The phrase, “The emerging or emergent church” is heard often these days but I wonder if we have stopped to think what it actually means. A church that meets the needs of today’s Society is an excellent idea; mind you that is always what the church has been about. However, when it uses a word such as emerging, we need to know what it is emerging from and what is it emerging into.
Scripture, as we never get tired of repeating, encourages and even directs us to check out all things and only hold fast to that which is good. (See Acts 17:11 and 1 Thessalonians 5:21) What then is the ‘theology’ of this movement and what is it standing for.
One definition of the Internet is as follows:
“The emerging or emergent church movement is a controversial, 20th century Christian movement seeking to engage people, especially the unchurched, living in postmodern or postcolonial cultures. Proponents call the movement an emerging “conversation” to emphasize its developing and decentralized nature. A common characteristic is the concept of missional living where Christians are sent out into the world to be a blessing wherever they are. Narrative presentations of faith and the bible as well as the use of multimedia, the internet and blogs are popular with this predominantly younger generation of Christians. An emphasis on dialogue allows for a generous openness to a plurality of biblical interpretation with an avoidance of a dogmatic approach to theology found in historical Christianity.
“Critics of the movement are often evangelical protestants who see the embrace of postmodern values leading to unorthodox theology, relativism and syncretism. Critics often associate emergent theology with the liberal theology that has historically been in conflict with evangelical theology.
“Some members of the emerging church do not identify with the label “emergent” which they associate with theological positions attributed to Brian McLaren and the organization Emergent.” – Website
There are a number of concepts that we need to check from this definition, for instance; missional living; plurality of biblical interpretation; avoidance of dogmatic approach to theology. We will seek in this article to look at a number of these definitions and ask, “Is the basis of this system truly Scriptural and therefore of God?”
First we need some basic definitions, not least of all for what the church really is. Can the church ’emerge’ and change. If we discover the true foundation and purpose of the church then we will discover what is essential to the church and cannot change and then we will be aware of what has simply been added by man over the centuries and can of course be developed, changed or left behind entirely.
What is the Church?
That of course is a vast question and an in-depth answer is beyond the scope of this article but there are some basic truths that can be shared. Interestingly, much that is suggested about change is simply about the building and what initially happens in it. This appears to miss the point, because the church is not the building or even simply what we do in that building; it is the people who have committed their lives to Christ and their relationship with Him and each other.
Ephesians 3 gives us a clear insight:
“To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things; so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places.” – Ephesians3:8-10
Notice first, the preaching, then the revelation, then the church! The church is not initially for the outsider; therefore our preoccupation should not be with making it a place where the outsider can come and feel at home. If the decentralisation of the meeting or and the place that we meet; if whether we discuss rather than have Bible exposition; or whether we are missional or not, are the key elements for our programme, we have missed the whole point of God’s true church and His people are being short changed. I am not saying we should ignore these issues but it is a question of priorities. The church, Scripture tells us, is to make known the manifold wisdom of God – how can that be done by those who do not know Him? We should also note that this is a very serious matter because what we do as the church directly reflects on the person and character of God.
The church is not initially for the unsaved – in the early Church the evangelism went on in the ‘market place’ and only once someone had made a true commitment did they become part of the church. Indeed we see clearly that the early church was not a place that outsiders felt at home:
“And great fear came over the whole church, and over all who heard of these things. At the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were taking place among the people; and they were all with one accord in Solomon’s portico. But none of the rest dared to associate with them; however, the people held them in high esteem.” Acts 5:11-13.
They recognised the Christians were different and ‘had something’ but they dare not (a very strong word in the Greek) associate with them – definitely not user-friendly.
The church is for the Lord and for His people first and foremost – if our priority is making it a friendly and acceptable place for the outsider we are in danger of watering down what the saints should be receiving and missing out on the true communication with the Lord and other brothers and sisters.
If we are building mega churches, and numbers become the issue, then the necessary interaction of two members (see Ephesians 4:11-16) will be lost within the crowd and the orchestrated worship. If the church becomes a place of multimedia presentations the exposition of the Word of God will be missing. If the church becomes a place of outward declarations and ‘blind’ faith then true communing prayer with the Lord will be missing. If it becomes a place of entertainment then the holiness and reverence will be missing.
Indeed so much today seems to want to make the church a place of entertainment; programmes are made especially for television and have nothing to do with the communing of the saints with their Sovereign Lord. These services are by very nature man-centred and God is talked about but only as the means to meet every possibly need of man often in the financial or ‘power’ department. Such church and such programmes are not true Christianity.
I believe we need to get our priorities right and seek understanding of the revelation of God’s mystery – the church. We need to humbly start here and ask the Lord for His revelation on the issue because only then can we decide what needs to be changed.
Having defined from Scripture what the church truly is we can move on and ask what the emerging church is and whether it falls in line with the Biblical definition.
What is the Emerging Church?
Definitions are many but basically it can be summed up as the fact that a change in culture demands a change to the church. Experimentation is encouraged to find out what ‘works’. Officially it is described as:
“The phrase “Emerging church” is an attempt to express succinctly the re-imagining of church that has been taking place in the last 20 years as a response to our rapidly changing UK mission context. The phrase “emerging church”, in my mind, is too passive and too modest; these ways of expressing church differently have already emerged and are very much claiming to be more authentic church than the inherited models. So keep an eye out for the phrase “fresh expressions of church” that has increasing currency in the circles I move in.” – George Lings – Website
Biblically, I believe, we have a problem; the church as we have seen is for God and His people to communicate together. The relationship must therefore begin vertically, God and man (see Ephesians 4:15, 16 and Colossians 2:18, 19) before it can be horizontal, man to man. God is to be expressed through His people and that will only come when predominantly the relationship between Him and ‘me’ is developed and then relationship between me and others. But the changes talked about, by the Emerging Church, are all to do with the church relating to Society, the horizontal relationship, without first determining the vertical relationship.
What is worse, is that for many there is not even a pretence that they know what God is doing, they experiment and if it works, great, and if it doesn’t too bad. Michael Moynagh wrote the book Emergingchurch.intro and he puts it like this:
“Experiments are one of the defining features of emerging church… When this happens, pioneers take a leaf out of God’s book. For God has chosen experiments to propel creation. What is evolution if it is not a history of experimentation?… Experimentation is part of being human… Some theologians would go further. They would say that the experimentation we see in creation reflects an aspect of God himself. God is an experimenter.” pp.40-41.
This gives me problems. The very act of experimenting means that you do not know where you are going to end up. It might be a success or a failure; it might prove useful or useless; and as indicated above experimentation is part of being human!
Exactly! It is part of being human because we do not know the future and what will happen. However, as a Christian, I am not ‘only human’ but have God’s Holy Spirit to guide me. More than that the moment you say that God is an experimenter you have taken away the very heart of God and this God can be God no longer. Why?
A central characteristic of God is that He is Eternal. He does not live in time; time corrupts and God is not corrupted. God has always and ever been in eternity and the past, present and future of time are all in God’s understanding and scope. He is the beginning and the end. There is nothing that God does not know; He knows what is going to happen because of the very nature that makes Him God. If you say He is an experimenter, that is, He does not know what is going to happen, He is no longer God.
It could be that this vision of God goes a long way to explain why the emerging church appears to be very humanistic and man-centred. It also of course opens up the door to do ‘new things’ that do not appear to be Scriptural because we are finding out that something else works. It almost becomes continual revelation but it does not come from an angel or ‘the Holy Spirit’ but by the experiments of man. It works therefore it must be good and of God!
What is missional living?
This is one full definition but again it appears to sum up many of the others I have read.
“All believers are missionaries who are sent to be a blessing to the culture around them through a lifestyle that mimics God’s kingdom here on earth. Theologically, the incarnation of Jesus Christ informs the missiology of the emerging church. As God entered earth in human form, adherents also enter (individually and communally) into the context around them, aiming to transform culture through local involvement. This may take many forms, including verbal evangelism, social activism, hospitality, acts of kindness or service particular to the personality of an individual.
“The concept of being a missional people guides many discussions about the emerging church. The idea centers around the thought of being a ‘called people,’ which can be defined as a people called out into the world, called to be an active part of a community, called to be a voice for those who have no voice, and called to be in culture. Being missional within the emergent church framework can be defined as knowing that we all are living in the Kingdom of God, right now, and that there is a strong desire for others to share in that temporal blessing. Being “missional” means believing in and actively living a holistic Gospel; personal reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ, community and cultural restoration. Being a missional person/community means emphasizing the need for a Gospel which enhances the lives and communities of people regardless of culture or beliefs. ‘Therefore, social action, community involvement, and sacrificial hospitality are as important as preaching and teaching. It means affirming what is good in culture and challenging that which is oppressive and abusive.’ – Website
There is little wrong with that statement as it stands providing it comes within the context of what God has called us to do. If we are simply a ‘doing’ people then the ‘being’ in relationship with the Lord gets missed out.
The other issue which also needs to be clear is that the social gospel by itself is not the gospel. We may be able to be a blessing to those around us by helping in all sorts of social ways, but unless at some point we communicate the gospel, the ‘good works’ alone are not going to save anybody. The problems of this can be seen with the definition above:
“The idea centers around the thought of being a ‘called people,’ which can be defined as a people called out into the world, called to be an active part of a community, called to be a voice for those who have no voice, and called to be in culture…”
Have we been called out into the world? Have we been called to be a voice for those who have no voice? I cannot think of any Scriptures that would back this up but I can think of some that would deny it. The problem comes if you think that missional living is the church – it is not. The missionary was sent out by the church. If we change the whole church into a missionary church all are sent out and there is no true church as described earlier. The Watchtower Society of course is the past master at this; every person is a ‘publisher’ and the vast majority of the time they spend as ‘church’ is preparing them to be a ‘publisher’. This is not the Christian church and we need to see the distinction between the two.
The danger in all of this is that we spend time adapting the church to the culture, instead of being different to the world; and then sideline the proclaiming of the message of repentance and faith in Christ. One article I read said that the author found little or no emphasis on conversion in any of more than a dozen books he had read about the emerging church movement. This seems to be borne out again by the following from Emergingchurch.intro:
“Jesus never led anyone in the sinner’s prayer, he never invited anyone to accept him as his personal Lord and Saviour. No one ever ‘got saved’, or had ‘a born again experience’ – these are modern ways of describing Christianity.” pp.51&52
Of course what this shows is a complete lack of accepting Scripture as the revelation of the Word of God because all of these acts are clearly described within its pages.
Another website comments on this issue as follows:
“Missional toward Compromise… If there’s one word that positively represents the Emerging Church, it’s missional. Though not proprietary to the movement, the word missional emphasizes a return to the church’s identity as existing for the world-to be God’s stewards over creation, to be a light to the nations, to be witnesses of the inaugurated kingdom of God on earth.
“One of Carson’s sincere affirmations of Emergent, which the PCA would echo, is its determination to reach non-traditional people who would otherwise never darken a sanctuary door. A common mantra among Emergent leaders is “belonging before believing”-the idea that postmodern people require long exposure to Christianity from within the church before they can make a commitment to believe. This approach has much to commend it.
“And yet, unbounded by a full biblical doctrine of the church, the missional impulse can lead to dangerous compromises. ‘ Belonging before believing’ can become an excuse to be always seeking, but never finding. The call to renounce sin can devolve into a temporary truce. The peril of unbelief, including adherence to other religions, is often minimized.
“But compromise is not the only option. In the prototype issue of by Faith, Tim Keller described what he calls “post-everythings” and their allergies to conventional approaches to ministry. They gravitate toward narrative, emphasize experience, and resist religious proofs. But rather than reshape the Christian gospel to fit postmodernism, Keller offered several practical and theological resources within the Reformed tradition that are already equipped to address post-everything sensibilities. These include the overarching narrative of Biblical Theology, Jonathan Edwards’s insight into the religious affections, and Cornelius Van Til’s presuppositional apologetics. Emergent writers may correctly diagnose postmodern sensibilities, but their prescriptions tend to conform rather than transform.” – Website
Are there things that should change in our attitudes, almost certainly for most of us the answer is, yes. However, is the missional model put forward by the emerging church the right one with the right emphasis; I would have to answer to this, no.
Multimedia verses Bible Exposition
It seems, in today’s society, that if you are going to have a successful multimedia ministry you will need to have a lively entertaining show. Whereas some have managed to remain true to the truth of God’s Word while doing this, for many, it has caused them to move into theatricals and wild speculations or doctrines to ensure the money arrives and they can make the next programme.
I wonder where such programmes have their root – certainly not in Scripture where Paul is very clear about those who preach a different gospel:
“I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!” – Galatians 1:6-7
The lack of good Bible exposition will produce Christians who are unable to discern truth and error because they do not have the correct basis to work on; Hebrews 5:14 deals with this issue.
Without a true studying and correct dividing of scripture things can be taken out of context, over emphasised, or glamorised; all this means that error is so easy to slip in through the multimedia hype that is present in so many of the larger churches today.
Proper Exegeses is explained by Paul when writing to Timothy:
“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” – 2 Timothy 2:15
The Greek word translated ‘accurately handling’ is orthotomeo; it is the only time the word is used in the New Testament and literally means to ‘make a straight cut’. If we are going to make sense of the Scriptures we will need to follow Biblical principles. These will include whether the Scriptures were directed to a specific group of people, for instance, the Jews or the Church; or again is what we are saying and instance of one verse being taken out of the context or does it fit the revelation of the whole of Scripture.
This type of understanding of God’s Word only comes through proper Biblical teaching and not through some multimedia shallow type of experientially teaching.
Should we be dogmatic about theology?
With the belief of finding new ways and new interpretations of Scripture there is a very loose view of theology as shown by this quote from emergingchurch.intro
“Many… want to retain their inherited understanding of truth. Reshaped church, they think, will provide an easier-to-open container fro traditional beliefs – a changing church with an unchanging gospel. Stuart Murray Williams writes: At present, too many emerging churches are culturally creative but theologically conservative. Tinkering with shape, style and structure represents superficial change. New ways of interpreting the Bible and new theological insights will be needed if new ways of being church are to have missiological significance.” – pp.52-53.
This is very scary when you realise that Biblical theology cannot change because the Bible does not change. What will happen is that man will seek to find ways to explain things in terminology they want; they will do what they want to do but seek to give it a Biblical explanation. Other writers agree with this position.
Rick Warren of ‘Purpose Driven’ fame is very much involved within the emerging church scene these days. In a May 2005 interview for the Pew Forum he said:
“Today there really aren’t that many Fundamentalists left; I don’t know if you know that or not, but they are such a minority; there aren’t that many Fundamentalists left in America…. Now the word ‘fundamentalist’ actually comes from a document in the 1920s called the Five Fundamentals of the Faith. And it is a very legalistic, narrow view of Christianity.”
He has also been quoted as saying that fundamentalism will be “one of the big enemies of the 21st century.” – From Gnostic Roots to Occult Revival, Berit Kjos (http://www.crossroad.to/)
An article in Christianity Today last year about the emerging church, states that they are not dogmatic about what they believe, because they aren’t really sure of what they do believe. This seems to indicate again that Scripture isn’t the firm foundation of the movement but the sinking sands of new developing ideas.
Brian McLaren, who Rick Warren informs us, is “a key figure in the ’emerging church'” insists that Scripture does not actually claim authority for itself. It claims to be profitable but not authoritative. He writes in his book, A New Kind of Christian:
“I realize, as I read and reread the Bible, that many passages don’t fit any of the theological systems I have inherited or adapted. Sure, they can be squeezed in, but after a while my theology looks like a high school class trip’s luggage–shoestrings hanging out here, zippers splitting apart there…. Doesn’t the religious community see that the world is changing? Doesn’t it have anything fresh and incisive to say?…I meet people along the way who model for me, each in a different way, what a new kind of Christian might look like …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.” – pp. xiv-xvi
Which teachings are non-Biblical?
If you have understood what we have said about changing theology you will realise that it is very difficult to pin down specific teachings as they are fluid and changing as ‘new revelation’ comes from Scripture.
One area that gives real cause for concern as a result of this is that because there is no firm basis of Scripture you can be in danger of opening your spirit to a power other than that from God. In the article, From Gnostic Roots to Occult Revival, Berit Kjos comes to four main conclusions which are worth recording here.
“Let’s summarize his main points, then compare them with some occult systems formerly hidden in secret societies:
“1. Biblical beliefs are out. They are irrelevant — to be discarded as mere ‘clutter in the brain.’
“2. Being ‘fully alive’ is in — no matter what spirit or religion inspires the obligatory passion.
“3. There’s no room for objective reality or absolute truth.
“4. This ‘higher form of knowing’ would be based on mystical experience, intuition and self-knowledge. The latter supposedly leads to knowing (gnosis) a universal god — or the spirit of love in everyone.”
Overall then what are our conclusions concerning what we have discovered about the emerging church. This can be summed up in three statements:
1. The type of church envisioned by this movement is not in line with the Biblical revelation of the Church. To follow its teachings is to follow man’s ideas and not God’s.
2. There is a real danger that we will become man-centred and not God-centred in our Christian lives.
3. Theology is thrown away or reworked and as a result the teachings believed are not in accordance with the Bible but are what man thinks the world needs.
Other sources used