Book Review – Church in the Present Tense

It has been some time since I last blogged on the emerging church, but this book caught my attention for a couple of reasons. First, the Kindle edition is free on, and second, it contained a couple of essays by Scot McKnight, whose blog I follow. It is a collection of two essays each by four authors who are sympathetic to the “emerging church” movement to various degrees.

Kevin Corcoran provides the introduction, giving a brief overview of the history and values held by the emerging church, before providing the opening chapter in which he argues that “commitment to ecumenical creedal formulations and to concrete Christian beliefs is in no way incompatible with or inimical to epistemic humility or other distinctive features of postmodernity prized by emerging Christians, such as the deep conviction that our grasp of reality is always partial, incomplete and provisional.” So he argues against the need to accept “anti-realism”. So far so good.

Corcoran’s second essay deals with eschatology, highlighting the strongly “kingdom now” approach of emerging – the kingdom has been inaugurated, even if it is not fully here yet. “Heaven is here and now” and future life after death is deemphasised. He discusses pluralism (the idea that God may work through people of other religions even though salvation is only through Christ) and univeralism (with hell as a possible intermediate but not final destination). I could only find myself in agreement with parts of this essay. The “kingdom now but not yet” emphasis is a helpful one, but is not unique to the emerging church in any case, with (for example) Vineyard and charismatic groups also emphasising this for many years now.

Peter Rollins provides a rather complex chapter, drawing on Nietzsche and ostensibly Bonhoeffer (“a religionless Christianity”) to describe a way of being Christian that will seem virtually unrecognisable to most evangelicals. For him Gal 3:28 contains an idea that he can press to the point of obliterating all distinctions so there is now “neither orthodox nor heretic, neither gay nor straight, neither Christian nor non-Christian”.

His second essay is more accessible, in which he points out that many of us can maintain a difference between our belief and practice so that it is not experienced as a conflict at all. Again he draws on ideas from Nietzsche and proposes an idea he calls “transformance art” in which we enact the death of God, and then the resurrection of God. It sounds radical but his only concrete example was churches meeting in pubs, coffee shops or art galleries, so it left me confused as to exactly what he was proposing. Unless I have badly misunderstood him, I would say that Peter Rollins represents the extreme end of the emerging movement that is so radical in its deconstruction that it has lost touch with orthodox Christianity.

Jason Clark is another blogger I have followed for some time, and his essays focus on liturgy. The first is on “Consumer Liturgies and their Corrosive Effects on Christian Identity”. This is a gem of a chapter with lots of food for thought.

With its demands on how we organize our lives, consumerism is a jealous god, not allowing our souls and bodies to be located in any other relationships, especially the body of Jesus, his church.

He critiques “blueprint” ecclesiologies (including several missional/emerging ones), and argues instead for “deep church”.

The future of church resides with those who, though critical, are nonetheless devoted to living within it.

His second chapter documents his journey from low church to an appreciation of a more liturgical form of worship, and describes the “flow” program his church has started although sadly there was not quite enough information to get a real feel of what exactly this involves.

Finally, Scot McKnight weighs in with two more theologically oriented essays. The first is on Scripture. He outlines five unhelpful ways in which we tend to approach the Bible, all of which evangelicals are frequently guilty of. He then discusses the limitations of language to truly communicate theological truth, which move him in the direction of the ‘apophatic‘ approach of Eastern Orthodox. I partially agree with him here, but I think he goes too far when he calls the Bible a “dim” witness to the ultimate (presently) unsayable truth of God. The logic is that if the Bible is “dim” then how much our flawed interpretations?

He moves on to describe the Bible as an ongoing series of “midrashes”, or interpretive retellings of the one Story God wants us to know and hear. There is no one fixed and final form of this story. It is the story of Moses and David and Jesus and Paul and James. To make it even just the story of Jesus and force the other stories to fit would do violence to the depth and breadth of the gospel story. The benefit of this approach is that it avoids complaining (for example) that Paul doesn’t speak of the kingdom enough, or that Jesus doesn’t speak of justification enough. We don’t need to force them together, but realise that these two tellings of the story are both needed for a fuller grasp of the big story. I found this an interesting essay, but it certainly raises some unanswered hermeneutical questions.

McKnight’s second contribution is on atonement and he takes Reformed believers to task for making the “gospel” about soteriology. We focus on “penal substitution” and “double imputation” and “propitiation”, and therefore the gospel is about my guilt and how it is solved through the gift of righteousness, and about God’s wrath and how it is solved through the substitution of Jesus. Without outright rejecting these ideas, McKnight suggests that the verses supporting imputation are at least ambiguous, and in any case, a survey of the apostolic teaching in the book of Acts reveals that their presentation of the gospel does not revolve around these concepts. I suspect that the material here summarises McKnight’s book “The King Jesus Gospel“, which I would very much like to read. What drives the sermons in Acts is the OT story finding its solution in Jesus’s story, and they focus very strongly on the resurrection, with the climax being that Jesus is Messiah of Israel and Lord of all. So the “problems” that the apostolic gospel addresses are death and the world’s need for a king, and the “solutions” are the resurrection and the Lordship of Christ. Overall I would agree with McKnight that where we make the “gospel” merely about soteriology, we have truncated the much fuller apostolic message.

In summary, I would say that this collection of essays is interesting in places, and concerning in places. If you have a kindle, it is worth getting even if just to read Jason Clark’s first essay and the two Scot McKnight essays.

Explaining Emerging (Summary)

So I have finally finished my look into the emerging church. I’m sure there is a lot more that could be said, and a lot of other people who could have explained it much better. I notice that Scot McKnight has recently done just that in an article called the 5 streams of emerging church. His headings are Prophetic, Postmodern, Praxis-oriented (Worship, Ortho-Praxy, Missional), Post-evangelical (Post-Systematic Theology, In Versus Out), Political.

It was quite encouraging to see that I had covered much of the same ground, despite having not read any Brian MacLaren or other emerging books. All this has been picked up from reading blogs, listening to emerging sermons and the occasional visit to an emerging church meeting.

Here’s an index of my posts on this subject:


So what are my conclusions? To be honest, I will be glad to take a break from this subject for a while. Though the church is important, it is possible to be so preoccupied with ourselves that we can take our eyes off God. But despite my reservations about the emerging church, there are some lessons to be learned. Personally, I hope that, rather than evangelical churches going “emerging”, we receive their criticism where it is justified, and reform ourselves to be more faithful to Scripture.

So I will round off this series with a few things that the emerging church needs to teach us…

  • We do need to learn how to engage with our culture better so we can communicate the gospel.
  • Lack of humility and integrity from leaders is devastating to the witness of the church. We need to remember that leadership is as much about character as it is charisma (if not more so).
  • We need to recover a deeper appreciation for Scripture, that recognises its unity as a meta-narrative, rather than just a rule-book or doctrine handbook. Many charismatic churches need to get back to reading it more, rather than merely proof-texting from it.
  • We need to demonstrate a real concern for justice that is outworked in practical action, including (but not limited to) getting involved in politics
  • We need to learn to appreciate the wisdom of believers from past centuries. Though they may have got many things wrong, we should not be too proud to think that they have nothing to teach us. Charismatics in particular need to believe that the Holy Spirit really was at work before the 1900s.

… and a few things that we would do well to avoid…

  • We must not let the world dictate our agenda and morals. The gospel will always seem offensive and foolish to some, however graciously we try to present it. The emerging church is right to seek to forge good relations with secular community leaders, but we cannot compromise on truth to earn their favour.
  • Heresy is a real danger to the church. Whilst we should allow for differences of opinion over debatable matters, the New Testament is brimming with warnings of false teaching. Many emerging people congratulate each other for having “different answers” to a question, when in fact they should be lovingly challenging one another.
  • We should not give up meeting together. In some (but certainly not all) parts of the emerging movement, Christians are no longer part of any church, and those that are are meeting for worship only very rarely.
  • We should not set up a false dilemma with respect to what holiness looks like. ie. the old paradigm of sexual purity, sobriety, daily devotions etc should not be rejected to be replaced new paradigm holiness – ethical consumerism, environmentalism etc. Rather, we should recognise that holiness has both negative (sins to avoid) and positive (good works to do) aspects and pursue both with equal vigour.

Explaining Emerging (Part 7) – Politics

The last area I want to look at in my consideration of the emerging church is that of politics. I have been dreading this moment – I have to explain something I know almost nothing about. If you follow what the emerging conversation, then you cannot avoid this subject. So here is my idiots guide to American politics…

Basically, in American politics, there are two teams – the red team and the blue team, also known as the Republicans (Red) and Democrats (Blue), right wing conservatives (red) and left wing liberals (blue). The current president, George Bush, is a Republican, and also a Christian. Broadly speaking, evangelical Christians are supporters of the Republican party, probably because their candidates are more likely to oppose abortion and same-sex marriages. These voters are known as the “religious right”. By way of contrast, more liberal Christians have tended to support the Democratic party, probably because of their stance on matters of “human rights”, environmental concerns and opposition to the “war on terror”.

The emergents have proposed that Christians transcend this polarisation with a “purple politics” that supports neither one side nor the other, but supports what is just and right wherever it is found. This certainly sounds a noble aim, but in all my reading of emerging blogs I have found nothing but disdain for Bush (and more generally the “religious right”), which suggests to be that this shade of purple might be considerably more blue than it is red.

Emerging church leaders are concerned that there are a number of key political issues that evangelical Christians have not given enough attention to. For example…

  • Concern for the environment
  • Fair trade
  • Policies that favour the poor – e.g. increased minimum wage, cheaper health care, cheaper education
  • Opposition to torture (and death penalty?)
  • More restrictive gun control
  • Less agressive foreign policy (verging on pacifism in some cases)
  • Combatting discrimination (emergents are much less likely to feel threatened by recent gay rights legislation for instance)

A look at the Wikipedia page on the US Democratic party reveals that many of these emerging concerns would cause them to lean towards voting Democrat. So what keeps other evangelicals from supporting this party? I would guess that these policies might be among the chief reasons…

  • Believes abortion to be a right
  • Likely to support gay marriage
  • Full support for stem cell research
  • Less inclined to fund or provide tax relief to Christian organisations
  • Less likely to support Christian freedoms of public expression of faith (e.g. prayer / teaching creation in schools)

Thankfully the UK world of politics seems less polarised than the American one, and yet Christians here often feel they face the same dilemma – no one party stands for all that we want to stand for, and each party seems to have some policies that are out of sync with Christian values. The emerging church calls Christians to engage in politics again, and to stand for more than just one issue. It is hard to assess how to respond. The church should beware of seeking to gain political power for itself as a means to achieving its ends. And yet at the same time, our evangelical heritage includes a number of Bible-believing Christians who made a difference by getting involved in politics, despite facing much ridicule and opposition. So politics is a subject that I am glad the emerging church has brought back into the “conversation”. The evangelical church will need a lot of wisdom and courage as we consider how we can seek to bring kingdom benefits to the world in a way that does not compromise kingdom values.

Explaining Emerging (Part 6) – Doctrinal Distinctives

I am coming to the close of my series of posts on the emerging church, and now is the time for some real controversy. Despite being a diverse bunch, I think I have identified a number of common doctrinal distinctives of emerging Christians. Interestingly, emergents can rarely be found debating amongst themselves on infant vs believers baptism, cessation or continuation of charismatic gifts, Calvinism vs Arminianism, interpretation of the millennium or about the leadership structure of a local church. These are the sorts of things that evangelicals love to have a debate on, but emergents have their focus elsewhere. Read some emergent blogs, or listen to some emergent sermons and you are bound to come up against one or more of these hot potatoes…

Women – Emerging churches are almost exclusively egalitarian (i.e. no gender distinctions in roles in the church). The complementarian position held by many Reformed evangelicals is considered sexist and shameful. They are not likely to use an exegetical argument to prove their position however, like many egalitarian evangelicals would try to. That would go against the way they approach Scripture. Rather they talk about redemptive trends, or trajectory hermeneutics. In other words, the biblical writers were too timid (or even wrong) when it came to declaring the egalitarian position, but at least they pointed us in the right direction and now thankfully we have got it right.

The Atonement – Evangelicals have happily preached and sung about Christ bearing the punishment for our sins for years, but recently there has been a back-lash from emergent theologians arguing that the doctrine of “penal substitution” is all wrong. Worse than that, some are outraged by the very concept of it, as they see it as portraying a sadistic God. Instead the emerging church argue for “Christus Victor” approach, partly because it removes the distateful concepts of God’s wrath and Jesus being the object of the Father’s punishment, and partly because it claims support from the early church fathers (playing a card that is conspicious by its absence in some of the other issues listed here). This has spilled over into wider debate on the precise meanings of terms such as justification and imputation and perhaps represents the biggest theological battle-ground between conservative evangelicals and emergents.

Hell – Emergent churches are calling into question the evangelical understanding of hell as everlasting conscious punishment, in many ways for similar reasons to those for the atonement – it makes God out to be too nasty in their eyes. There is a range of alternative options, from annihilationism to universalism. They object to evangelism conceived as saving people’s eternal destinies, and stress that salvation is for before death as well as after. Some emerging conversations I have listened to on the internet recently are questioning whether evangelism (i.e. attempting to convert people) is even desirable any more.

Homosexuality – Emerging churches are determined not to be homophobic, which they view evangelicals as being, and emphaisise having an open and “inclusive” attitude. Personally I have never come across an evangelical church that does not claim to want to be welcoming or loving to the homosexual, but they will all make clear that they do not believe practising a homosexual lifestyle is compatible with a Christian confession. Emerging leaders typically refuse to be drawn on whether they view it as a “sin” or not, and some have decided that there is nothing wrong with it at all (I came across a “pro-gay” emerging blogger recently).

Holiness – Evangelicals have typically thought of holiness in terms of maintaining a good devotional life, and avoiding “worldly” sins such as swearing, sexual promiscuity and drunkenness. Emergents on the other hand are glad to shock us with the odd curse in their sermon, and wax lyrical about their love for beer. They see holiness (or “orthopraxy” as they call it) as expressed in issues such as environmentalism, fair trade and lobbying for human rights legislation. Thus there is plenty of scope for emergent and evangelical Christians to doubt the genuine holiness of each other.

There is no doubt that emerging Christians are concerned that evangelicals are portraying a bad image of Christianity. Atheists such as Richard Dawkins for example are attacking the church for being sexist, homophobic, violence loving (because of their views on the atonement and hell), stupid (for believing in young earth creationism) and unconcerned with the environment or human rights. The emerging church can answer on each point “but we’re not like that – its just those unenlightened evangelicals”. So my contentious question for today is, what is driving the emerging church in this direction? How come it seems to be answering to the world’s agenda at almost every point? Is it fear of ridicule? Or is truly the direction that following Jesus takes you in (as they would claim)? As a reformed evangelical, I do believe that the church must always be reforming, but that is to be more faithful to the truth as revealed in Scripture rather than to appease the critics in a secular society. On the other hand, I do agree with the emergents that too often the evangelical church has behaved in a way that makes the gospel seem unattractive because we have come across as hypocritical, judgemental and self-serving. However, we must accept that followers Jesus will not always be well-loved by an unbelieving world (see 1 Pet 3:16; 1 Jn 3:13).

Explaining Emerging (Part 5) – Ancient / Future

Today, I will briefly reflect on another recurring theme in emerging circles – it is that of being “ancient / future”. That is to say we look to the church’s past to guide us for its future. Now it could be argued that most evangelicals do this to some extent or the other, often looking back to a “golden age” of the church for inspiration. So reformed Christians might look back to the time of the Reformers, or the Puritans, Pentecostals look back to Asuza street, and Restorationists have sought to follow the example of the earliest church in the book of Acts.

But emergents have turned the focus to parts of church history less familiar to many evangelicals. So for example, the prayers of Celtic Christians, the liturgies of eastern orthodoxy and the meditations of Christian mystics would be the sort of source material used for an emerging service. The creeds of the early church fathers are also considered very important, and the use of “icons” is becoming more prevalent. They are more likely to be in tune with the “Christian calendar”, observing its seasons and days and following its pattern of Scripture readings in their meetings. The liturgy rejected as dead ritual by many evangelical churches is being reintroduced, albeit often with a modern twist.

Why this look to the past? The stereotypical evangelical response is that we don’t need to look to church history except to learn from its mistakes – it is the Bible that sets our pattern. But in these ancient writings the emerging Christian finds the depth of spirituality that they feel is lacking in the superficiality of what they have found in evangelicalism. They are looking for “deep church” that helps them in their “spiritual formation”. Spiritual formation is essentially the fancy new name encompassing a Christian’s discipleship, sanctification and private devotional life. Emerging churches recognise it as so important that they are increasingly appointing “spiritual directors” to help church members in their walk with God. Some emerging churches are going so far as to experiment with new monastic communities, with houses where Christians can devote themselves to prayer and serving the poor.

If my experience of church is anything to go by, I would say that the influence of previous generations does seem to be weakening in many evangelical churches. The old hymns are no longer sung, and the only authors being read are those who top the Wesley Owen best-seller list. It is this vacuum of historical context that the emerging appreciation of ancient Christianity is seeking to fill. There are of course many in evangelical churches (often Anglican or reformed ones) that are still very much in touch with their history, but for those who are feeling a sense of disconnect, this emerging emphasis comes as a welcome relief. They find that they draw fresh inspiration for their personal prayer and devotional lives from sources that had previously seemed irrelevant and archaic.

Personally I do not feel that this desire to look back to our roots is a threat. Of course, we need to exercise discernment in what material we make use of (and arguably such “discernment” is not a priority for emerging churches, as they seek to embrace tradition from a wide range of streams). But I think that many evangelical churches could greatly enrich their worship times by including more Scripture, more read prayers, more liturgical elements even (not too much though!), rather than simply running through the current top of the Christian pops worship songs with the odd verse and brief prayer thrown in. There is also I believe a desparate need to help people in their personal discipleship (i.e. spiritual formation), rather than simply providing “leadership training”, “finding and using your gift” training or even “theological training” (not that I am opposed to such things).

Explaining Emerging (Part 4) – Scripture

Here’s another installment in my attempts to understand and explain what the whole emerging thing is all about in a way that my evangelical friends can understand. It seems almost every week I meet another person who has come across it and isn’t quite sure what to make of it. I am surprised so far that I haven’t been attacked in my comments for misrepresenting the movement. Presumably it is because noone is reading this, rather than because I am doing a good job of it! Anyway, things are going to get a bit more controversial in the next few posts!

Today I want to think about the emerging approach to Scripture. A typical evangelical would affirm that the Bible is inspired, inerrant, and infallible. That is to say that God inspired the very words, they contains no errors (no false statements), and will not fail you if you believe and obey it. Most evangelicals will also go on to affirm that the Bible is sufficient and perspicuous. “Sufficient” meaning that there is no extra revelation we need to know God, to learn the way of salvation, or to learn how we are to live. Perspicious is a complicated way of saying that the message that God intends to communicate to us in the Bible is plain for all to see. So even though there are some hard to understand bits, the important message of salvation through Jesus Christ is not obscure. The Chicago statement on Biblical Innerancy spells out a robust evangelical position on the Bible in detail.

So what do the emerging church people say? Well, they don’t like the term “inerrancy”, preferring to talk about the “authority” of the Bible. They accuse evangelicals of approaching the Bible as though it were a scientific textbook full of facts to be memorised and recited, or an instruction manual with detailed step by step instructions to follow exactly. Rather, they point out that much of the Bible is narrative, and then talk about how that narrative speaks to us and shapes us. It is hard to explain, as unlike the Chicago statement with its affirmations and denials, emergents explain their view of the Bible in more nebulous fashion. For example, emerging church favourite Walter Brueggemann has said…

The Bible is essentially an open, artistic, imaginative narrative of God’s staggering care for the world, a narrative that will feed and nurture into obedience that builds community precisely by respect for the liberty of the Christian man or woman.

What are the practical implications of the emerging approach to Scripture when contrasted with the way reformed evangelicals view it?

  • They are not into “expository preaching”. They do not attempt to extract a list of theological truths and commands to be obeyed from a passage. Rather they prefer to read a story, and see what original thoughts and innovative ideas it inspires. (check out Bruegemmann speaking at an Emerging Church conference for a bit more on this – look out for the word “imagination”)
  • They are not into “systematic theology”. Evangelicals like to put all the Bible together into one coherent framework, based on a belief in the unity of Scripture. Emergents view this with suspicion. Each author must be allowed to speak for himself. So we have Paul’s view of God, which is different from Peter’s and different from John’s etc (even more so in the Old Testament).
  • They are not into “inerrancy”. They view not just fundamentalists but evangelicals in general as overly literal in their approach to Scripture. They are happy to characterise various stories as “myths” or “legends”. Many emergent blogs show open contempt for anyone who holds to young earth creationism. Some would argue that anyone who asks “did it really happen?” of an Old Testament story or of a New Testament miracle account is “missing the point”.

Without a doubt, the emerging position is a challenge to the evangelical one. To be brutally honest, I feel that many of the emerging speakers I have read and heard are struggling with real doubts about the truth of the Bible, and this is their way of handling it. However, once started on the slippery slope of diminishing confidence in the Bible, it is not long before it loses its authority altogether, and the journey terminates in agnosticism or pluralism (n.b. for many emergents there is still a commitment to ancient Christian creedal statements, which at present puts some boundaries in place – more on this perhaps in a future post). I would argue that as evangelicals we do not need to repent of our high view of the Bible or our faith in it. However, we do need to be constantly re-evaluating our hermeneutics, and not automatically assuming that our current interpretation of a given passage is necessarily the correct one. I’ve posted some various thoughts here before on the woefully simplistic approach to interpreting Scripture often found in evangelical preaching.

Explaining Emerging (Part 3) – Authenticity

One of the most popular emerging buzz-words is authentic. Being authentic is an important goal for emerging churches and Christians alike. This is basically a reaction against two things: commercialised church and super-spiritual Christians. Emergents are tired of churches who are so eager to grow that their services turn into slick marketing campaigns and their rhetoric sounds increasingly like political spin. And they are tired of “keeping up appearances”, never admitting to doubts or personal battles with sin.

By contrast the authentic Christian is willing to reveal their own weaknesses, failings and doubts. The church is not led by a super-hero personality, but by an ordinary person being “real” about their own emotions and battles. The authentic church is not afraid to discuss the difficult issues – (e.g. why is prayer not always answered) – and seeks to be honest about the trials of the Christian life.

I stumbled across this blurb for a new book called “Blind Spots in the Bible” by Adrian Plass. I don’t know if he identifies with the emerging church or not, but I have emphasised a couple of phrases which typify the “authentic” approach:

“Adrian Plass approaches 40 ‘blind spots’ in the Bible with honest comment and quirky insights. … Although not offering easy answers, Adrian Plass opens up over 40 blind spots, asking searching questions and responding from his own vulnerable honesty.”

The implications for mission are significant. Rather than bringing non-Christian friends to church and hoping that they will be impressed by how “vibrant” or “powerful” it is, the authentic Christian hopes they will be impressed by the quality and depth of community forged by people who are willing to be true about who they really are. It is into this non-threatening environment that the seeker themselves feels able to join without feeling condemned for who they are. Sin can be confessed without fear of being rejected and excluded.

Of course, the emerging church does not have a monopoly on the word “authentic”. Many evangelicals have written about living an authentic Christian life, often emphasising the need for integrity. It is sad that many in the emerging church are former evangelicals who have become disillusioned with what they see as a lack of authenticity within evangelicalism. The New Testament authors themselves display a commendable measure of authenticity in the way they warn Christians of the real struggles and difficulties they will face. The glamourised and idealised picture of the Christian life presented by some best-selling modern authors is not one that finds its basis in the Bible.

So we can say that the desire to be authentic is one that evangelicals should be welcoming. Let us strive for more openness and honesty between us. Let us beware of trying to wow people with amazing church services, and make sure that underneath there is a real quality of community and relationships. Let us make sure our fine-sounding words are backed up with actions. And let us be more supportive of those who are willing to admit to their doubts and struggles, while at the same time not creating an environment where we make peace with sin.

Explaining Emerging (Part 2) – Being Missional

We started off this series by observing the emerging church’s relationship to the post-modern culture (which generated some interesting discussion in the comments). Now we will consider how they go about being witnesses in that culture, and we have a new buzz-word to learn. Emerging churches seek to be missional in preference to simply “doing evangelism”. Before we consider what being missional means, lets think of the type of things that would be considered as evangelism in a typical evangelical church. I’ve made a list of the sorts of activities I’ve been involved in over the years in various evangelical churches and societies:

  • “Open air” singing, preaching, dramas (even escapology)
  • Visiting prisons, drug rehabilitation centres, schools, old people’s homes to take meetings or visit people
  • Wearing evangelistic t-shirts
  • “Servant evangelism” – washing dishes, doing gardening, giving out free light-bulbs
  • “Stranger evangelism” – approaching people on the street and interviewing them on their beliefs
  • Organised debates – e.g. creation vs evolution, the resurrection etc
  • Alpha / Just Looking / Discovering Christianity etc courses
  • Inviting people to tent crusades
  • March for Jesus
  • Door to door
  • Inviting people to social events (BBQ, fireworks) with an ‘epilogue’
  • Beach missions, kids clubs
  • Writing articles for evangelistic magazines / newspapers
  • Inviting people to “seeker sensitive” presentations, evangelistic meetings, Carol Services etc
  • Handing out tracts (yes I even gave out some Chick tracts – Jack Chick is the very antithesis of the emerging church)
  • Going on short-term mission trips

The concept of being “missional” is that while some of the above may be good methods of spreading the gospel, the primary way we witness is by the way we live our lives as followers of Jesus. Essentially, being missional is about dropping the idea of “doing evangelism”? in favour of living out the gospel and being so like Jesus that we attract others to find out more. As they get to know us and visit our churches, they should then see such a quality of love and authenticity (on which more in a future post) that they are attracted to join us and in so doing, discover our beliefs. Our witness is not measured by the number of items on the list above we have participated in this week, but by how faithfully we are living as followers of Jesus.

So a missional church will tend not to jump on the bandwagon of the latest evangelistic “technique” that is working well elsewhere. Rather, there is focus on helping believers to live counter culturally as true followers of Jesus in a way that is attractive to those outside. The meetings the church holds, while being culturally sensitive (i.e. not alienating visitors by our weird Christian subculture), will not seek to pander to the felt needs of the unbelievers (so no health, wealth & prosperity gospel here). Rather the unbeliever who attends a church event is invited to get a glimpse of the real issues and struggles that Christians are facing, to see us as we worship and live together in community.

The missional approach stands in stark contrast to two popular evangelical approaches to witness in their meetings.
1) Sock it to them (the fundamentalist approach). This is where you somehow get your unsaved friend into church, and the preacher then pulls out the big guns and blasts them with proofs of the Bible’s accuracy or warnings of hell until they make a commitment.
2) Easy does it (the church growth approach). This is where the whole service is designed to make non-Christians feel at home. Lots of jokes, video clips, dramas, and great music all combine for a wonderful fun experience for those of no faith. At the end they are asked if they want to make Jesus their “special friend”.

As with many of the concepts in the emerging church, being missional is hard to explain in a few paragraphs, so if you want to get a bit more detail on it, this site is a great place to start. There you will get a better idea not just of what it is for, but what trends it is trying to counter.

But what can we say about being missional from an evangelical perspective? Well first of all, I think it is a welcome corrective to certain misguided approaches to evangelism. It emphasises making disciples, not just getting people to make decisions. It recognises the need for a relational approach, and that all Christians need to be trained to be cross-cultural witnesses. The missional approach is not exclusive to the emerging church. In fact, many evangelical churches have themselves embraced a missional model, often in reaction against what they see as a shallow consumeristic approach from some church growth models. Check out Tim Keller’s paper on being a missional church.

While the missional emphasis on every Christian being a cross-cultural missionary is welcome one, we also need to recognise that there will always be people who are especially gifted as “evangelists” or “apostles”, and they need to be supported and encouraged in their ministries (the missional approach can be hostile to the idea of “professionals”). But the church’s witness should not be exclusively tied up with their personal programmes.

Explaining Emerging (Part 1) – Post-modernism

So here is the first section in my series that tries to explain the good and the bad of the emerging church to my evangelical friends who are struggling to understand what it is all about.

The most obvious place to start in explaining the emerging movement is by saying that emerging churches are either post-modern, or post-modern friendly. At the very least they recognise that we are living in an increasingly post-modern culture, and the church by and large has failed to reach a post-modern generation with the gospel. To be post-modern is to approach truth in a subjective rather than an objective way. So while a modernist mindset is supremely confident about the “absolute facts” we know (either from science, or in Christian circles, from the Bible), the post-modernists view this as not just arrogant, but unwarranted, as we must doubt our own ability to discern absolute truth, and accept that others may come to differing conclusions which we must also accept as valid.

There is of course a good and bad side to this. It is important for Christians to be humble, and to acknowledge that we don’t know it all. Most every Christian looks back at times when their ideas were different to those they hold now. And many fundamentalists have tended to view themselves almost as infallible interpreters of the Bible, so any Christian who doesn’t see a passage in exactly the same way as they do is denounced as holding to aberrant theology.

In contrast, emerging Christians prefer to emphasise that we are all on a spiritual journey, with much to learn. When it comes to the Bible, they like to point out that none of us approaches it neutrally, or is an infallible interpreter of it, and thus we should not hold intransigently to our doctrinal positions. More progressive emergents will emphasise the fallibility of the Biblical authors themselves and are some are even willing to flatly contradict some passages of Scripture. This has meant that standard evangelical positions on issues such as biblical inerrancy, hell, homosexuality, justification, gender roles and the atonement are coming under sustained criticism.

We must also note that the writers of Scripture were supremely confident of what they believed. They were sure that Jesus had risen from the dead and would return again. They were equally sure that the Scriptures contained God’s very word, to be believed and obeyed. Whilst they would have readily acknowledged the need for humility and a teachable spirit, it is hard to imagine them being as “generous” towards those of radically differing viewpoints as some emerging leaders would have us be. (n.b. This emerging “generosity” sadly seems to be extended to almost anyone except evangelicals at times)

It might also be questioned whether post-modernism is compatible with Christianity at all. After all, post-modernism is highly suspicious of “meta-narratives”. That is to say that it rejects the idea that we can know the “big picture” that explains life, the universe and everything. But the Bible does just that, explaining where we came from, why things are the way they are, and where we are going. It is at this point that emerging Christians pick up on ideas such as N T Wright’s “improvised fifth act”. This is where Wright in essence argues that the Bible should not be thought of like a script for a play where we as actors are given our lines to memorise and repeat verbatim, but a script for the first four acts of a play, where we as actors must improvise a fifth act. We seek to go through uncharted territory, while remaining faithful to what has gone before. Naturally this allows for a variety of improvisations to be equally valid.

So the emerging mindset is certainly not “modernist”, but is not quite “post-modern” in the fullest sense. I suspect many in the emerging movement would align themselves with Alister McGrath and N T Wright in adopting a philosophy of “critical realism“. This allows them to hold that there really is objective truth out there to be believed, while at the same time acknowledging the very real role our human perception plays as we seek to discover it.

So in summary, the emerging movement calls for humility concerning our own human fallibility and generosity towards Christians from other traditions who see things differently.

Evangelicals would not on the whole disagree with either of these ideals, so long as there is equal commitment to confidence in the Bible as the word of God and caution about jettisoning long-held orthodox doctrinal positions simply because they do not fit with the post-modern mood.

Explaining Emerging (Introduction)

I have had a number of conversations with evangelical friends who ask me what the “emerging church” is, and whether I approve or disapprove of it. I always struggle to explain it in a way that properly highlights both the things that evangelicals will find attractive about the movement (or as its proponents like to call it, “the emergining conversation”), as well as explaining its points of conflict and critique of contemporary evangelicalism. So I have decided to put together some of my thoughts into a series of blog entries, going through some emerging distinctives one by one, hopefully explaining them in a way that old-school evangelicals can understand. I am by no means an expert on it, so I will also be including various links to sites where you can find out in a bit more detail what all the fuss is all about.

So lets start with a list of blogs I subscribe to whose authors may be considered in some way part of the emerging “conversation”:

  • Mark Driscoll is often listed as being “emerging”, although he doesn’t really seem to fit in with most other emerging types, as he is staunchly reformed doctrinally. However, he is passionate about being culturally relevant in a postmodern context, which is probably why he is still called “emerging”.
  • Scot McKnight is a biblical scolar who seems to be quite favourable towards the emerging movement, whilst at the same time giving some balanced critique.
  • Michael Spencer (aka The Internet Monk), is now describing himself as “post-evangelical”, and is generally positive about the emerging movement, while retaining an appreciation for evangelicals such as John Piper.
  • Billy Kennedy is pastor of Community Church, a large charismatic house church in Southampton where I live. Whilst not strictly an “emerging” church, it seems to me that he is certainly taking the church in that direction. Another local pastor is Matt Hyam of Southampton Vineyard, another local church which seems to me to have changed direction significantly in an emerging direction. I have a lot of friends at both these churches, although I rarely find the time to visit their churches.
  • I suppose I should also mention Tall Skinny Kiwi, who appears to be required reading for all emerging bloggers. I’m not a regular reader though.