What is an Emergent Church like? That question is akin to asking what an American is like. There is no “one size fits all” answer to that question. Just like each individual American is a unique personality, so emergent churches do not fit into one simple description. However, there are some broad categories that mostly define the various strains of this movement. One strain is in many ways analogous to the baby boomers’ church revolution. They hold to solid evangelical theology, but want to update worship styles, preaching styles and church leadership structures to forms that they deem to be more appealing to the current generation. There is another strain that also retains sound theology but these folks believe traditional church forms have failed to create real life transformation. In some ways they are reacting to the mega church movement that has developed over the past four decades. They say they want something more organic. Often these churches will take the form of something like house churches. George Barna is a well-known advocate of this approach to life and ministry in the church.
Two very visible leaders of this arm of the movement are Brian McLaren, well known author, speaker and head of the Emergent Village organization, and Rob Bell, popular pastor and author. Reflecting the postmodern allergy to truth claims, those in this camp often decline to take a clear position on a particular issue, choosing instead to just ask questions. McLaren typifies this when in his book, A Generous Orthodoxy, he describes his theological position as “a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, fundamental/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent unfinished Christian.” It’s hard to parse out what that means other than, “don’t try to pin me down on anything.” There is nothing wrong with not wanting to be categorized by any particular theological labels, but this tendency to waffle and evade potentially difficult positions seems to extend beyond being somewhat theologically eclectic. Of concern is that he lists people such as Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan as powerful influences in his theology. Borg is a pantheist and Crossan, the co-chairman of the Jesus Seminar flatly denies the resurrection of Christ saying it was merely “wishful thinking.” McLaren also endorsed Alan Jones’ book, Reimagining Christianity, in which the author argued that the cross is a “vile doctrine” that makes God look vindictive.
Rob Bell has said that the Emergent Church movement is about more than simply changing forms of worship or ministry. He said, “this is not just the same old message with new methods. We’re rediscovering Christianity.” In other words, we’re finding a message that is new and is different from the evangelical gospel. Bell is a creative, extremely popular author and pastor of a megachurch who is an outstanding communicator. However, his recent book, Love Wins, has provoked a huge controversy, for in it he essentially denies the existence of hell and, while not saying it outright, stakes out a universalist position (all people will be saved by God) that will be highly palatable to postmoderns (you can find extensive, very good reviews of the book by both Tim Challies and Kevin DeYoung on the internet). Again with Bell it is unsettling when he lists as one of his theological influences Ken Wilber and his book A Brief History of Everything. Wilber is a Buddhist, and in his book says that Christianity is fourth among the nine levels of human spiritual consciousness, a level that will be outgrown with more enlightened understanding of the world. Author and pastor John Piper’s first response to Bell’s new book was a three word tweet on Twitter, “Farewell, Rob Bell.” In other words, he was saying that Bell had left the evangelical church. Dr. D. A. Carson, eminent scholar and theologian has said that while he wants to say this in as kindly a fashion as possible, people such as Bell and McLaren have “abandoned the gospel.”
Ministering to people with a postmodern philosophy is a real challenge. I give credit to those who are striving to find creative ways to bring the grace of God to our culture. However, there is an inherent danger in immersing one’s self in that culture’s way of thinking, and that danger is to begin to adopt it. It seems as though in at least a part of the Emergent Church that is what has happened. Instead of letting the Word of God sit in judgment on postmodern thinking, some of these people have gradually begun to let postmodern thinking sit in judgment on the Word of God. Their message is likely to strike a chord with those they are trying to reach, for the very simple reason that they are preaching to the choir. They are telling people what they already want to believe. So it is quite likely that they will become even more popular. Their message is going to be well received.
What, then, will be the long term effect of this part of the Emergent Church movement? Unfortunately my crystal ball seems to have become defective and as a result I find myself having a difficult time predicting the future (see my blog on my Super Bowl prediction for proof). I can make some guesses, and that’s all they are. It certainly seems as though those in this arm of the church are beginning to make a break from the larger evangelical church. I would not be surprised, as I said, to see some, like Rob Bell, build a large following. However, I would also not be surprised if over the long haul their “movement” loses steam. I think this because I do not believe the Spirit of Jesus Christ is going to be active in it. When people remove the cross, the uniqueness of Jesus, and the uniqueness of the gospel of grace from their message, they may produce a form of godliness but it will be without the power of the gospel to change lives. The mainline denominations in our nation have done just that, and the result is that they have been in a serious decline that shows no signs of abating. Their message simply has no power. Unfortunately when one takes away the centrality of the cross of Jesus Christ eventually there is going to be a sort of “Emperor’s New Clothes” effect on their gospel. People will at some point realize there’s nothing there, for there is no good news without the cross.
I applaud those in the “Emergent Church” who are doing what they can to reach the postmodernists among us with the message of grace through Jesus Christ. I am concerned about those who appear to be compromising on crucial points of the Gospel. By all reports they are good people, serious about faith and full of compassion for the “next generation.” They need our love and our prayers. I am not concerned that they are going to do harm to the kingdom of God and the advance of the Gospel. God is bigger than that. But I pray that they see they are in danger of eviscerating the very message they claim to present.