We live in an interesting era of church history. The once dominant voice of American Christianity is beginning to weaken, being replaced by the strengthening choruses of places like Africa and China. The mega-church mentality and method has been tried and found shallow. Bill Hybels has admitted that his Willow Creek approach over the last ten years was “a mistake.” Even as the American church seems to be witnessing a resurgence of interest in the historic and orthodox theology of the Protestant Reformation****, several undercurrents are calling into question these very same orthodox interpretations of Scripture.
Probably the most vocal (or at least the most prolific) contemporary antagonist of traditional Christianity is a movement known as the “emerging church.” The emergents are looking for a new way to “do church.” They don’t have doctrinal statements; they have missional directives. They prefer conversations and communal discussions to the sermons and didactic teaching of the traditional church. They are skeptical of absolute truth and even more skeptical of those who claim to know it. And until now, most critiques of the emerging movement came from the stodgy, academic, traditional authors that the movement is questioning, men like D.A. Carson, David Wells, and Al Mohler. I say “until now” because Moody Publishers has just released a critique of the movement by two guys in their thirties. Two guys, according to the title, who should be prime candidates for participation in the emerging “conversation.”
Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be) is a much-needed moment of clarity in the on-going debate between emergents and traditionalists. Co-written by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck, this book helps to challenge some of the underlying assumptions of the emerging church, without resorting to the ad hominem and straw-man argumentation and sarcasm that often characterize the books and blogs of the emergents themselves. DeYoung is the pastor/scholar/historian of the pair, while Kluck is the journalist/man-on-the-street/humorist. The combination makes for an entertaining, enlightening, and enjoyable read. (I almost included “engaging” in there, but I thought it might be a bit much.) Although the first 15 pages of the book are a somewhat uncomfortable apology for lumping/not lumping all emergents together as a homogenous group (which they most certainly are not), any book on this convoluted topic requires such a caveat at the outset.
Emergent authors, bloggers, and pastors do not see themselves as leaders or authoritative theologians, but as talkers. This is one of the most admirable and frustrating parts about the emerging church. It’s admirable because emerging Christians admit that their ideas are only exploration and experimentation and not definitive in any way. That’s refreshingly honest and self-effacing. It’s frustrating because the “we’re just in conversation” mantra can become a shtick whereby emergent leaders are easy to listen to and impossible to pin down. (p. 17)
While the authors do a good throughout the book interacting with and critiquing various beliefs and “teachings” of the emerging church, the reader must wait until the end of the third chapter to get to the real heart of the matter:
Emergent authors…still write books. They still use language to communicate ideas and trust implicitly that the people reading their books and blogs will understand what they mean to say. [Brian] McLaren has uncovered “the secret message of Jesus,” and [Steve] Chalke has found “the lost message of Jesus,” so these guys must be figuring something out from the Bible… So there are still right and wrong meanings from the text. It seems that when emergent authors want to contest traditional beliefs (in, say, hell, exclusivism, and propitiation) they cry, “All we have are interpretations,” but when they want to make their points (say, about hell as a metaphor, inclusivism, and kingdom living) they argue, “You’ve been misreading the Bible, can’t you see?” It seems there is a meaning in the text after all. (pp. 83-84)
In other words, one of the main discomforts of the emerging movement is with propositional truth. They find much more comfort and meaning in relationship. Jesus is not a proposition, they say, He is a person. They think that “experiencing” the person of Jesus is far more meaningful than “believing” certain propositional truth claims about Him. But, as DeYoung points out in the above quote, they must use propositional truth when explaining and describing their problems with propositional truth. Brian McLaren, the unappointed, but universally acknowledged, leader  of the emerging movement has written at least 14 books that are filled with propositional statements of what he perceives to be “truth.” Likewise Rob Bell, Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones, Dan Kimball, and the whole host of other emergent writers and speakers. Truth is propositional in its very nature, to deny this is to deny truth itself. It is not propositional truth that the emergents have problems with, it is the propositions that others are imposing (whether rightly or wrongly) on the text of the Bible. As DeYoung and Kluck ably point out, getting rid of propositions is not the answer, it is getting rid of the false propositions. But this sort of knee-jerk, broad-brush reaction is characteristic of the whole emerging church movement; a bunch of really smart guys are saying a bunch of really dumb things.
[T]he emerging church greatly exaggerates the differences between modernism and postmodernism… McLaren is at least candid enough to admit that people like him “too often indulge in facile dualisms.” Modernism was not always that bad. Postmodernism isn’t always that good. And the line between the two is sometimes imaginary, or at least relatively unimportant. (p. 152)
DeYoung and Kluck do a good job in remaining as objective as possible throughout the book. While they don’t try to hide their anti-emerging convictions, they are quick to compliment and give credit to the emergents when it is due. The emerging movement is asking some good questions—questions that the church in America needs to hear and think about. The problem is that the answers the emergents are currently providing are just re-packaged, mid-twentieth century liberal theology. “The neoorthodox theologians of the last century, in their pre-emergent way, thought God could not properly be the subject of human knowledge and that belief in doctrinal revelation eroded personal faith in Christ. In many ways, when it comes to their understanding of Scripture, emergent leaders are the new neoorthodoxy” (p. 74). The neoorthodoxy of Barth, Bultmann, and Niebuhr didn’t save the twentieth century church, and the emerging theology of McLaren, Pagitt, and Bell will suffer the same fate unless they begin to take a hard look at themselves. Let’s hope it doesn’t take ten years for the emerging church movement to admit that, like Willow Creek, they too have made a mistake.
**Collin Hansen, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008). _Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists._ Also see the 2006 Christianity Today article of the same name.
**** For a more in-depth discussion of the emerging church, see the last three parts of my series on postmodernism.
**** Leonard Sweet, an emergent author has written: “Postmoderns are truth-seekers first, truth makers second. Whereas modern seekers sought the knowledge of the truth. postmodern seekers want to _know_ the truth in the biblical sense of that word ‘know’—that is, _experience_ the truth.” (Quoted in _Why We’re Not Emergent_, p. 149)
**** “If the Bears defense were the emergent discussion, Brian Urlacher would be its Brian McLaren—the head honcho. The hammer.” (_Why We’re Not Emergent_, p. 173)