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What is the ‘Emerging church’?

May 2006 | by Andrew Patterson

The Emerging, or Emergent, Church movement has already become a significant part of the evangelical landscape in the USA and is starting to make its presence felt this side of the pond too. In this book Don Carson argues that we, as evangelical Christians, need to become conversant with it.

Getting to grips

This is a diverse movement. Attending an ‘Emergent Church’ may mean exposure to liturgy, incense and poetry; or to doses of jazz and rock music; or to all of these! But Carson nevertheless believes that there is a sufficient self-identity within ‘Emergent’, in terms of its values and priorities, to enable us to speak of a ‘movement’ — and to scrutinise it.

In the opening chapter, Carson gives us a feel for the movement through the eyes of those who see themselves as part of it. One of the difficulties in getting to grips with Emergent is that, by its very nature, it is reluctant to define itself with any precision. You are most likely to understand it by visiting an Emergent church or by reading the internet ‘blogs’ of its leaders.

Carson notes that Emergent is essentially a protest movement — protesting on one hand against ‘culturally conservative forms of evangelicalism’ (p.24) and on the other against the ‘arrogance’ of absolutist modernism and its various expressions — not least the ‘seeker-sensitive church’. He suspects that most of the leaders of Emergent come from conservative evangelical backgrounds but for a variety of reasons have become disaffected.

In a culture that is changing, Emergent leaders certainly see themselves as a prophetic voice, calling for change within the church to meet the challenge of contemporary culture.

Positives

In chapter 2, Carson highlights five positives about the movement and the way it challenges the church of our day. First, there is a commendable concern to ‘read the times’ and to understand our rapidly changing contemporary culture. Emergent rightly recognises that this is essential for ‘our witness, our grasp of theology, our churchmanship, even our self-understanding’ (p.45).

Second, there is a strong push for authenticity within the movement. Again Carson doesn’t dodge the fact that much of what goes on in many traditional, evangelical churches does feel ‘disturbingly inauthentic at times’ (p.49).

‘You know the kind of inauthenticity I have in mind. We may go through meeting after meeting, and all of it is reassuringly familiar, but we don’t come out saying, in effect, “Surely we have met with the living God!” … There is little intensity in confession, little joy in absolution, little delight in the gospel, little urgency in evangelism, little sense of privilege and gratitude in witness, little passion for the truth, little compassion for others, little humility in our evaluations, little love in our dealing with others’ (pp. 49-50).

Third, they have a right recognition that as we read the Bible, and evaluate our culture and ourselves, we do so in a ‘social location’ — a particular framework — which inevitably influences the conclusions we arrive at.

Fourth, Emergent churches seem to reach those with whom evangelical Christianity has traditionally failed to engage.

Fifth, there is a refreshing interest in historic Christian traditions and, at the same time, an unwillingness to be bound by tradition.

Capitulation

Chapters 3-5 are the heart of the book. While affirming that Christians need to ‘read’ and understand culture, Carson believes that Emergent’s own reading is reductionistic — that rather than responding biblically to the challenges of contemporary culture, it is in danger of capitulating to that culture’s philosophy and values.

This reductionism is expressed most crucially in what Carson sees as a false antithesis — either we can know things omnisciently (modernism) or we can know nothing with certainty (postmodernism) (p.104). On the contrary, he maintains, these extremes are not the only options.

Carson agrees that the optimism and absolutism of modernism collapse where the starting point is the finite ‘I’. But this does not mean we are necessarily driven towards the relativism of the postmodernist — to whom all ‘truth’ is subjective and dependent on one’s perspective.

Indeed, Carson provides several approaches to ‘knowing’ that avoid the epistemological cul-de-sac of hard postmodernism — including appeals to secular theories of knowledge and our own experience of communication. Most importantly, Carson affirms that true knowledge is possible when our starting point is an omniscient God committed to self-disclosure.

Distorted

Emergent’s reluctance to use the Scriptures as the determinant of truth is illustrated in a number of areas, even when its leaders choose to define themselves as ‘biblical’. For example, Carson documents the reticence of some within the movement to assess non-Christian faiths in terms of truth, which takes them perilously close to religious relativism.

Similarly, he notes that in contemporary ethical debates, some Emerging Church leaders are expressing doubts about the clarity of the Bible on issues such as homosexuality, and are therefore reluctant to take a firm stance on the subject.

Even where Scripture is invoked to direct the church, it is (says Carson) so persistently distorted that ‘even the most charitable reading eventually turns sour’ (p.156).

In chapter 6, Carson analyses the writings of McClaren and Chalke, who are leaders within the Emergent movement in the US and UK respectively. He maintains that Emergent’s weaknesses threaten the movement’s ability to safeguard the gospel itself. Both McClaren and Chalke reject penal substitution and have described this doctrine as ‘cosmic child abuse’ on the part of the Father. Such misunderstanding of salvation is, for Carson, deeply troubling — as is the failure of others within the movement to call them to account.

Truth and experience

Chapter 7 provides biblical material concerning truth and ‘knowing’ that challenges those who are reluctant to accept that there are categories of truth — and who are thus suspicious of certainty. The final chapter is a meditation focusing on 2 Peter 1 that seeks to relate the issue of truth to experience.

This is a useful book and well worth reading. It is clearly argued and readable. Whether we are familiar with Emergent or not, the lessons and applications that Carson draws out are applicable to us all, as we seek to respond to our changing culture.

If you want to get to grips with the thinking and philosophy behind western culture and the way it impacts the church — but are rather daunted by Carson’s Gagging of God — this is a gentler and more accessible way into much of the same material.

Emergent is a complex and diverse movement and one that is certain to increase in size and influence in Britain. Carson’s Becoming conversant is a great place to start in getting to grips with the Emerging Church, so that we can respond biblically to its challenges and weaknesses.

Perhaps my only slight frustration with Becoming conversant was with Carson’s chapter on the positive aspects of Emergent. I worry that for those who are part of the movement and in danger of capitulating to contemporary culture, the very brief affirmations (with no specific reference to Emergent writings) could be seen as a backhanded compliment and thus an excuse to ignore Carson’s pertinent criticisms and warnings.

For those of us who are conservative Evangelicals, our temptation may be to dismiss the movement too easily. We need to recognise the strengths that Emergent embodies and that our own weaknesses as a ‘movement’ (our lack of authenticity and our failure to reach large segments of contemporary society) may provide, inadvertently, a seedbed for movements like Emergent.

Books to read:

• M. Yaconelli, (ed.), Stories of Emergence: Moving from absolute to authentic (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003)
• Don Miller, Blue like Jazz; Nonreligious thoughts on Christian spirituality (Nashville: Nelson, 2003)

Emergent church websites:

Emergent Blogs:

• Brian McClaren’s blogspot: www.anewkindofchristian.com
• TheOoze.com

A good place to start exploring Emergent:

            • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emergent_church