Monday, December 10, 2007

What is the Emerging Church? (Part 1)

I have been asked by some who have looked at the information about NCCT'08 on the conference web site just what the Emerging Church is. This is a question which cannot be answered in a blog post, least of all one written by me. D.A. Carson, one of the keynote speakers for NCCT'08, has written a 200+ page introductory book on the subject. (Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005) He will also address this topic in the first NCCT'08 session on Friday, Feb. 8th.

Part of the difficulty in describing the Emerging Church is the fact that there is so much heterogeneity among the churches that make up this movement. If one wants to explain to someone what a Southern Baptist church is like, you could answer that question in part by referring to the Baptist Faith and Message. This shared definition of what it means to be a Southern Baptist is essentially a confession of faith for the Southern Baptist Convention. Now, does this mean that every SBC church feels the same when you attend? Clearly, no. Each congregation will take some of the personality of its pastor, the region where it is located, etc. But there is a document on which the convention has come to agreement, and most churches will teach the doctrine laid out in that document.

This is not the case with the Emerging Church. Not only is there no denomination (understand that I am not suggesting that a denomination is of itself a good thing), and not only is there no shared doctrinal statement, there are even emergent congregations with no statement of doctrine for their own church body! (Yes, that would suggest that there is no standard for judging good doctrine/teaching from bad in such a church. Any interpretation of a passage of Scripture would be as valid as another interpretation.)

Even leaders within the Emerging Church movement struggle to define the movement. Doug Pagitt says as much in an article published in Relevant Magazine: Unraveling Emergent.

In the first chapter of his book, as he defines the movement, D.A. Carson identifies three things which characterize the movement. I'll look at each of these in turn over the next few days.

First, the Emerging Church movement is characterized by Protest.

A common thread in the lives of many leaders in the movement is that they do not come out of a secular life, but rather they were part of churches - conservative, evangelical, traditional churches. Says Carson,

Most of these "stories of emergence" have in common a shared destination (namely, the emerging church movement) and a shared point of origin: traditional (and sometimes fundamentalist) evangelicalism. What all of these people have in common is that they began in one thing and "emerged" into something else.

So when the movement began to call itself the Emerging Church, it was not the world from which they were emerging. Rather, they were emerging from the historical, traditional church. Why?

As western culture has shifted from modernism to postmodernism, the intellectually elite have rejected absolutes. Ethics are situational, not absolute. Biblical spiritual principles are not absolute, but subject to widely varying interpretations.

One prominent book chronicling the roots of the emerging movement has a subtitle that is telling in this regard: Stories of Emergence: Moving from Absolutes to Authentic (Mike Yaconelli, editor; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003). The clear implication is that the idea that absolute truths can be known and should be held to, or even defended, is something which is to be fled, and which is antithetical to authenticity.

This "protest," then, is against traditional, conservative ways of "doing church." It is against those who believe that absolute truth can be known and taught.

Scot McKnight, author of one of the leading blogs for Emerging Church (Jesus Creed), in a lecture delivered in October 2006 at the Fall Contemporary Issues Conference of Westminster Theological Seminary, said, "I think he's [Carson] right: the emerging movement is a protest. … [I]t is clearly an anti- and protest movement."

(You should not conclude from this quote that McKnight is a fan of the entirety of Carson's treatment of the subject. Quite the contrary. I'll return to McKnight's lecture at another time.)

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