The Emergent Church Movement and the Gospel: An Invitation to Think

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Emergent Church Movement
and the Gospel:
An Invitation to Think

Well I did it. I happened upon the Java Hava yesterday in a little place called Downtown Carrillon, a beach resort located just west of Panama City Beach at the end of Front Beach Road. I was hoping to strike up another conversation with the kindly gent I met yesterday, because we did so yesterday. My heart seems to burn hotter for ministry, service, and evangelism to the lost when I'm on vacation! I guess that's because I'm out of the office and back into the real world.

Anyway, as I sit here listening to the latest attacks on Karl Rove, this time by Katie Couric (no surprise there!), and checking emails with a fellow Wi-Fi'er over a Mocha and cinnamon roll I thought I'd post some quite different thoughts I had yesterday concerning the Emergent Church Movement. I jotted down these thoughts after several hours at the beach on the belly boards with my two oldest boys, which means this ole out of shape preacher was smack tired when I wrote it! So I appreciate any patience you could afford me!

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In a previous post entitled "What the Emergent Church thinks about the Gospel", I first introduced some statements by Emerging Church leaders, thinkers, and writers on what they believe the gospel to be. (And Lord willing I plan to post a "Part Two" in the next few days with more statements.) To be fair to the EC movement, they would believe that such statements, in and of themselves, could not possibly reveal everything they believe about the gospel. The way they view the effects of modernism on theology has led them to make some vital analyses and critiques about the church and the gospel in particular.

One critical analysis has been the accurate perception that theology (and especially the gospel) cannot be completely contained or retained by human language without experiencing some necessary degree of change due to the change of culture. So my very act of offering key statements, in that first post, about their view of the gospel is sort of an injustice to their way of 'doing theology.'

You see, their efforts from the start have been to avoid propositional statements about the gospel, for they rightly understand that doing so tends toward reductionism. The gospel of Jesus Christ - everything pertaining and relating to His person and work - cannot possibly be completely contained in statements constructed with human language. After all, it is an eternal and divine message, infinite and immutable with respect its nature and message. So there is simply no way that human language, which is precisely that - human, and thus finite and changeable - can possibly shape some verbal construct in which all of the gospel can be contained.

This is precisely the problem with modern evangelicalism, the ECM would argue. The gospel along with Christ - and all of theology as well - is forced into the confines of propositional statements about the gospel. But while these statements are not the good news itself, they are used so often (while ignoring the humanity and finitude and culture of language) and in such a dogmatic way (while almost 'canonizing' such statements) that they have ultimately become seen as such. Thus, the gospel of the good news of Jesus Christ, through these tendencies of modern evangelicalism, has been reduced to statements about the gospel.

Let me put it another way. The failure of evangelicalism in this area just described is seen largely in its definition and understanding of the gospel only with certain key words, phrases, statements, and/or explanations. For those who have been a part of a traditional denomination long enough, the gospel is most often defined and understood, preached and taught, as: 'inviting Jesus into your heart', 'inviting Jesus into your life', 'giving your heart to God', 'accepting Him as Savior', 'receiving Christ as your Savior', 'making Jesus your Lord and Savior', 'making Jesus the Lord of your life', 'putting Jesus on the throne of your heart', 'confessing your sins', 'repenting of your sins', 'praying the sinner's prayer', etc. ad nauseum. To make matters worse, invitations to 'become a Christian' or 'join the church' are made with such offers as, 'come forward', 'walk the aisle', 'raise your hand', or 'come down to the altar.' Consequently, the person 'making a decision' comes to associate his or her 'decision for Christ' with what it means to actually be and/or become a Christian.

The problem with this more recent approach to 'gospel invitations' is two-fold.

First, as already stated, the gospel message itself comes to be identified with reductionistic statements, many of which are misleading at best. Several generations of 'Christians' and church members have come to understand a gospel which is not the authentic, biblical gospel at all. Such an approach only perpetuates the error, causing that error to be more deeply engrained with each passing generation until it becomes tradition. Then, when a few rise up who question the way in which the gospel has been traditionally understood or preached, these few find themselves the objects of scorn, mockery, and rejection by traditionalists.

The second problem with this approach is that while churches become filled with such persons - many, if not most of whom are probably not genuine believers - those same churches lose their identity in the world. The church is supposed to be the living, breathing, walking and talking hermeneutic of the gospel. Believers interpret, explain, and exposit the truth and truthfulness of the gospel not so much by what they say as by how they live and what they treasure. But if one is not a true believer to begin with, because they have confused the gospel they heard and 'accepted' with the true one, then they cannot live by it nor treasure its Person. The church is supposed to be a light to the world (Matt. 5:14). But the reason the world is not seeing our good works and glorifying God in heaven is because the light is not shining so brightly (Matt. 5:16). And the reason the light is not shining brightly is because the true gospel has become confused with a traditional one, one formulated outside the Scriptures, shaped with dogmatism, and perpetuated toward isolationism.

These two problems have come about because a gospel has been conceived, born, raised, and reproduced that absconds the true identity of a Christian. This has had the further effect of (sometimes unwittingly, or sometimes purposefully) forcing groups of such 'believers' together into an ecclesiocentric mindset, centering all their resources and skills on building their group, on 'growing' their church. Isolationism has become the unavoidable end as the church turns its attention inward, instead of focusing on itself instead of on the world as Christ initially commanded His disciples to do in the first place (Matt. 28:19-20).

For those readers who are currently in a traditional denomination (like my own Southern Baptist Convention), perhaps this is the first time you've had some of the things you may hold dear challenged in this way. If so, consider this challenge more carefully weighing it against a fresh reading of the New Testament Gospels. And for those readers who have considered this challenge before (such as my fellow Reformed brothers and sisters) and agree with this assessment and share my critique, then some of the leaders, thinkers, and writers in the Emerging Church are worth listening to, for our assessment is also theirs.

What we can stand to learn from them is the 'why', that is, why the church is where it is today, why it is so isolated from the world, why it is not having as much of an impact on the world as it should, why preaching and teaching in the local church pulpit is so weak, and why biblical discipleship is so rare. Postmodernism has a good bit to offer the church in terms of understanding these things, primarily because whether we like it or not, postmodernism is very much a result of these things. The ECM contends that the reason for these things is due largely to the influences of modernism in the gospel, those influences that have constrained and confined the gospel to specific statements and beliefs, some of which may be biblically natured, and some of which are not.

Their overall contention is noteworthy and justified, I believe, because of modern evangelicalism's insistence that the gospel can and should be reduced to 'truth statements' and 'beliefs' alone. Such things are important, to be sure, since the 'good news' we are to share with the world, must in fact be shared with words, phrases, statements, convictions, and beliefs, all of which must be verbalized in a way that communicates meaningfully and effectively with the culture to whom we share it. However, if the 'good news' is confined only to such communication, it is divorced from the equally meaningful and effective communication of lifestyle, reflected in such essentials as relationships and friendships, conversation and discussion.

Let me put it this way: we're not going to win the world with words only, no matter how true and biblical those words may be. Such a critique does not ignore at all the important role of the Holy Spirit and the sovereignty of God in the salvation of the lost in the world around us. But those Christians who are theologically 'sharp' and astute - and especially my fellow Reformed brothers and sisters - would do well to recognize that I'm not too far off the mark when I say that our biggest failure is evangelization. And even those who are evangelistically sharp and astute would even have to agree with me when I contest that such efforts are built more on dogmatic statements, beliefs, demands, and pragmatic programs and events than they are on meaningful relationships.

When our explanation and interpretation of the gospel of Jesus Christ is built more on intellectual assent to propositional truths, on the religious influences we want to see forced upon our government, and on the ecclesiocentric efforts to 'grow' our local churches, more than it is on serving the lost just as Jesus did, the world cannot help but come to view Christianity as it currently does - a religious world inhabited by a bunch of fanatic, right-wing, fundamentalistic, Bible-thumping idiots whose only recourse against the forces of paganism is a retreat to emotion, tradition, and dogmatism. That's just not the way Jesus approached the evangelization of the world, and it's not how He commanded His disciples to either. The kingdom of God is supposed to be built by teaching what Jesus taught, and baptizing in His name, as the Great Commission mandates. But! it is established upon discipleship, which can only happen by entering into meaningful relationships with lost people who will be converted partly through meaningful communication as well as loving service, and partly through the Holy Spirit's work in and through such means.

The analyses made here in this post are intended primarily as an invitation for Non-EC'ers to think. It is an invitation to think with them about their critiques and analyses, and to do so more with them rather than against them. There are definite dangers in the movement, to be sure. Some are easily identifiable, and some are not. But toward an obedient effort of a universal application of 1 Thessalonians 5:21, we must examine the Emergent Church Movement, holding tightly to the things in it which are good, and of course, abstaining from those things which are bad. So examine it with me, and more specifically, look for the good that can challenge and teach us. For if our time is spent more on critiquing and negating it, then not only are we violating the Golden Rule (treating them as we would not want them to treat us), but worse we are rejecting what God desires to use as a means for our own personal growth as well as the growth of His kingdom, which is what we are here on this earth for to begin with!

In saying these things, I fear this post may end up hurting the relationships I have with some, particularly those who are anti-ECM, reformed, or both. If so, our friendship cannot be forged and tempered on that which we hate, but on that which we love. But where Christ is the sole treasure, such friendships can only deepen, and iron will truly be sharpening iron. I pray that all readers will understand my heart on this matter and interact with feedback where there is confusion or misunderstanding. For if you reject me because I didn't say something "right", or say it the way you would have said it, then the failure of 'Christianity' I have described above will only perpetuate itself through dogmatism instead of discussion, and through traditionalism rather than trust.

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