Who’s More Spiritual: Emergent or Traditional Evangelicals?

Okay, so no one's had the chutzpah to frame the question so baldly. But each group seems to assume the answer in its favor–at least, that's the impression you'd get from some emergent critiques of traditional evangelicals and from some traditional-evangelical critiques of emergents. But what if we asked the question directly, and tried to answer it just as directly: Who is more spiritually mature? On the whole, are emergent believers or traditional evangelicals more faithful in their following of Christ?

To answer, we need a clear standard for measuring Christian spirituality. The best one is given by Jesus (Mark 12:29-31), but presumably both emergents and traditionals have already read that and used that for their critiques of the other. Could we find a standard of Christian spirituality that encompasses Jesus' teaching yet offers fresh points of differentiation? We might consider the four "nonnegotiable essentials" of Christian spirituality laid out by Ronald Rolheiser in The Holy Longing:

1. Private prayer and private morality: "In many of the spiritual classics of Christian literature, the writers ? suggest that we will make progress in the spiritual life only if we, daily, do an extended period of private prayer, and only if we practice a scrupulous vigilance in regards to all the moral areas within our private lives. In essence, that is the first nonnegotiable within the spiritual life."

2. Social justice: "? according to the Jewish prophets, where we stand with God depends not just upon prayer and sincerity of heart but also on where we stand with the poor. ? All Christian churches have always taught this, in one way or the other, and they have also always, in their best expressions, lived it out."

3. Mellowness of heart and spirit: "Both as liberals and conservatives we too easily write off this third prong of the spiritual life, rationalizing that our causes are so urgent, we are so wounded, and our world is so bad, that, in our situation, anger and bitterness are justified. But we are wrong?"

4. Community as a constitutive element of true worship: "? anyone who claims to love God who is invisible but refuses to deal with a visible neighbor is a liar, for one can only really love a God who is love if one is concretely involved with a real community (ultimately an ?ecclesial community') on earth."

Being fool enough to set out on a fool's errand, I now offer my thoughts as to whether traditionals or emergents better capture these essentials.

On "private prayer and private morality," I give the nod to traditionals, who have strongly emphasized daily "quiet times" and published multitudinous devotional books and guides, as well as scrupulously observed not swearing, not watching movies that might incline one to lust, and so on. Score so far: Traditionals 1, Emergents 0.

Displaying 1–6 of 6 comments

Rev. Steve Bailey

October 30, 2006  10:25pm

Of course the article is satire. For a real great contribution to the on-going conversation about "liberal", "conservative" and "emergent" try Alan Jones' latest book, "Common Prayer on Common Ground: A Vision of Anglican Orthodoxy". It takes off from McLaren's "A Generous Orthodoxy". Although the discussion is framed by an Anglican context, the book has some very significant things to say about the future of Christian belief and practice. Jones is the Dean of Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco.

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October 24, 2006  11:32am

What about HOLINESS? Religion is to lead to holiness. Is this important to protestants? "Spiritual" is politically correct and devoid of holiness. People with no religion consider themselves "spiritual". Jesus was not Spiritual he was holy. Holiness should be the measure of religion not worldly man-made criteria.

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October 23, 2006  7:36pm

I'd be fascinated to see if there was any emergent/traditional divide in the positive or negative responses to the post.

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Kevin Miller

October 23, 2006  7:36pm

Friends: Some of you objected to the concept of trying to spiritually measure anything, let alone such diverse movements. I hope this won't take away too much of the fun for people who haven't read this post yet, but I was intentionally playing the fool to make a point that we're somehow not getting: we need to stop judging each other and learn from each other. It's like when Randy Newman sang, "Short people got no reason to live"–not because he believed that, but because he believed the opposite and was trying to show how ugly that measuring/judging can get.

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October 23, 2006  7:34pm

Obviously Kevin's conclusion was the whole point of his article. Let's not get too carried away with the "creative" means he used to get there.

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October 22, 2006  11:55pm

Hmmm, Kevin. Where to begin? As an emerging fundamentalist I think a real problem with this exercise comes immediately into play with the assmuption that emergents agree with traditionalists on the "essentials". My observation is that emergents are adamant that belief in abosultes would automatically render a contestant into the traditional category. All of the 'big' emergent blogsites are quite proud of their lack of certainty on spiritual issues. That would make the assment of any of your four categories a tough one in that camp, wouldn't it? If one is to stake the 'spirituality' game on Jesus' words, one would need to look at John 14: 15 where he said, "If you love me, you will obey what I command." God says the same thing in the Old Testament too many times to count here. Since Jesus said he had come to fulfill the law rather than to abolish the law, this aspect must come into play also. There are Ten Commandments in the Old Testament as well as the two NT ones you have included here. All must be taken into consideration. And yet, we are told that we can recognize a really spiritual person by their fruit (of the Spirit). You know them, love, joy, peace, gentleness, goodness, faith. I would have to come down on the side of fruit rather than plants. Whether one is emergent or traditional, if the fruit isn't there, so what?

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