"What are your motives for writing this article? Are you truly coming from a place of care and concern, or have you found yourself at the front of a convenient controversy with a lot of public interest?”
Jim Henderson wants to know what he’s in for. He’s used to putting up with critics who are more interested in destroying his credibility than truly seeking answers. Henderson is the director of Off the Map, a nonprofit that works with church leaders.
This story originally ran in issue 21 of RELEVANT.
The critics aren’t so much interested in Henderson himself but the group of which he has many friendships—Emergent, a loosely affiliated “friendship” of church leaders looking to rediscover what exactly the Christian faith and church should look like.
For a generation raised on televangelists, pedophile priests and megachurches, Emergent seems like a pretty good deal. It represents “a new kind of Christian,” a phrase coined by Emergent’s unofficial patriarch, Brian McLaren. To those who have been burned by the Church, this kind of Christian is more open-minded, intelligent, loving and sophisticated than the Christians who came before. It’s quite enchanting to the religiously disenchanted.
But this is sacred territory, and it’s easy to see why this makes many Christians uncomfortable. To Emergent’s critics—and it has many—the group is off base at best and heretical at worst. Others—some of whom used to be closely affiliated with the group—wonder aloud if Emergent is losing control and being steered in a very dangerous direction.
The greatest hurdle in discussing Emergent stems from the elusive nature of the group. “How do you even identify Emergent?” Henderson asks. “Part of its own ethos is not having an identity.” McLaren echoes this. “You may be assuming that Emergent is a more defined thing than it really is,” he says.
Emergent has no formal doctrine, and, thus, the group is quite mixed. “We have Texas Baptists who don’t let women preach, and we have lesbian mainline pastors in New England,” says Tony Jones, Emergent’s national coordinator.
It’s dangerous business to offer commentary on a movement with vast affiliates. Emergent (with a capital "E") is a group of friends and a nonprofit organization. The emerging church (lowercase "e" this time) is a general description for churches that share a certain mentality. Most members of Emergent could be categorized as members of the emerging church, but not all members of the emerging church are members of Emergent.
So just what is Emergent? It’s the million-dollar question. Jones says that there are many misunderstandings of exactly what Emergent is and isn’t.
“It’s not a denomination,” he says. “It’s not a theological think tank. It’s not a capitalist moneymaking venture. It’s not heresy. It’s not the new Christian Left.”
So, then, just what is it?
“Emergent is an amorphous collection of friends who’ve decided to live life together, regardless of our ecclesial affiliations, regardless of our theological commitments,” Jones says. “We want to follow Christ in community with one another. In a very messy way, we’re trying to figure out what that means.”
McLaren puts it a slightly different way. “We’ve tried to accurately describe ourselves as a growing friendship engaging in what we hope will be constructive conversation.”
Emergent began in the late ’90s when Doug Pagitt, currently the pastor at Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis, was working for Leadership Network. He was given the assignment of finding a group of young, innovative church leaders. The Leadership Network Young Leaders group—consisting of McLaren, Jones, Pagitt, Chris Seay, Mark Driscoll and a few others—was assembled.
“Very quickly, our conversations went from the best ministry practices, which is what the generation before us was really concerned with, and moved more toward philosophy and theology,” Jones says. “Within a few years [by 2001], Leadership Network very graciously pushed us out of the nest and said, ‘We’ve launched you guys. Here you go.’ We kept meeting and thinking about what it means to live life together as we’re planning churches and raising families.”
The group then began writing books together, speaking at conferences, hosting their own conferences, being involved in church plants and developing an overall larger platform for itself. As the name Emergent and the names of some of its members became better known in church circles, people grew curious. People wanted to know what Emergent stood for and what it was all about. To this day, Emergent has yet to proclaim a doctrine or statement of belief, and it doesn’t look like they will anytime soon.
“I’m even more concerned that people have statements of faith,” Jones says. “Statements of faith are about drawing borders, which means you have to load your weapons and place soldiers at those borders. It becomes an obsession to guard the borders. That is simply not the ministry of Jesus.”
According to Jones, there is one principle that ties Emergent together. “What binds people in Emergent is that most everybody would rally under the flag of hope,” he says. “We have hope for the future. We have hope for the Church. We have hope for the kingdom of God to break into the present and transform the present.”
Dan Kimball, author of The Emerging Church (Zondervan) and forthcoming They Like Jesus, but Not the Church (Zondervan), says that Emergent’s diversity in theology is one of its strengths. “This way we learn from each other, and we are challenged to really think about why we believe what we do as other viewpoints are expressed,” he says.
“However, even with diversity, I can say that mostly everyone I know in emerging church circles does hold to the core beliefs of the historic Christian faith such as the Nicene Creed.”
This theological diversity has some Christians up in arms, so much so that Emergent posted an official “anti-statement of beliefs,” as Jones called it, which outlines why the group refuses to develop an official doctrine.
Although Emergent’s lack of collective doctrine prevents collisions of belief, there will be a point when personal beliefs collide. How can Emergent’s “Texas Baptist who doesn’t let women preach” stand alongside the “lesbian mainline pastor from New England” and not have to draw a line in the sand?
For many of Emergent’s followers, part of the group’s appeal is how it differs from modern religious institutions. It’s not a denomination; it’s a friendship. So when EmergentVillage.com recently started sending e-bulletins that featured personal testimonies explaining “why I gave money to Emergent!” some followers became concerned. The group took another organizational step forward in summer 2005 by naming Jones as Emergent’s national coordinator. In the eyes of their critics, they were campaigning for donations just like The 700 Club before them.
“What happens when a movement starts fund-raising?” asks Len Sweet, guest professor at George Fox Evangelical Seminary at Oregon’s George Fox University. “It stops being a movement, an adhocracy, and starts being an organization, a bureaucracy. But
blaming Emergent for this is like blaming Methodism or Presbyterianism.”
Sweet is a longtime friend of Emergent and was an early influence on the group. Although he and McLaren have written together and he has participated in other Emergent opportunities, he’s been concerned lately with where the group is heading. After all, a group that has prided itself on its informality and inability to define itself seems bound for change when fund-raising gets involved.
“It could be a disastrous mistake,” Jones admits, but he claims that the move toward increased structure should be of minimal concern. Furthermore, the recent decisions are not signs of a change in direction but of improving the current direction.
“So many things were falling through the cracks,” he says. “Although we’ve been a nonprofit for several years, we were not good stewards of the little money that we had. We weren’t returning calls to journalists, burned-out pastors, pastors who’d been fired because they were caught reading the ‘wrong’ book. Nobody had the bandwidth to respond. We weren’t serving the very people who we’d committed to serve.”
Scot McKnight, professor of religion at North Park University in Chicago, says that Emergent moving in a more organized direction is fine—as long as Emergent maintains its ideological focus. “Development into more organization doesn’t concern me in the least,” he says. “It all has to do with how top-heavy something becomes,” he says. According to Kimball, the changes are not only inevitable but also beneficial.
“All types of nonprofit and grassroots organizations need to be raising funds for websites, communication, events and having staff to be able to coordinate it,” he says. “Now if we started hearing there are plans for a multimillion-dollar Emergent Theme Park in the works, or we see photos of Tony sitting behind a large mahogany desk with a view from his window of a large fountain and flower garden with flowers forming the Emergent logo, then I would be concerned.”
In recent months, Sweet has been talking with his seminary classes about his concerns with Emergent. He doesn’t call himself a critic of Emergent. (“This is not D.A. Carson’s Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church,” he says, referencing the 2005 book that has quickly become one of the cornerstone books in Emergent criticism. “I want to be seen as a friend of Emergent.”)
But he feels it’s important to add to the conversation. One of his biggest concerns is what he sees as an “increasing obsession with politics in Emergent. It really bothers me when Jesus is portrayed as having a political agenda. Politics aren’t even the real power paradigm anymore.”
Between the fund-raising and the politics, has Emergent lost its edge? The movement has always shied from defining itself and making doctrinal claims on the basis that it’s a conversation.
“Maybe it’s my unjust hopes and dreams,” Sweet says. “I just expected Emergent to be more sophisticated. I thought this thing
would be something entirely new, something that would move us beyond postmodernity’s deconstructive critique and into a post-postmodern construction. We got to this point in the ’70s where you could not tell the difference between the Democratic Party platform and the Church’s portrayal of the Kingdom of God. I think that any intrusion of Christianity into politics—whether Right or Left—is ugly. So I don’t see Jesus as coming with a political agenda. Yes, there are radical social and economic consequences to His message, but to claim that Jesus’ message was a political one [is incorrect]. It’s Jim Wallis’ evangelical updating of the Social Gospel movement, or liberalism’s liberation theology of the ’70s and ’80s.”
But in America, is political alignment inevitable?
“The Religious Right is so huge, so powerful, that any divergence from it will automatically become the Religious Left,” Henderson says. “It’s unavoidable. You can’t find middle ground in that environment.”
McLaren himself says that he’s not a liberal. (Jones, however, says that McLaren is.) “I think [the Religious Right’s] strategy is wrong,” he says. “I think their rhetoric is wrong, but that doesn’t make me Left.”
Jones says that McLaren’s politics do not represent those of Emergent. He says that Emergent has Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Greens, Socialists and everything in between. “We have no politics,” he says. “That’s a ridiculous charge.”
Maybe apolitical Christianity is too idealistic in America. Maybe not.
THE TRUTH BEHIND THE TRUTH
Postmodern is a dangerous word. It’s been at the core of fears and criticism of Emergent. One commonly held belief about the friendship is that its members don’t believe in absolute truth. As a result, those within Emergent now shy from the term postmodern, as it proves to be problematic.
But when the words change, the fears remain. The belief that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation is a principal value in Christianity, and a refusal to profess absolute truth is, to some Christians, a move toward pluralism or relativism.
“If we embrace the philosophical, theoretical ideas behind the postmodern thinkers [McLaren] and others appeal to, I think we will undermine core doctrines of Christianity,” says R. Scott Smith, Ph.D., assistant professor of ethics and Christian apologetics at Biola University in California and author of Truth & The New Kind of Christian (Crossway).
Like everything else in Emergent, though, there is no official statement on absolute truth.
“Emergent surely has people in it who strongly believe that there is absolute truth,” Jones says.
Many of the leaders in Emergent, however, are not in that camp of absolutists. “I think putting the qualifier ‘absolute’ in front of truth is a modernistic fallacy,” Jones says. “Truth is not qualified by adjectives like ‘absolute.’ So for me personally, talking about absolute truth is a nonsensical way to talk, and Christian theologians shouldn’t talk in that way. It isn’t helpful, because it doesn’t make sense.”
As soon as he says this, he realizes that he has just baited his critics.
“Do you know what that last statement is going to look like in an article in RELEVANT? ‘Oh, I told you. They don’t believe in absolute truth. There’s the national coordinator saying he doesn’t believe in absolute truth.’”
McLaren and Jones both say that the study of absolute truth is nothing to tread through lightly. For them, the problem is not with truth but with absolute. “It’s such a complex philosophical, epistemological question,” Jones says, and he hopes that people will study it for themselves before making judgments.
“Those of us who’ve been living in this friendship and talking through these issues have been hard at this work for nearly a decade,” he says. “Why wouldn’t you give me, your brother in Christ, the benefit of the doubt? What is it in Christian circles that the immediate knee-jerk reaction is, ‘Oh, they’ve lost their way. They’re heretics’? Why wouldn’t your initial gut reaction be ‘Oh, those are brothers in Christ. They love Jesus and Scripture. I probably don’t agree with them on everything, but why don’t we take the time to really figure out what they’re saying?’”
Sweet rides both sides of the fence, aware of the tension therein.
“I am both an absolutist and a relativist,” he says. “You can’t escape absolutism. To say there are no absolutes is in itself absolute. The Pharisees were the absolutists. Pilate [was] the relativist, asking ‘What is truth?’ I find both of them within me. But both the Pharisees and Pilate stared truth in the face and didn’t see or hear it.”
The tricky part with truth, he says, is how it resonates with people.
“I believe in absolute truth, but the New Testament presents a new understanding of absolute,” Sweet answers. “Fundamentally, truth is relational. Absolute truth is Jesus, God’s perfect pitch—His tuning fork to the eternal. Every tuning fork needs to be struck to be heard. The striking of the eternal, unchanging tuning fork took place on Good Friday with the pounding of six-inch nails.
“This is the real reason I fear that Emergent may be losing its way,” Sweet continues. “It isn’t striking that tuning fork nearly enough. Jesus said, ‘If I be lifted up, I will draw all people to God.’ We sit at drawing boards, trying to design all sorts of blueprints and experiences to draw people to church and to God, while Jesus Himself is the draw. It’s all about truth, which means it’s all about Jesus.”
The overemphasis on how to do church, he claims, has taken the focus off Christ Himself.
“And that brings me to a related issue: confusion between relevancy and recency,” Sweet says. “Some of the most relevant things are not the most recent, but the most ancient. Without a historical sense, or the spiritual discipline of historical context, there’s confusion between keeping relevant and just keeping up. We have to be in touch with the culture, but in tune with the Spirit.”
Emergent has brought many people back into the Church, and it’s forcing people to rethink how they approach God. Does this mean, however, that its critics are completely off base? Probably not. Sweet and McLaren agree that Emergent has overemphasized the communal church while underemphasizing individual faith. And Jones himself admits that fund-raising has the potential to become disastrous. In the end, though, it is true to its claim to be a conversation.
“The way forward is going to require something much bigger than any one group, including Emergent,” McLaren says. “I believe that in the postmodern world, truth and power are widely distributed. What I’m hoping to see is a network of collaborative networks—maybe like birds feeling the urge to migrate north at the same time because they all sense the same smell of springtime in the air. I am quite certain Emergent will be one little flock in that migration. I hope all of us who are catching that scent can migrate together, guided by the True North of Jesus, the Gospel and grace.”
Sweet hopes that his words are seen as those of accountability instead of attack. Despite his criticisms, he is a friend of many
people in Emergent. “I’ll be anxious to see how this all comes out,” he says. “This is a lover’s quarrel, not a Carson critique. In fact, I would rather be wrong with Brian McLaren than right with D.A. Carson.”