that on another occasion 5,000 were saved. In addition, the writer of Hebrews (10:25) notes that church attendance was important – “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” In other words, there is evidence all over the New Testament to indicate that the early church was organized for effectiveness and efficiency.
The ‘emergent church’ is rather naïve to believe it can avoid organization. In fact, the term network is the beginning of the end of a naiveté for a church that desires pure and non-organized community. The ‘emerging church’ sets up a false choice – a choice between organized community and non-organized community. The choice is not between a spiritual life defined by simplistic attendance to an institution disconnected from culture or reality versus a supposedly pristine network of believers untarnished by institutional parameters. In fact, I would suggest that the seeds of demise have already been planted within the ‘emergent church’ movement when they published their first book, organized their first conference and set up their first website. If the ‘emergent church’ movement was true to its word, it would have never endeavored to do any of these things. The next thing you know, there will be the ‘emergent church’ publishing house, network office, etc.
The real question is can the visible church – organized, structured – reflect the invisible church constituted by true, spirit-filled believers? If ‘emerging church’ leaders think that they have stumbled upon a new paradigm they are misinformed and ignorant of church history. The visible church has always struggled with its relationship to the invisible, apostolic church made up of true believers in relation to the living God. Again, I predict that the ‘emerging church’ is already in demise because of its disconnect from definitive, biblical truth and because it is seeking its own definition, and defining a thing means a degree of codification, institutionalization, structure, etc. To be critical of the traditional church can be helpful; but for the ‘emerging church’ be critical, yet not offer a viable alternative that does not avoid theological bankruptcy is naïve and disingenuous.
Gospel as syllogism vs. enacted gospel
A final contrast is the gospel as syllogism versus an enacted gospel. I take it that what Hugh means by ‘enacted gospel’ is what used to be labeled as ‘incarnational gospel.’ Again, ‘emergent church’ leaders set up a false dichotomy, i.e. either true believers embrace a gospel that is lived out in the fluid nature of day-to-day living or the gospel is a logical proposition that it is be given cold, calculated intellectual assent. But is this the choice?
Surely, the gospel is to be lived. Call it an ‘enacted gospel’ or an ‘incarnational gospel,’ Scripture teaches that the gospel is not only absolute truth that can be defined, it is life itself. The gospel is a way of life for the true believer. Further, it is a life lived out in true community with other believers. In addition, the gospel is to be lived out before an audience of one (God) in the presence of many, including unbelievers. Granted, it is true that traditional church structures can inhibit authentic Christian living. However, to say that all believers who are not a part of the ‘emergent church’ movement are disingenuous is, to say the least, a bit overstated.
To suggest that a believer has to make a choice between the logic of the gospel and the implications of that gospel for daily living is, again, naïve. Scripture affirms that we are to ‘be’ salt and light (Mt. 5:13-16). Yet, to live out the gospel does not preclude making logical, even syllogistic statements about the gospel. For example, the Sermon on the Mount can be understood as an overall picture of what a disciple of Christ looks like in thought, behavior and action. Yet, this same ‘sermon’ is given in rational statements, sequential illustrations and declarative commandments.
A biblical example is in order. In Acts 17 the Apostle Paul visits Athens. As was his pattern, Paul would enter a city and visit both the sacred places (synagogue) and the secular places (the market). You cannot get anymore secular than Athens. Acts 17:16 notes that the entire city was “full of idols.” And what was Paul tactic in spreading the gospel to this secular city? Did he dialogue with its leaders? YES! Did he engage the culture? YES, even quoting one of their poets. Did he engage the culture based upon an unresolved gospel? NO! Paul was absolutely clear in the principles and parameters of the good news – 1) God is sovereign, creator, vs. 24-28; 2) God is not a manmade ideal that is under intellectual construction or development, but a real and living God, vs. 29; 3) the gospel of God calls for people to repent from the ignorance of sin, vs. 30; 4) knowing that God will judge all men by the resurrected Lord, vs. 31; 5) this gospel is based upon the clear and sequential historical events of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, vs. 32. Did Paul offend some? YES! Did others reject what he said? YES! But did some receive the truth? YES! So, Paul engaged his culture with a clear gospel in relation to the church that had sent him on mission and in relation to the pagan culture he was attempting to engage so that they might believe. Paul’s gospel is stated in clear syllogistic logic enacted in the most secular, pagan marketplace of his day.
The ‘emerging church’ envisions itself as an absolutely new expression of the church. Further, its criticisms of the institutionalized church need to be heard. However, the means by which this movement seeks to reinvent the church leaves the church vulnerable. The ‘emergent church’ is more concerned about being disconnected from culture than it is being disconnected from the truth.
Biblical Christianity is a life lived out for the glory of God within a dynamic relationship with Jesus Christ. This life is not to be lived in isolation from other believers or from the world itself. Instead, biblical Christianity is best seen in the individual believer living in community with other believers and non-believers visibly expressed in a local body of believers organized for missional purposes, yet joined together with the invisible church made up of believers from every tribe, tongue and nation.
The church has been given a declarative Word to the nations, a Word that stands in contrast to what the believer should be, calling him/her to be more than what he/she is. The ‘emerging church’ is but a poor, nebulous construct of the New Testament church; yet, it is a construct that, I fear, will end up leading the church to be theologically bankrupt and culturally consumed so that the church is no longer salt and light.
 McLaren quoted in Southern Baptist Texan, 4.18.05