What Should We Think of the Emerging Church? Part 1
- Wednesday, July 06, 2005
The "Emerging Church" has become a focus of intense evangelical interest, as the nascent movement has grown in both size and influence. While its eventual shape is not yet clear, we now know enough to draw some preliminary conclusions about the movement, its leaders, and its influence.
In his recent book, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, D. A. Carson offers a penetrating analysis of this new movement and its implication. An accomplished scholar with a keen eye on the culture, Carson combines academic scrutiny with a sympathetic understanding of the motivations and cultural experiences that have shaped this new movement.
Carson, Research Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, demonstrates a bracing understanding of our times and the cultural challenges faced by conservative Christianity. In his 1996 book, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism, he offered an incisive analysis of postmodernism. In that work, Carson's primary focus was epistemology and the postmodern understanding of truth and its knowability. In this new book, Carson continues to focus on truth and knowledge, challenging the Emerging Church at the foundational level of Christian identity.
Carson begins by acknowledging the diversity of the Emerging Church Movement. Given the "porous borders" of the movement, Carson admits that he did not find it "easy to portray it fairly." Nevertheless, after a period of embryonic development, the Emerging Church Movement is now sufficiently mature to offer an understandable model of church and theology, complete with understandings of the Bible, the culture, and the Christian message.
The idea of an Emerging Church--whether understood as a movement or a "conversation"--is based in "the conviction that changes in the culture signal that a new church is 'emerging,'" Carson explains. The logic that unites Emerging Church leaders suggests that Christians must respond to the Emerging Church with acceptance and adaptation. "Those who fail to do so are blind to the cultural accretions that hide the gospel behind forms of thought and modes of expression that no longer communicate with the new generation, the emerging generation," Carson relates.
Even though the Emerging Church constitutes an amorphous movement with ill-defined boundaries, Carson is convinced that the influence of the movement is larger than its numbers would suggest.
From what did the Emerging Church emerge? The modern evangelical movement emerged in the last half of the twentieth century complete with "megachurches" and baby-boomer variations. The Emerging Church is defined over against the massive megachurch models and the seeker-sensitive approaches popular among baby-boomer pastors. The formative leaders of the Emerging Church Movement argue that they are trying to recover a primitive sense of Christian community that, while keenly aware of contemporary culture and deeply engaged with the culture, avoids the consumerism, entertainment-centeredness, and superficiality of mainstream evangelical churches.
It is significant to note that the vast majority of leaders in the Emerging Church Movement seem to have shifted from more conservative forms of evangelical Christianity to the new, more broadly defined Emerging Movement. Carson suggests that a detectable sense of protest fuels the movement. Several of the movement's leaders document their own rejection of older forms of evangelical theology and church life. Some have rejected a Dispensational eschatology, while others contrast their new understanding of the culture with a previous experience rooted in fundamentalist separationism.
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