Posted by: Rodney Shaw | April 10, 2009

The Emergent Church Is Not Our Problem

“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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  1. I just read your article on and had read it previously in the Pentecostal Herald. You make many good balanced points. I am a forty-something died in the wool Apostolic. In short I believe our doctrine wholheartedly – holiness and all. I have made tremendous inroads with my co-workers by teaching a discussion based small group that focuses on our commonalities. I accept they are Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist or whatever and don’t try to get them to change. Instead, I tell them of Jesus name baptism and the Holy Ghost, but the main focus of each group is life application and internal growth. I accept where they are on their journey in God and don’t criticize or diminish their experience. Instead, I tell them there is more and trust God to lead them the rest of the way. I invite them to church and they do come. One of them, (my boss) is now attending a UPC church in her area. If this is the way our world thinks and learns is it not a good idea to meet them where they are? I feel that if I teach them how to apply Bible truths to their lives and seek their own salvation the change will be more lasting with it does come. Your thoughts?

  2. Bro. Shaw; as usual, a great job articulating what many of us are thinking. As for me, I wonder why it continues to be so hard for us to grasp that message and method/medium are not the same thing. One can change the second without altering the first.

    Personally, I don’t care if you wear blue jeans or shiny suits, have guitar driven worship or black gospel, if you sit on a stool while preaching or run the aisles and wave a hanky.

    Methods…that’s all they are. And methods change with the target audience.

    Message remains. It has to. It’s the only thing that really matters.

  3. Thanks Brother Shaw,

    One of the dangers I have discussed with our youth leadership and college-age is an age-old adage: “Don’t tear down the fence until you know why it was built in the first place.”

    Too many ‘new ministers’ seem to think that the old ways are outdated and irrelevant, but begin to throw out essential doctrines in the process. It is vital to keep site of who you are and what you believe, and a knowledge of history is so very important.

    Thanks for the clarion call – I choose to be defined by who I am and what I believe, as David H. did so nicely.

  4. One of the 7 woes to the pharisees was shutting the door of the Kingdom in peoples faces.

  5. Bravo, Mr. Shaw. Finally some balance!!!!

  6. I agree but cannot comment any more — no time.
    We returning to Siem Reap.

    Wish you could be with us!

  7. Another great article!

    As a young minister I am finding more and more that people’s lives aren’t so easily painted in black and white. Or at least in the way we tend to interpret what black and white truly is. This is why your article has pointed out a flaw that I have had for a while now. That flaw quite simply is this; I tend to define myself on what I am not, rather than who I truly am. I have taken this to an un-godly extreme on both sides. I continue to define myself as not a part of the old school extremists, nor am I a part of the new school extremists. By the time I finish pointing out who I am not, I end up forgetting who I am. (Personally, I believe this is how both extremes become extreme)
    So, rather than telling you all who I am not, I am going to tell you who I am.
    I am an Apostolic! (Identifying with the apostles on a doctrinal level.) I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation. I desire to share this gospel with everyone on this earth. I believe it is essential that I do this with methods given to me by the Holy Spirit. I enjoy reading various books on the methods that work for others. However, God has the final decision on whether I use them, or trash them. It’s not my message, it’s His message and I will deliver it according to His will. He is far more knowledgeable on the lives I am trying to reach than any one else ever could be.
    This is what I believe; the short version anyway.

    Keep it coming brother!

  8. Bro Shaw

    I thank you for this post. You have set in order many things that need to be set in order. I have realized that some of our ministers have used the EC card on younger ministers who do things differently without really realizing what the Emergent Church is about.

    I fear the title has become the new “charismatic” but this time the word is bad an is applied to things that may not necessarily be. I fear that it is used to refer to everyone who preaches in jeans or on a stool which is just not the case.

    Thank you very much, once again.

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