You can shape a discussion by framing it a certain way. If you stereotype another person’s position and show how it’s bad then you can say what you’re doing is good. But if the other position doesn’t really hold that and actually says a whole lot of things that you’re trying to say but puts them in a more believable framework then suddenly you’re the one who looks a little bit silly. And so the historical theological questions really are very important indeed. Let me take an analogy, right away from this one so it’s not freighted with so much weight. I have a book coming out this month on the emerging church movement. And there are lots of good things to be said about elements of the emerging church movement ?¢?Ç¨?Äú some pretty negative things as well. But one of the things that strikes me about the positive elements in the emerging church movement is that the most positive things that can be said about the emerging church movement (and there are quite a lot of them) you could also say about other segments of broader confessional Christianity without all the negatives that go with it. In other words, I could show you the strengths of the best parts of the emerging movement in a church like Tim Keller’s in Manhattan – without all the nasty stuff that you sometimes get in other parts of that movement. And so, if you can show, for example, that some of the great strengths of this new perspective theology are in fact already there in Luther and Calvin, then the stereotype of what’s bad with them and good with you gets twisted. And then you start asking, ‘Well what is it exactly that you’re introducing and are you saying something that is moving you away from Scripture or closer to Scripture?’ The whole frame of the debate gets changed. It is in that sense that knowledge of the deep historical theological categories becomes pretty important. Do not believe what most of these writers say Luther and Calvin believed. They far more often than not get it wrong rather than right. You’ve just got to read the primary sources before you make judgments of that sort.
blog emergingchurch entries
For the next two weeks Michael Horton and the White Horse Inn will be discussing the Emergent Church. They have also provided some interviews with individuals from the Emergent Convention in February.
This blog entry is a little bit out of the ordinary for me. By that I mean that I usually have things pretty worked out in my own mind and in print before I post them here. This entry is not like that; it is more of an idea that I am toying with and would appreciate some feedback on. With that said, here is my ill-formed thesis.
I’m going to go out on a limb and make an analogy. As I see it, some of what the Emergent Church is to America as is what Liberation Theology was to South America. Now, I recognize that is a bold claim and some in the movement may not be real excited about it; although I suspect that some might be thrilled with the comparison. As I said above, this is not completely fleshed out and I have not tried very hard to be thorough in my explanations of either Liberation theology or the Emergent church. All I am trying to do is point out some broad similarities that I see between the two groups. One final qualification is that I’m not trying to make any evaluations here about whether or not these similarities are positive or negative; I’m merely describing. Now, let me try and explain what I mean when I say that Emergent is the “liberation theology” of North America.
1. The names
Let me start kind of superficially by just pointing out how similar the names of the two movements are. The term “liberation” is closely tied to a notion of freedom from some oppression or oppressor. The term “emergent” also has connections with this language of freedom from some prior entity. This isn’t really a huge deal, I just found it kind of interesting as I was reflecting on the similarities between these two movements.
2. The “grassroots” nature
Both Liberation theology and the Emergent Church are very much “grassroots” movements. They share a similar skepticism towards authority and hierarchy. Because of this, they have really come from the ground up, so to speak. It is a theology by the people for the people.
3. House churches and base communities
One of the ways that this bottom-up understanding of theology plays itself out is in the clustering of small groups outside of what they perceive to be the authoritarian structures from which they want to separate themselves. In Liberation theology this took the form of “base communities”. These were small gatherings of individuals who would come together for prayer, discussion and fellowship. Sometimes there would be a priest who was part of these communities but other times not. In Emergent circles, often their ecclesiology leads them towards more of a house church format. Partly this is due to the hurt that some of them have experienced in more institutional churches. At any rate, when you read about the base communities of liberation theology they sound an awful lot like the house churches or even, dare I say, blog communities of the Emergent Church.
4. Distrust of modernity
Another way to state what I have been saying thus far is that both groups are very skeptical of different aspects of modernity. (Now I know that I have just stepped out into a place that I don’t want to be by using the word modernity. Even though the term is now out of the bag, please don’t read into it more than what I’m saying.) Liberation theology is quite hostile towards certain aspects of what is called modernity, specifically, colonization or the dominance of the west. Their writing very much reflects a distrust towards anything which might come from the modernized world. So also, one cannot read much of Emergent writing without getting a sense for their distrust of modernity. Now, their critiques do not specifically have to do with colonization in the same way that Liberation theology did, but they do very much wish that Christianity was not associated with, say the Republican part in America or what some on the political left see as a new imperialism.
5. Critical towards an overly rational faith
In staying with this theme of a distrust of modernity, another aspect of modernity which is looked down upon by both Liberation theology and the Emergent church is what they perceive as an overly rational approach to faith. In Liberation theology this works itself out in an attempt to move theological reflection from the academy to the common people. In their own terms they would say that theology ought not be something that is limited to the “intellectual or cultural elite”. In the Emergent church we see the move away from an overly rational faith in things like a return to more mystic church practices. Another way this is seen is in the whole discussions regarding epistemology.
To make my point, read what Brian McLaren has written and see if it sounds anything at all like Gustavo Gutierrez.
In the modern world, theology was done by scholars, and was expressed in books and lectures. In the postmodern world, many of us believe that the theologians will have to leave the library more often and mix with the rest of us. And the best of them will join hands and hearts with the poets, musicians, filmmakers, actors, architects, interior and landscape designers, dancers, sculptors, painters, novelists, photographers, web designers, and every other artistic brother and sister possible not only to communicate a postmodern, Christian theology but also to discern it, discover it. Because one major shift of this transition is the shift from left-brain to whole-brain, from reductionistic, analytic rationalism to a broader theological holism a theology that works in mind and heart, understanding and imagination, proposition and image, clarity and mystery, explanation and narrative, exposition and artistic expression.6. An emphasis on orthopraxis
One of the terms which shows up often in Liberation theology is orthopraxis or “right living”. This is sort of their alternative to the point above about rational faith. One writer describes liberation theology in the following way: “Theology is not the basis of pastoral work, but occurs in light of it. Indeed, theology is then a process, a discerning of the times and of what needs to be done.” You test a theology by how it is worked out in practice. So also, the Emergent church is a movement, mainly by pastors or lay leaders in the church who are concerned about how doctrine gets lived out in the culture.
7. Political associations
Those who know anything about Liberation theology do not need to be reminded that it has strong political and economic associations. When it comes to the Emergent church it is not always obvious that it too has political associations. At the same time I think some connections can be made. For example, as I said above, most members of the Emergent church are very uncomfortable with the way that Evangelicalism has, at least in the media’s eyes, become affiliated with the Republican party. A lot of them see this as bad and something which needs to be moved away from. Also, it is no secret that Brian McLaren is good friends with people like Jim Wallis or Tony Campolo, both of whom are very politically engaged Christians.
8. Community and structural sin
Finally, both groups no only have a positive view of community but also there is a call to see some “communities” or structures as sinful. Both groups want to move away from an overly individualized view of Christianity. This is both in terms of sin and salvation. We’ve already mentioned a little bit about what they see as the positive aspects of community. The flip side to emphasizing the communal aspects of salvation is the communal aspects of sin. For both Liberation theology and the Emergent church, it is not just individuals who are sinful but also non-personal structures. For example, in Liberation theology capitalism was seen as a sinful economic system. One gets the sense that some in the Emergent church might say the same thing as something like foundationalist epistemology (sorry for using loaded words without defining them) or the political associations described above.
Well, that is a fast and brief overview of some of the similarities that I see between Liberation theology and the Emergent church. This proposal is definitely lacking in terms of specific quotes and references; in doing so I am assuming on the part of the reader at least some familiarity with the two movements. I’d be curious to have some interaction with some of these points.
There is much that I could address concerning the Emergent conversation. While I’m sure that I am biting off much more than I can chew, at present the list of topics that I feel pressed to tackle includes:
- A humble attempt towards a definition - A brief history of Evangelicalism - The Emergent desire to reject “exclusivist” or “exclusionary” language - The Emergent understanding of the relationship between message and method - The Emergent understanding and presentations of modernity/postmodernity - Emergent church worship practices
These are just a few of the issues that I would like to engage. More may be added to this list, but this is probably enough for now. I plan to address just one at a time and to do so relatively slowly. I presuppose that the reader have at least some familiarity with Emergent writing. To gain a better understanding of what the Emergent Church is see my bibliography, especially Justin Taylor’s very helpful chapter. Two final words of clarification, first these are not meant to be thorough or comprehensive articles, they are simply some of my present thoughts on the Emergent conversation; please don’t take them for more than what they are. Second, I apologize that this first installment lacks explicit Scriptural references. That will change in the future. I hope that these articles prove to be helpful to both those fully aware of the conversation as well as those who have no clue what the Emergent Church is. Feel free to add your comments to what I write. Well, that’s probably enough qualifications for now.
It seems appropriate to me to begin these series of articles on a feature of the Emergent conversation that I find beneficial. One of the main emphases of the Emergent conversation is its call to live missionally. The word “missional” is often used in Emergent writing and dialogue. At its heart, the call to live missionally is a call to live like a missionary in one’s own sphere of influence. This includes a desire to think about Christian living and cultural engagement as a missionary would. Missiologists have long discussed the portability of Christianity to other contexts and cultures. Indeed one of the reasons why Christianity has flourished around the world is the fact that it can, to some degree, be separated from the culture in which it thrives. I say to some degree only because I believe that God specifically revealed himself to the Jewish people in their culture, parts of which must then inevitably become ours if we are to understand them rightly. For example, one will completely misunderstand Christ’s cross work if they do not first have a solid understanding of Jewish temple practices involving sin and sacrifice. That issue aside, on the whole, Emergent folks do a good job of encouraging Christians to distinguish between those parts of Christianity which are essential to it and those which are the cultural outworkings of it. As a result, their call to understand the culture, like a missiologist would, and to then live in ways appropriate to that understanding are completely commendable.
As I see it, living missionally has two major components. The first is to take a hard critical look at present day Evangelicalism and to separate the Biblical wheat from the cultural chaff. That is to say, they call us to look at Evangelicalism, specifically some of its ethical outworkings, and rethink them. For example, is it appropriate for a Christian to frequent a local bar with the intention of befriending some of the people there? The contention of the Emergent folks is that, at least according to their own experience, the forms of Evangelicalism in which they have grown up would have been hostile to such practices. They say that this kind of activity would have been discouraged because they were told that a Christian does not belong at a bar. This is because bars are perceived to be a place where drunkenness occurs and where one might be negatively influenced by the world. The Emergent folks rethink this attitude and say that it is not a sin to frequent a bar, instead it is a sin to engage in the activities which a bar might, but not necessarily, foster.
Reflecting on this example just for a moment, I would say that their contention seems to be more with fundamentalism than with evangelicalism. The way that they describe their experiences and the kinds of things to which they are describing, appear to me to be very similar, if not almost identical, to the kind of things that early Evangelicals in the 1940’s and 50’s said about fundamentalists. The whole reason for creating a distinction between fundamentalists and evangelicals was this issue of cultural engagement and the approach with which Christians interacted with the world. Early evangelicals reacted strongly to those fundamentalists who, in the face of secular perils like evolution, retreated to the trenches, as it were, and disengaged from public debate and dialogue. This is something that I hope to pursue further in an upcoming article.
This example of the Christian at the bar leads to the second main feature of what it means to live missionally; that is the emphasis on growing one’s circle of non-Christian friends. The bar, Emergent folks say, is exactly the place where Jesus would be in our culture today. He was one who befriended those in society who were labeled “sinners”. Besides it is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. When that is understood, what better place to spread the good news of Jesus Christ than the bar? As such they encourage us to live like a missionary in our own town. I have to admit, that it is quite convicting to think about the number of non-Christian friends that I have. Honestly, the number is very small. Therefore, their call to have us befriend non-Christians is warranted and commendable.
That being said, one thing that I see missing from their discussions of what it means to live missionally is the need to be discerning. They are so passionate about challenging the assumed norms of evangelical ethics that they neglect the fact that there are some parts of culture which are “off limits” for Christian engagement. For example, I would say that it would be inappropriate for a Christian to attend a strip club, even with the desire to evangelize them. Although, I do agree that befriending individuals who are either employed at strip clubs or frequent them is an appropriate and necessary task of Christians. Unfortunately, it is these kinds of helpful and necessary discussions which, it seems to me, are completely missing from the Emergent conversation.
A word of caution that I would like to add to this conversation about living missionally is a reminder of vocation or calling. There are times when I fear that this call to live missionally will be misunderstood. Because living missionally is often compared and contrasted with being a missionary in a foreign country, I’m worried that to some individuals it will sound like a call to leave one’s daily vocation. One does not need to leave their present calling in order to live missionally. What is more, staying in one’s present vocation is an integral part of living missionally. It is not necessary to get discouraged and feel like “if only I could cut out parts of my daily calling then I would be able to better focus on this goal of living like a missionary.” Again, that is not what living missionally entails. We all receive different vocations or callings and it is our responsibility to be faithful to Christ’s work in the place that he has called us. Living missionally does not mean that you need to quit your job in order to have more time to focus on the work of local missions. Let me quickly add that living missionally might require one to make some modifications to their living style, but Christians can feel quite confident that they can live missionally in the very place that God has called them. Remain as a Christian businessman or woman. Remain as a Christian homemaker. Honor God in your work and seek to love others in that place. If a church is committed to living missionally it needs people in all parts of society. This reminder of Christian vocation is not to say that the wrong mentality is being promoted by Emergent leaders, rather it is something that I think most of them would agree with, I simply wanted to make it more explicit.
Let me make one final point about the call to live missionally, what exactly is new here? I mean, when I read most Emergent folks, they speak as if this whole call to live missionally and for ordinary Christians to be engaged in the work of local evangelism is something new. Maybe it is just my upbringing, but I have heard that message before; it is not new. Throughout middle school and high school I was constantly encouraged by my youth group leaders to get to know those non-Christians at my school and to invite them to our small groups. Never was I told to “hit and run” evangelize them in the hallway during a passing period, as some Emergent writers would characterize as happening all the time. I wish that some of these individuals would be more specific in their critiques than so broad and generic, for not all wings of Evangelicalism are the same. Moreover, as I said above, what is so often characterized as Evangelical sounds more to me like fundamentalist. Showing some recognition of this, I think, would provide a necessary amount of nuance to their critiques and it would provide a more positive (even encouraging) example of how to live missionally.
In conclusion, the call to live missionally is indeed a needed and commendable feature of the Emergent conversation. I pray that it does spark something within Christians to allow their identity as a follower of Christ to influence every aspect of their lives, including their relationships with non-Christians. God’s people are called to be an example of Christ’s love in their specific spheres of influence. It is an important and necessary work of building the kingdom. Take seriously the call to live missionally in the context of your vocation. Do so with a confidence in Him who has called you because ultimately it is his work that we are doing and it is by his strength that we do it. Honor God, love and serve others and do both with great joy.
Amongst those that I know and converse with, one of the topics of conversation has been what is called “the Emergent Church”. This is something which I have been reading about since last summer. I have noticed that it is difficult to become involved in “the conversation” of Emergent people, therefore, I have attempted to put together a short bibliography for those of you who would like to know more about the movement. I hope that you find it helpful. Please keep in mind that I do not endorse everything found in this list; it is simply a resource for those who need it. I would have liked to have provided some commentary on each of these, but that will have to wait. In the coming week or two, I hope to post some of my own present thoughts about the Emergent Church. But until then, you can spend some time sorting through the links below.
Some good places to start:
Some how they ended up here for freeJustin Taylor’s chapter from Reclaiming the Center (very helpful) A long conversation with students from Denver Seminary about the EC (good read)
See McLaren’s annotations to the article at his siteChristian Century article
Tim Challies’ blog (he is unapologetically critical of the movement)
An article by Tony Campolo (who most might put in the Emergent Camp) on the ECBooks and Culture ran a multi-part series of people responding to McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian (unfortunately, you’ll have to find these articles at your local library, or pay to view them online) “The Neo-Fundamentalism of the Evangelical Left” by: Russell D. Moore
Some popular websites:
Next Wave (great Emergent blog that links to relevant posts)
Vintage Faith (Dan Kimball’s site)
Emergent YS (Other books published under the heading of Emergent YS)
Jason Clark (Emergent UK)
Some of the people who represent the movement and their books:Dan Kimball
Book Reviews of Generous Orthodoxy:The Church on the Other Side
Mars Hill (His Church)Tim Keller
Radical Reformission conference (with audio)
Redeemer Pres (His Church)
Listen to their vision and values sermons explaining what the church is all about
A more balanced article on reaching the culture
If you have more resources to add to this list; feel free to send them my way. I’d love to take a look at them.