“Certainly there are as many kooks on the right as on the left. But what we need is a little more care in trying to find out what people really believe and how they really act, and a little less guilt by association and wild extrapolation.” —D. A. Carson
There has been a lot of discussion about the emergent church recently. As I mentioned in a previous post, the emergent church is an extreme expression of postmodern ideas, but they are much more than this. The emergent church also has theological positions that are clearly out of the range of possibility for Apostolics. Emergents resist absolutes, truth claims, and doctrinal propositions. Their views on hell, judgement, atonement, morality, and the exclusivity of Christianity are only a few of the doctrinal concerns they bring to the table. These views are frequently out of the range of possibility for Evangelicals and conservative Christians of all stripes.
Their overall lack of commitment to anything that is fundamentally and historically Christian can be summed up in the words of their own Rob Bell, “I like to say that I practice militant mysticism. I’m really absolutely sure of some things that I don’t quite know” (Christianity Today, April 2006). That sounds cute in a book or sitting around a coffee table sniffing candle smoke with a bunch of students, but it doesn’t play out very well when laid alongside the biblical witness.
So what’s the point? The point is that although emergents have written a lot of books which have some compelling critiques of Christianity, they are not our problem. The emergent church is rather small, and its attraction to the cutting edge of society as well as its minimalist approach to the biblical narrative will keep it at the margins. The emergent church is a small, though loud, fad. This too shall pass.
Our real concern is with the day and age in which we live and the barrage of change we are facing. The real dilemma is whether or not we can maintain apostolic identity in a postmodern world. That is the real challenge. We are failing to attract young ministers. We are failing to keep young ministers. We have a church culture that is often critical of innovation. We apparently do not have a sustainable plan for succession. Relentlessly beating on the emergent church will not solve these problems.
We Apostolics have a tendency to define ourselves over against what we are not. Having a defined enemy gives us some comfort, but using the emergent church as a scapegoat for postmodernism and the larger issues of our day is no solution. Now I am no fan of the emergent church and I have no tolerance for the abandonment of biblical truth, but it is a strategic mistake for us to point all our guns at the emergent church. Who will be our enemy when they pass on? There is no single problem or movement, that if attacked and castigated, will eliminate the challenges we are facing. If the emergent church collapses tomorrow, every issue that we face will still be on the table.
It must be realized that, based on the emergent church’s description of themselves, we have no emergents among us. We have a lot of innovators and a lot of people who are trying to be relevant and articulate the gospel in ways that are consistent with postmodernism, and we have a few who are abandoning apostolic doctrine, but by definition we do not have any emergents. It is therefore unproductive to use the emergent label indiscriminately. It is both inaccurate and unhelpful.
For example, the “vocabulary and templates” section of my recent article, “Where Do We Stand?: Postmodernism, the Emergent Church, and Apostolics” is not a description of the emergent church. These are not exclusive emergent templates and terms. These are contemporary templates and terms which go beyond the emergent church. So if we accuse everyone who uses these things of being emergent, we display a lack of understanding and we also miss the boat entirely.
To those holding the fort at all costs—and there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on what exactly the fort is—we may wake up one day to realize the fort is empty. We need to be careful that we don’t spend all our energy trying to stamp out every heresy that pops up throughout the Christian world. If we are constantly defining ourselves by what we are against, we will run out of ammo. Further, we cannot paint with a brush so broad that Trinitarian, non-Apostolic, heretics get the same paint as Apostolic innovators. Our voice will grow hoarse to the very people we are trying to help.
To the more innovative among us, we should use discretion when chasing after the latest quack church that pops up. They typically know a little more about technology than we do, but be careful. You could wake up like Samson only to discover the Spirit has departed.
When we get through blowing holes in the emergent church, we still need to talk about this.
I am printing a three-part series on theology and culture. The main articles are: “Where Do We Stand?: Postmodernism, the Emergent Church, and Apostolics,” “What Do We Believe?: The Priority of Theology,” and “How Do We Minister?: Theology and Method.” Shorter, supporting articles will be posted inbetween the main articles.
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