Beware of some emergent theology, but heed the positive, conservatives say

Some trace its roots to the seeker-sensitive movement of the 1980s and ’90s–a lineage many in the emerging church movement would cringe at. In fact, they would argue the emerging church partly is a reaction against the consumer-driven church models that many megachurches represent.

Aside from a few identifiable cultural attributes, a definition of the emerging (sometimes called emergent) church is elusive–the movement appears most strongly unified in its dissatisfaction with the evangelical status quo and its desire to translate Christianity for postmodern hearers.

Whatever the case, the emerging church is a notable development in evangelical Christianity. The Criswell Theological Review devoted its spring 2006 issue to it. Christianity Today has written of it. Numerous Southern Baptists have addressed it in news columns and at academic conferences.

At the Younger Leaders Summit held in Nashville prior to last year’s SBC annual meeting, at least one speaker, Houston pastor Chris Seay, was a prominent emergent leader. Seay and pastors and thinkers such as Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Dan Kimball and Mark Driscoll were principal movers in the early emergent conversation beginning in the middle 1990s.

Seay told the Nashville audience of reaching a heavily pagan culture in Houston through such things as art–the church has a gallery but you won’t find Thomas Kinkaide, he noted–and dialogues about morality and meaning using the HBO series “The Sopranos” as a springboard.

The emerging church tends to emphasize “narrative rather than propositions (‘tell me your story, don’t explain principles’),” according to–an Internet dictionary of biblical Christianity. Emergents tend to emphasize missionary [missional] living, relational engagement with the culture, and the piety and practices of the ancient church.

The emerging movement is fueled largely by the Internet blogs of younger evangelicals, who claim a variety of theological viewpoints–but with a common desire for more authentic Christianity. Emerging bloggers range from biblical conservatives who simply hope for a more authentically Christian church, to pluralists who believe Jesus can be found in other religions. Some in the liberal wing deride America as hypocritical and hopelessly Western.

At a website promoting a conference based on the book “A Generous Orthodoxy” by McLaren, a Maryland pastor from a Plymouth Brethren background and a leading emerging thinker, a check-the-box quiz helps determine if one is emerging enough to attend the conference. If one checks at least two of the 11 statements, he is qualified to attend, the website states in jest.

The statements (at are:

>I’m neither liberal nor conservative;

> I’m not sure Jesus would be a Christian if he came back today;

>I don’t want 10 easy steps to successful spirituality;

>I like Bono (U2 singer) but wonder about Benny (Hinn);

>I want people to be as honest and authentic as possible;

>I am unimpressed with a lot of what passes for Christianity today;

>I am unimpressed with myself;

>I’ve experienced the 41st Day dropoff syndrome (a poke at Rick Warren’s “40 Days of Purpose”);

>I need some convincing that this whole emerging church thing isn’t just a fad;

>I like Christians who do stuff even if I don’t always “get” their beliefs;

>I’m pretty ordinary most of the time (and fine with that).

McLaren is the author of several influential books, including “A New Kind of Christian,” and the aforementioned “A Generous Orthodoxy.” Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle who himself was instrumental in the beginnings of the emerging conversation, placed McLaren in the more liberal Revisionist camp of emergings in the latest issue of the Criswell Theological Review.

Driscoll warned that some emergent are drifting toward a “less distinctively Christian spirituality” and if “the gospel is lost, as I fear it already has been among some Revisionists, then tomorrow will be a dark day for the truth about Jesus.”

Predicting an ultimate splintering of the emergent over theology, Driscoll concurs with the emergent categories formulated by Southern Baptist Ed Stetzer—Relevants, Reconstructionists, and Revisionists.

In a Baptist Press column last January, Stetzer said the first group, Relevants, “are intentionally reaching into their communities (which are different than where most Southern Baptists live) and proclaiming a faithful, biblically centered gospel there. I know some of their churches—they are doctrinally sound, growing and impacting lostness.”  They “really are just trying to make their worship, music and outreach more contextual to emerging culture.”

A second group, Reconstructionists, “think that the current form of church is frequently irrelevant and the structure is unhelpful,” Stetzer asserted. “Yet, they typically hold to a more orthodox view of the gospel and Scripture.”  Often embracing “incarnational” or house church models, this group is responding to decades of the traditional church’s cultural impotence.  Stetzer warned that “any (church form needs to be reset as a biblical form, not just a rejection of the old form. …Also, we must not forget, if reconstructionists simply rearrange dissatisfied Christians and do not impact lostness, it is hardly a better situation than the current one.”

Most of the concern about the emergent movement rises from the beliefs of the third group, the Revisionists, Stetzer wrote.

“Right now, many of those who are revisionists are being read by younger leaders and perceived as evangelicals. They are not—at least according to our evangelical understanding of Scripture.”

Stetzer said he does not question their motives, but, “Revisionists are questioning (and in some cases denying) issues like the nature of the substitutionary atonement, the reality of hell, the complementarian nature of gender, and the nature of the gospel itself. This is not new—some mainline theologians quietly abandoned these doctrines a generation ago.  The revisionist emerging church leaders should be treated, appreciated and read as we read mainline theologians—they often have good descriptions, but their prescriptions fail to take into account the full teaching of the Word of God.”


Emerging leader Michael Moynagh of St. John’s College in Nottingham, England tossed a variety of church models into the emerging camp in his definitive work called “Emergingchurch.intro.” Moynagh views the emerging church as a reaction to the influence of modernism in Western Christianity.

Though Rick Warren, a California megachurch pastor and Southern Baptist, might not want his approach described as emerging, Moynagh includes the multiple venues and worship styles of Saddleback, where Warren is pastor, as well as the “video café” church in San Diego where worshippers select from 13 services ranging from edgy alternative, acoustical, lush praise and worship as well as traditional, in his emerging description.

Noting these examples from a 2003 Christianity Today review of varying church styles, Moynagh said the key is found in “new expressions of Christian community that have different shapes according to the culture in which they are planted.”

Individuals emerge from a process of “deconstructing”—weighing the validity of one’s beliefs—their own faith experience to then rebuild a Christian faith that is celebrated as unique, Moynagh explained. While some claim to be reacting negatively to consumer-minded megachurches such as Saddleback, others emphasize the continuation of the initial journey of retooling church that may have begun 25 years ago with approaches like those of Saddleback, and Willow Creek Church in suburban Chicago.

“At the heart of what many are calling the emerging church movement is the understanding that our culture is changing,” explained John Mark Yeats, assistant professor of church history at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. “Because of this change, emerging leaders argue that a new expression of the church must be emerging to interact with the needs and demands of our cultural climate.”

Yeats doesn’t argue with the need to recognize cultural shifts but warns that such change must be addressed from a scriptural standpoint.

“Pastors and church leaders intrigued by the emerging church movement should take caution and investigate the leadership and theology of the individuals they identify as part of the movement,” Yeats said, noting all Christians should practice such discernment. “While some like McLaren may come up lacking, others might surprise you.”

McLaren, a baby boomer and pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church near Baltimore, is considered by many as the “de facto spiritual leader for the emerging church,” as Christianity Today’s Andy Crouch described him in a 2005 article titled “The Emergent Mystique.” McLaren goes so far as to appeal for a changing theology.

“Jesus never led anyone in the sinner’s prayer, he never invited anyone to accept him as his personal Lord and Savior. No one ever ‘got saved’ or had ‘a born again experience’—these are modern ways of describing Christianity.  We are fooling ourselves if we say the message never changes,” he said in a Church Renewal magazine interview.

“At present, too many emerging churches are culturally creative but theologically conservative,” lamented Stuart Murray Williams in a comment quoted in Moynagh’s book. “Tinkering with shape, style and structure represent only superficial change.  New ways of interpreting the Bible and new theological insights will be needed if new ways of being church are to have lasting missiological significance.”

Emergents claim tolerance for those who are “content with the old” in what is termed the inherited church. But postmodern people “live mosaic lives, pasting snippets from the hyper-modern alongside the traditional,” Moynagh states.

Labeling of emerging churches is discouraged by emergent leaders, “lest they be shoehorned into a mold that doesn’t fit,” Moynagh added. “It is too early to call this a renaissance, but the tectonic plates of church are on the move.”

“Right now Emergent is a conversation, not a movement,” McLaren told Christianity Today in 2005. “We don’t have a program.  We don’t have a model.  I think we must begin as a conversation, then grow as a friendship, and see if a movement comes of it.”

In numbers, emergent churches are few, but their influence appears disproportionally high—perhaps because their concerns resonate with many younger evangelicals.

In a critique of the movement, theology professor John Hammett of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary cited one study that found less than 200 true “emerging” churches nationwide. It is nowhere close to monolithic, he told an Evangelical Theological Society gathering, noting the frequent disagreements among leaders.  He said that cultural concerns over postmodernism drive the agenda of many emergent rather than being driven solely by Scripture.

“The church always faces the twin dangers of cultural captivity and cultural irrelevance. The emerging church charges evangelicalism as a whole with being captive to modern culture and irrelevant to postmodern culture,” Hammett wrote in a paper reprinted with a postscript in the Criswell Theological Journal.  “These charges are not without merit.  However, the emerging church itself also runs the risk of being captive to culture, only to postmodern culture.

“The more desirable alternative is for all churches to engage the culture, with a zeal to understand its questions and to speak its language, but also with a higher and prior commitment to Scripture that governs and limits how far we can go in accommodating culture.”

In his postscript, Hammett wrote: “To those in the existing church, first, I admonish you to be very careful not to lump all those in the emerging church together.  The more I have read the more diversity I have discovered in the emerging church.  Brian McLaren’s prominence in the United States and his growing number of books do not mean he necessarily representative of the emerging church as a whole.”

Addressing Southern Baptist readers, Stetzer said that Baptists should work with relevants, dialogue with reconstructionists and “speak prophetically to revisionists that, yes, we know the current system is not impacting the culture as it should—but the change we need is more Bible, more maturity, more discernment and more missional engagement, not an abandonment of the teachings of Scripture about church, theology and practice.”

Stetzer added, “Every group that left these basics has ended up walking away from the faith and then, in a great twist or irony, is soon seen as irrelevant to the world they tried to reach.”

Chuck Lawless, dean of the Billy Graham School of Evangelism at Southern Seminary, stated during a collegiate conference earlier this year: “Read (emergent thinkers) very, very cautiously. Hear the positive.  Then pray that God would help us to work on our own churches to take those positives and to become more relational, to become more authentic, to become more vulnerable as needed, but without ever compromising the truth of the gospel.”

Jerry Pierce & Tammi Ledbetter
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