Questions for and about the Emerging Church

A friend sent me some questions that pastors have asked him about the emerging church. I think the questions are very interesting and reveal just how important it is to have conversations about this “movement” or whatever it is. It’s a bit lengthy, so grab a cup of tea or something before you begin.


Ten Questions for and about the Emerging Church

1. Is there such an emphasis on the sensual (experiential) that the intellectual is deemphasized? Are we creating a church that will be even more ignorant of biblical truth than the present one?

Such a question seems to reflect the false presentation of the emerging church by DA Carson. He asserts in his Staley lecture series at Cedarville College that the emerging church emphasizes experience over-against intellect. This false dichotomy is part of the straw man that many create of emerging/postmodern thinkers.

The emerging critique of the church is that we have reduced Christianity to an exchange of information, note the presence of Sunday “school” and the academic set up of most churches. The focus is on passing out information. Seminaries have classes on outreach that meet within the seminary walls, never venturing out onto the mission field as part of the academic instruction among the class.

The sophisticated engagement of many emerging thinkers reveals an intellectual savvy that I find it hard to overlook. Many care very deeply about biblical truth and the intellectual life of the church. Yet, they have advocated the creation of space for the sacred and divine in our worship gatherings. When Christians gather we should be meeting with God, and such an encounter with the divine will involve far more than just our minds. Our emotions and senses must be a part of our worship.

Interestingly enough, I find that the postmodern context is more fertile ground for Bible study and intellectual engagement. To say that we don’t have it all figured out and that the Bible is used by the Spirit to mystically impact my life are both helpful additions that emerging thinkers have made to my perspective. If we close the door on many discussions on doctrine because we require a certain view in our congregation, then we do much to stifle study of the Bible. There obviously are some dogmas that we must hold to in order to stay within the fold of orthodox Christianity.

2. Is there more interest in the mystical than the rational?
Is there such an emphasis on the sensual (experiential) that the intellectual is deemphasized? Are we creating a church that will be even more ignorant of biblical truth than the present one?

Such a question seems to reflect the false presentation of the emerging church by DA Carson. He asserts in his Staley lecture series at Cedarville College that the emerging church emphasizes experience over-against intellect. This false dichotomy is part of the straw man that many create of emerging/postmodern thinkers.

The emerging critique of the church is that we have reduced Christianity to an exchange of information, note the presence of Sunday “school” and the academic set up of most churches. The focus is on passing out information. Seminaries have classes on outreach that meet within the seminary walls, never venturing out onto the mission field as part of the academic instruction among the class.

The sophisticated engagement of many emerging thinkers reveals an intellectual savvy that I find it hard to overlook. Many care very deeply about biblical truth and the intellectual life of the church. Yet, they have advocated the creation of space for the sacred and divine in our worship gatherings. When Christians gather we should be meeting with God, and such an encounter with the divine will involve far more than just our minds. Our emotions and senses must be a part of our worship.

Interestingly enough, I find that the postmodern context is more fertile ground for Bible study and intellectual engagement. To say that we don’t have it all figured out and that the Bible is used by the Spirit to mystically impact my life are both helpful additions that emerging thinkers have made to my perspective. If we close the door on many discussions on doctrine because we require a certain view in our congregation, then we do much to stifle study of the Bible. There obviously are some dogmas that we must hold to in order to stay within the fold of orthodox Christianity.

If you read much of the emerging blogs and discussion boards, I think that you will find a healthy tension. No one person can be the spokesman of emergent in the same way that Carson and Erickson stand for Evangelicals. Emergent is a different creature. Andrew Jones has gathered many of the views that all fall under the title of “emerging” on www.tallskinnykiwi.com under his emerging link and posts called “emergant”.

3. Can we not have both the propositional and the relational “truth”?

What do we mean when we say “propositional” truth? What exactly is “relational” truth? The simple “truth” is that we never had completely propositional truth, only God has that. We only thought we had it. I’m not sure what relational truth is. I am more comfortable saying that we have a perspective on truth. Because we have the revelation of God in a particular context we can pursue truth with a universal intent, but should always realize that we do not hold the absolutes, only God has them. We can never see the world as God sees it. The writings of Newbigin and Stan Grenz are helpful here.

4. Can conversation take the place of proclamational teaching?

It depends on the situation. Is God calling you to proclaim something within your context? The problem is when we only give propositions that people have to take or leave. I think we need a variety of teaching. We need to teach the Bible as a narrative of salvation history, God’s reconciling of the world to himself. In many contexts, especially among younger generations, conversation is usually the best way to go. The web has changed our world. People want to interact, ask questions, give their two cents. This does not mean they are not learning. They’re just not learning in the same way as their parents. To negate conversational learning as inferior to proclamational learning is to oppress and marginalize a significant group in our population and will alienate them from church.

5. If the preaching of absolutes is obsolete, how is the church counter-cultural with respect to postmodern relativism?

Yikes! The biggest mistake we can make is to say “postmodernism = relativism”. That is just flat out wrong and another mistake that Carson seems to make. The modern quest for absolute truth resulted in relativism. I strongly advocate the writings of Lesslie Newbigin, especially his short and accessible book Truth and Authority in Modernity. To cling tightly to absolute truth is blatant accommodation to modern culture.

An important line to draw is this: The church exists in a culture. It used to exist in modern culture. In that culture we spoke in absolutes and gave scientific proofs for Christianity. Though the church accommodated too much to modernism, it did the right thing in at least speaking the language of the culture. Now that our culture is postmodern, we must learn to speak the same language as postmoderns. In some cases we need to use postmodern categories to communicate the Gospel. In other cases we may need to resist some aspects of postmodern culture.

When we look at Jesus he operated within the cultural norms of his day, attended synagogue, spoke in parables about farming, etc. But he also redeemed certain aspects of his culture that did not line up with the Gospel, he healed on the Sabbath, proclaimed that the blind were not being punished because of sin, etc.

6. What is the Gospel, in a nutshell, for the emerging church? Jesus summarized the entire Law in two commandments. Paul summarized the gospel in just a few verses.

I’m not sure what’s behind this question. The emerging church is not a new denomination with its own doctrinal statement. It’s a conversation among Christians across denominational lines. It has nothing against short statements provided that they are recognized as short statements. In fact, the crux of much postmodern thinking is epistemological humility, recognizing the limits of our perspective and not claiming our views as the required norm for all people at all times. I can articulate the Gospel, but must recognize that I do it as a middle class white American male. People in a different context will say it differently with emphasis laid on different parts. For example, a major part of Jesus’ message, especially in Luke, is freedom and justice for the poor. This is closely knit with the Kingdom of God. North American evangelicalism overlooks this in a major way. A Christian in India with poverty all around will certainly not miss this part of the good news or Gospel.

7. Is there a focus on Biblical narrative and poetry to the neglect of law and history? What is the place of Biblical prose?

I’m not sure what segment of emergent dialogue this statement is based on. I have not heard anyone in the emerging movement ever advocate that we stop reading law and history. If anything, the only critique I have heard (and this is not only from the emerging church but also from OT scholars) is that we neglect the OT. I am not sure how this could equal a neglect of law and history. Though you will certainly read a variety of opinions in emerging conversations, my own understanding is that the Bible must be read within the framework of narrative, with every book fitting into the narrative of redemptive history. This is common evangelical doctrine taught at Westminster seminary. So we read poetry, prose, law, and narrative within the framework of God bringing redemption to the world, but still read them within the literary guidelines of each genre. I don’t see this neglecting law or history. I don’t think that this is an issue directly connected with the emerging church but critiques of evangelical theology within academic circles. I could be wrong.

8. If creeds are good why are doctrinal statements bad?

I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard an emerging thinker say it that way. Ancient creeds are helpful because they reflect a time of unity and consensus in the church. As the church split during the east and west division and the reformation, certain doctrines moved to the front depending on your denomination. Doctrinal statements aren’t bad, but they can be used in bad ways. When we give doctrinal statements the authority that is reserved for the Spirit speaking through the Bible, then we are in error. Doctrinal statements are a helpful guide to orthodox Christianity. The other mistake that doctrinal statements often make is that the Bible often comes as number one on the list. I think our chief concern is God. Without him the Bible and our salvation would not be possible. The Bible is second to God (if we dare to even make a ranking system!).

9. Why the extra attention to the ancient and the post-modern but nothing in between? Was God not at work between the ancient church and the emerging church?

That’s a good critique. We do need to be aware of all parts of church history. Of course most protestants only care about the Reformation onward, so neglecting the Middle Ages is not something the emerging church alone is guilty of.

The ancient was the focus of the formers and now of the emerging church because it is viewed as the time closest to Christ and apostolic influence.

10. Why is it permissible for the church to speak out against materialism and oppression but not homosexuality and pre-marital sex?

What did God spend most of his time speaking out against?

Who are we speaking out against? Our job is to bring God’s redemptive influence to the culture and bring people into the fold of God. I cannot ask a person outside the fold of God to hold God’s standards, even if our country did abide by God’s standards at its inception when most everyone was Christian or had Christian values.

I think that we should work to end materialism, oppression, and immorality, but the question is, how do we go about it? I think legislating to stop gay marriage is not the most helpful thing we can do. Perhaps we can provide shelters and counseling to stop these trends and provide a platform to share the Gospel. We can’t just preach at people and expect them to adopt our values. Pregnancy crisis centers, food pantries, etc. are all ways that we can work against all of these trends while not abandoning the Gospel message.