Thursday, July 17, 2008

Emergent Church Confusion

Ugh! I'm confused, so I thought I'd tell you about it.

Ever heard of the emergent church movement? It's a pretty big deal these days. It's a growing movement of people and churches that are attempting to figure out how to do ministry in a post-modern (post-Christian) context, which is the type of culture we're living in. I really don't want to take the time to explain in detail what the term post-modern implies, but in a nutshell, it implies that we are living in a time dominated by the transmission of massive amounts of information (via the Internet), the absence of absolute truth (relativism), and a pervasive sense of skepticism and cynicism (especially toward traditional Christianity). We are living in a post-modern, post-Christian culture here in America today, and because of this, our methods and strategies for reaching people for Christ must take this reality into consideration.

Well, the emergent church movement is trying to do this. On the surface, they seem to be doing a great job. Some of their thinking, questions, and conclusions are profound and have been very motivating and challenging for me as a Christ-follower and as a pastor attempting to lead others in following Christ. Brian McLaren is the recognized national leader of this movement in America. He is a pastor, author, and well-known speaker. I attended a 12-hour intensive training seminar hosted by him back in the late 90's on how to do ministry in a post-modern context. His book, More Ready Than You Realize, was instrumental in helping me understand how to share Christ (the Truth) in a culture where truth is not valued or recognized. In light of this book, I had him on my radio show (Parenting Teenagers) back in 2002 to talk to parents about how they could more effectively communicate their faith to their post-modern kids. It was one of my favorite programs...and I did 160 of them! I've even quoted McLaren from the pulpit, and on our recent vacation, Michelle and I listened to a couple of his podcasts. I really, really like him. He inspires me, and the compassionate way in which he communicates is very appealing to me.

So, here's the rub. He is a lightening rod for criticism among many evangelicals today, including some that I highly regard and respect. Some have gone so far as to call McLaren a cult-leader, and recently I heard John MacArthur (a pastor and Bible teacher that I have great respect for) even question whether or not McLaren was a true follower of Christ, suggesting that he is a false teacher that the Bible warns believers about. And it's not just Brian McLaren that is at the receiving end of such strong criticism. Other notables like Rob Bell (of Nooma video fame of which I've shown all his videos at The Foothills) and Mark Oestreicher (the leader of Youth Specialities which Jesse and I have and are still using their material in our youth group) have been named with Brian McLaren as false teachers who are wrong about some pretty major tenants of the Christian faith.

Here is what many mainline evangelical leaders are criticizing the emergent church leaders (namely Brian McLaren) for:

1. Allowing the current cultural climate to have too much influence on how they interpret the Scriptures. In other words, critics of the emergent church say that rather than allowing the Scripture to speak for itself or rather than allowing the traditionally accepted interpretation of certain Scriptural passages to stand, emergent church leaders are allowing the current cultural climate to heavily influence how the Scriptures should be interpreted today. Some call this the deconstruction of Scripture, and it has lead to some pretty nontraditional conclusions.

2. One of these nontraditional conclusions is their view on hell. Emergent leaders like Brian McLaren really struggle with this issue. They find it hard to believe that a God who - through Christ - ushered in a new kingdom (the Kingdom of God) could teach peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation and then at the end of a person's life practice the opposite of these things and allow a person to go to a hell that He created for them. Therefore, some emergent leaders really shy away from believing in a literal hell (like the one the Bible tells us about), or they believe that people may have a chance to come to Christ after death.

Tony Campolo (a friend of Brian McLaren and another man I think pretty highly of) recently said these very nontraditional words: "I’m not so sure that when this life is over that all possibilities for salvation are over. I read in Ephesians 4:9-10 a passage that can be interpreted to describe a Jesus who descends into “the depths below the earth” to bring captives up to God. I read in 1 Peter 3:19 about a Jesus who goes to preach to those in the prison house of death, and I believe these Scriptures show Jesus doing something for people after they are dead, as we understand death. This reveals Jesus to be the “hound of heaven.” Yes, I believe there will be people in hell eternally, but somehow, I believe from Scripture—note I said from Scripture—that in the end everybody gets a chance to choose."

3. They also have a different take on what kind of Kingdom Christ established. The traditional view of the Kingdom of God is that Christ came to establish a spiritual (other-world) kingdom where people are added to this Kingdom by making a decision to follow Christ spiritually. The fruition of this Kingdom comes when those who make the decision to be a part of the Kingdom of God while alive die and enter into the His Kingdom in heaven for eternity. The traditional emphasis of the Kingdom then is on the future (heaven).

Emergent leaders like McLaren, however, see it differently. They say that the Kingdom of God is not as much about heaven as it is about earth. They say that Christ came to establish a Kingdom where people love and care for each other while on earth, and our emphasis over the years on just saving souls is off. He says, "Western Christianity has been overly preoccupied with the question of who’s going to heaven or hell after death, and not focused enough on the question of what kind of life is truly pleasing to God here in the land of the living." While I do think that Christians do need to concern ourselves more with the needs of others here in the "land of the living", evangelical leaders like John MacArthur revolt against McLaren's words saying that the Scriptures say that life on earth is like a vapor and what Jesus came to do was NOT make this world necessarily a better place (or he would have done more about issues like hunger, corrupt government, etc.), but Jesus came to seek and save the lost...and save their souls for all eternity.

This ultimately comes down to understanding what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God, and the emergent church leaders see it differently than do more traditional evangelical leaders. Leaders like MacArthur call McLaren's view on the Kingdom of God a "liberal social gospel" view.

So...the question becomes: Do we throw the baby out with the bath water? Just because we don't agree with someone, or even if they are off on some pretty major doctrinal issues, do we throw everything they have to say about faith issues out the window? I sure have a hard time with this because I believe that God has used Brian McLaren in a pretty profound way in my life and in the life of our church for that matter.

What do you think? Where do you fall on the issue of the emergent church? What have you read or heard about it, and what do you think? Should we throw the baby out with the bath water? I'm curious to know!



Evonne said...

Dear Mike,
I have a couple of McLaren's books which I have yet to read. I attempted his fiction and found it too didactic and tedious (like much Christian fiction). I have some uninformed concerns about the whole emergent church. It certainly is taking them a long time to emerge! I appreciate many of their social and political views even though some would consider them much too liberal, which they may be if all that is done is more talk and no action. Often people are content with having an opinion, deluding themselves, as if by thinking, they are also acting. I am very uncomfortable with some seemingly soft theology and lack of imagination when it comes to God's sovereignty and justice. Postmoderns say that they love story and honor mystery, but it seems that it must only be the kind that their sense of justice can comprehend. And yet I believe that many more people will be saved than most Calvinists are comfortable with admitting. The Kingdom is bigger than we imagine and God is establishing it now. Satan is not the ruler of this world and has not been since the Cross and Resurrection.

I am concerned that the emergent church is diverting our attention away from historical orthodoxy, much like the Jesus Movement rejected the beauty and meaning connected with genuine liturgy and like some charismatics who pursue God through feelings and experience. Rather than returning to our first love we seem to continue to lust after an idea of God that we have adorned with the Spirit of the Age. Sometimes it seems that we are attempting to exchange one kind of coffee house for another. In the 70's everyone sat on the floor, played the guitar, and sang with bare or sandaled feet. Now the spiritual coffee houses are more like smoky Starbucks with candles and hip people with cool haircuts and glasses. Some segments of the emergent church seem to elevate humanity at the expense of authentic Christian witness. They are patronizingly psychological, too pragmatic, and timid about truth--too much caffeine and coffee cake--not enough bread and wine.

On the other hand, John MacArthur's arrogant non-debate with McLaren on you tube made me embarrassed and angry. I learned nothing about McLaren's point of view and so it was a waste of time and I lost respect for MacArthur. I hear there are those who write better and deeper than McLaren about the emergent church, namely Robert Weber. But I have not yet read him, although I intend to do so. All of this ties in with the desire of many young adults, and even older people like me, for deeper worship and a return to the creeds and beauty of the historical Christian faith. Personally, I am ready for a "higher church" experience as I have come to understand doctrine and historical Christianity more. Still, I often long for the intensity and intimacy of the Sunday evening prayer services of my childhood. Recently I listened to and watched an interview with Leonard Ravenhill on He was 84 at the time and he had much to say about our 4 minute conversion experiences. Wonderful!

The emergent church movement is wide and even deep in places, but not where entertainment is elevated at the expense of authentic worship. It is difficult to talk about because it is so broad. I do believe that we are not serious enough about the Christian life and I appreciate men like Tony Compolo. I do, however, also believe that to go soft on Hell is grievous. The verses sited are obscure and difficult. But the call to a godly life is not.
Personally, I would love to cover my head during prayer, and even cross myself in worship. I love the attention given to reverence and mystery. We are much too casual and cavalier. I also want to "pray through" in corporate worship kneeling at my seat with others praying intensely nearby. I want candles and real wine. I want the Lord's Supper to be a meal. I want bold worship and lengthy silence. I want acknowledged symbolism and prayer meetin' fervor. I want liturgy and raised hands. I want hymns and gospel music. I want the body to worship without cheerleading emotionalism. I believe that the emergent church is asking good questions. I believe some of the answers are soft and some are dangerous, (i.e. The Shack and its idolatrous depiction of the Trinity). I believe that evangelical Christian leaders have, at times, responded in defensive arrogance and failed to see the needs of a people who want an authentic, yielded, and worth-dying-for faith.

Thank you, Mike, for your humility and transparency in inviting our Body to meet around questions and ideas. You are a rarity among clergy.

Darcy said...

I don't know. You asked what we think, what we've heard about this movement and the simple thing is...I just don't know what to think. The idea of there being no real hell makes me uncomfortable..but I don't know why, exactly. I can't put my finger on it.

I wasn't raised in the church. I have no personal experience with traditions (cue Fiddler on the Roof) or anything else of that nature. I am a product of the modern, perhaps even emergent church, but just didn't know it. I'm not opposed to liturgy...I just don't know much about it.

To finish, I don't think we throw the baby out with the bathwater. Yet.

Faye said...

I appreciate what Evonne has said so well, and I am grateful that Pastor Mike is seeking to be a faithful pastor of The Word. I found myself writing pages and pages of thoughts on this, but I WILL refrain here!

We do need to be relevant to the lost world of seekers and also to the body in the sense of keeping the gospel alive and at the forefront, so that true seekers and doers of the Word can value its beautiful truths concerning God’s unique nature and Christ’s redemptive powers. The Church is called to stand firm in its authority to rightly divide the truth and be vigilant to oppose false teachings. It is not, however, called to be an accepting arm to all views of building up the church. I believe the Church itself is and should be a real thorn in the side of those who would make it “common,” comfortable and solely inviting to its enemies, whether lost people, ideas or supernatural enemies. I am confused as to why we should bend our ear to what the outside world is saying about what the church experience should be and should not be. Is this new emergent church movement so fearful of not building up the church that they are facilitating and allowing the responsibilities and purposes of The Church to be held up for ransom? These leaders of a new age of church building are skeptics of traditional worship and Christian training because so many American churches are truly dead and/or unfocused. Their experiments on worship are focused mainly through the lens of American culture, but what about the Church universal?

I have tried to research what Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Robert Weber and Tony Campolo are really standing for. There are several aspects of this emergent church movement that are troubling and I don’t know who overlaps with what issues because I must buy their books to find out. The emergent churches desire to make corporate and private worship more relevant is reservedly OK with me, but their first focus seems to be to make it relevant to the outside world with enticements that merely fill the church seats with unchurched people. I thought the Church was supposed to be a fellowship of unified believers, who come together to tune OUT the influences of the outside world, to worship and honor God with sanctified hearts in a way that OPPOSES the natural order of thinking. But, if our worship has identified with the world’s fleshly perceptions, these people who are lost yet among us now feel they “belong” because they are in tune with what they know and are comfortable with. This creates mega-churches that exist for the sake of these people’s sentiments without necessarily pursuing doctrinal truth and teachable orthodoxy. Unless the church elders are prepared to uphold sound doctrinal teaching, sanctified worship, and gracious discipline of the followers, the unity of believers through Christ’s gospel can badly falter and lose its foundational stability.

The red flag of the emergent church movement is some of their proponents theology, doctrinal issues and social leanings (i.e., “contemplative spirituality” using mysticism techniques, the reality of Hell, salvation apart from Christ and all will be saved, the dominionist, kingdom-now theology, from a Catholic and monastic bent to worship to “grunge” worship, and social issue leanings on homosexuality, gay marriages). Certain quotes I read from the men I mentioned above are so vague and with such unorthodox terminology that it requires an interpreter (at least for me). They do ask their critics not to put them under one roof of theological and doctrinal teachings, nor judge them on the sound bites one hears in their one-line quotes. I love John McArthur and just hope he is being a gracious protector of the Scriptures. I stand with him!

One critic of Tony Campolo says he emulates Thomas Merton, Robert Schuller, and other New Age leaders in stating that Islamic Sufis have surely encountered “the same God we do in our Christian mysticisim.” Campolo has said that the use of mysticism in our prayer lives will provide some common ground between Christianity and Islam. Brian McLaren obviously stands beside him since he puts his name on Campolo’s latest book to honor it.

My concern about IDENTIFIYING anyone as a false teacher is not so much with what they do say (hopefully, anyone damaging obvious orthodox Christian truths will be kicked out of the pulpit, although not out of the limelight of book writing and media interviews), but what they don’t say. Is what they are omitting from the Scriptures and the truth of the gospel of Christ (all heresy) causing superficial Christianity that is utterly useless to the Spirit’s calling to be a new creature?

My last comment will say that the good motives of the heart, whether maintaining strict orthodox Christianity...risking death of a church (that can’t happen to the universal Church), or coming to a new age of thinking of how to be relevant...risking foundational truth... is not enough! So what if the emergent church is motivated by the desire to reach the lost? If it walks away from the orthodox teachings of the foundational doctrines of the work of Christ on the cross, it has pulled in and enticed the unchurched to come see what the gospel offers without actually offering it; and now we have satisfied, comfortable nonbelievers in our midst who still don’t understand the alternative of Hell for eternity. They will dwell among us, wanting to have a vote in church matters, but lacking the character and sanctification of “the new creature” status. No, motives are not enough. Motives have to be met with real truth, absolute truth, and the authority of God in our midst. Motives to save the dying world must be formed with the conviction that all that matters is to proclaim and BE the Word of Truth. We are not to worry about its rejection. May my thoughts not be arrogant or unworthy of my Savior’s calling. LOVE, FAYE!

Rod Pauls said...

I don't have a lot of time to write at this moment, but would like to record a couple of thoughts. First... why are we assuming that the bath water is bad and needs to be thrown out? I'll admit to a lot of ignorance with regard to the Emergent Church movement, but what I've read in places like Christianity Today and of Brian McLaren's own writings has not given me reason to think heresy. And just because John MacArthur is opposed is no reason to line up against anyone. MacArthur has also opposed Christian counseling, the Vineyard movement and speaking in tongues, with poor interpretations of Scripture so I think if he feels strongly against McLaren, Bell and others, I'm inclined to give them more of a look. Personally, I think that the concept of hell (eternity apart from the living God) should give all of us a lot of grief. Do we really want that for people? I believe that Scripture teaches that such a state exists for those who refuse to receive Jesus and I have no doubt that hell will be quite well populated, but I think also that we need to be careful before we say that we have it all figured out. It seems to me that McLaren and others are trying to figure it out. The important thing for me is whether they are going to the Scriptures to get their answers. It appears that Campolo is doing that (at least from the quote that Mike gave).

Finally, I also have a lot to say about the kingdom of God, but can't do all of that here. The view of the kingdom being mostly future is certainly popular (aided by dispensational theology and the Left Behind series), but I wouldn't necessarily call it traditional and I certainly wouldn't call it biblical. The kingdom of God was the central focus of Jesus' teaching while he was on earth. It dominated his teaching of the disciples following his resurrection and then throughout the book of Acts and in the letters of Paul, Peter and John we see that the proclamation of the good news of the Kingdom of God is primary. The kingdom of God is essentially the kingly rule of God in the hearts of people and it is both a present day reality and a future reality. When people surrender to Jesus and accept his salvation for their souls, they become citizens of the kingdom of God. Living the kingdom life is something that can and should happen daily for each of us. It is disappointing to me that that the evangelical church has lost this emphasis on the kingdom of God in its theology and discipleship. One goal I have as a member of Foothills and as a member of the global church is to help us rediscover the centrality of the kingdom of God in the life, ministry and teachings of Jesus. So in that sense I applaud whatever Brian McLaren and others are doing that gives the kingdom of God its proper place in the teaching and life of the church.

I'll try to chime in with a few more thoughts in a day or two. I've enjoyed reading what all the rest of you have written. Good stuff, Maynard!

Jesse said...

I really hate to see Tony Campolo lumped together with the emergent church. Here's a couple reasons he shouldn't be: #1. The guy is stinking old, 75! Not so emergent:) #2 While emergent guys may quote him and laud him, it is not because he's necessarily in their camp, but that his view of The Kingdom as taught by Jesus resonates with their view. I believe that this is one of the most positive things about the the emergent church.

So, perhaps we can start another string of Blogging about the Kingdom of God in today's world and what that looks like and then appropriately include Tony Campolo, but he shouldn't be mentioned in the emergent church battle. Check out his sermon "Living beyond good intentions" found on his website

Until then check out this quote:

"I think that Christianity has two emphases. One is a social emphasis to impart the values of the kingdom of God in society - to relieve the sufferings of the poor, to stand up for the oppressed, to be a voice for those who have no voice. The other emphasis is to bring people into a personal, transforming relationship with Christ, where they feel the joy and the love of God in their lives."

Tony Campolo found on his website. This is powerful and thought provoking.

The Church has a lot to learn about the Kingdom of God. I'm wrestling with this in profound ways and believe the Western Church ought to as well.


Jesse said...

Now, about the emergent church. There is an important distinction to be made in speaking about men and women in this "conversation". There is the usually (not always) more liberal and more unorthodox EMERGENT church. And then there is the more conservative often very biblically grounded EMERGING church. the EMERGING church calls themselves this to distance themselves from the sometimes errant EMERGENT camp.

For a brief and succint explanation check out "Emergent vs. Emerging" mark driscoll

Mark Driscoll is a very relevant yet biblically rooted EMERGING guy.

Confused!? Good! Welcome to the Conversation!

Brenda K. Hembree said...

Here is a link to a review of Rob Bell's book, "Velvet Elvis". It is by the pastor at Trinity Baptist Church where we attended in Norman, OK. It is the Velvet Elvis revisited one. The other one is a review by a friend of his that is very thorough.

Brenda K. Hembree said...

Here is another link from the Desiring God conference a few years back which was on the church in a post modern world. This sermon is by Mark Driscoll. The pastor that Jesse mentioned. We downloaded it and the whole family watched it the other night. He is very good though his humor can be a little abrasive sometimes.
You can download the sermons from the whole conference which we have done but haven't gotten to watch the rest of the sermons as of yet.

Brenda K. Hembree said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Brenda K. Hembree said...

Ok, one more try! Sorry!