This article constitutes the fourth installment in a series adapted from the author’s undergraduate thesis, An Ancient Future Church?: An Orthodox Examination of the Post-modern Christianity of the Emergent Church Movement.1 Follow the link above to start from the beginning of the series.
As was highlighted in our analysis of [Scot] McKnight’s essay on the Five Streams within ECM, there appear to be two competing sub-movements struggling for dominance, similar to what happened during the Reformation. This becomes increasingly apparent with Phyllis Tickle’s embrace of the “new reformation” thesis.
...the Emerging Church: One Movement – Two Streams.
Although their brand of radical theology is a minority within wider ECM, it is certainly not a small minority and their influence is widespread, in particular that of the globally renowned McLaren. In DeVine’s words, the Emergent faction is “a big slice, an enormously influential slice, but a slice nonetheless.”2
As part of his analysis, DeVine identifies seven aspects that are shared by both of these divergent streams, the glue of ECM that holds these disparate factions together is the emerging identity despite the “Doctrine Friendly” stream’s occasional attempts to distance itself from the other. In agreement with Carson and McKnight, he identifies ECM as a protest movement, with the terms authenticity, community, mission, and mystery being “facets of discontent that would spawn the emergent movement.”3 To these four he also adds the terms culture, narrative, and the arts as defining marks of ECM. According to DeVine, these terms are important as identifiers and uniting factors for the two streams, as:
When pastors, church planters, and writers from both streams articulate who they are as Christians and how they understand the nature and mission of the church, they do so in great measure through the employment of these terms along with concerns associated with them. Do the terms mean exactly the same thing on both sides of the divide 100 percent of the time? No, but the extent of shared meaning is certainly very strong and does, I believe, justify inclusion of both streams within the same emerging movement.4
Emergent members often say they need “authentic community.” Perceiving a lack of authenticity in the communities from which they originate (mostly evangelical and mega-churches), emergents desire to restore authenticity to church life. What do they mean by authenticity, though? For emergent pastor Tim Keel, this striving came from a longing to “recover the relationship-rich community he had enjoyed in college that was lost once he settled into mega-church life.”5 For other emergents, the issue is one of church culture, which is perceived to “[invite] a certain mask-wearing artificiality while discouraging transparency and confession of brokenness and doubt.”6 For still others, of main concern were the perceived barriers erected by churches that insist on conformity to doctrinal statements instead of offering seekers space to explore. It is this last point which has become a cause of strife between ECM and more traditional Protestants.
According to some emergents, the church must embody the Gospel both in the believing community and in the outside community. Therefore, “Emerging churches attempt to provide safe places for unbelievers and spiritual seekers to consider the claims of Christ in an atmosphere characterized by patience and openness.”7 This is evidently in response and opposition to the altar calls of evangelical and seeker-friendly churches. Between the two streams, debate is over the level of membership in the community offered to unbelievers, and what differences, if any, are to be maintained between the two groups. In this, the two streams show considerable difference in their specific approaches, although there is convergence with the general approach. DeVine illustrates the issue, and shows his findings to be in agreement with McKnight, thus:
Though both streams share this two-directional pursuit, Emergent churches, in particular, decry what they call the ‘us-versus-them’ mentality they find among Evangelicals. Some even reject formal demarcation between believers and nonbelievers, eschew formal church membership altogether, and assume a belong-before-believing posture towards all comers.8
He goes on to mention that the Doctrine-Friendly stream is less inclined to this approach, and tries to find a via media between total openness and covenant membership of the church community. As both McKnight and DeVine state in their essays, ECM is primarily an ecclesiological movement, as opposed to a theological one, and this is most explicitly shown in their approach to church membership.
Most of ECM sees itself as ‘missional,’ but how ‘mission’ is viewed and interpreted is, again, a point of contrast between the two streams. The term ‘missional’ is even interpreted differently by ECM. DeVine points out two ways, negative and positive, in which it is used. In the negative sense, it is used in opposition to ‘attractional,’ the way that mega-churches and other evangelicals reach out to the surrounding community. Emergents see this approach as being antithetical to the Great Commission of Christ to ‘go.’ The positive sense is described by DeVine as conveying “at least one ontological conviction related to the church and one methodological consequence of that conviction. “I am the church” replaces the notion “I go to church.” And just as significant, the notion “I send missionaries” is displaced by “I am a missionary.”
This approach is shown in the emergents’ tendency to focus on specific communities or subcultures for their work. Instead of inviting the communities to take part in activities at their churches, they “look to see the community transformed as believers engage with those whom they work, study, and play.” It is in this approach that ECM significantly overlaps with the New Monastic movement, although, as has been mentioned, they are both very distinct movements. Using this approach, ECM has been able to reach many previously unchurched groups, particularly in cities and in the arts communities.
...ECM engagement with culture is based on the rise of post-modernity which then forms how they ‘do church.’
ECM’s engagement with culture is based on the rise of post-modernity and the resulting effect of this upon how they ‘do church.’ DeVine writes that there are three convictions shared by both streams in their commitment to post-modern presentations of the Gospel. First is that “the North American landscape is increasingly defined by identifiable multiple subcultures” which can be both geographic (immigrant communities, suburban, inner city, etc.) or social/professional (punks, homeless, artists, etc.). Second is that “recognition of these subcultures and adaption to them usually has profound, even determinative effects upon attempts to evangelize” and third is that “all authentic and effective Christian ministries are whether consciously or unconsciously, contextualized within the culture they inhabit.” In light of the ‘post-modernization’ of our culture, “the Emerging church sees itself as attempting [to transition to a] culture-aware and culture sensitive approach to the spread of the gospel.”
DeVine favorably quotes Bolger and Gibbs, and accepts their view of the concurrent development of both ‘post-modernity’ and ‘post-Christianity,’ based on the tectonic movements taking place within Western cultures, and especially in their relation to religion, which has been almost reduced from being the dominant institution in society to something akin to psychology or sociology.
...one of the main features of post-modernity is its relativism.
One of the main features of post-modernity is its relativism, in particular with regard to terminology and the understanding of the meaning of texts. It is on this front that the Emergent stream finds itself under fire from traditional evangelicals and even Doctrine-Friendly emergents. DeVine’s critique shows the genuine distaste felt towards the Emergent stream by many, and is worth quoting in full:
…though considerable agreement characterizes descriptions of the contemporary cultural terrain by those who take postmodernism seriously, once attention turns to exploration of the implications of the postmodern context for evangelism, church-planting, and church renewal, consensus collapses. From the standpoint of Evangelicalism and orthodox Christianity, Emergents seem more anxious to affirm what they find in culture than they are protective of the gospel message where conflict between gospel and culture arises. The result is that the gospel itself must change, become less message and more way of life. Emergents, when viewed through Evangelical eyes, seem prepared to pretty much genuflect before the ostensibly irresistible proclivities and antipathies embedded within the postmodern psyche as they define it. For many Evangelicals, Emergent reasoning runs something like this: “Don’t want the absolute truth? Fine. Out it goes. Had enough of Evangelical fixation on Paul’s straight talk regarding homosexual behaviour? Don’t worry; whenever Evangelicals are offenders, count on a heap of affirmation from us and a fresh re-thinking of those issues.
The ease with which some Emergents equivocate on an array of traditional readings of Scripture and either question the use of doctrine or abandon doctrine altogether is astounding. From comparative disinterest in the historicity of Scripture to dispassion for the doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone to congenital vagueness regarding homosexual behavior, Emergents evidence little answerability to either Bible or tradition.
In these passages, DeVine demonstrates exactly why the Emergents viewed with suspicion and hostility by many within conservative and evangelical Protestant churches. The complete disavowal of Scriptural authority by some of the main proponents of the Emergent stream, particularly over controversial moral matters, has been one of the main points of contention between the two streams, leading to open conflict in some cases. DeVine writes favorably of the Doctrine-Friendly stream’s defiance of this reading of post-modernity and their success in reaching out to twenty- to thirty-somethings, the demographic claimed by Emergents as least likely to accept doctrine, certitude, and absolute truth. Summing up the Doctrine-Friendly approach, DeVine defines it as “… ministry-shaping alertness to culture? Yes. Reflexive accommodation of ministry and message to culture? No.”
“The critique and even rejection of propositional truth by some within the Emergent church goes too far.”
Particularly on the issue of the historicity of Scripture, he believes that ECM is far less exacting than it should be, especially in its use of ‘story’ instead of ‘history’ when discussing the narrative aspect of Scripture. Certainly much of the talk about story among emerging leaders must strike the ears of many as quite vague and strange… Emergent talk of narrative, authenticity, story, and mystery often seems to involve radical forms of retreat and reductionism vis-à-vis anything recognizable as historic, biblically grounded Christianity. I mean retreat from the inescapably historical dimension and consequent historical vulnerability of the Christian witness to the world. Inescapable because the church’s witness has always known itself as anchored to the actual, sometimes visible in-break of God into history… Such urgent concern for the historical accuracy of the biblical witness strikes many Emergent ears as a leftover irrelevancy of a modernity suffused with Enlightenment sensibilities.
This subtle agnosticism prevalent in some quarters of ECM suggests that their understanding of mystery might not be quite that as historically understood in Christian theology and spirituality, and could possibly even serve as an obfuscation of the truths of Christian faith, given the earlier passages on the Emergent stream’s semi-reluctance to engage in direct evangelism. DeVine goes on:
… the emerging quest for the recovery of mystery seems to be driven by more than one interest. Where very long lists of doctrine are asserted with equally high confidence, emerging church leaders tend to be skeptical. They suspect that more humility and nuance in keeping with both the limits of what can be known on the basis of Holy Scripture and in keeping with author intention where narrative, poetry, and song provide vehicles for divine revelation.
ECM’s focus on the arts has been a means in which they have attempted to go ‘beyond the word’ with their message, by trying to conveying its meaning in more than one way, by incorporating visuals, as an example. This has also led to a heightened interest in aesthetics for sacred space, and liturgical worship, something which has been a particular character of the New Monastic and house church movements. DeVine voices his concerns at how this could lead into problems for ECM:
… concerns arise when the category of mystery becomes a haven for doubt and denial at odds with ascertainable certainty provided by the biblical witness… When narrative theologians assure us that the “story” of Christ’s bodily resurrection retains its community-creating and hope-nurturing power regardless of its historicity, the sphere of healthy humility and warranted doubt has been left behind. Instead we are confronted with excessive and spineless post-Enlightenment-intimidated retreat from requisite Christian confession.
It is also worth mentioning that this drift towards vagueness is not only potentially damaging to doctrine, but also to spirituality. An over-focus on ‘mystery’ could well lead into a vague and general ‘mysticism’ outside of the boundaries of acceptable practice. It is in this pursuit of mystery, however, that ECM finds itself reaching back into the treasures of ancient Christianity.
The interest in liturgics and more traditional forms of worship has led to many ECM communities incorporating, or adopting wholesale, aspects of classical worship from various sources. While this has mostly involved delving into Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions, Orthodoxy has also been a source of inspiration, albeit a very minor one. The assessment made above, regarding the reading of Catholic mystics, is certainly relevant here also. DeVine considers this and thinks that it may be the case, at least for the Emergent stream, but not exclusively: “Emergent engagement of Christian tradition is not limited to a rebellious, protest-inspired plunge into all things once denied to it.”
...Emergents are happy to make eclectic use of the Bible and tradition, but display little awareness of being answerable to either.
Incorporation of Christian tradition is not limited to the Emergent stream, and DeVine happily notes the Doctrine-Friendly stream’s extensive use of traditional Protestantism, in particular the Reformed tradition, as exemplified by people such as Mark Driscoll and Tim Keller. However, the notion of ‘authority’ (a reoccurring theme in studies of ECM) in this incorporation forms the dividing line between the two streams.
He continues his assessment:
But while Emergents are happy to make eclectic, discriminating use of the Bible and the tradition, they display little awareness of being answerable to either. One gets the sense that, for Emergents, values and goals are presupposed – the Bible, tradition, or whatever other sources may appear promising are exploited according to their usefulness for the advance of an agenda birthed elsewhere… We touch here probably the crux of the antipathy not only between the two wings of the emerging movement, and not only between Emergent and Evangelicalism, but between Emergent and the whole stream of orthodox Christianity stretching back at least to Nicea[sic] but arguably to the earlier controversies involving Montanus and Marcion. The discomfort with doctrine within Emergent may well signal a more fundamental attempt to break free from authority as such.
With this last statement, DeVine clearly brings his assessment into line with most of the others we have already looked at, in that ECM, or at least a large part of it, finds itself being propelled in whatever direction it may be taking by its attempts to break from authority. Although he softens his findings by suggesting that the Emergent movement might not be as radical vis-à-vis doctrine as it first appears, the adverseness being but a knee-jerk reaction against their former evangelical communities, DeVine’s initial assessment seems to fit in best with our previous sources. That much of ECM is in response to perceived loss of traditional sources of authority (as in Tickle) seems evident. From the readings of Carson, McKnight and DeVine, it also seems increasingly evident that within ECM, the Emergent stream is not simply looking to finding a new source of authority, but simply doing away with authority entirely, to a certain degree. What their future Christianity will look like, stripped of authority, is another topic that has led to many emergents taking up their pens.
This series will continue with a planned five additional installments. After one more concluding article describing the ECM as its adherents see it, we will turn to a theological examination of its tenets from an Orthodox Christian perspective.
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