My latest column at Christian Week:
Whenever someone tells me that the emerging church is a fad, I say that I hope so. As much as I appreciate some qualities of the emerging church, I also have my concerns. And, in the end, the whole church matters more than the emerging church.
I believe we can learn from the emerging church without joining its ranks. In fact, some who are opposed to the emerging church are arguing for ministry that has a lot in common with the emerging church.
For instance, a group of Reformed pastors and leaders met in Chicago in May to form what they call The Gospel Coalition. Many of the organizers have been scathing critics of the emerging movement. Yet they released a document that blends the best of their tradition with some emphases normally associated with the emerging church. This approach makes sense. Instead of becoming emerging, why not learn what we can while holding on to the best of our tradition and theology?
Here, then, are some ideas on how to adopt the best of the emerging movement without actually becoming emerging.
Challenge the status quo – The Gospel Coalition Foundational Documents state, “We are troubled by the idolatry of personal consumerism and the politicization of faith; on the other hand, we are distressed by the unchallenged acceptance of theological and moral relativism.” Like many within the emerging church, The Gospel Coalition identifies some key problems within the North American church. Most of us recognize that we are not as counter-cultural or as vibrant as we had hoped. Pretending will not help. We should raise the alarm and look at the causes of our current crisis.
Engage the issues – Many of our doctrinal statements were written to address issues of half a century ago or more. The Gospel Coalition addresses current issues like the cultural crisis of truth (epistemology), how to read the Bible both propositionally and as narrative (hermeneutics), and how to relate to the culture around us (contextualization). We can learn from the issues of the past, but we must also wrestle with the new issues facing the church today.
Think theologically – Many in the emerging church express frustration with the pragmatism of North American Christianity. They argue that we must engage with the issues we face at the level of theology, and reject pragmatic solutions that are not rooted in theological reflection. The Gospel Coalition does the same, outlining a confessional statement and a vision for ministry rooted in that theology.
Get past our subculture – Many see the evangelical church as self-righteous, tribal, and more concerned with personal morality than social justice. The Gospel Coalition argues that the gospel “removes self-righteousness and selfishness and turns its members to serve others.” It is not only concerned with personal morality but with “the relief of poverty, hunger, and injustice.” It leads churches to not only reach cultural conservatives but “highly secular and postmodern people” as well.
Get past religion – Many see religion as detrimental to society. In a sense, this is true. “Religion and morality in general tend to make people tribal and self-righteous toward other groups,” The Gospel Coalition says. “But the gospel of grace, centered on a man dying for us while we were enemies, removes self-righteousness and selfishness and turns its members to serve others.” As in the emerging church, the church ceases to exist for its own advancement and benefit and instead turns toward service for the good of the community. It gets past the trappings of religion to true gospel.
Engage culture – “Christians glorify God not only through the ministry of the Word,” says the Coalition’s Foundational Statements, “but also through their vocations of agriculture, art, business, government, scholarship – all for God’s glory and the furtherance of the public good.” Therefore, churches should envision ministry that includes “cultural engagement with art, business, scholarship, and government.”
I have been struck by the similarities between The Gospel Coalition’s emphases and the values embraced by the emerging church, even though these two movements are radically different. Maybe there is a way for us to learn from the best of the emerging church without actually becoming emerging.