Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Emerging Church, Part 1: What’s Emerging?

Over the past couple of years Emerging Church leaders such as Dan Kimball and Leonard Sweet have been offered the podium at various speaking engagements in the LCMS, and aspects of “emerging” thought are making their way onto the whiteboards of Lutheran classrooms, conference agendas, and pastors’ sermon texts, inviting the obvious question, “What’s emerging?”

The Emerging Church cannot actually be called a “church” in the denominational sense, but is rather a loose affiliation of individuals, churches, and organizations that discuss and share similar ideas. The beginnings of this movement or “conversation” grew out of a need to “effectively” reach the younger generation with the Gospel, who often hold to a more postmodern viewpoint. Members of the Emerging community include people from all points along the theological sliding scale, ranging from those who want to remain within their current “tradition” and are just looking for a few “tips,” to those who want to totally reinvent Christianity (yes, they actually use the word reinvent).

There are those leaders in the conversation whose theology is fairly conservative and generally orthodox (although sometimes with notable aberrations in certain areas), such as Mark Driscoll and Dan Kimball. There are also leaders whose theology is more than a little questionable, cast somewhere near the heretical nether regions, including Rob Bell, Tony Jones, Brian McLaren, and Doug Pagitt. Finally, there are those people who didn’t necessarily set out to be an Emerging Church type, but are admired far and wide for their emergent ideas. This category would include people like Walter Brueggemann, Leonard Sweet, and N. T. Wright (because of his justification-jettisoning consort with the New Perspective on Paul).

Quite a few of the more notable Emerging Church leaders came from very conservative denominations, and, just like a child who has rebelled against their parent, have rejected their previous beliefs in favor of a more “enlightened” approach. An example of this would be Brian McLaren, the most recognizable and well know leader in the conversation, who came from a Plymouth Brethren background.

Some people differentiate between the terms “emerging” and “emergent.” The Emergent Village is a group whose theology is much more liberal, and thus those emergents who are more conservative sometimes distance themselves by calling themselves the “Emerging Church” rather than “Emergent Church.” It seems that finding yourself a different name entirely might be the more discerning path to follow.

Of course, the real issue you’ve been waiting for is “What do these people believe?” The majority of the crowd attracted to the Emerging Church harbor a postmodern perspective, which generally means they have given up on the grand claims of modernism, despair of the idea of absolute truth, distrust centralized authority, and view truth as culturally and locally derived. Your truth is not my truth, and that’s OK. It’s more of a “what works for me” attitude.

Starting from a postmodern perspective has it’s challenges for those seeking to reach these people, and those who are doing the leading generally espouse the postmodern view as well, which creates real obstacles for the spread of the true Gospel, sometimes distorting it to the point that it is no longer the Gospel.

Other prevalent characteristics of the Emerging Church include an emphasis on mission, inclusivity, authenticity, justice, earth keeping, communal living, a return to “ancient” practices, spiritual disciplines, a downplaying of doctrine, and a narrative theology. Some of these emphases are encouraging, even refreshing. Others, however, are something to be avoided. Many of them, when put into practice Emerging Church style, fall well short of an orthodox confession. And while some of these categories may seem “new,” they are vaguely reminiscent of a warmed over version of the Jesus Movement of the late sixties and early seventies.

To offer a small sense of the mindset of the more heterodox element, here’s a quote of Brian McLaren from his book A New Kind of Christian (p. 3):

I meet people along the way who model for me, each in a different way, what a new kind of Christian might look like. They differ in many ways, but they generally agree that the old show is over, the modern jig is up, and it’s time for something radically new. ...If we have a new world, we will need a new church. We won’t need a new religion per se, but a new framework for our theology. Not a new Spirit, but a new spirituality. Not a new Christ, but a new Christian.

That new kind of Christian is the one we’ll discuss next time in The Emerging Church, Part 2: A “Chastened Hermeneutic.”

This post was also published on The Brothers of John the Steadfast website.

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