The Emerging Church (part 2)

by Rick Shrader

The primary tenet of the Emerging Church has been that we must a) recognize that our culture has become postmodern and b) we must immerse our churches much more into this postmodernism if we are to reach this generation with the gospel.  It has been my contention that “a” is true but “b” is false.  Increasingly Christian apologists are sounding warnings that this movement has gone over-board in their love affair with the postmodern culture with little or no warning of its inherent dangers.  I have already suggested reading D.A. Carson’s stinging rebuke of the Emerging Church1 for their unbridled adoption of postmodernism.  I might also suggest Douglas Groothuis’ chapter on Postmodernism2 from this month’s book review.  Also Millard Erickson’s Truth or Consequences, part 3.3 All of these strongly warn churches of the dangers in using postmodern methodologies to such a degree.

1. EPIC of the Emerging Church

In his 2000 book Post-Modern Pilgrims4 Leonard Sweet outlined his vision for the new Emerging Churches with the four-fold epigram EPIC, which he gives in a catchy postmodern way, “E(xperiential),” “E-P(articipatory),” “E-P-I (mage-Driven),” “E-P-I-C (onnected).”  By these four adjectives Sweet presents the case for churches adopting a much more serious postmodern mindset.


It takes little proof to show that the current culture puts much more stock in experience and feeling than in rational thinking.  Sweet writes,  “Postmoderns don’t want their information straight.  They want it laced with experience (hence edutainment).  And the more extreme the better” (p. 33).

Two of the most common expressions of this in churches are the replacement of “testimonials” with the sharing of “experiences,” and the replacing of music that relies heavily on the message while the music brings the participants into an experience. For support he enlists a Barna study which “found that 32 percent of all stripes of regular churchgoers have never experienced God’s presence in worship.  Forty-four percent have not experienced God’s presence in the past year” (p. 45).  Sweet advocates, “Total Experience is the new watchword in postmodern worship.  New World preachers don’t ‘write sermons.’ They create total experiences” (p. 43).

In 1985 Neil Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death in which he described a “Sesame Street” generation that has been entertained in school and church since infancy and is now holding us all hostage with the demand, “Entertain me and I’ll learn.”  Sweet’s assessment of the postmodern generation merely describes this phenomenon as inevitable.  He makes no attempt to offer suggestions for combating it but rather only offers ways to “go with the postmodern flow.”  (These are the ones who have always criticized Conservatives  for their failure to confront the culture!)   This appears to be a capitulation to postmodern feeling over fact, or rather, feeling that creates the fact!


It is not hard to show that the postmodern culture is one of participation, of two-way communication not one-way.  Sweet calls this the Karaoke Culture because people don’t want to merely listen, they want to participate in the music.  Television is mostly a one-way communication whereas the computer forces one to interact.  Older Radio broadcasts were one-way communication whereas talk-radio allows the listener to participate.  Sweet criticizes the old “representative” culture in a severe caricature (needing to be controlled, have decisions made for them, etc.) but praises the Participatory Culture for broad-mindedness and fairness.

In his 1994 book, Postmodern Times, Gene Veith pointed out that postmodernism was replacing the “representational” art of premodernism, and the “self-centered” art of modernism with a “participatory art” of postmodernism that is socially constructed.  Again, it may be astute to recognize what is happening, but it is a lack of biblical stewardship to fall head-over-heels for the culture’s immaturity and baseness.  We have always recognized that the younger the child, the more he needs sensory participation.  But we also realize that growing up and maturing means to “put away childish things.”


It is not a secret that today’s culture believes that “image is everything.”  Sweet writes, “The lesson for the church is simple: images generate emotions, and people will respond to their feelings . . . . Images come as close as human beings will get to a universal language” (p. 86). Sweet makes much of the word “metaphor” as opposed to the old word “proposition.”  A proposition has connotations of dictionaries, linguistics, logical deductions and the like.  But metaphor has the connotation of symbols, stories, feelings and other image-driven communication.  Sweet says,  “Postmodern culture is image-driven.  The modern world was word-based.  Its theologians tried to create an intellectual faith, placing reason and order at the heart of religion” (p. 86).

Metaphors, similes, parables and other language tools all have a legitimate place in Scripture and other literature.  But there is a definite demarcation between using these language tools to illuminate propositional truth and using them to create propositions!   Carson writes, “Yes, postmoderns are more open to nonlinear thinking than moderns, and they probably appreciate imagery and metaphor more than the preceding generation. . . . But there are plenty of dangers with ‘image-driven’ witness.  While it can fire the imagination, it may prove so subjective that it leads people astray from what the text actually says.”5


I doubt that anyone denies the obvious fact that the world is a smaller place because of modern communication tools.  But the point here is not merely communication but connectivity.  Sweet writes, “the web is less an information source than a social medium.  Both [ and eBay] are becoming the new town squares for the global village” (p. 109).  The contention is that people are hungry for personal connections and are not getting them in the traditional places.  “The paradox is this: the pursuit of individualism has led us to this place of hunger for connectedness, for communities not of blood or nation but communities of choice” (p. 109-110).  Sweet goes even further when he writes, “Jesus is the Truth.  Truth resides in relationships, not documents or principles . . . . Not until the fourteenth century (at the earliest) did truth become embedded in propositions and positions” (p. 131).

Again, no one doubts the fact that this is a connected world and few doubt that people are hungry for relationships.  But where does the local church, made up of born-again believers and responsible for the precepts of God’s Word, open its doors indiscriminately to whomever wants to “feel connected?”  The Emergent Church puts “belonging” before “becoming” (i.e. sharing in the family’s benefits before committing to its membership) even in matters of salvation and church membership.  Unbelievers must never be “disconnected.”  In addition, the “global community” emphasis widens the door for ecumenical and social gospel participation that conservative local churches have until now cautiously avoided.  To avoid these things is seen as sectarian and narrow-minded to today’s “connected” generation.

2. Some Further Thoughts

It has been a generally accepted conclusion by conservative writers that postmodernism has many more negatives than positives.  For a new movement to advocate using more of it, not less, should sound a strong note of warning to Biblically conservative churches.  In addition to my comments above I would add two thoughts that keep coming back to me as I read more and more of this literature.

The Return to an Old Testament Form of Faith and Practice

The appeal for support of contemporary worship is almost always from the Old Testament because the New Testament says very little about it.  New Testament worship is centered on our High Priest in heaven who continually intercedes for us.  It is by necessity more cognitive than emotional.  The writer of Hebrews often contrasts the temple worship on earth with its “participatory” and “symbolic” services with that of faith, which understands what is happening before God’s throne in heaven.  Chapter 12 reminds us that we are not come to Mt. Sinai that was full of sights and sounds, but to Mt. Zion and the things of a heavenly worship.

Even in the matter of salvation, the Emerging Church places “belonging” before “becoming” i.e. practicing the things of Christianity before actually accepting them.  Paul’s formula for “the righteousness which is of the law” (Rom 10:5) is “that the man which doeth those things shall live by them” (taken from Lev 18:5) rather than the New Testament order of faith before works.  Liberal Christianity has always down-played personal conversion and focused on teaching a person to try to live the Christian life.  The seeker-sensitive model is to bring the lost person into the church first with a lot of “Christian” activity, and then hope that conversion will follow.

The simple Christian life with its walk of faith, not of sight, has no appeal to this carnal world (nor should it).  But a religious life of good works with a lot of activity to keep the contemplation at a minimum appeals a great deal.  Baptists, of all believers, have been champions of a simple, direct New Testament form of worship. Even D.A. Carson says “The emerging folk have reversed the order.  Invite people to belong, welcome them aboard, take them into your story, and the ‘becoming’ may follow” (p. 146).  Then, sadly, he adds, “Over against this ‘Believers Church Tradition’ to which they are normally thought to belong, some Baptists are now openly advocating belonging before becoming” (p. 147).  That’s because a desire for popularity will always gravitate to the base desires of the lost which will always be a works-based salvation, what Paul calls “the righteousness which is of the law.” Ironically, this becomes the real “legalism.”

The Reversal of the Fundamentals from a Century Ago

Having read the entire set of The Fundamentals last year, I’m convinced that many who think they are still in that mold are not, whether they still choose to use the title or not.  As I have written before, the most obvious reversal in thinking is the misconception that these volumes present an irreducible minimum of doctrines that make one a “fundamentalist.”  The opposite is true.  They propose that all of the Bible must be defended against the modernists who were minimizing almost all parts of it for rationalistic reasons.  To minimize parts of it today for pragmatic reasons is no less (and perhaps more) dangerous.

I made a list of references from The Fundamentals that speak to almost all of the concepts in the EPIC outline above.  Space keeps me from being detailed.  My intention was to illustrate how far we’ve moved away from what our forefathers in the faith defended.  One example would be from Howard Crosby on “Preach the Word.” He writes,  “Churches are filled by appealing to carnal desires and aesthetic tastes.  Brilliant oratory, scientific music, sensational topics and fashionable pewholders, are the baits to lure people into the churches, and a church is called prosperous as these wretched devices succeed” (Vol. III, p. 169-170).

I’ve also read (and reviewed) the volumes on The Fundamental Baptist Congresses fifty years after that.  They are not as detailed nor doctrinal as The Fundamentals but still show the same true fundamentalism.  Now, at another fifty year interval, we need another world-wide voice for the fundamentals of our faith.  As one said of those early days, “There were giants in the land in those days.”  They were truly men who stood against the world and cared not for its praises.  God help us to have some today.

1. D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2005).
2. Douglas Groothuis, “Facing the Challenge of Postmodernism,” in To Everyone An Answer, edited by J.P. Moreland and others (Downer’s Grove, IVP, 2004).
3. Millard Erickson, Truth or Consequences: the promise and perils of postmodernism (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2001).
4. Leonard Sweet, Post-Modern Pilgrims (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2000).
5. Carson, 126.