Saturday, March 13, 2010

On the Emerging Church

Last night at the latest Mars Hill discussion we heard from Dr. Gannon Murphy, a learned theologian who had much to say on...well, just about everything. I'll likely come up with more posts on various things he brought up, but for now I'm writing about one topic that came up that, after some research, has alarmed me tremendously: the emerging church movement. I came across this article on an evangelical professor's experience with the emerging church movement. He cites a book that describes emerging churches with nine points:

Emerging churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures. This definition encompasses nine practices. Emerging churches (1) identify with the life of Jesus, (2) transform the secular realm, and (3) live highly communal lives. Because of these three activities, they (4) welcome the stranger, (5) serve with generosity, (6) participate as producers, (7) create as created beings, (8) lead as a body, and (9) take part in spiritual activities.
McKnight then goes on to describe five major influences on the emerging church:
  1. "Prophetic rhetoric"; an intent to be provocative and spark reform of the church.
  2. Postmodernism, as mentioned above. The emerging church consciously identifies with the postmodern movement, seeking to minister to, alongside, and even as postmoderns.
  3. A focus on practice and actions over doctrine and beliefs.
  4. "Post-evangelism": skepticism of systematic theology and a focus on coming to a theological consensus via conversation rather than arriving at a final doctrine; questioning who is and is not saved
  5. Generally liberal politics.
Several things of this description of the emerging church distinctly worry me. Foremost is the movement's embracing of postmodernism, a pervasive system of thought whose central message is (correct me if I'm wrong) that scientific, rational attempts to figure the universe out have failed and that there is no one objective reality or truth, only everyone's own perception of it. Postmodernists put everything under skepticism (even, hopefully, postmodernism itself) and are leery of any truths that claim to be objective, or universal.

At least to me, there seems to be a bit of a problem with attempting to combine postmodernism and Christianity. While postmodernism denies that we can know any truly universal truth, Christianity emphatically declares that we can know the truth--and not just that we can intellectually grasp the truth, but that we can truly know the Truth, the Way, and the Life. The person of God--father, spirit, and son-- is the ultimate foundation of Christianity from which our beliefs and actions should descend. If, as postmodernists, we begin questioning and tampering with this essential truth, can the results really be called Christianity?

McKnight is clear in stating that the entire emerging church is not like this. Ministering to and engaging postmodernists is certainly a good idea; simply recognizing postmodernism as a condition under which we are called to proclaim the gospel is acknowledging the state of the world. But in our zeal for engaging postmodernists, we need to be careful not to join them.

The other possible mistake I see with the emerging church movement is its heavy "post-ness". Notice how in his five points McKnight describes the emerging church as postmodern and post-evangelical. The "post-" prefix generally indicates a reaction against a previous system or idea; the emerging church as a whole seems to be a giant reaction to a Christian church (or "religion") that is perceived as monolithic, hierarchical, strictly doctrinal, insular, and filled with modern-day Pharisees. So instead of these things, we get a church with "conversation" instead of real teaching and little in the way of doctrine.

As Christians, we should, of course, be concerned about becoming too much like the Pharisees. The extreme openness of the emergent church to people of all backgrounds and willingness to engage society in a culturally savvy way are both valid ways to avoid this, but in throwing out so many of the fixtures of church tradition and doctrine it loses some valuable things. My pastor describes the purpose of a church as being fourfold: worship, teaching, fellowship, and outreach, which I find to be a fine definition. The emergent movement is sorely lacking the teaching element; spiritual conversation can be helpful and enlightening, but it's still no substitute for the preaching of God's word. This, along with the movement's fear of establishing doctrine and centralization pave the way for all kinds of things to go wrong, like the aforementioned incorporation of postmodernism.

The challenge of the church has always been to keep, study, and teach the Word in the midst of the surrounding culture, in a way that helps people live lives given over to God. Arguing over doctrine and becoming prideful in our knowledge of the truth is one way to taint the transmission of the Word, but abandoning teaching and the search for the absolute reality of God altogether is not the answer.

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