My latest column at Christian Week:
Once in a while I look at the title of this column (“Emerging Issues”) and feel guilty. I don’t always write about the emerging church, even though I try to stay close to the assignment Doug Koop gave me three years ago. “What are some of the key issues challenging effective and appropriate Christian witness in Canada today and down the road a bit?” he asked. ” How can we respond most faithfully and constructively?”
It’s probably time to take a look at how the shape of this discussion has changed in the past three years.
Dan Kimball, who wrote the book The Emerging Church in 2003, now writes, “I can’t defend or even explain theologically what is now known broadly as ‘the emerging church’ anymore, because it has developed into so many significantly different theological strands. Some I strongly would disagree with.”
He’s not alone. The emerging church is in increasingly slippery term, and the movement has gone in several different directions. Emergent, an American organization, first centralized, and is now decentralizing. Some used to call themselves emerging, but now distance themselves from the theology of others in the movement. Even proponents of the emerging church have given up using the term. It’s hard to even know what the term “emerging church” means anymore.
Emerging issues have gone mainstream
The early issues raised by the emerging church are now being discussed within the church as a whole.
A conservative denomination is planning a conference this year on what it means to be missional. A pastor of a large church is wrestling with what it means to be small and organic, rather than just large and institutional. Evangelical churches are discussing the importance of social action, and how to effectively minister in a post-Christian society. These are no longer emerging issues; they are issues for all of us now.
This is significant. Even if you reject the beliefs of the emerging church, there is no question that they have caused the church as a whole to rethink how to live effectively in our changing culture.
Traditional churches are supposed to be dying, and younger people are supposed to reject the old. But, surprisingly, the traditional church seems to be doing just fine. A recent study by Professor Bruce Guenther of ACTS found that attendance at evangelical churches has actually grown by 50% in two decades. Mainline churches, as well as Catholic churches in Quebec, are in decline and skew the numbers, but evangelical churches aren’t doing as badly as many seem to think.
Journalist Colin Hansen writes, “While the Emergent ‘conversation’ gets a lot of press for its appeal to the young, the new Reformed movement may be a larger and more pervasive phenomenon.” New churches are launching with an emphasis on reaching younger people with solid, orthodox theology. Conservative conferences like Together for the Gospel attract mostly younger crowds. I keep bumping into people who love the writings of John Piper or the sermons of Mark Driscoll or James MacDonald. While some embrace authors like Shane Claiborne and Rob Bell, just as many embrace authors who are anything but emerging.
The emerging church has raised important questions about effective ministry in a changing culture, but that not everyone is satisfied with the answers they offer. We can thank them, however, for their concern for social justice and orthopraxy (right action), and for raising the questions.
Traditional, orthodox theology and ministry is just as relevant in a post-Christian culture as it has ever been. The most effective ministries I know have not changed their theology, but instead are rethinking how to let that theology shape their ministry in a world that has drastically changed. Michael Wittmer writes, “To remain faithful to the gospel we must regularly update our understanding of it.”
We should be encouraged. The challenges are significant, but God has shown himself more than equal to them. He has not abandoned his people. He is still on the move no matter how bad things sometimes seem to be.