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.

  In his con­tri­bu­tion to anoth­er col­lec­tion of arti­cles by evan­gel­i­cals deal­ing with ECM, Mark DeVine posits that there are two streams with­in the move­ment, which he terms “Doc­trine Friend­ly” and “Doc­trine Averse/Wary.” Con­tin­u­ing the Ref­or­ma­tion heuris­tic, this would be sim­i­lar to the Mag­is­te­r­i­al vs. Rad­i­cal divide. In Emerg­ing-speak, the “Doc­trine Averse/Wary” stream cor­re­sponds with the Emer­gent seg­ment of the move­ment, an infor­mal orga­ni­za­tion con­sist­ing of more rad­i­cal the­olo­gians such as Bri­an McLaren, Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones, and oth­ers.

Emer­gent Lead­ers

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

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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.’

  How­ev­er, the post-mod­ern cul­tur­al con­text in which ECM oper­ates has had an effect on evan­ge­lism, at least for the Emer­gent stream. As men­tioned above, the Emer­gent stream has a more ‘patient’ approach, which has led to accu­sa­tions of ‘delayed evan­ge­lism,’ and wari­ness towards con­ver­sion. It should be men­tioned that it is accept­ed in Protes­tant cir­cles that, when doing mis­sion work among groups whose cul­ture is com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent to your own, a cau­tious approach is quite pru­dent. How­ev­er, the Emer­gent stream has been accused of car­ry­ing out this prac­tice with­in their own cul­ture, as DeVine writes: “The Emer­gent, doc­trine-wary stream of emerg­ing does dis­play some of the con­ver­sion-averse ten­den­cies that lib­er­al Chris­tian­i­ty lapsed into with such dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences to itself and the advance of the gospel gen­er­al­ly.” This bad con­science for con­ver­sion is cer­tain­ly root­ed in their accep­tance of post-mod­ernism, which DeVine also cri­tiques.

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. 

  ECM views these changes as a call not to go on the defen­sive, as many of the denom­i­na­tions shaped by mod­ernism have done, but to pro­found­ly trans­form “evan­ge­lis­tic method, strate­gies for church-plant­i­ng, and the over­all mind-set of church­es that hope to grow.” The effect that this had has on evan­ge­lism has been, as men­tioned above, bet­ter for the Doc­trine-Friend­ly stream than for the Doc­trine-Wary.

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.

He con­tin­ues:

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.”

  As men­tioned above, ECM has had one its biggest suc­cess­es in its engage­ment with the world of the arts – large­ly part of ECM’s mis­sion­al focus on unchurched sub­cul­tures. Engage­ment with the arts has not only been mis­sion­al, but also part of ECM’s attempt to redis­cov­er and rein­te­grate mys­tery into their spir­i­tu­al prac­tices, as well as nar­ra­tive. The desire to reclaim nar­ra­tive in ECM stems from the seem­ing defeat of Sola Scrip­tura by high­er crit­i­cism in the ear­ly- to mid-20th cen­tu­ry, also men­tioned above, by Tick­le. ECM’s focus on the nar­ra­tive genre of Scrip­ture as their means of inter­pret­ing it, as opposed to inter­pret­ing it through tra­di­tion, sys­tem­at­ic the­ol­o­gy, or oth­er approved inter­preters or inter­pre­ta­tions, is viewed favor­ably by Protes­tant the­olo­gians who sup­port Sola Scrip­tura.  How­ev­er, as has become a pat­tern, the Emer­gent stream, in the opin­ion of DeVine, has stepped over a line. He writes: “The cri­tique and even rejec­tion of propo­si­tion­al truth along with dis­in­ter­est in the rise and devel­op­ment of doc­trine and of sys­tem­at­ic the­ol­o­gy 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.

Emer­gent wor­ship

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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