Emergent Church Movement & the Gospel: Insights from a Recent Don Carson Interview

Thursday, July 21, 2005

In a recent interview PBS did with Don Carson the Emerging Church, for their Religion and Ethics Weekly program, some helpful comments were made by Don with reference to the EMC and the gospel. The interview is over seven pages long, small print, and may be too long for some to digest. So here are a few paragraphs which sum up the relationship and the concerns about them. (Read the entire interview here.)

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Lawton: What are your main concerns about the emerging church movement?

Carson: ...some are so eager to make adaptations to fit what is understood to be the postmodern mind, or the sensibilities of the so-called "Y Generation," sort of under 25, under-30-year-olds, that parts of what the Bible actually says get shifted to the side. And so what comes across is not, sometimes, the historic Gospel that you actually find in the Bible. If you start losing the good news about Jesus, then the price is pretty high.

Lawton: Could you give examples of that?

Carson: Well, for example, the historic good news of the Gospel right across the centuries has always been concerned not only with excellent relationships and who God is and turning from that which is evil, but it has also been concerned to confess certain things as true. And the opposite of these things, then, is not true. But some in the emerging movement so influenced by postmodern sensibilities find any mention of truth, objective truth, angular or offensive. It might sound intolerant, and so people like to talk about Jesus himself as the truth, so the truth is relational. Well, I want to talk about Jesus as the truth, too. But the same Gospel, the Gospel of John that portrays Jesus as the truth -- the truth made flesh, as it were -- also insists that certain things are true, and without them the whole good news about Jesus and what he's done and why he came and how he actually transformed us gets lost somewhere in the shuffle. So, the Gospel itself is angular. It always has been. It always conflicts. It always challenges every generation. It challenges different generations in different ways. But it can never be -- it should never be simply domesticated to the current sensibilities.

Lawton: What cautions do you have for the emerging church movement as it develops?

Carson: It seems to me that Christians ought to be passionate, first of all, about Christ and about the Gospel, about the Good News...But what should characterize Christians is a passion for people because of the Gospel, because of Christ, because of God's love for us in Christ. If people are passionate about that and then are working out cultural challenges -- fine, I can live with that. But as soon as someone begins to assume the Gospel and become passionate about something like the emerging movement, I get a little nervous. It's not that there are not really excellent people in the movement who really do believe the Gospel, but when you listen to what they talk about, what they write about, what they go to conferences for, it all has to do with emergent profiles and how you do this and that. It has to do with the in-house jargon of this developing movement.

Carson (continuing): What I want to see in the movement is less focus on emerging as a category and more focus on the Gospel, because otherwise, if the Gospel is merely the assumed thing rather than the thing about which we are passionate, in another half-generation, another generation, the Gospel itself becomes diluted, even denied. The successors and heirs of the current leaders to the movement will be passionate about the things they are passionate about, and they are being stamped now, it seems to me, by whether they are or are not sufficiently emerging, rather than being stamped by whether they are or are not sufficiently faithful to the historic Gospel.

Lawton: You've said some wings of the emerging church are posing a threat to traditional Christianity. Is that really the case, or is it overstating the case?

Carson: Christianity itself is far more stable than something that can be shoved over by a movement...God is not going to be threatened by any movement in this century or any other century....All I'm saying is that those who get sucked into the far-out end so that accommodation to postmodern sensitivities, a refusal to deal with the category of truth, a refusal to say that, according to the teachings of Jesus, some things are right and some things are wrong, that there is an objective truth, propositional truth to be announced as well as discipleship to Christ to be lived and displayed, and authenticity is delight in God to be demonstrated individually and corporately, in addition to all of these things there is truth to be announced -- if you start losing that, you really step outside what Christianity is. The Gospel is something to be taught and to be believed. It is not something simply to be experienced.

One of the troubling features of the movement is that it is investing so much energy and self-identity in the movement itself and merely assuming the Gospel, rather than investing this passionate energy in the Gospel and in the application of the Gospel to people using genuine cultural insight to learn better how to do it. As soon as the Gospel becomes something that is merely assumed, while the movement becomes its own raison d'etre, its own reason for being, then it is approaching silliness. It is certainly losing the story. A wheel is coming off somewhere.

Lawton: [McLaren] raises the topic of hell and criticizes traditional evangelicals for putting so much emphasis on "personal" salvation. How provocative is this kind of language?

Carson: ...I would say that the so-called evangelical movement today is so broad that there are all kinds of people who sort of "get done"; they've made a personal statement of faith and think that they're in and they signed a card or they walked an aisle, but [they] really haven't, in any biblical terms, been regenerate. They really haven't come to know God. Their lives really haven't been transformed by the Gospel. Whereas the Bible is very clear that the genuine faith does transform you. It really does change you. Now, if that's what he's saying, I'm with him. I'm with him one hundred percent. On the other hand, it's a bit of a caricature to say that all of evangelicalism is like that. There are some big swathes of it that are, in my view, a long way away from the Bible itself. The Bible must be the reforming agent. But there are also huge swathes of evangelicalism which stress not only that individuals must individually repent and believe but that they join together as brothers and sisters in Christ who constitute a local church, in part of the people of God adjoining men and women from every town and tribe and people and nation.

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