The Emerging Church (part 1)

by Rick Shrader

There is no rut so deep to fall into as the need for constant change.  Already we are being told that “postmodernism” is out of date and we are now living in a “post-postmodern” time.  Spurgeon described the shifting sands of his own day in this way: “It will have no creed because it can have none: it is continually on the move; it is not what it was yesterday, and it will not be tomorrow what it is today.  Its shout is for ‘liberty,’ its delight is invention, its element is change.”1 Whether the issues are the same or not, such rushing to ride the latest religious wave must be as old as the waves themselves.

The Emergent Church

Many today feel that the Evangelicalism of the twentieth century has long outlived its usefulness (Fundamentalism being long since dead!).  They are tired of traditional church and seeker-sensitive church.  They are done with propositions and books and proofs of God’s existence, even with the Bible as a final authority for faith and practice.  They are stepping away from all of that and emerging into a much more fluid and relevant type of worship.  D.A. Carson describes the testimony of one such pilgrim:

In 1998 [Spencer] Burke started  The name of the active chat room is designedly metaphorical: Burke intends this to be a place where ‘the various parts of the faith community are like mercury.  At times we’ll roll together; at times we’ll roll apart.  Try to touch the liquid or constrain it, and the substance will resist.  Rather than force people to fall into line, an oozy community tolerates differences and treats people who hold opposing views with great dignity.  To me, that’s the essence of the emerging church.’  For several years, the Ooze hosted ‘a learning party called Soularize,’ where members of the ‘online community’ shared with each other—and in 2001 they went out on a limb and offered a Native American potlatch—i.e., ‘a spiritual ceremony of gift giving and grace giving’—as part of the conference.  ‘More and more, my heart is about creating safe places for leaders to ask questions and to learn from each other.’2

The Emerging Church may take the form of chat rooms and blogs, or it may take the form of liturgical church services with candles, incense and sacraments.  More than the Seeker Church could imagine, the Emerging Church has placed the individual as the highest authority for the worship experience.  In a sort of existential way, truth claims are treated as suspect and absolutes are unknowable even to the church!  “Unless we can know something absolutely and infallibly, we can’t know anything truthfully.”  This is what Carson calls the “manipulative antithesis.”3 For the Convergent believer, the church of the last two centuries is more modernistic than historical because it has fallen for the modernistic approach to knowing things, i.e., that they can be known.  To them, Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism were both “modernistic” because they settled into the “modern” age too comfortably, and argued, preached, wrote and reasoned from the “modern” perspective of knowing truth.  The Emerging Church will do away with all of that because now all “are being swept up in a new new world (p. 12).”

Some Emerging Church Writers

The list of writers, pastors and speakers representing this new worship is growing day by day.   I will review four of the more prominent names who have written books that come highly recommended if you are into this sort of thing.

Brian McLaren, The Church on the Other Side (Zondervan, 2000)

McLaren, as much as anyone, is pushing for churches to quit fighting postmodernism and embrace it.  “The book is for people who don’t think we can go back to the old world—and don’t want to.  It is for people who want to help define and shape the church of the future” (p. 15).  In the process of arguing for this, many alarming statements are made.

? His view of the new emerging church is one which will not be very tied to biblical mandates:  “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” (p. 23).

? To emergent churches, the Bible isn’t necessarily the rule for faith, and definitely not for practice:  “In the old church, wineskins were mandates.  They couldn’t be changed. . . . In the new church, we will not only be open to a new program but will loosen up about programs altogether” (p. 44).

? As is true of seeker-sensitive churches, emergent churches see the need to turn out the older saints and whoever else cannot make the change.  In a section called “Practicing Systems Thinking,” McLaren gives fourteen analogies of new systems that must rid themselves of older baggage (organisms fighting disease, the rain forest, recycling, vomiting, etc).   Then in a clear reference to people who resist he says, “A system will discontinue if it loses the ability to neutralize or discharge baggage, toxins, stress, germs, and waste products.  Many churches languish or die because they have no way to rid themselves of destructive elements that have invaded or developed in the body” (p. 47).  He is not speaking here of necessary church discipline, but of older thinking that holds back the new thinking.

? In addition, doctrine statements will be “traded up” for more eclectic beliefs (p. 56); keeping to a denominational name is merely “clinging to our little histories” (p. 57); even “premillennial eschatology of immanence, urgency, and cataclysm . . . final judgment and heaven and hell” are only as useful as “going to the dentist for a root canal, you will feel better when it’s over” (p. 150).

Robert Webber, Planning Blended Worship (Abington, 1998)

Webber writes more about the effect of emergence on the style of the worship service (see my May 2005 article in Aletheia).  He believes “the two movements of worship renewal, liturgical and contemporary, had independent histories until the 1990s when a form of blended or convergence worship began to develop” and among other objectives has “a radical commitment to contemporary relevance” (p. 16).

? The arts are restored to their “rightful” place in worship as in “medieval era communication” though “Protestantism rejected visual communication in favor of a more verbal approach to worship” (p. 18).  Drama, dance, pantomime are among the more prominent new art forms in emergent worship.

? “Table Worship” is being introduced even in Evangelical churches.  This specifically is the Eucharist in its sacramental form.  Webber believes that “the form of table worship in most Protestant churches originated as a reaction against Roman Catholic Table worship” (p. 150).  This is seen as unfortunate because it robbed the churches of such a rich ceremonial message.  “An intense encounter with God’s supernatural presence takes place in the receiving of bread and wine, but this experience has been terribly damaged by modern thinking [read: Fundamentalism & Evangelicalism] . . . .  The new appreciation of the mystery of Christ’s saving and healing presence at bread and wine is captured in Cyril of Jerusalem’s speech” which Webber quotes at length (p. 136).

? Interestingly, Webber makes much of distinguishing between message and methods, content and style, etc., echoing many fundamental voices today (see p. 28).

Barry Liesch, The New Worship (Baker, 2001)

Liesch is writing more specifically about contemporary worship music.  Though I don’t believe “convergence” is specifically mentioned, that may be due to the fact the this book first appeared in 1996 and again in 2001.  The arguments and reasons for “The New Worship” are found in almost any book supporting convergence.

? Liesch says, and quotes Clinton Arnold for support, that “the pluralistic culture of Colossae suggests the use of a variety of materials” since the city was a blend of many cultures.  Arnold says that since Christians at Colossae coexisted with people who worshiped “Anatolian, Persian, Greek, Roman, and Egyptian deities” as well as Jews, “Their music probably reflected their multicultural environment, an aspect our pluralistic society in North America has in common with the early church” (p. 41).

? Liesch argues that the three participles in Colossians 3:16 (teaching, admonishing, singing) should be taken as instrumental (“by”) rather than imperative (followed by a period), circumstantial (“as”) or resultant (“then”).  That is, he believes  these things themselves (especially singing) produce the filling of the Spirit, rather than being products of the filling.

? Increasingly convergence writers use and quote neo-orthodox and existential thinkers to support their emotionally charged view of worship.  Liesch actually includes a section called “Kierkegaard and Performance” in which he praises what the father of existentialism calls “worship performance.”  From this Liesch promotes the idea that in worship we are the “prompters” and “players” and God is the “audience” which makes worship seek an emotional response from God.  If, rather, we are the audience, waiting on God to speak through His Word, worship is cognitive (an idea convergence people think is “modernistic”).

Leonard Sweet, Post-Modern Pilgrims (Broadman, 2000)

Along with McLaren, Sweet is one of the most vocal and recognized emergence speakers.  He admits to dedicating his ministry “to moving the church back to the future” an idea he calls “ancientfuture faith” (p. 46).  He says, “Postmodern culture is my here and now.  I will take the church back to the cyberage, or will perish in the attempt” (p. 47).  Earlier he had asked, “Why can’t we kiss the postmodern culture?” (p. 6).

? The old culture is “book-centric” while the new culture is “web-centric” (p. 140).  “Postmodern hermeneutics of participant-observation”. . . .  is “dethroning the old epistemological pretensions of knowing” (p. 143).  The western way of knowing is modern (occidental) while the eastern way of thinking (oriental) is “more biblical” (p. 145).

? “Truth resides in relationships, not documents or principles . . . Not until the fourteenth century (at the earliest) [Read: Reformation] did truth become embedded in propositions and positions” (p. 131).

? In a shocking admission of the convergence agenda in worship, Sweet insists on “The importance of shifting worship from the exegesis of words to the exegesis of images if we are to birth and build churches that last” (p. 95).  Again, “Divine revelation has occurred.  There are universal moral truths.  Yet knowledge about these truths is socially constructed.  We both discover and construct knowledge” (p. 146).  Sweet says we are “awakening to a postmodern world open to revelation and hungry for experience” (p. 29).

? Sweet’s book is largely outlined by the acrostic EPIC:  Experiential, Participatory, Image-driven, Connected.  This is his formula for success in the postmodern age in which we live.  My analysis of this will follow in next month’s issue.

And So . . . .

D.A. Carson writes, “Most of the emergent writers have gone to great lengths to say that unless Christians make the kinds of adjustments they are calling for—adjustments that they think are mandated by the assumptions of postmodernism—they will confine themselves to obsolescent enclaves.”  He then frankly says that those are “the shrill cries of sectarians.”4 And I surely agree!

1. Charles Spurgeon, The Downgrade Controversy (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, nd) 71.
2. D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 05) 19.
3. Carson, 104 (see also his refutation of this concept)
4. Carson, 155.