The Emerging Church Phenomenon

by Rick Shrader

We have been studying Postmodernism for twenty years.  Christian writers and non-Christian writers alike sounded a note of alarm at what the effects of this cultural paradigm shift would be upon the Church.  In 1996, James White proposed, “Now a new tidal wave, called by the scholars postmodernity, is sweeping across Western thought, undermining the very idea of absolute truth.  What should be the response of the Christian church in the face of these waves of philosophical attack?”1 In 1999, Dan Story wrote, “This post-Christian and postmodern world holds to the premise that there are no absolute truths that apply to everyone equally.  Christianity and Christian ethics are no longer relevant.  In fact, orthodox Christians are seen as bigoted, narrow-minded, and anti-intellectual because we refuse to accept other religions as ‘paths to God’ or to consider homosexuality, pornography, or abortion as permissible in a moral society.”2

Non-Christians were often more pointed in their criticisms of postmodernism than Christians.  Alan Wolfe, in the October 2000 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, wrote, “Postmodernism exercises such a fascination over the evangelical mind, I believe, because of the never-ending legacy of fundamentalism.  In one sense evangelical scholars have moved away from Billy Sunday and in the direction of French poststructuralism: they cast their lot with those who question any truths rather than those who insist on the literal truth of God’s word.”3 This observation was truly prophetic!  Today, evangelicalism in the name of “emergence,” has distanced itself so far from its fundamental roots that it is embracing postmodernism rather than standing firm in conservative, historic Christianity.

Brian McLaren, probably the most prolific emerging church writer, flatly promotes leaving the old structures and passionately embracing the postmodern culture.  “Even an agnostic or an atheist, then, can see the need for new kinds of churches in the new world—churches that once again replenish the spiritually hungry and thirsty, that understand them and connect them with the mysteries they seed; churches that promote a healthful, whole, hearty spirituality rather than an ugly, thin, hateful, insipid, or anemic religion.”4 Typically, these emergent writers have little sympathy or courtesy for conservative Christianity.

A Definition

Dan Kimball in his book, Emerging Worship:  Creating Worship Gatherings for New Generations,5 gives a revealing definition of “emerging” church worship.  In the first chapter of his book, he takes the reader back to Genesis 4 with the worship of Cain and Abel.  He then moves to Noah in Genesis 8, then to Abraham in Genesis 13, then to Jacob, then David and all the way to Malachi.  Here he stops to show that we have “read about how worship emerged not just in the Temple in Jerusalem, but everywhere, with incense and pure offerings brought to God.  The paradigm of worship shifts again” (p. 8).  The next paragraph begins, “The New Testament is full of emerging worship” (p. 8).

Here, I thought Kimball was about to stop and make a case for why he thinks emerging worship is the true New Testament style of worship.  But no!  With only a brief mention of Jesus and the Apostles, he was on to the architecture of the Roman Basilica of the first few centuries, then the liturgy of the Catholic Church, past the Reformation to today.  His fantastic conclusion is, “So, as our current culture moves from a modern to postmodern world, it is only natural that new forms of worship are arising. . . . It doesn’t mean previous forms of worship are invalid; just that new expressions are emerging—and will continue to emerge” (p. 9).  In other words, even the New Testament was a passing (“emerging”) expression of the necessary ongoing change in worship style, or at best, one of many traditions from which to draw the pieces that we like in our own worship.

If that sounds too fantastic, listen to McLaren:

The new church does not view the New Testament as a “New Leviticus”—a law book of strict rules—nor as a fixed, detailed blueprint to be applied to all churches in all cultures across time.  Rather, the New Testament serves as (among other things) an inspired, exemplary, and eternally relevant case study of how the early church itself adapted and evolved and coped with rapid change and new challenges.  In place of a fixed structure that is to fit all, the new church advocates a flexible, adaptable, evolving structure that is developed to meet the current needs.  The key word is adaptability.6

In a similar vein, Leonard Sweet says, “Jesus is the Truth.  Truth resides in relationships, not documents or principles.  The Gospels don’t teach us about Jesus as principle but Jesus as person.  The power of a logo is that it transmutes image into identity, creating the very thing it symbolizes.  In Jesus, the logos and logo became one.  Not until the fourteenth century (at the earliest) did truth become embedded in propositions and positions.”7 The emerging church leaders see the New Testament as only descriptive of what the church did at that time, not prescriptive for what we must do today.

Correct Observations

There are a few things that the emerging church proponents have correctly noticed.  First, this is a postmodern generation.  Few would disagree that this change from modern to postmodern times has taken place.  The question is not whether we have seen this cultural change happen but how should we respond biblically?  Second, Modernism was a faulty system of anti-theistic thought.  Yes, of course it was.  But the emerging church is claiming that even the form of our traditional church service came more from modernism than from the New Testament.  This is the pot calling the kettle black! Third, the Seeker-Sensitive movement of the past generation has gone beyond any reasonable similarity to a New Testament form of church.  Still, however, the emerging church speakers are much kinder to them than to conservatives.  Fourth, this is a difficult time for conservative, traditional churches.  I would say that the younger generation is not coming to the traditional church because it has never been taught nor disciplined to do so.  Most of these parents have not forced their children to do anything they didn’t want to do.

Though I agree with these four assessments of today’s culture, I also believe the emerging church followers are responding to every one of them in the wrong way.  They are becoming more postmodern rather than confronting that culture; they are flatly wrong that the traditional church was patterned from the modernism of the last 200 years; they helped breed the Seeker-Sensitive movement themselves until they got tired of it; and though it is a hard time for traditional churches to attract young people, such a fact does not and never has kept a true church from remaining true to its biblical convictions.

Greatest Concerns

The first concern I have when I read emerging church writers, and especially when they describe those who only attend those kinds of services, is that this is a group of people which has never liked the church.  Loving the brethren and “the brotherhood” is more than just having sympathy for a wayward believer, much more.  It is loving the people of God!  It is loving what they believe, how they live, and how they worship.  Christian history is replete with testimonies of sinners who have been converted and rescued from their old ways.  Kimball calls his emerging church “refuge camps for bitter Christians that complain against the organized church” (205).  He says that “churchy styling” is “exactly what English emerging churches are trying to escape from” (216).  He also says about English emerging churches, “So, when post-Christian generations in England and Europe who grew up outside the church are resonating with worship there, we in America should pay attention” (209).  My point is that a postmodern generation has boycotted and won!  They weren’t about to participate in what the church is, only in what they want it to be.

My second concern is from Kimball’s definition (see previous) of the emerging church.  Through his book he refers to the old style as a “Judeo-Christian” style of church.  Of a California church he says they “wanted to develop a ministry geared to post-Christians growing up without a Judeo-Christian mindset” (157).  Later in the book he says, “Both British and American post-Christians share in common a culturally implanted worldview that differs from the traditional Judeo-Christian worldview” (217).  In other words, our “Judeo-Christian” worldview is (was) simply a cultural expression.  It can be replaced overnight by any group of people with a different cultural point of view.  Where is the commitment to doctrine here?  Where is the belief in a prophetic future or even the proper understanding of the church age?

My third concern is about the emerging worship itself.  It is so loaded with symbolisms that appeal to the five senses that it becomes void of faithful substance and cognitive processes.  They use crosses, candles, draperies, prayer stations, stations of the cross, nature scenes, painting stations, images of space and planets, and almost anything else that one can dream up.  Their gathering rooms may be full of couches or other casual seating arranged in random order; attendees move about throughout the service; various hands-on experiments may be tried at any time; and many more such things can be listed.  Does all of this appeal to the walk of faith or to the natural man’s limited world of the flesh?  Benjamin Woolley admitted, “Artificial reality is the authentic postmodern condition, and virtual reality its definitive technological expression . . . The artificial is the authentic.”8 As to its evangelistic effectiveness, the discussion of pragmatic methodology has been covered again and again.

My fourth concern is that preaching and everything that goes with it is dangerously minimized or eliminated.  Kimball says, “Emerging preachers see themselves as fellow journeyers.  Preaching is no longer an authoritative transferring of biblical information.  Instead, it’s becoming more about spiritual formation and Kingdom living” (87).  Preachers, pulpits, platforms, and various things that churches have used effectively for hundreds and even thousands of years are now seen as showy, power-hungry, and condescending.  Almost anything connected with preaching is claimed to come from Greek culture and not from the New Testament.  It’s always amazing that this generation has such ability to correct 2000 years of church history!

The claim is that we have fallen prey to the “modernism” of the last 200 years and that what we have called “fundamental” is really an expression of the “modern” era.  Preaching too, they say, is borrowed from that “culture.”  Besides being historically naïve, this is self-contradictory.  By the same reasoning the emerging church, being so enmeshed in the postmodern era, would have no ability to see its own error much less someone else’s.  The truth is, these gatherings are filled with those who never liked church and could never bear to listen to gospel preaching.  Therefore, preaching has been eliminated.

And So . . .

D.A. Carson aptly asked the question, “Is there at least some danger that what is being advocated is not so much a new kind of Christian in a new emerging church, but a church that is so submerging itself in the culture that it risks hopeless compromise?”9 The answer is becoming more obvious all the time.

1. James R. White, The Roman Catholic Controversy (Minneapolis:  Bethany House, 1996) 9.
2. Dan Story, Engaging The Closed Minded (Grand Rapids:  Kregel, 1999) 9.
3. Alan Wolfe, “The Opening of the Evangelical Mind,” The Atlantic Monthly, October, 2000.
4. Brian McLaren, The Church on the Other Side (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2000) 14.
5. Dan Kimball, Emerging Worship (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2004) title page.
6. McLaren, p. 23.
7. Leonard Sweet, Postmodern Pilgrims (Nashville:  Broadman & Holman Pub., 2000) 131.
8. Quoted by Douglas Groothuis, The Soul in CyberSpace (Grand Rapids:  Baker Books, 1997) 27.
9. D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005) 44.