A couple of years ago, I found myself disappointed with many of the critiques of the emerging church. Some were nasty, and some did a poor job of capturing the movement (or whatever you call it).
But something’s changed. For one thing, I have. I can relate to what Trevin Wax has said: “Many who initially intrigued by the Emerging conversation are now distancing themselves from Emerging theology.” (See Trevin’s entire post.) Something else has changed as well: the quality of the critique. A case in point is Why We’re Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be.
What do I like about this book?
The authors, Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck, don’t take themselves too seriously. They write differently: Kevin is the more scholarly pastor, while Ted is the less academic guy who writes shorter, more experiential chapters. You get propositional arguments in this book, but you also get to visualize Ted reading Rob Bell while his wife’s family cottage while discussing the contents with his brother-in-law, or sheepishly admitting that he likes Rob Bell’s Nooma videos to his mother-in-law, who likes them too. I really enjoyed the voices of the authors in this book. “Emergent leaders have often cried foul when their books have been held up to academic scrutiny. ‘We’re not professional scholars,’ they say, and neither are we. So it’s a fair fight – more fair than fight, we hope.”
I also like the way they approach the subject. They have read the books, and not just one or two either. They’ve been to some of the churches, conferences, and classrooms. They admit when they like the authors and speakers, and never forget that they’re talking about real people. They like some aspects of the emerging church. They understand the difference between emerging and emergent. They don’t think one voice speaks for the entire emerging church, and they speak appreciatively of those who are more theologically conservative. Kevin writes:
We don’t think of our emergent sparring partners as “the bad guys.” … Hopefully our writing is of the “faithful wounds of a friend” variety and not the slanderous, mean-spirited kind. Our disagreements are strong and stated strongly, but, we trust, not bitter or cantankerous…We love Jesus and love the church. We believe emergent Christians love the same. The shape and substance of that love is what we disagree on.
Ted adds, “We strove to represent these guys accurately, and hope that if we were to run into each other at a conference, a coffee shop named Ecclesia, or a pub, we could truly enjoy each other’s fellowship, cognizant of the fact that we’ll be together in the kingdom.”
They’re also realistic about their goals. “We’re not really writing this book to change people’s minds because, let’s face it, that rarely happens…This is our attempt at joining the ‘conversation.'”
So what is their problem with the emerging church? Here they cover a lot of ground. They point out some of the problems with thinking of the journey as more about experience than a destination. They argue that humility is not the same thing as uncertainty. They argue for the value of propositions, which are not a modern phenomenon. They suggest that the emerging view of modernism is often caricatured. They gently poke fun at emergent speak. They present some of their problems with the notion, “Give me Jesus, not doctrine,” and the emphasis on orthopraxy at the expense of orthodoxy. They question “whether the emerging church even has the category of theological error,” concluding that some do, but also fearing that many do not. They suggest that the emerging church has an over-realized eschatology (too much “now” and not enough “not yet”). They argue for the value of boundaries, argue that preaching should not be thrown out, and highlight some of the contradictions and problems within popular emerging books. They defend the doctrine of penal substitution, which has been dismissed by some, as well as the doctrine of God’s wrath. All of this and more. I really appreciated the way they engaged the theological issues within this book.
The epilogue of the book is a reflection on the letters to the churches in Revelation. “Emergent leaders need to celebrate all the strengths and shun the weaknesses of the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 – and admit that Jesus’ prescription for health is more than community, authenticity, and inclusion.” The letters in Revelation speak to all churches, including, they argue, emerging ones.
In conclusion: I have to admit that I was nervous in picking up this book. The last thing we need is another critique that’s well-meaning but sloppy, misguided, or mean. I’m no longer nervous. I’m sure not everyone will agree with or appreciate everything in this book, but we can all appreciate three things:
- It provides greater understanding – This book will help those outside of the emerging church to understand the emerging church better, and vice versa.
- It clarifies the issues – This book is a primer on what the issues are. It goes beyond some of the other critiques I’ve read that focus only on one or two writers or one or two issues.
- It advances the “conversation” – I’ve always said that my emerging friends welcome critique when offered in the right way. I think this book qualifies. It may not change too many minds, but it may clarify some points of disagreement, and it may even lead to some discussion and correction.
I highly recommend this book. Still to come: an interview with the authors.