Over at Jesus Creed, there is an important conversation going on about the emerging church. In the conversation, they are attempting to explain the strengths of the emerging movement to those outside the circle. I want to synthesize the first few responses here to explain some of my critiques of the emerging church (although I am very sympathetic to such a movement).
In beginning such a conversation it is important to understand, as Evan correctly noted in comment #2, that the Emergent Church is by no means “monolithic.” As I read through the comments on the page, I began to realize that not even everyone commenting necessarily agreed with one another. Evan goes on to warn that there are more “theologically radical” strands of emergent movements, and one must take this into account when painting all of emergent with the same brush.
A good place to begin is one of the main emerging voices, as quoted by preacherman in the comment section of Jesus Creed:
“While many of us have been preparing sermons and keeping busy with the internal affairs of our churches, something alarming has been happening on the outside. What once was a Christian nation with Judeo-Christian worldview is quickly becoming a post-Christian nation, unchurch, unreached nation. New generations are arising all around us without any Christian influence. So we must rethink virtually everything we are doing in our ministries.”
I see a number of problems with this quote alone. First, that we are a Christian nation with a Judeo-Christian worldview is a fallacy. This nation was founded by men from a variety of views about Christianity—Thomas Jefferson wrote his own Bible, George Washington often left church before communion, and “divine providence” rather than “God” is preferred in almost all of the early documents in out history. Such a view of history presupposes that this problem is a “new” problem. I don’t think this problem is new. It is a very old problem. I think it is weird (if that is a good word to use) that emerging leaders believe the problems of today are some sort of “new” milestone. If they think of it as a “new” phenomenon, I think the movement will ultimately fail when it becomes “institutionalized” (because it will).
I am not hostile to the emergent church as a whole, but I am worried that they believe they are some new “reformation” that will push things even further from the original “Catholic” church Christ intended. I am afraid that there is rapidly approaching (and in some senses there already is) a gap between the protestant church and this neo-protestant disjointed emerging movement that will prove unbridgeable at the rate things are going. I think that there are always going to be disagreements in the church, but that these disagreements should happen within the church where one was born. Change should come from the church that hurt you. God put us into a specific church for a reason. Protestantism was born out of protest, and we have accepted the fact that this is the “way things are.” We should, rather, try our best to work things out in a healthy way at the churches we are already a part of. I am not suggesting that all emerging churches are churches that have broken off from other churches, but I am beginning to think that there is either “I’m emergent” or “I’m not emergent” mentality going on in the church. The language of the emergent church, if not explained to the rest of the church at large, will become a foreign movement simply because of the language that is being used.
Cam also notes that the emergent church movement is ecclesiologically adaptable. In other words, wit the “vision of the postmodern west as a culture (or rather fragmented collection of tribal sub-cultures)” we find the church to be “increasingly ineffective.” I was hoping that Cam would expand on this point as well, but I think Diane helped (in comment #3) noting that there is “a huge emphasis on walking the walk [in the emergent church] as well as talking the talk, helping others, reaching out into the community, [and] meeting people where they are.” Diane says further there are few movements in the church “so concerned [with] taking care not to be alienating or overbearing towards outsiders.” Kacie likewise notes that the emerging movement “offers a critique of conservative, traditional churches that is very valid,” but notes that sometimes emerging leaders need to be a bit nicer about it.
I particularly like the way that Taylor George said it in comment #7 where “our problem, however, is that if we (emergers) don’t have a boundary of orthodoxy it doesn’t help all that much to have acceptance.” George is correct in assessing the problem, and the movement will be stronger once it has set up such boundaries (or accepts the boundaries and the authority of the church over the centuries). Cam (comment #1) notes that there is an “epistemological humility” in the emergent movement. It is a “willingness to reconsider ‘how do you know?’ after the collapse of foundationalism.” Phrases like this are always interesting to me. I am curious to understand what Cam is reconsidering specifically. Diane likewise suggests the emerging church has a willingness “to learn” and “to admit the mistakes of the church.” Diane even suggests that there is more of a focus on the person and passion of Jesus than on theology. I am not sure what Diane means by this because focusing on Jesus is a type of Christology which is essentially a type of theology. We have to do interpretation of scripture, and thus we are all, to an extent, biblical exegetes which provide us with some basis for our mode of theology. For instance, I am sure that Diane would think certain ways of doing church are better than others based on her theological convictions. I think it is dangerous for anyone to say they are moving away from theology and back to Jesus simply because of the fact that one cannot really move away from theology (even if it is a theology of practice).
Finally Cam notes that another important aspect of the emergent church is “eschatological immediacy” or, in other words, “faithful living in the inaugurated kingdom” which “subverts the status quo, and addresses the ethical, economic and ecological crises of our time and place.” For Cam, there is really no reason “to be threatened, and not everyone needs to become emergent” and that “emergent is essentially a renewal movement.” With this I heartily agree, but I think that to label this a “movement” is misleading. I feel that the wish for many emergents is for pastors to find the best way to connect to their particular cities based on their context. Thus, context is really the best way for pastors to decide how to present the message of the gospel. I will be posting more on this later, but this whole idea of context seems, as was said at the beginning, to break down this idea of emerging as a unified “movement” and rather a move towards contextual theology.