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On Not Being Emergent

October 6, 2006

For some time now I’ve been trying to get my head around this whole emerging church thing.  I was trying to figure out what they believed.  Then I realized this was the wrong question.  Emergent is not a theology.  It’s more of a philosophy of ministry that is trying to contextualize the gospel to a postmodern audience.  This “missional” philosophy of ministry is a reaction against both traditional and seeker models. 

But the theologies of those who practice this contextualization differ widely, yea, wildly.  Some want to reach postmoderns with the gospel as it would be defined by our evangelical forefathers; some want to accept and baptize postmodern epistemology.  Some are good Reformed missionaries; some are, in the words of Mark Driscoll, nut jobs.

Those who feel it important to stay tethered to propositional statements of Reformed faith are starting to distance themselves from the word Emergent by calling themselves the Resurgence.   Yeah, I know.  I propose eschewing both words from our vocabulary because, like Hansel, they are so hot right now that they’ll mean something else next week and be forgotten next year.

Although there are some people who call themselves emerging that I really like, I don’t think we should self-apply the word.  If we did, some would take it as an endorsement of all things emerging and that would be a big mistake.  No more free press for the atheological coming from me.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. October 6, 2006 2:46 pm

    Have you ever wondered if there was more to life, other than being really, really, ridiculously well contextualized?

  2. October 6, 2006 5:05 pm

    Now, if you don’t mind, I have an after-conference party to attend.

  3. Bethlen Gabor permalink
    October 8, 2006 2:16 pm

    Yea and amen. I harbor significant doubts that the “emergent” concept is philosophically useful. For those who seek to reengage our culture with a vibrantly preached Gospel, as delivered by the Invisible Church since the Fall, I’m curious about that choice of terms, and further stumped by exactly what the orthodox “emergent” folks think they have in common with the post-modern breed, that they would choose to go by the same moniker.

    For the proponents of that post-modern epistemology you mentioned (well chosen aspect of their thought, by the way), there are plenty of other effective terms to call them by. The “H” word comes to mind, though I’ll refrain from straining your conscience by using it. Those who would seek to remove the propositional elements of the Gospel (that is, the whole Gospel itself) leave nothing left to the faith except pursuit of the “personal peace and prosperity” that Schaeffer warned of. It is 19th century liberalism with a T-shirt instead of a suit.

    Insofar as this philosophy of ministry is concerned with confronting the world with the shocking truths of our lost state before a just God, and the mercy found in Christ’s finished work, it is a good thing, right in line with what the Scriptures command. But the contextual situation we are in today is the exact same as during the enlightenment,, the Roman Imperial period, or the raising of the Tower of Babel–men hate God, seek to wipe Him from their minds and lives, and Christ shines into that blackness. Whenever we seek to “contextualize” the gospel in some way which diminishes this, it is worthless, idolatrous rubbish.

    There is legitmate criticism of both dead traditionalism and more-interestingly-dead seeker churches. We are commanded to preach Christ crucified, to live as foreigners in the world, and to employ those means of grace that have been ordained for our use. This includes true preaching of the Word, and scriptural worship. Doing these things *merely* because we’ve always done them is indeed worthless, and demonstrates a dead heart (Ps. 51: 14-19, Is. 1:11-17, Is. 58, Joel 2:12-14, and how many other places?). The external signs and works only benefit us if they represent a true internal work of the Spirit. But turning away from the forms that God has given us so we might be “more relevant” to the world is flat disobedience at best. The pharisees obeyed (sort-of) the external elements of the Law, neglecting the internal. But Christ did not command them to toss the external elements to focus on the “relevant” aspects of godliness. He commanded faithfulness to the Scriptures in all aspects of their lives, an obedient heart rendering acceptable works (Mt 23:23 et seq.). Makes me wonder if Nadab and Abihu will stand next to Sodom and Gomorrah accusing us someday.

    Better to choose our terms more carefully, to be more diligent to carefully guard the faith once delivered, and to remember that we ought to be the “Ecclesia Reformata et Semper Reformanda”. Not practitioners of mere dead orthodoxy, but always reforming in both our churches and in our individual hearts.

  4. October 8, 2006 4:01 pm

    Like you guys have said, the “emergent” term applies so broadly that I am hesistant to either accept or condemn it. I lean towards acceptance, not because I think it’s inherently better than any other theory of theology or church or whatever it’s a theory of (that’s hard to define, too, I think). Mostly I lean towards acceptance, because some of the folks I would categorize as “emergent” have spoken Christ into my life in ways that I hadn’t imagined.

    I grew up in a pretty seeker-sensitive church, and the seeker-sensitive/megachurch practices greatly turn me off. I see a lot of the “emergents” who have the same critiques of that kind of church as I do (Derek Webb is a good one, as is Donald Miller). They made me see that I wasn’t alone in thinking that maybe a church’s money shouldn’t be going to creating a video game room for the teenagers. And suddenly, for me, it was safe to think of Christianity the way I wanted it to be ideally (full of grace for sinners, a community-oriented focus (both within and without), a ‘missional’ outlook, lacking legalism in dress and other things) instead of the way I had seen it before. All of a sudden there were Christian writers and artists who were eschewing the “right-wing evangelical” way of thinking…

    Of course, once I saw other folks critiquing all of those things, I had to relearn how to be graceful towards the “right-wing evangelical” culture that I had grown up with. And fortunately, that was a much easier lesson to learn than I thought it might be… probably because the emergent movement had affected my heart, and softened it, by making it okay for me to be who I was. I don’t feel like I have to be a specific kind of person (whether that be a J or a Republican or a Baptist or a whatever) to be a Christian now, and that lesson was worth a lot personally.

    If you think of emergent as being missional and community-focused and not necessarily embracing some of the things that I used to think were part and parcel of Christianity as a whole, I do see our church as being emergent… but like I said, emergent is one of those terms that means something different to everyone.

  5. October 8, 2006 4:11 pm

    And yes, I don’t know about using the word “Resurgence” either, but it’s a nice, possibly more definable alternative to “emergent” which means about a million different things.

    Heck, if you ask me, Annie Dillard is emergent… but she certainly isn’t involved in the current movement.

    It’s kind of like when I asked my Philmont kids what “emo” was, and they couldn’t explain it to me… so I asked them who the first “emo” band was.

    Their first answer was Hawthorne Heights, a band I still haven’t heard of. When I was like “Oh, I don’t know who that is,” their next answer was Johnny Cash. How can Johnny Cash be a part of a movement that … he’s not even alive to see??

    That answer made no sense to me. Labels are dumb.

  6. Egana permalink
    October 11, 2006 10:33 am


    I must first admit most humbly that I am having trouble understainding all that you have said. Quite probably you know more about the specifics of the “emergent” church than do I.

    But in the little information I do have, there is something good and appealing to me in the emergent church, something that speaks to my hungry soul. And, as long as the Gospel itself is not compromised I would say that I wish it would spread itslef far and wide, for the sake of His name and the joy of His people…

    here are some of the things that I rejoice in from the emergent church:

    1. The LOUD and public proclamation of the supremecy of Jesus. I love the music, the t shirts, the tatoos, the unashamed worship and exaltation of Christ.

    2. The intentional pursuit of the “one anothers” of scripture through an intense fellowshipping together.

    3. The freedom of expression and exploration found in their art, music, clothing, verbal communication, and pursuing different ways of serving the body through natural and spiritual gifts.

    4. The intentional pursuit of serving the needs of the surrounding community – not “separating” from them, but mingling in with them, serving them, reaching out to them, loving on them, spreading the joy and the life-giving love of Jesus to them.

    5. The hopefulness for “changing the world” in the name of, the power of, and for the glory of God – as well as for the blessing of his current and future people.

    Now I know that most of these things can be pursued in a wordly, fleshly way. And probably some “emergent” churches are just that. But some of them HAVE to be telling the truth when they claim to exalt Jesus, and that they seek to serve him radically in all that they say and do.

    If they glorify Jesus, and preach the true Gospel, and seek to be happy – and then seek to express and spread that happiness to the world around them, I see this as a good thing. As a laudable thing… as a thing not to be mocked or sniggered at…

  7. October 11, 2006 1:55 pm

    I appreciate Egana’s affirmation of good things about emergent churches. I think that Bethlen’s critique is largely of their theology, not their methods. Even when he talks of T-shirts vs. suits, what he says is wrong is that it’s 19th century liberalism in a T-shirt, not that they’re wearing a T-shirt.

    If we all were to read, for example, Brian McLaren, I think we all would all find his theology unacceptable. So no need for any of us to beat that up, it’s too easy.

    What still remains to be discussed and could be interesting and leading to gracious disagreement is the issue of contextualization. Bethlen, when you say that turning away from forms that God has given us in order to be relevant is disobedient, I agree, but I’m wondering what forms exactly you’re thinking of ? Do you just mean don’t replace preaching with drama because you’re afraid preaching is irrelevant? Don’t replace prayer with labyrinth walking? Or do you mean something else?

  8. Egana permalink
    October 11, 2006 2:08 pm

    how about preaching AND drama?

    how about a silent prayer vigil with different “prayer stops” throughout the labyrinth?

    (hey, that could be really cool… sorta dark, no distractions, hmmmm….)

  9. Bethlen Gabor permalink
    October 11, 2006 6:43 pm

    Whoa! I look the other way and a conversation develops! Hold on, I’ll craft a response.

  10. Bethlen Gabor permalink
    October 11, 2006 10:38 pm

    Sorry for the delay–toddlers and ten-year-olds.

    Okay, let me clarify some things that I’ve noticed from the responses to my comments, then go a bit further. Not much, though, cuz I’ve redrafted a couple times now, and I don’t want to go too long. Some of this we’ll need to talk about over beers next time I’m in town. You know this is only blog I do, right?–I hate them.

    The first thing that I noticed is that I do think we’ve not all looked at the same portions of the Emergent Church Movement, including me. It’s a bit like the blind men identifying the elephant by feel–my trunk doesn’t feel like your tusk. My first exposure to EM was by reading articles from the Evangelical Covenant Church–sister-church to E. Free. Closer to home, as I’ve become more familiar with the views of John M. Frame & R. J. Gore on epistemology, ecclesiology, and worship, I’ve seen many things that are held in common between them and the more explicit EM pieces I’ve read. That hurts, because I’ve long respected Frame, and I know Gore personally, and I like him.

    As Isaiah surmised, my criticism is entirely on theology, something I hoped to make more clear in my last comments. Insofar as some christians who hold to orthodox theology think of themselves as EM, I may not prefer that term, and I may even disagree with some of the elements of their practice, but they profess the faith-once-delivered, and that is what matters most. All EM proponents express a desire to revitalize the church in it’s message and mission. But they do NOT all hold to the same ideas of what that message and mission is, what the truths are which underlie it, or what exactly their faith is. Here’s an example: Karen Ward, founder and pastor of the Church of the Apostle, who folks seem to speak of regularly as a key proponent of EM. Here’s the link to the church website: They run a get-together they call a Theology Pub (meet at a pub, talk theology–sounds great at first). On the Theology Pub blog there’s a post titled: “Christianity and Islam–Not So Different Really”. I’m going to insert an assumption here–correct me if I’ve gone too far. I think that there is probably little point in me defending the proposition that there is a LOT of difference between these two faiths in this forum. I think that those who hold a high view of Scripture as normative, objective revelation from the Holy Spirit would have very little in common with the theology–and therefore the practice, of Ms. Ward.

    While I’m at it, let me attach some other links to some folks who profess EM thought. Some a little better, some a little worse:

    Stanley Hauerwas, Duke Div School Professor, Links about and by him: ;

    Stanley J. Grenz,

    Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church:

    Spencer Burke’s “The Ooze” website:
    Same website, here’s an article that I throw out at fairly representative:

    Now, my point in all this is not to say “EM is bad”. My point is to ask what faith there is in common between those who think of themselves as EM, but hold to Biblical Faith, and those who fundamentally reject biblical thought forms, embracing a system of beliefs that is contrary to the scriptures. For those who fundamentally view (or think they view) life in Christ as an exercise in love, narrative faith, and existential life and service in community, rejecting the thought forms, doctrine, and sometimes hard statements of the Scriptures, I don’t see what Biblical Christianity has in common with them, except for our common sin and savior, and our need to evangelize them.
    For that reason, I am deeply skeptical of the EM as a whole.

    This is not to say that there are not believers in the movement, it is only to say that what is distinctive about those believers is not that they are EM, but that they are Christians. Two believers–one EM, and one traditional–have a fellowship that is deeper, and more true, than two EM proponents–one professing and seeking to demonstrate faith in a more vital way than has been modeled to them elsewhere, and one who rejects the Truths of the Gospel. So, what then does it mean? And how can we make use of the term, or the concept, to understand the thought of any proponent of it?

    For those who hunger for truth, for expression of genuine faith, for depth of expression, for pursuit of Christ-likeness, I would commend Francis Schaeffer, Geerhardus Vos, James or Douglas Bannerman, Jonathan Edwards, Richard Baxter, Martin Luther, and learn from these men myself. For those who seek the most faithful expression of worship and ecclesiastical practice, I suggest a study of how the early Reformers initiated the rediscovery of patristic and scriptural worship (they were not always identical)–read more Luther, and Oecolampadius, and Bucer, and Calvin–and the Puritans. Read Augustine, and John Chrysostom, and Tertullian. Not because these men were always right, but because they were grounded deeply in the Word, because they wrestled with the same pains and doubts and fears. Shoot, given our fat-and-happy society, they almost always suffered worse and wrestled more. For those who truly seek Christ, we can stand on the shoulders of giants who’ve gone before, and reach higher.

    Okay, that’s enough for now, I’ll get off, and wait for more discussion of this. Quick note on the forms of worship: I’ll pass that up for the moment, mostly because it’s hard to discuss them, what they are, how we derive them, how important they are, without a common framework for understaning what the church and worship are. Beers.
    Last note: It’s late, and I’m pressed for time, and my alarm will go off in less than 5 hours. I’m not reviewing this before sending it. So please forgive me if the language is less than ideal, or if the ideas need polish. Critique them, but I suspect I’d say some things differently if I put a little more time in. But I’ll put it out as a draft so that I don’t leave this hanging for too long.


  11. Oddball permalink
    October 24, 2006 7:35 am

    My pastor (Rick McKinley) tends to resist the “emergent” label, though to some extent he seems to realize that our church (Imago Dei) is stuck with it:

  12. October 24, 2006 2:13 pm

    Ooooh, someone that goes to Imago Dei??? :) I’m so excited! My online friend Shemaiah used to go there, and I love Don Miller’s work. I like to listen to Rick’s sermons online occasionally. I’d love to visit if I ever make it up to the Northwest :) From the way Don describes it, your church sounds almost as cool as my own!

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