Conversation With the Emerging Church

Lately, there has been a lot written about the faith (or lack of faith) among millenials. (Here is a link to one of many articles.) In 2007, along with Dr. Kevin Hester, I wrote a two-part series of articles for ONE magazine dealing wtih the emerging church. With all the news coming out about millenials, I thought it would be good to reprint those articles here. Below is part one of that series. (I will provide links to Dr. Hester’s articles. Here is his part one.)

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Conversation With the Emerging Church

Postmodernism—that hard-to-define cultural shift away from absolute truth to relative thinking [1] —is not a four-letter word. Postmodernism is not the quintessential sign that the end is near. It does not mean God is dead, Christianity is on life-support, or the church is no longer relevant. Quite the contrary!

Blessing in Disguise?

Postmodernism is a blessing in disguise. How can I make such a bold statement? Biblically, I can say so because Jesus said He would build His church in such a way that even the gates of hell (postmodernism included) would not prevail against it. [2] Practically, however, I have another reason for such a claim. But in order to understand postmodernism as a blessing one must first understand a recent shift in 21st century thought.

To put it simply, since the days of Acts, at no time in history have people been as open to God as today. Yet those same open minds are closed to traditional organizations like the church. The postmodern mind is tired of status quo and suspicious of most things organized. [3] The very reason postmodernism can lead to nihilism (no objective basis for truth) and existentialism (each individual is responsible for his or her own destiny) is because society has seen the failures of traditional structures and is looking for something (anything) to take its place. Today’s generation is tired of facts, figures, and a nicely put together apologetic. [4]

People today are looking for something real, meaningful, and lasting. In their search, they are willing to accept messy paradoxes, even contradictions. [5] Now, like no time since the days of the Apostles, disciples of Jesus have an opportunity to show the world what a difference following Jesus makes, the good, the bad, and the ugly—without having to know all the answers. In spite of postmodernity, the fields are still white unto harvest. [6] Peter told the church to “be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” [7] Peter’s admonition is as relevant today as it has ever been.

While the modern mindset shouted “prove it,” the postmodern mind whispers, “live it.” The modern mind stumbled over the miraculous and supernatural (prove the existence of God; prove the virgin birth; prove the infallibility of Scripture; prove the resurrection; etc…) while the postmodern mind embraces—even longs for—the miraculous and supernatural. In the past, unbelievers were introduced to a good apologetic for the faith and then applied that truth to their lives. Today, many people want to know, “Does it work?” or “What difference will Jesus make in my life?” before they examine the deeper question of “why.” Their thinking leaves the doors open wide for every believer to share his or her faith and to live his faith.

In a postmodern world, the differences between Christian and non-Christian are more obvious, attracting the person looking for meaning and purpose in life. For years we have preached that following Jesus is about relationship, not religion. Postmoderns are looking for—above everything else—a real, genuine, authentic, growing relationship.

A New Church Emerges

The emergent (emerging) church was born out of a deep desire to present the gospel in a way that would reach and impact our changing culture. Initially, it was a knee-jerk reaction to the paradigm shifts of the late 20th century. On the surface, the emerging church is neither right nor wrong, good or bad, but simply an effort to live out the gospel in a postmodern context. However, like most movements, the emergent church offers glimmers of hope, great challenges, and more than a little danger to the body of Christ.

Defining the emerging church (both what it is and what it is not) is difficult at best and impossible at worst. [8] However, we can identify several general characteristics of this movement, summarized briefly [9] below:

  1. Missional: The emerging church takes Christ’s challenge to “go into all the world” seriously. The goal of the mission, however, includes not only individual salvation, but cultural (and environmental) redemption as well.
  2. Flexible: Rather than observing a strict ecclesiology, [10] the emerging church prefers a decentralized form of religion, leaving local churches free to form their own community values.
  3. Narrative: The emerging church compares following Jesus to a journey. As a result, many teachers embrace narrative (story telling) to emphasize faith, and prefer group Bible study over preaching.
  4. Dialogue: The emergent church places high value on asking questions and looking at things from different angles. At the same time, however, the emerging church does not deny the existence of absolute truth. They simply believe that understanding truth is not as easy (or as clear cut) as the modern mind assumed. Adherents of the emergent church emphasize the importance of dialogue (opposed to creeds and formulas) for those living in a post-Christian era.
  5. Vintage Faith: According to voices within the group, the emerging church seeks to recover the basics of what it means to live and worship in Christian community, based on Acts 2. In one sense, the term “vintage faith” is the polar opposite of the ever popular “seeker-driven” movement that attempts to reconcile popular culture with today’s church. As a result, the arts, symbols, icons, and Ordinances are highly valued in corporate worship.

The emerging church did not spring from the walls of liberal academia. It took root in trials and errors of disillusioned evangelical ministers trying to reach a segment of the population that did not respond to the gospel. [11] Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, evangelical churches were efficient in reaching the modern mind. While mega-churches connected with these young, urban professionals, those born after 1965 showed little interest in the latest methods or programs. That generation sought a new way to follow Jesus. [12] Their question was, “What does it really mean to be a Christian?”

Over time, some of the doctrinal beliefs (or lack of beliefs) of those within the emerging church have been questioned, and rightly so. But it is important to remember that the emerging church emerged out of evangelicalism—not liberalism. It was an attempt to contextualize the gospel for a postmodern age trying to reach a generation of people who had become indifferent toward the church.

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End Notes

[1] Defining postmodernism is difficult because a true postmodernist dislikes labels. However, as I understand the term, “postmodernism” refers to a cultural shift away from modernism, and is characterized by “doubt, uncertainty, ambivalence, contingency, relativism, pluralism, and tolerance” (Leroy Forlines.2001.The Quest for Truth. Nashville: Randall House Publications, p. 14).To say there has been a cultural shift does not mean that everyone accepts postmodernity; but it is to say, like it or not, the present generation has been greatly influenced by postmodernity.

[2] Matthew 16:18.

 [3] This includes not only a suspicion against religion, but also of government (at all levels), education, and corporate America.

 [4] This does not mean that apologetics is not important, and that a systematic theology is unnecessary. It simply means there is a different starting point in the mind of the postmodern as opposed to the modern.

 [5] No matter how hard I try, I can’t get that sentence to say what I want it to say. I think what I mean is that the postmodern mind doesn’t need everything to fit nicely together, with a fancy bow on top. In fact, if it seems to fit to nicely together, the postmodern mind will reject it.

 [6] Matthew 9:37-38.

 [7] 1 Peter 3:15.

 [8] Even the terms “emergent” and “emerging” can be difficult because in all cases they are not synonymous. Often, the term “emerging” refers to the broader category of what is taking place in Evangelical Christianity, while “emergent” refers to a smaller segment of the larger conversation. In other words, someone could be part of the “emerging church” without being part of the “emergent” branch within the “emerging church.” It’s complicated, isn’t it?

[9] Please note that all I am doing at this point is giving some background information. I am not analyzing, criticizing, or condoning, but rather trying to be unbiased and fair. The second article in this series will be a pro and con type article.

[10] “Ecclesiology” is the branch of theology that deals with the meaning, purpose, and function of the church.

 [11] Many, but not all, of those who were credited as helping to establish the emerging church conversation were High School and College ministers. These ministers where on the front lines, trying to reach a different generation, and were struggling to make the gospel relevant to young people’s lives. Youth Specialties was instrumental in bringing these like-minded people together. Interestingly, the first leaders came out of mega-churches; and in some ways were reacting to the negatives they saw in the mega-churches. Also, please note that the sentence which corresponds with this footnote, refers to the development of the emerging church in the United States.

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