First Person: Understanding the Emerging Church
- 2006 11 Jan
It’s been interesting to watch the emerging church conversation over the last few months. Important issues are being discussed. Unfortunately, like many conversations, good things are lumped together with bad and important conversations are lost in more heat than light.
My own observation as one who speaks at some events classified as “emerging” is that there are three broad categories of what is often called “the emerging church.” Oddly enough, I think I can fairly say that most in the emerging conversation would agree with my assessments about the “types” of emerging leaders and churches -- and just differ with my conclusions.
In this too brief article, perhaps I can make a few suggestions on how conservative evangelicals should view these types of emerging churches. I believe that some are taking the same Gospel in the historic form of church but seeking to make it understandable to emerging culture; some are taking the same Gospel but questioning and reconstructing much of the form of church; some are questioning and revising the Gospel and the church.
Yes, I made up the word. Sorry about the grammar. However, it expresses an important idea. There are a good number of young (and not so young) leaders who some classify as “emerging” that really are just trying to make their worship, music and outreach more contextual to emerging culture.
Ironically, while some may consider them liberal, they are often deeply committed to biblical preaching, male pastoral leadership and other values common in conservative evangelical churches.
They are simply trying to explain the message of Christ in a way their generation can understand. The contemporary churches of the 1980s and 90s did the same thing (and some are still upset at them for doing so). However, if we find biblical preaching and God-centered worship in a more culturally relevant setting, I rejoice just as I would for international missionaries using tribal cultural forms in Africa.
The churches of the “relevants” are not filled with the angry white children of evangelical megachurches. They are, instead, intentionally reaching into their communities (which are different than where most Southern Baptists live) and proclaiming a faithful biblically-centered Gospel there. I know some of their churches -- they are doctrinally sound, growing and impacting lostness.
The reconstructionists think that the current form of church is frequently irrelevant and the structure is unhelpful. Yet, they typically hold to a more orthodox view of the Gospel and Scripture. Therefore, we see an increase in models of church that reject certain organizational models, embracing what are often called “incarnational” or “house” models. They are responding to the fact that after decades of trying fresh ideas in innovative churches, North America is less churched, and those that are churched are less committed.
Yet, God’s plan is deeply connected with the church (see Ephesians 3:10). God’s Word prescribes much about what a church is. So, if emerging leaders want to think in new ways about the forms (the construct) of church, that’s fine -- but any form needs to be reset as a biblical form, not just a rejection of the old form. Don’t want a building, a budget and a program? OK. Don’t want the Bible, scriptural leadership, covenant community? Not OK. (For an excellent summary, see NAMB’s document by Stan Norman called “Ecclesiological Guidelines to Inform Southern Baptist Church Planters.”) Also, we must not forget, if reconstructionists simply rearrange dissatisfied Christians and do not impact lostness, it is hardly a better situation than the current one.
Much of the concern has been addressed at those I call revisionists. Right now, many of those who are revisionists are being read by younger leaders and perceived as evangelicals. They are not -- at least according to our evangelical understanding of Scripture. We significantly differ from them regarding what the Bible is, what it teaches and how we should live it in our churches. I don’t hate them, question their motives and I won’t try to mischaracterize their beliefs. But, I won’t agree with them.
Revisionists are questioning (and in some cases denying) issues like the nature of the substitutionary atonement, the reality of hell, the complementarian nature of gender, and the nature of the Gospel itself. This is not new -- some mainline theologians quietly abandoned these doctrines a generation ago. The revisionist emerging church leaders should be treated, appreciated and read as we read mainline theologians -- they often have good descriptions, but their prescriptions fail to take into account the full teaching of the Word of God.
Does that mean we cannot learn from them? Certainly not. I read mainline theologians like Marcus Borg and George Lindbeck like others in the past read Karl Barth -- good thinkers, but deeply wrong on issues I hold as important. I read many emerging church writers the same way. They ask good questions, but I am driven to Scripture for the answers.
So, where do we go from here?
Much of SBC life is absent from the emerging church conversation. Let’s jump in -- John Hammett at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary has done a great job not just in his paper, but in entering the theological conversation that has flowed from it. His paper can be read here.
To be in this conversation, we need to think biblically and critically. We should journey and partner with the “relevants,” seeking to make the Gospel understandable in emerging culture. We can and should enter into dialogue with reconstructionists -- learning, discussing and applying together what Scripture teaches about church.
But, we can and must speak prophetically to revisionists that, yes, we know the current system is not impacting the culture as it should -- but the change we need is more Bible, more maturity, more discernment and more missional engagement, not an abandonment of the teachings of scripture about church, theology and practice. Every group that left these basics has ended up walking away from the faith and then, in a great twist of irony, is soon seen as irrelevant to the world they tried to reach.
This is an important moment in the emerging church. Many “emerging” evangelicals are distancing themselves from the revisionist leaders. Papers have been presented, publishing relationships have been altered, and many in the blogosphere are questioning the ecumenical nature of new partnerships. That’s good. Let’s affirm the good, look to the Scriptures for answers to the hard questions, and, yes, let’s graciously disagree when others hold views contrary to our best scriptural understanding of God, Bible and church.
Ed Stetzer serves as research team director and missiologist at the North American Mission Board.