In the next few months, there’s going to be a lot of criticism of the emerging church. It’s just becoming known to a lot of people, and the reaction isn’t always going to be friendly. That’s part of the reason I wrote the column for Christian Week: it would be sad to only see the worst of the emerging church without also recognizing what is good. Like every stream within Christianity, there is lots of good and lots of bad mixed in together. Jacob wrote in the comments the other day:
Some things that I’ve noticed about the emerging church that really concern me are: 1) Profanity. There’s an emerging ‘Pastor’ proudly blogging right now that he uses the f-word and other profanity to reach people. His blog entries regularly include this type of language. This is terrible logic and slippery slope theology. 2) Relativism. In their attempt to reach the post-moderns, they themselves have have embraced post-modern thought. Everything is ok (except the tradition church and traditional theology), especially lifestyle issues. There seems to be a blurring of personal lifestyle before and after salvation. 3) Lack of Urgency for Salvation. They don’t use the term ‘saved’ unless it’s in a mocking kind of way. Do they even believe in Hell? Just some observations. I hope I’m wrong.
My first reaction was that this seems to be a bit of a caricature. I know where the descriptions come from, but they seem a little exaggerated. Part of the problem is that emerging, like evangelical, is so broad a term that it’s almost become a catch-all. It’s hard to describe what the average emerging type is like, just like it’s hard to describe the average evangelical. Some thoughts: 1) One of the values of the emerging church is being real, even raw. That means that some of the sins that are glossed over in more traditional churches are not hidden within the emerging church. That means that the sins are more visible, but not necessarily any more present in the emerging church than anywhere else. (Thanks to LT for this insight). 2) Profanity is often stupid and rude, but it is not always immoral. There is plenty of earthy, almost vulgar language in the Bible. Paul himself uses a profanity in Philippians 3:8. I am not a big fan of profanity, and believe it can sometimes be immoral, especially when used against people. Words are powerful. Any word we choose has incredible power to heal or to hurt. But even those who are profane can still have something worth listening to from time to time (witness Martin Luther, who had a pretty salty tongue). 3) The issue of sin is probably one that needs attention in both evangelicalism and the emerging church. Stephen Shields recently wrote on this topic. I think evangelicals could benefit more from seeing sin as more than personal – to see systemic evil and issues of justice as worthy of attention. Likewise, the emerging church could probably talk about sin a little more. I’m not sure relativism is pervasive in the emerging church, but I think evangelicals and emerging types tend to emphasize different sins. 4) On being “saved” – Evangelicals tend to focus on the decision or the point at which someone is “saved”. Emerging types tend to see discipleship as much more of a process than a point, and see the trajectory and current relationship as more important than a past decision. I think it’s both/and, and the theological implications of this discussion run pretty deep. Again, emerging types could probably emphasize the afterlife a bit more, just as evangelicals could probably talk about entrance into Kingdom life here and now rather than focusing primarily on the afterlife. 5) Finally, I think Jacob’s instincts are right. There is much to criticize within the emerging church, as there is in any stream. As soon as there are people involved, there will also be sin involved, and that means that we need to be careful and show discernment. My hope is that we will be as charitable about the positive in other movements as we are about our own, and that we will be as self-critical about our own movement as we are about others. The Lord knows we all need help. I also hope that emerging types won’t be overly defensive. We have lots to learn from one another.