If you have recently become aware of the terms emerging or emergent with regard to the church and culture and feel somewhat alarmed, confused, or uncertain by what you have heard or read, you should indeed be troubled. You should not be troubled because something is emerging; rather, you should be troubled because you have only heard about it recently. The things you have been initially concerned about may already be in the dump by the time you read this article. Cultural change has been occurring at a phenomenal rate. It is accurate to refer to this as an upheaval. Conventions of all sorts are being overturned.
Commentators often use the term emerging to describe the changes that are taking place. Why? Because change is happening so quickly, any label that could be devised may be outdated momentarily. Accordingly, it is unclear what some of these new things will ultimately become or even what they are. Not only so, but there is no way to predict how two parallel changes might be impacted by a third perpendicular change. Things change so rapidly, about all that can be said is that they are emerging.
What is emerging?
If you search for “emerging” with Google, you will get 67 million responses. Some of the most notable results include emerging markets, emerging economies, emerging culture, emerging technologies, and emerging leaders. Standards and norms have changed in many industries. Urbanization, urban sprawl, multiculturalism, secularism, and immigration are some of the driving forces in the political, economic, and ideological shifts taking place. Increased population and increased consumer demand have also contributed to changes on a global level. Couple this with technological advancement and political reactions to all these factors and one begins to see the level at which things are changing. This all is overshadowed and influenced by a philosophical shift commonly referred to as postmodernism. (The effects of postmodernism are debatable, and they vary from one country to another.)
There have always been generational transitions. Older generations tend to be skeptical about the preferences of successive generations, and successive generations tend to be bored with the preferences of their predecessors. But we are facing something potentially much more drastic than this, something of epochal proportions if the analysts are right. We are witnessing a major transformation in North American culture as well as in cultures around the world.
Change is occurring even in the common areas of our lives, like fashion. There is a shift towards the more casual, even in the white collar workplace. Not only so, but old conventions are crumbling. White and patent leather are no longer seasonal. Untucked is not necessarily tacky. Twenty years ago dress shirts were mostly white or blue. Today, dress shirts are acceptable in any number of colors. In many circles suits and ties no longer represent stability, success, or reverence. In fact, for some, suits and ties represent the status quo or convention or the greed of Wall Street. Some of the foremost business leaders of our times—Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Eric Schmidt—rarely wear coats or ties. Of the fifty-five men listed on Google’s executive staff page, only seven appear in ties. The top leaders are not pictured in ties. The CEO, Eric Schmidt, is wearing a white polo shirt. (See http://www.google.com/corporate/-execs.html#eric.)
Approaches to leadership are changing too. Young leaders have grown up in this tumultuous environment (although they would not call it tumultuous). They view the world differently, and they also view leadership differently. They do not lead from a command-and-control, CEO-style of leadership, nor do they follow such leaders well. They prefer collaboration and community over the CEO model. A recent popular-styled book on Christian leadership articulated many of these principles. Interestingly, the book has more than 200 bibliographic references and not a single mention of John Maxwell (Jimmy Long, The Leadership Jump: Building Partnerships Between Existing and Emerging Christian Leaders [Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009]). Although I think the book is poorly written and could easily be challenged on many levels, I do not think it is an aberration but part of a trend.
Who are the foreigners?
If you are bothered by a lot of things in contemporary culture, chances are you are an immigrant. In fact, if you are forty years old or older, you are definitely an immigrant. Contemporary culture is not your home. You were transplanted here, likely against your will. M. Rex Miller has done interesting work on how these cultural shifts are impacting the church. In his lectures he describes the younger generation, young twenties and below, as digital natives. He describes the rest of us as digital immigrants. (See also M. Rex Miller, The Millennium Matrix: Reclaiming the Past, Reframing the Future of the Church [San Francisco: JosseyBass, 2004]). It is easy to gloss over this, but this is a substantial observation. The ramifications are staggering. This means that the younger generation—for whom all the digital devices are made and who know how to interact instinctively in a digital environment—sees the world fundamentally differently than I do. They view reality through a whole other lens. They socialize differently. They learn differently. Their preferences for entertainment are different. They also have different purchasing habits. They have never been restricted to what the local merchant has sitting on the shelf. Their entire experience of commerce is influenced by the Internet. Information on any topic is readily available on handheld devices, and social hierarchies are being flattened because of the access to information. And not to be taken lightly, they may have a different understanding of what defines a community. They also have a diminished sense of loyalty to established institutions and traditions, and this cannot be dismissed simply as youthful rebellion. It is simply a way of looking at the world that does not lend itself to agreeing with someone merely by virtue of his position or agreeing with a tradition merely for the sake of tradition. Miller, who evaluates culture from the lens of communication, claims we are concluding the era of postmodernism, which was a broadcast culture, and we are moving into what he calls convergence, which is a digital culture.
Here is the question: What does one call a church that is established in this cultural milieu? For many the obvious label is to call it an emerging church. In this sense, the term has nothing to do with theology. It has everything to do with leadership style, architecture, music, service format, use of the arts, community involvement, and approaches to building community. An urban church planted in 2010 is likely to look entirely different from an urban church planted in the 1970s or 1980s and much more so than one planted in the 1950s.
Emerging churches can be seen across the world. Younger church planters often do not feel comfortable using models from previous generations, and they do not see how these models will effectively reach a post-Christian secular culture. This plethora of new church models is commonly referred to as emerging, primarily because they have emerged as something different out of the more traditional models. In this regard emerging church is a very broad label that includes a very diverse group of churches. Emerging is a label that applies to: (1) churches that are simply trying to reach contemporary people in contemporary ways but that remain loyal to their denominational and doctrinal heritage; (2) independent churches that arise within this contemporary culture with no denominational affiliation and no traditional forms to retain; and (3) churches that are reacting to what they consider to be lifelessness and irrelevance in their denominations, and therefore they shake off anything that seems traditional, stifling, or inconsistent with the gospel. These reactions especially have been seen among those reacting to mainline denominational churches.
This third category has produced a radical element often referred to as the emergent church, a subset of the larger emerging church. The emergent church is a movement that looks to leaders like Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones, and Rob Bell. The emergent church (not all emerging churches) holds to many unorthodox doctrines and has questionable stands on moral issues. These churches frequently embrace non-biblical views of salvation, judgment, eternal damnation, universalism, and homosexuality.
It is important to keep in mind that emerging churches—churches that are using a variety of methods including non-traditional methods to reach postmoderns—from all three categories share similar ideas in many areas while disagreeing strongly on doctrine. Accordingly, the distinctions between the three categories above can be blurred to the casual observer. All of the emerging churches are attempting to reach postmoderns, so the methods of all three categories might often be similar although their doctrine could be drastically different. For example, Brian McLaren and Rob Bell might suggest outreach events, ideas for building community, or leadership strategies that resonate with people from all across the emerging spectrum. So a young, conservative Evangelical might find very useful leadership or program information in McLaren’s and Bell’s material while objecting strongly to their doctrine.
Before we use these labels—emerging and emergent—for others, we need to fully understand them and then use them appropriately. For example, Bill Hybels and Rick Warren are neither emerging nor emergent. (They are part of an older church growth movement.) Andy Stanley and Ed Young Jr. are neither emerging nor emergent. (They were doing what they are doing before the emerging church movement began.) Mark Driscoll is part of the emerging church movement, but he is a conservative Evangelical from the Reformed tradition who takes strong positions on morality, Reformed orthodoxy, and other conservative issues. (He recently debated Carlton Pearson who has adopted a universalist approach to salvation.) Driscoll has spoken out loudly against the emergent church. This, of course, is no defense of Mark Driscoll. He is from a different theological tradition, and we do not agree with his doctrine just as he does not agree with ours. However, to use emergent or emerging to indiscriminately paint Driscoll, McLaren, and a young UPCI church planter with the same brush would be inaccurate at best, and it certainly would not be helpful.
Before we condemn younger ministers for adapting methods from people like McLaren, Bell, or even Driscoll, we must keep in mind that Oneness Pentecostals have borrowed heavily from and shared with Evangelicals and even Fundamentalists over the years. Our views on inerrancy, eschatology, hermeneutics, and a host of other issues are not things that we developed on our own in isolation. These are teachings that we share with a larger body of conservative Christians. Likewise, many programs, like Sunday school and modern small groups, are borrowed from non-Pentecostals. So for Oneness Pentecostals to agree with non-Pentecostals and Trinitarians on some common issues is not unheard of. We owe a great debt to people like Charles Ryrie, C. I. Scoffield, C. S. Lewis, Matthew Henry, and a host of other non-Pentecostal, Trinitarian Evangelicals. Most resources on church history, theology, leadership, church growth, biblical studies, church management, and the like are non-Pentecostal. Accordingly, to say that we cannot take advantage of the work of those outside our movement is inconsistent even with the way we do theology.
The point here is that it is unhelpful to use emerging or emergent as a pejorative reference to our younger ministers who are trying various methods to reach a contemporary world. In a literal sense, they may indeed be emerging in that they are not utilizing traditional methods to reach the lost. However, it is disingenuous if by emerging we are implying that they no longer believe in the new birth, the oneness of God, or a separated lifestyle. No doubt some may not believe our message in its fullness any longer, but this does not make it appropriate to use the emerging label indiscriminately for anyone who merely has a different approach, if by using the term we mean that they are less than apostolic. This is in the spirit of McCarthyism, and it harks back to recent decades when charismatic was the catch-all label that was used to brand everything we did not like, no matter that the label often was inaccurate.
Technically speaking, there probably are no emergent churches in the UPCI, i.e., churches that are lock-step with the theology of McLaren, Pagitt, et al. However, there are probably several that could be considered emerging churches, i.e., churches that are using a variety of non-traditional methods to reach postmoderns. This is not necessarily a problem.
Getting on in a new world
We need to encourage our young ministers to use whatever methods are in their reach to communicate the apostolic message. At the same time, we need to caution against the often dangerous association with non-Pentecostal sources and the danger inherently associated with some methods. But this is no different than what we have been doing for decades. We all have had to walk this tightrope. The deeper issue seems to be the rate at which our world is changing. White, middle-class men no longer rule the day. The massive number of Hispanic immigrants is changing the ethnic landscape, especially in border states. Asians are streaming into North America at a rapid pace. Old paradigms are being replaced. It is irresponsible for us to waste too much time becoming ensnared in the culture wars that are raging. We have greater work to do—making disciples of all nations. As I mentioned in a previous article, we should view North America, not so much as a home and way of life to be protected, as much as a mission field to be reached, in the same way a foreign missionary views a foreign country. We need to be prepared to abandon our own cultural preferences, if necessary, in order to reach the lost around us. Likewise, we should be willing to adopt various methodologies that are culturally relevant to the audiences we are trying to reach. We should step back and look at North America and ask, How do we reach these people? This includes respecting cultural and methodological diversity that we may not personally like.
The apostles lived in a climate that was more pagan and equally as hostile as our ours. If they were able to thrive in a hostile culture, so can we. If they were able to thrive while standing against the tide of worldliness, so can we. What remains to be seen is whether we can distinguish between our American and Christian identities and whether we are prepared to suffer.
If we cannot envision the gospel, our churches, or our theology apart from our American culture, then everything is spiraling quickly down the drain. However, if we can see that our faith and theology are quite distinct from culture, albeit situated within culture, then we are freed from much of the anxiety that some feel about “everything is changing.” Our buildings might change. Our attire might change. Our use of technology might change. All these things are emerging. But if our apostolic doctrine and identity do not change, we can be assured of apostolic results.
“Emerging” vs. “emergent”
“In discussing this new movement, we will be using the terms emerging and emergent interchangeably. Strictly speaking, our criticism is not with those who try to engage the emerging culture, but rather with the emergent church. Some have made a distinction between the two words, emerging categorizing those who are trying to contextualize the gospel for postmoderns, and emergent referring to the organization now headed up by Tony Jones and associated especially with Doug Pagitt and Brian McLaren. For example, Mark Driscoll, of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, who has distanced himself from the emergent church while still trying to engage postmoderns, argues that ‘the emergent church is part of the Emerging Church Movement but does not embrace the dominant ideology of the movement. Rather, the emergent church is the latest version of liberalism. The only difference is that the old liberalism accommodated modernity and the new liberalism accommodates postmodernity’” (Why We’re Not Emergent by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck, p. 16).
For more information on the emerging movement:
Gibbs, Eddie and Ryan K. Bolger, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005).
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