Any author attempting to profile the phenomenon of the "emerging church" faces a daunting task.
Churches identifying themselves as emerging are new and diverse. Some have distanced themselves from both the mindset of traditional denominations and contemporary "seeker" models of church, while others identify with ancient traditions. Among the latter, some emerging congregations grow within an existing church, while others are new church plants that retain their denominational affiliation. There are also some significant differences between the United States and U.K., to which we might add Australia and New Zealand. This is all to say that D. A. Carson, professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, has had to simplify a complex picture.
Carson characterizes the movement as one of protest against "the conservative, traditional, evangelical churches, sometimes with a fundamentalist streak." For many emergent leaders, the issue is not to protest the old so much as a restlessness to find new ways of "doing church." They seek to relate to a secularand increasingly post-secularculture, in which the church is marginalized as traditional Christendom cracks and crumbles.
Carson focuses on Brian McLaren, as well as a small number of other authors such as Dan Kimball, Spencer Burke, and Mike Yaconelli (in the U.S.), and David Tomlinson and Steve Chalke (in the U.K.). This tends to skew the discussion because it highlights those who have come out of house-church fundamentalism or seeker-driven megachurches. Research by Ryan Bolger among more than 50 emergent leaders indicates that N. T. Wright, the eminent New Testament scholar, and Dallas Willard of the University of Southern California are equally influential.
Emerging church leaders identify modernism as a large part of the problem. It has given rise to denominations and permeated evangelicalism to a far greater extent than many are prepared to admit. Cultural fragmentation and polarization require churches to redefine and retool themselves in the current context. Many old modernist notions no longer apply, and they inhibit the ongoing mission of the church. But Carson is correct to critique the blanket condemnation of modernity by many of these writers. As with any culture, there is a mixture of the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Carson is also on target when he identifies epistemology as the fundamental issue in the move from modernity to postmodernity. On this topic, most of Carson's analysis, concern, and attack focus on Brian McLaren.
McLaren makes an easy target for a philosophical theologian. He is unsystematic and speculative. He operates in the front-line trenches of church ministry rather than in the world of academia. His strength lies in the questions he is prepared to face with honesty and considerable insight, rather than in his responses. Many emerging church leaders find in McLaren someone who shares their questions and concerns. He has a passion to communicate with those who have discarded the church as irrelevant or no longer credible.
In evaluating the emerging church, Carson explores three issues in particular: its reading of contemporary culture; its assertion that changing times demand that fresh questions be asked of Scripture; and its own proposals for the way ahead, which must be assessed for their biblical fidelity.
Carson gives credit to the emerging church for honestly trying to read the culture. They are also thinking through the implications of this reading for our witness, our theology, our churchmanship, even our self-understanding. However, his main concern is that in the course of engaging with culture by means of postmodern analysis, too much has been conceded. In missional terms, McLaren and other writers he cites have allowed postmodern culture to determine the message (naïve contextualization), rather than addressing this culture with their message. Carson faults them for their analysis of culture, and then for the inadequacy of their solutions. In Carson's analysis, these solutions, with their eclectic appeal to tradition, skirt the truth claims of Scripture.
A Contested Faith
The late Lesslie Newbigin is widely credited with alerting the Western world to the reality that it is now a mission field, and that the churches face the daunting challenge of its re-evangelization. Newbigin said neither fundamentalism nor liberalism has provided an appropriate response. No one disputes his assessment of the post-Christian character of Western culture as far as Europe is concerned, but faith remains a contested matter in North America.
A missional engagement requires immersion in culture, to listen and ask questions. A missionary then proposes responses from the gospel, rather than attempting to impose a message. Postmoderns, who are anti-absolutist, suspicious of truth claims, and wide open to relativism, will pose new and discomforting questions. Emerging leaders are immersed in these oceans, rather than occasionally visiting or examining them in the laboratories of evangelical academia.
To his credit, Carson challenges those evangelicals who mistakenly believe they can somehow ignore these cultural changes. He also encourages a corporate reading of Scripture by people from different backgrounds and social contexts, as a way to engage the text more comprehensively.
However, in terms of the missional strategy of emerging churches, Carson is uneasy with their handling of the tension between "becoming" and "belonging." Many emergent practitioners don't draw lines between believers and unbelievers, or church members and nonmembers, arguing the lines are arbitrary and that we are all on a journey. But Carson notes that the New Testament does speak of insiders and outsiders; the Christian church represents a new and distinctive community. Furthermore, there is a legitimate distinction between those who seek to understand and obey the Scriptures and those who do not.
At the same time, in a post-Christian and increasingly neo-pagan society, people need to see the gospel in action and to be included. Thus they will experience the impact of the message as part of coming to believe. The distinction between Carson and emergent leaders may lie in the difference between the faith as a "bounded" set, one that defines who is inside and who is outside, and a "centered" set, which is more concerned with the direction in which people are traveling, toward or away from Christ.
Passé and Popular
In the broader popular culture, people of all agesand especially the under-35shave become postmodernized even though they know nothing about the philosophy of postmodernism.
As a philosophy, it might be passé, as Carson argues, but it is alive and well in shaping popular culture. Rather than becoming antagonists, Carson and McLaren should continue in dialogue, so the academic theologian and the missional practitioner might be mutually enriched and refocused.
Eddie Gibbs is professor of church growth at the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He is the coauthor of the forthcoming Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Baker, December 2005).
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Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
D.A. Carson is on the faculty at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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