An Evaluation and Critique of the Emergent Church

  1. Introduction

According to Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck, “Defining the emerging church is like nailing Jell-O to the wall” (16-17). Perhaps the most difficult aspect about this topic is the vast amount of differences existing among those who have at one point called themselves part of the Emergent Church but no longer do, those who currently call themselves Emergent Church, and those who shy away from the term Emergent Church, though are quite similar in theology and practice to those professing to be in this movement. Some have tried to divide the terms “Emerging” and “Emergent” Church to separate orthodox from the unorthodox; however, this is also a big problem because men like Brian McLaren and Doug Pagitt have adopted both terms and have essentially used them interchangeably. After observing the different members involved in this discussion, it is certainly clear that there are both evangelicals and liberals who are labeled as Emerging or Emergent. Therefore, since this overview is relative to the Emergent Church, it is important to properly clarify how this movement differs from the Emerging Church, what these members primarily hold to doctrinally, what are some commendable characteristics, and then certainly a critical analysis. Upon clarifying and critiquing this church movement, it will be overwhelming clear to see that the Emergent Church is indeed an unorthodox church movement, different from the Emerging Church, and should be properly understood in light of modern-day ecclesiology and church movements.

2. History of the Emergent Church

In the process of sorting through the Emergent versus the Emerging Church movement(s), a brief tracing of history will most likely clear up the foggy air of distinguishing one from the other. Back in 1997, a group of church leaders joined a networking ministry for reaching postmodern culture called the “Leadership Network” (Driscoll). After speaking at multiple conferences within the Leadership Network, eventually Mark Driscoll decided to leave the network based on two reasons. First, Driscoll reasoned that he should spend more time in Seattle where his recent church plant had been established. Secondly, and more significant, he left because he had “serious theological differences with some men on the team and was concerned about their drift from biblical truth” (Driscoll). Eventually, these “men on the team” that Driscoll alludes to, such as Doug Pagitt, Brian McLaren, and Dan Kimball left the “Leadership Network” and established what is called the “Emergent Village.” Therefore, it seems fairly reasonable as to why confusion exists between distinguishing an Emerging Church leader from the Emergent Church. Especially, when unorthodox men like Brian McLaren try to label themselves still as “Emerging” when he does not belong with pastors like Mark Driscoll and Matt Chandler who unwaveringly preach the Gospel as stated in First Corinthians 15. Overall, while there is probably some overlap of the two movements, some really helpful research has been made to more easily distinguish a church leader who is either Emerging or Emergent.

3. Clarification of Church Movements – Emerging vs. Emergent

Of all available charts, articles, and books, both Ed Stetzer and Mark Driscoll each have made helpful contributions for identifying both movements. Stetzer, a Baptist missiologist, categorizes this rather large movement into three areas: Relevants, Reconstructionists, and Revisionists. Relevants are “deeply committed to biblical preaching, male pastoral leadership and other values common in conservative evangelical churches” (Stetzer). Reconstructionists “think that the current form of church is frequently irrelevant and the structure is unhelpful. Yet, they typically hold to a more orthodox view of the Gospel and Scripture” (Stetzer). Revisionists are the liberals in the Emerging/Emergent Church movement, according to Stetzer. He says, “Revisionists are questioning (and in some cases denying) issues like the nature of the substitutionary atonement, the reality of hell, the complementarian nature of gender, and the nature of the Gospel itself.” Similar to Stetzer, though a little more distinct, Driscoll organizes this movement into four categories: Emerging Evangelicals, House Church Evangelicals, Emerging Reformers, and Emergent Liberals. As Driscoll mentions in his article, “What the first three lanes have in common is theological orthodoxy.” Furthermore, as each description signifies, there are differences related mostly to practice and less significant doctrines. For example, the Emerging Evangelicals are not making as much as an impact as the others. Mark Driscoll says this movement is often “doing little more than cool church for hip young Christians.” A considerable difference from among the other two orthodox lanes is that Emerging Evangelicals are neither significantly involved with house churches nor are they specifically Reformed in theology. Secondly, House Church Evangelicals, as the name suggests, propose changes in methods of reaching the culture by utilizing “more informal, incarnational, and organic church forms such as that of house churches” (Driscoll). Some of the most well-known and respected members of this “lane” would be George Barna, Frank Viola, Neil Cole, and Shane Claiborne. One common problem in this movement, though it may not exist in a lot of the leaders and advocates of the House Church Evangelicals, is that a lot of the “disciples” can be internet terrors of arrogancy against popular leaders who pastor large, institutional churches. Mark Driscoll specifies that the common critique of House Church Evangelicals is their “disgruntled” attitude toward institutional or mega-churches, yet their methods for reaching people can also be hindered due to a lack of size. Thus, this can be counter-reacting to their original goals of reaching the culture in the first place. Ben Witherington further discusses this issue in his blog when critiquing the book, Pagan Christianity?, written by George Barna and Frank Viola. Certainly, house churches can be effective, and in some areas of the world, a necessity. However, the belief that churches can “only” be planted and utilized in homes can simply be a hindrance to reaching people with the Gospel when setting limits according to these extra-biblical boundaries. The third lane of churches, Emerging Reformers, is perhaps the strongest and strictest on doctrinal issues and has been successful in church planting. Many Emerging Reformers draw their theology from present-day Reformed theologians and pastors such as Wayne Grudem, D.A. Carson, Timothy Keller, Matt Chandler, John Piper, and plenty of others (Driscoll). There is no question that the Emerging Reformers are balancing conservative, theological beliefs while utilizing creative ways in reaching out to the unsaved in the most Biblical fashion among all three orthodox lanes. Finally, the dividing line between the first three lanes and the fourth lane, Emergent Liberals, is clearly manifested in their theologically unorthodox teachings. As seen, though there might be some overlap in “methods” of reaching people among all four lanes, the “message” of the Gospel is quite different in the fourth lane alone. Thus, it is important to take into consideration the doctrines and characteristics of the Emergent Liberals.

4. Doctrine and Beliefs of the Emergent Church

If distinguishing the lanes between orthodox and unorthodox Emerging/Emergent Church lanes was not confusing enough, then surely attempting to identify the doctrines and beliefs of the Emergent Liberal Church will cause some confusion and difficulty. Upon looking at their doctrinal statements, it can be tough to point out a church that is Emergent Liberal. However, there are commonalities in this lane which can help one decipher this movement as unorthodox. First of all, there is usually an incredibly vague, if any, dividing line between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. When Brian McLaren introduced his book A Generous Orthodoxy, he said that his belief system “sees orthopraxy as the point of orthodoxy” (31). However, McLaren also was quoted in an interview to say that “Orthodoxy itself is practice…So ethics comes first, then doctrine comes second, and witness flows out of that” (www.modernreformation.org). Though McLaren is subtle in this, essentially what he is saying is that doctrine does not significantly matter, but rather how one lives. This form of forsaking doctrine for “spirituality” is simply a modern-day form of what men like Jakob Beohme, George Fox, and Emanuel Swedenborg tried to accomplish in the 17th-18th centuries. Like Emergent Liberals’ writings from Brian McLaren and Rob Bell, Jakob Boehme’s writings were not understandable and were “subject to various interpretations” (Gonzalez 198). This leads to the second issue of Emergent Liberalism, which relates to their doctrine of the Scriptures. Without a doubt, Emergent Liberals “like” the Bible (DeYoung and Kluck 69). Doug Pagitt says, however, that the Bible  is “not reduced to a book from which we exact truth, but the Bible is a full, living, and active member of our community that is listened to on all topics of which it speaks” (32). According to this line of thinking, the assumption is “since words are only symbols, the truth in the Bible must be seen as ambiguous and in need of constant reinterpretation” (DeYoung and Kluck 82). Clearly, this postmodern way of thinking puts authority not in the inspired, revealed Word of God, but in the individual. Thus, truth becomes relative to the person, rather than having a sustained belief that, as Jesus Himself proclaimed, God’s Word intrinsically is “truth” (John 17:17). Finally, unlike the vague sayings in certain areas of the Emergent Liberal Church, it is abundantly clear that these men and women have discarded the Gospel. Brian McLaren, for once, does not even make this a hidden fact. He said in Christianity Today, “I don’t think we’ve got the gospel right yet…I don’t think the liberals have it right. But I don’t think we have it right either. None of us has arrived at orthodoxy” (Crouch 37-38). In contrast to this statement, the Bible actually does tell us what the Gospel is in I Corinthians 15:1-4: “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” This is the good news, and it is not about saving the planet, performing good works, or anything else. What postmodernists need is not a mysterious, social Gospel proposed by the Emergent Liberals, but the Gospel proclaimed by the Apostles and the Orthodox believers throughout the centuries.

5. Commendable Characteristics of the Emergent Church

Emergent Liberals make it quite clear that their purpose of existence is to help people. The Emergent Village’s purpose statement reads, “We believe the church exists for the benefit and blessing of the world at large; we seek therefore not to be blessed to the exclusion of everyone else, but rather for the benefit of everyone else” (www.emergentvillage.org). Rob Bell, an Emergent Liberal pastor in Michigan places a strong emphasis on using the church to help others (www.marshill.org). However, as Leonard Sweet has mentioned in an email to Ed Stetzer, the Emergent Liberal Church “has become another form of social gospel. And the problem with every social gospel is that it becomes all social and no gospel. All social justice and no social gospel.”

6. Dangerous Heresies of the Emergent Church

The first dangerous heresy to mention leads back to the previous paragraph’s mention of the Emergent Liberal’s purpose statement. There is something, or specifically Someone, missing in their Ecclesiology: God. He just is not there. This is what happens when a church movement becomes all about people, instead of being about a people gathered for His glory. Though it was already criticized, the second dangerous heresy is the distorted message of the Gospel. Al Mohler questions, “If we cannot know what the Gospel really is — if we cannot know the Gospel on any definite terms — how can we know a false gospel when we see one?” Without question, the Gospel message is indeed clear. Relating to the Gospel message, men like Brian McLaren, Steve Chalke, and Alan Jones regard the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement as a form of “cosmic child abuse” (Driscoll). The Bible teaches a different story, however. According to II Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Additionally, I John 2:2 says, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” The opinions of the Emergent Church are constantly in disagreement with what the Scriptures teach. Therefore, it is fully suitable to declare that this movement is indeed unorthodox.

7. Conclusions

What started out as a movement among individuals wanting to reach the postmodern culture has turned out to be a confusing but definable movement, including orthodox as well as unorthodox proponents. It is without question that the Emergent Liberal Christians have forsaken the Gospel, given way to postmodern thought on many matters, and are simply more of a hindrance to the Christian faith than a help. Reaching people with the Gospel of Christ should be on the hearts and minds of every orthodox believer. However, sacrificing core doctrines such as the substitutionary atonement and the Gospel message is never a legitimate option, even within a postmodern society. After observing all of the lanes within the Emerging/Emergent movement, it would probably be safest just to step aside from grabbing ahold of labels in a certain lane within the Emerging crowd. Even if one is conservative in doctrine, prefers the method of house-churches, or is confident in Reformed teachings, the confusion already existing in this movement should hinder one’s goals of taking part in one of the Emerging lanes. Thankfully, Jesus Christ is not just a good example for spiritual living, but is the eternal Son of God who has atoned for our sins and is worthy of our worship. Additionally, the Church exists first and foremost to worship God because all things were created for His glory (Isaiah 43:7). It is a wonderful privilege to be a part of the Church that Christ purchased with His blood. In conclusion, then, it should also be of utmost importance that the Church would stand firm in orthodox, Biblical, and clearly-taught doctrines that identifies the true believers apart from the heretical teachers. Church movements come and go, but God’s Word never changes and is firmly trustworthy for all generations.

Works Cited

Crouch, Andy. “The Emergent Mystique.” Christianity Today (2004): 37-38. Print.

DeYoung, Kevin and Ted Kluck. Why We’re Not Emergent. Chicago: Moody, 2008. Print.

Driscoll, Mark. “Navigating the Emerging Church Highway.” Christian Research Journal 31.4

(2008): 1-10. Web.

“Faith A La Carte? The Emergent Church.” Modern Reformation. July-Aug. 2005. Web. 19 Feb.

2012. <http://www.modernreformation.org&gt;.

Gonzalez, Justo. The Story of Christianity: Volume 2. Peabody: Prince Press, 2004. Print.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001.

McLaren, Brian. A Generous Orthodoxy. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006. Print.

Mohler, Albert. “AlbertMohler.com.” AlbertMohler.com. 23 Mar. 2011. Web. 01 Apr. 2012.

<http://www.albertmohler.com/2011/03/23/a-theological-conversation-worth-having-a-response-to-brian-mclaren/&gt;

Pagitt, Doug. Reimagining Spiritual Formation. Grand Rapids: Zonderva, 2004. Print.

Stetzer, Ed. “Baptist Press – FIRST-PERSON: Understanding the Emerging Church – News with

a Christian Perspective.” Baptist Press. 6 Jan. 2006. Web. 25 Mar. 2012.

<http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=22406&gt;.

Witherington, Ben. “PAGAN CHRISTIANTY: By George Barna and Frank Viola.” Web log

post. Ben Witherington. 30 June 2008. Web. 28 Mar. 2012.

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2 thoughts on “An Evaluation and Critique of the Emergent Church

  1. Overall, a good research paper. I would grade it a B+ The paper would merit an A if sections three and four were reorganized to include a table or chart which compares Emergent vs Emerging.

  2. Thanks for the input, Joe. I definitely thought about having a chart of Emergent vs. Emerging but my paper was already past the length specified so I couldn’t keep pushing the content further and further. I may add a chart to this post, however, when I get the chance to design one. Definitely adds an element to the discussion. Thanks,

    -John

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