By now, those of you who have known me for many years may have noticed that I think a bit differently than I used to. Like a lot of twenty-somethings who grew up in the conservative evangelical subculture, I’ve been increasingly drawn to the emerging church movement.
(If you are unfamiliar with the emerging church, you might want to check out this article from Christianity Today, written by Scot McKnight. The movement is hard to define, but I think McKnight does a good job of addressing its major characteristics.)
Some of you will probably identify. You might have read some Dan Kimball or Tony Jones or Brian McLaren and found yourself thinking, as I did, “Yes! That’s exactly how I feel; I’m so glad someone else is asking these questions!” Others of you may think I’ve gone off the deep end, that I’ve rejected Christian orthodoxy, embraced relativism, and will probably run off to some Indian ashram to mediate for a few years with my fellow hippies.
I can assure you that the latter is based more on popular misrepresentations of the emerging church movement than on the actual thoughts and attitudes of most of those who consider themselves a part of it, including myself. However, I understand why there are some concerns about the emerging church, as I myself have experienced some of its problems. So I want to address not only what I love about the emerging church, but also what I see as its potential pitfalls.
So, what is so appealing to me, personally, about the emerging church? A few things:
1. Freedom to ask hard questions. What first attracted me to emerging church writers and speakers was their willingness to confront difficult theological issues and even challenge traditional evangelical doctrine. For years I struggled with doubts about my faith, and through the emerging church movement, I found people who were asking the very same questions-about religious pluralism, the Problem of Evil, inerrancy, the notion of absolute truth, etc. Rather than resorting to the same old answers I’d heard over and over again from Christian apologists, emerging church writers were taking new approaches, approaches that particularly appealed to me as an avid reader and writer with a postmodern bent.
The problem “emergers” may run into is that, while deconstructing is a valuable and important part of bringing about reform and making the Church better, tearing down is always easier than building up. I find myself spending a lot of time picking apart fundamentalism, when I ought to be focusing on building bridges and seeking common ground. .
2. Embrace of postmodernism. For years I was told by Christian apologists that postmodernism was evil and that it represented an enormous threat to Christianity. However, once I actually started reading what postmodern theorists had to say, their ideas made a lot of sense to me. One of my biggest frustrations with conservative evangelicalism right now is that many of its leaders tend to oversimplify and misrepresent postmodernism. I feel like writers and speakers in the emerging church have done a better job of explaining postmodernism and exploring how it can actually enrich and contribute to Christianity.
Of course, postmodernism has its problems. For example, while I love the fact that many in the emerging church have embraced a more inclusive attitude toward religious pluralism, we don’t want to follow the postmodern tendency to ignore or gloss over the significant differences that exist among the world’s religions. Claiming that all religions are more or less the same and equally truthful is just creating yet another metanarrative that fails to represent the very real religious convictions of people around the world.
3. Emphasis on orthopraxy over orthodoxy. I love how the emerging church movement has encouraged me to focus more on following Jesus Christ and less on being right about theology. I think that in this way, the emerging church is seeking to correct what has been a bit of an over-emphasis on apologetics and doctrine within the conservative evangelical community in recent years. I personally have felt challenged by emerging church writers to more faithfully follow Jesus in caring for the poor, ministering to the sick, exercising spiritual self-control, and being more cautious about passing judgments on others.
Some say that the danger here is that the emerging church will throw theology and doctrine out altogether. I don’t think that’s going to be a problem because, despite arguing that right theology doesn’t necessarily lead to stronger faith, a lot of us emergers still love to talk about it. To me, the more looming danger is hypocrisy. Daily I find myself slipping into those same old habits of judging people based on their theological positions and spending more time reading and writing about Jesus than actually building relationship with Him and loving “the least of these.” If “emergers” are going to emphasize the importance of Christ-likeness, it is imperative that we treat everyone (including those with whom we disagree) with the kindness, humility, and graciousness of our Lord.
4. It’s not about who’s “in” and who’s “out.” For years I struggled with the idea that conservative evangelical Christians had a monopoly on truth and that everyone else in the world faced likely damnation. I like that many in the emerging church movement seem to recognize that God is at work among all people and that we should respect and be open to learning from people with other ideas and beliefs.
However, it sometimes seems like this is an attitude that “emergers” apply to everyone except fundamentalists. The tone of our blogs and books can get a little testy when criticizing our more conservative brothers and sisters. We have to be careful not to apply a kind of reversed legalism toward those with whom we disagree.
Those are just some of my thoughts about the emerging church. I’ll definitely be posting more about it in the future. What do you think? What have your encounters with the emerging church been like? Positive or negative? A little bit of both?
I’m open to your ideas and opinions!