I have been asked questions recently about the emergent church, specifically whether or not I am “emergent” and whether or not my church is becoming “emergent.”
The simple answer is, no. I am not emergent and the church I serve is not an emergent church.
My answer is simple, but the issues surrounding the emergent church are not. I was surprised when I was asked recently about the emergent church, because I thought the emergent church / emergent movement / emergent conversation was pretty much over. I remember hearing about the death of this movement back in 2010. (Read more here.) I suppose some people are still engaged in this conversation, but I haven’t heard much about it until recently. I took the title of this blog post from a book I read about four years ago, Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be), by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck. In re-reading their introduction, I agree with their title. I am not emergent, but it seems like I should be.
I wear jeans when I preach and I wear typical hipster black-framed glasses. I drink coffee and listen to Johnny Cash (not to mention Bob Dylan, The Civil Wars, Mumford & Sons, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and The Black Keys). I own an iPhone. I spend way too much time on Twitter. I read theology. I read church history. My reading list includes N.T. Wright, Stanley Hauerwas, Dallas Willard, and Wendell Berry, among others. I use the language of story. I distrust some of what modernity has given us. I dislike people talking about going to heaven and prefer to speak of heaven coming to earth. So maybe I should be “emergent,” but I’m not.
What is the “emergent church”?
The difficulty here is in nailing down exactly what “emergent” is. It seems to me that “emergent” has become a label―a derogatory label critics use to mark people they don’t agree with and simply dismiss them as false teachers or heretics. These kind of attempts to pigeonhole people saddens me. The way forward, when we find ourselves in disagreement with other Christians, is not labeling and dismissing, but conversation. Jesus said:
“If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother…” (Matthew 5:22-23)
Later Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell your brother his fault, between you and him alone” (Matthew 18:15). If you have something against someone in the body of Christ or if someone has something against you, say it is a disagreement in beliefs, don’t just label them and dismiss them, but go to them, ask questions, listen to them, seek to understand where they are coming from.
Nevertheless, “emergent” is a label that is apparently still out there; so what does it mean? Roger Oakland of Understanding the Times International wrote an essay on his ministry website entitled, “How to Know When the Emerging Church Shows Signs of Emerging in Your Church,” where he lists at least 14 signs of the emergent church. I have no indication that Oakland is an expert in this field, but I will use his 14 descriptions as a working definition of the emergent church movement. With the assumption that this description is an accurate picture of the emergent church, I will add some commentary explaining point-for-point why I am not emergent.
Signs of the Emergent Church (according to Roger Oakland)
1) Scripture is no longer the ultimate authority as the basis for the Christian faith.
I hold to the textual authority of Scripture. I believe the Bible is uniquely inspired by God and is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). When I say textual authority, I mean the Bible is the ultimate written authority in forming Christian doctrine, ethics, and mission. The ultimate authority is Jesus. Scripture is not Lord; Jesus is. The Bible is the most authoritative witness to the life and teaching of Jesus. In this regard, I believe Scripture is sacred and therefore I read it and study it and teach it with a serious mind and reverent heart.
2) The centrality of the gospel of Jesus Christ is being replaced by humanistic methods promoting church growth and a social gospel.
I do desire the church (both my church and the global Church) to grow, and I do desire the gospel to have a social effect, but for me, the gospel is central to all of my life and work as a pastor. The good news that Jesus is Lord, that he became the Savior of the world through his incarnation, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension occupies my thoughts, fills my prayers, drives my preaching, and shapes how I help people grow in the Christian faith. My intention is to allow the gospel, and not methodology or pragmatics, to be the unchanging center everything else revolves around.
3) More and more emphasis is being placed on building the kingdom of God now and less and less on the warnings of Scripture about the imminent return of Jesus Christ and a coming judgment in the future.
I do not work to build the kingdom of God, because the kingdom of God is not something to be built. The kingdom of God is the rule and reign of God through Christ over his creation. I see myself as more of a messenger and servant of his kingdom. I pray for his kingdom to come, but Jesus has already pronounced the coming of the kingdom in his public ministry. Therefore, I hold to the presence of the kingdom now and the anticipation of the kingdom coming with the return of Christ. I do not know if I emphasize living in the kingdom now or anticipating the kingdom coming, but my desire has been to help Christians live in the tension between the “already” and “not yet” of the kingdom.
4) The teaching that Jesus Christ will rule and reign in a literal millennial period is considered unbiblical and heretical.
I do not call a literal interpretation of the 1,000 year reign of Christ mentioned in Revelation 20:2-7 unbiblical or heretical. I would say it is not the best interpretation of the text. There have been numerous theological discussions regarding the “millennial reign” of Christ for a long time and Christians have not always agreed on the best way to interpret it. I do not believe this 1,000 year period is a literal amount of time, but rather a symbol. However, I will not call someone who believes in a literal thousand year reign of Christ a heretic. This is one of those secondary, non-essential doctrines Christians can (and do) disagree on and still remain within the biblical, orthodox Christian faith.
5) The teaching that the church has taken the place of Israel and Israel has no prophetic significance is often embraced.
I wouldn’t say the Church has taken the place of Israel. I would say the Church has fulfilled the vocation of Israel to be a blessing to all the “families of the earth” (Genesis 12:1-3). Ancient Israel, as the covenant people of God, has now been expanded to include the non-Jewish (Gentile) nations. Jesus has expanded what it means to be the people of God shifting the sign of the covenant from Jewish ethnicity, circumcision, and observance of the Torah to faith, baptism, and obedience to Jesus as Lord.
6) The teaching that the Book of Revelation does not refer to the future, but instead has been already fulfilled in the past.
As mentioned above, there are many interpretive approaches to the Book of Revelation. Jack Hayford, in his introduction to Revelation in the Spirit-filled Life Bible, describes eight different major interpretive viewpoints of the Revelation. The two most dominant schools of thought are called “premillennialism” and “amillennialism.” The amillennial approach to understanding Revelation does interpret the book as a symbolic description of God’s present triumph through the church. I find the amillennial approach to be the most helpful way to understand Revelation, understanding the book not as a revelation of the “end times,” but a revelation of Jesus Christ. (See my sermon “A Traveler’s Guide Through Revelation” for a more detailed description of how I read Revelation.)
7) An experiential mystical form of Christianity begins to be promoted as a method to reach the postmodern generation.
The Christian faith does have an experiential dimension. God has come to us in Christ and makes his grace known to us by the Holy Spirit. Jesus said we will know the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, because “he dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:17). We are able to know God by direct personal encounter, and not just know about God, by the work of the Holy Spirit. I do not promote this experience of the Spirit as a way to reach people. I teach this mystical expression of the faith as part of the normal Christian life.
8) Ideas are promoted teaching that Christianity needs to be reinvented in order to provide meaning for this generation.
Christianity does not need to be reinvented, because it is not a faith we create or recreate; it is a faith we have received. We contend, writes Jude, “for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). My interest in reading church history underscores my desire to rightly understand this faith I have received. We do need to constantly rethink our methods and language in communicating the faith to the people in our world. In other words, we need to be good missionaries where we are, understanding our culture, so we can communicate the gospel in culturally-appropriate ways.
9) The pastor may implement an idea called “ancient-future” or “vintage Christianity” claiming that in order to take the church forward, we need to go back in church history and find out what experiences were effective to get people to embrace Christianity.
I find great wisdom in learning from church history, as I stated above. My reading of church history is not so much a study of the experiences of those who have gone before, but the teaching (or theology) of those in the historic Church. I do not always agree with the various thinkers, leaders, and teachers in church history. (How could I when there is so much diversity over 2,000 years of church history!) Reading church history has been an act of repentance for me, because I have confessed my arrogance in thinking my generation of Christian thinkers and teachers have the entire Christian faith figured out.
10) While the authority of the Word of God is undermined, images and sensual experiences are promoted as the key to experiencing and knowing God.
I do not undermine the authority of Scripture, but I do believe the Holy Spirit plays a role in leading us into all truth. John Wesley taught that tradition, reason, and experience play a role in rightly interpreting Scripture. There are limitations to the role experience places in our understanding of the faith, because subjective human experience can easily lead us off track. I tend to rely much more on tradition and reason to understand the Scripture, but I cannot deny the role of experience in knowing God.
11) These experiences include icons, candles, incense, liturgy, labyrinths, prayer stations, contemplative prayer, experiencing the sacraments, particularly the sacrament of the Eucharist.
I still consider myself a novice in the school of prayer, but “contemplative prayer” to me is nothing more than thoughtful prayer, that is meditating on God’s word as a part of prayer. I do not see how this undermines the authority of the word of God, when it is a meditation on Scripture. I also pray the Psalms, the Lord’s prayer (both from Scripture) and well-crafted, biblically-rich prayers from The Book of Common Prayer. The sacrament of the Eucharist (i.e. communion) is the central piece of Christian worship and it has been that way since the beginning. Christians have disagreed on the proper understanding of communion, but a sacramental view has been most dominant. By sacramental, we mean that receiving the communion elements connects us in a mysterious way to the real presence of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 10:16).
12) There seems to be a strong emphasis on ecumenism indicating that a bridge is being established that leads in the direction of unity with the Roman Catholic Church.
I believe in the communion of the saints. This confession is from the Apostles’ Creed. It means, in part, that I have a “common union” with all of those who are baptized into Christ. If you are a Christian (as defined by the Apostles’ Creed) then we are in the same family regardless of your denominational affiliation. I believe Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, Evangelical, and Pentecostal Christians are members of the same Church, although we will have disagreements. I want to build bridges of conversation with Christians in other denominations (including Orthodox and Catholic), but this does not mean I agree with all of their teachings and practice, nor does it mean that I intend on joining their denomination.
13) Some evangelical Protestant leaders are saying that the Reformation went too far. They are re-examining the claims of the “church fathers” saying that communion is more than a symbol and that Jesus actually becomes present in the wafer at communion.
I do not agree with all points of doctrine taught in the Protestant Reformation, but I do believe the Reformers were re-examining the church fathers (church leaders and writers from the first four centuries of the Church) in order to bring correction and reformation to the Church. Martin Luther, one of the Protestant Reformers, spoke of the “real presence” of Christ present in communion. This is the view I hold. I do believe communion has symbols, but it is more than symbolic. Jesus is present in communion, not physically, but “spiritually” by the Holy Spirit.
14) There will be a growing trend towards an ecumenical unity for the cause of world peace claiming the validity of other religions and that there are many ways to God.
I believe Jesus Christ is the only way to God. Other world religions may contain some elements of truth. I believe other religions contain people who are sincere and authentic in their expressions of worship and devotion, but ultimately fall short of God’s glory. Jesus, as he said, is the way, the truth, and the life, the only way to the Father (John 14:6). I believe in the exclusivity of Christ and I believe in living in peace with those of a different faith. Jesus calls us not only to love God, but to love our neighbor, regardless of their ethnicity, social status, religion, political affiliation, or sexual orientation.