Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church

This is a sequel to the last issue’s “In Case You’re Asked” which responded to a question regarding the church’s role and relation to culture. It was built around the review of Reclaiming the Center, Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times. D. A. Carson wrote one of the chapters in that book which was the forerunner of the book reviewed here.

Our desire is to challenge and encourage Christians in leadership to know some of the issues in the church world. For example, one pastor of a sizeable church recently asked me, “What is this emerging church topic that I am beginning to hear about?” The reason for using this section of Equip for Ministry to review both books is because we have to carefully watch for the pendulum swing scenario. There are some good and valid things those within the emerging church movement are saying, and we need to hear and respond. However, as far as a paradigm, like postmodernism, there is so much missing that will make it a hollow movement and the younger generation, to whom it is trying to appeal, will question its value.

The analysis in Carson’s book on how ministry to postmodern generations is being reshaped is very important. Many involved in this movement are raising some legitimate issues that church leaders should address. After all, there is nothing particularly sacred about how ministry was been done in the past, except where God’s regulative principles apply. Although we cannot completely ignore the cultural influence and even legitimacy up to a point, we must have a solidly biblical theological base for how we do ministry today.

As readers of Equip for Ministry are aware, I have regularly challenged you to read that would fall into the “emerging” category, but to read carefully with much discernment. The concern is that, while the authors raise some good questions, they may have crossed the boundary and allowed things to be determined more by people than by the Word of God. That shows up in many areas, worship style being one, how the Gospel is presented could be another, and which parts of Scripture are used and which are not used still another.

We must be very intentional in creating a feeling of belonging among God’s covenant people. However, we must not mistakenly believe that we can “belong” before we can ‘become”. It is out of being a Christian, a covenant person, that real belonging has meaning. One clear example of this in our biblically Reformed circles is how we observe the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. You have to “become” or be a professing Christian before you can “belong” at the Lord’s Table; hence our PCA Book of Church Order, like other Reformed documents, sets forth a “fencing” of the Lord’s Table. That Supper is for believers only.

While I have appreciation for those concerned with reaching today’s generations, I also hope that we reach them in a manner which will result in making kingdom disciples. We continually face the exciting but dangerous swing of the pendulum, but our tendency is to move beyond the balance and throw out the baby with the bath water. We would do well to remember, “The medium is (or can become) the message.”

Carson has done a tremendous service to the church in this book. I appreciated his insights and sensitive spirit. He has unique ability to show appreciation for those identified with the emerging church wave while at the same time looking beyond the present and seeking the long-term results of this approach? Being people of the kingdom, we cannot only live with a focus on the present moment because we know there is a final consummation. What happens today can have significant impact on what happens later. There are more and better things to come, as the writer of Hebrews reminds us.

Carson begins by showing how the emerging church actually began as a protest against three aspects of the church. Of course we are not unfamiliar with protest. We are “protestant” Christians. (I would much prefer to be called affirming Christians than protesting Christians, but we cannot rewrite history.) The three protests identified by Carson are: protest against traditional evangelicalism, protest against modernism and protest against the seeker sensitive church approach. One of the ways that this begins to work itself out in the church is that rather than centering on the Word, attention is given to visuals, symbols, incense, candles, etc. While it is true that the sermon is not the only thing involved in worship, everything must have a basis in the Word, if it is to be acceptable worship.

Carson points out how many traditional words like “gospel” and “Armageddon” must be deconstructed and redefined, which is a clear emphasis of postmodern philosophy. The tendency is making one’s preaching and teaching, as well as the entire worship, anthropocentric vs. theocentric. Leonard Sweet’s name frequently surfaces in connection with this movement. He says while warning against embracing postmodern worldview, the church must focus on four things: experiential, participatory, image-driven and connected (EPIC). Carson develops this critique early on the book.

In attempting to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the emerging emphasis, he maintains that while not everything about it is wrong, he does say, “the emerging church must be evaluated as to its reading of contemporary culture.” Most of it, says Carson, is tightly tied to an understanding growing out of postmodernism. This is an important point because postmodernists tend to have a wrong view of God. If that is off base then we will have a faulty view of culture, as well as who we are. (See Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book One, Chapter One, paragraph one).

A second point that Carson makes is that appeals to Scripture within the emerging church is usually of two kinds: One kind claims that changing times require that we not ask and answer the same questions dealt with during the modernistic period. Often, though not always, the movement tends to mock everything related to modernism with “stinging terms,” as being totally out of date. Yet Carson is quick to point out a second claim that is not guilty of this mockery of modernity.

Carson suggests that as the movement forges ahead, it must be evaluated for its biblical fidelity. It is easy to become so immersed into the culture that the church risks a “hopeless compromise” of its message. That is similar to Os Guinness’s comments that a church can become so focused on being relevant that it becomes irrelevant. This happens when it tries so hard to dwell on the present and move forward from there, while forgetting to start with the basic foundation.

Carson does not challenge the sincerity of the people involved in the emerging church. He goes to great lengths to highlight what he sees as their strengths. But he does not hesitate to demonstrate how their attempt to analysis and understand the present contemporary culture concludes. There is an obvious weakness of being so critical of modernism and what has gone before that understanding of the present is flawed. This leads to challenging absolutes by the replacing them with perspectives. Like postmodernism in general, the movement has the tendency to de-emphasis objective truth and exalt subjectivity, one’s perspectives about issues.

Carson also takes the time to evaluate what he calls two significant books identified with the movement. One is The Lost Message of Jesus, by Steve Chalke and another is Brian McLaren’s Generous Orthodoxy. Reading McLaren’s subtitle will give you an idea of the need to be exceedingly careful and biblical in ministry-“Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/Protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian.”

One other criticism that Carson makes which should be given particular attention, along with whether or not they really understand today’s culture, is how the emergents tend to use, abuse and misuse church history. One example among many is the protest against traditional evangelism and its failure to emphasize experience. Carson asks about their knowledge of church history with the revival movements and the great awakenings. Though modernism did tend to produce a rationalistic, logical, scientific paradigm, experience was always part of the Christian life. His treatment of 2 Peter 1 is extremely helpful at this point.

I share Carson’s overall conclusion: While not everything connected with modernism is to be discarded, while postmodernism has some valid criticisms of that movement, while there are things we should learn from postmodernists, and while we should read at least some of the emerging church spokesman (such as McLaren, Dan Kimball, Brad Kallenberg, and Nancy Murphy), we should be careful not to buy into a postmodern paradigm for the church. The danger is that it will take us away from God and his truth set forth in Scripture. While stories are valuable and helpful means of communicating with the postmodern generations, those stories must be tied to the grand story of Christ’s redemption and restoration. Even our own personal stories, which loom high in the emerging church style, have no real significance unless they are seen as part of God’s overall redemptive drama.

While we must walk a tight rope, even a razor’s edge, in understanding the Word and the world, and while the church must know how to preach and teach the Gospel of the Kingdom to today’s world, we must not, intentionally or unintentionally, rewrite the message. One way to accomplish that, along with serious study of the Word and reliance upon the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives to understand the Word, is to have honest and fair dialogue with one another. Carson’s book will give us a basis for such a dialogue.

Pastors should read this book. Church leaders should study this book and know what is happening today. Individual Christians also need to understand what is happening in the world and in the church world and have some encourage to be discerning and careful with God’s Word.

Charles Dunahoo pastored churches in Georgia and Alabama before being called to his present position as Coordinator for the PCA of Christian Education and Publications (CEP).

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