My Advice to the Emerging ChurchNovember 21, 2006
Twice in the past month, close friends of mine have been excited when they heard I was posting articles on the Emerging Church. They also looked sad when I told them I was not a huge fan of the Emerging Church. They thought I would surely be a part of this movement, knowing of my deep desire to see the Church of Jesus continue its Growth into His Image. They also assumed that this is the cutting edge of where God’s Holy Spirit is working and that I would want to be there.
I have always believed that God is up to something new. I know that Church History tells us that God is forever launching new ministries and empowering new teachers to revive forgotten doctrines, to encourage forgotten practices and to introduce never-before-seen aspects of God’s heart for his broken world. But Church History also tells us that during those seasons when change is inevitable for the church, there have also been frustrated, deconstructionist minded people who almost get it right, but therefore get it awfully wrong.
I hate to say it, but the Emerging Church I observe at the moment is really getting it wrong, even though I admire their intentions. One of the two friends I mentioned above asked me if this new movement is doomed. Of course not. Even if this movement fails (and in its present form, I believe it will certainly fade away quickly), it still will launch a group of people who see what God is trying to do through the Emerging Church and will create the better form of this movement: If you will, an Emerging Church 2.0.
So, with that in mind, I do have some advice to the Emerging Church. I know a number of them read this blog, so if you see any credibility to my advice, would you spread it far and wide. If you feel I am far off the mark, that is also possible…so please ignore. With that codicil to this manifesto of change, I suggest the following list of modifications that could make the Emerging Church into something fantastic.
1. Get Over Your Freedom in Christ: The Emerging Church loves to make hay with the idea that God doesn’t reject them for using salty language or having a beer or staying up all night or not attending a church service or smoking or doing drugs or sleeping around. Yes, the Kingdom of God is full of people doing many of those things. Frankly my friends, so what? That hardly is news and only reveals that all you know about evangelicalism is the Legalistic flavor. I haven’t heard a decent sermon in 20 years on the dangers of draft beer, so what kind of Straw Men are you erecting these days? I don’t use scatological references when I speak and teach because there are more eloquent ways of saying things. I lived in Canada for the first 30 years of my life and I never said “eh” more than a couple of times because it sounds moronic. Does that mean I am a language snob? Hardly. When you say “f” this and “f” that, I doubt that you achieve anything more than proving you have a potty mouth. A movement founded in the Holy Spirit is going to be radical. I can get all the “f” references I want on Comedy Central. I actually hear Lewis Black not using salty language on Network specials and it sounds funnier when he doesn’t use them. Just because you can do something in Christ, doesn’t mean you ought to.
2. Get Over Your Addiction to Online Community: A lot of what happens in the Emerging Church happens in blogs and online chat circles. This is not community. It is a forum, to be certain, but it does not contain any of the elements needed for dramatic, life-changing community. Life-changing community requires deep accountability, sacrifice, speaking the Truth in love, full communication (remember, most communication is non-verbal..with the online community you don’t even get tones of voice), acts of service, devotion and exhortation. The idea of devotion for instance, is improbable online. The online entity is an ever-shifting, ever-evolving idea. No one stays connected on the Internet for long. But while they are together, it is a rush, it is a complete intensity. Community like that can seem so real and so valuable because it is so intense. But it never lasts. And for that reason, the Emerging Church with its reliance on that sort of community will have intense reactions and relationships that burn out quickly. This is not what God intended for us when He created and continues to build his church. I would even go as far to say that the Internet, along with television and most forms of entertainment, is a hindrance to true community. True community takes time and it take living in the flesh.
3. Get Over the Weaknesses in the Structure of the Church: When God changed the church in times past, it was always through ideas and action. The structure always changed much later. But, in deconstructionist movements, the focus is always on the structure changing. That always makes the erroneous assumption that people understand why there needs to be a change. If you change your values and ideas, your structures have to change to match it. Allow me to give an example. In the late 1800s, Albert Simpson was a famous preacher of a mainline denomination. He began to see something the church had forgotten for so long: That God is the same Yesterday, Today and Forever, and that if He healed long ago, he can heal bodies today. He began to teach that. But he did not seek to change his church. He agreed with the basic structure of his church. He brought healing meetings into that existing structure. At first, people were overawed that this was happening in their church. But it was also a church that rented pews. You had your place to sit in church because you paid for it. The emphasis on healing brought immigrants from all over to the church (he ministered in New York city during a time of massive immigration through that port). Soon, people in his church could not find a place to sit in the pew they had rented. The structure had to change to match the ideas they had. Many saw the change and the beginnings of the “Tabernacle” style of church was born. It was a structure that fit the idea. Those in the Emerging Church don’t want any structure. This is a mistake. God always has his new movements focus on ideas and allow the structure to form later. Don’t fight structures, introduce ideas.
4. Get Over Liberal Views of the Bible: Throughout history, people have tried to improve on the Bible. They usually do this because the people they like to hang out with see them as idiots or simpletons for believing such an old book. Yet, no matter how many times the Bible has been maligned and supposedly proven to be full of errors, years later it is shown that those errors were actually not there at all. You don’t need to improve the Bible, improve your hermeneutics. You think you are the first generation to discover “narrative” approaches to interpreting the Bible? This has been done since the first century. And every movement that has tried it has died away into obscurity. The basic view of the Bible that lasts is this: It is inerrant, infallible, God-breathed and helpful for teaching and training people to live for God. Work more on applying the Scriptures and less on figuring out a better system of interpretation. The old historical-grammatical system works fine. You’ll find that very few of the legalists actually look at the deeper meanings of the text. They find their favorite hobby-horse and they ride it until it croaks on them.
5. Do More and Talk Less: Most movements that have “legs” to them just go out and live Christianity in a radical way and by this show others that God is up to something. Most movements that die out are based in written treatises and posted theories that are argued to death and oblivion. Even though Martin Luther wrote much, what impressed people in the towns he pastored was the way he lived. The same with Samuel Rutherford, Crysostom, Wilberforce, Wesley, and others. They lived the radical life as well as teaching it. I read books by the Emerging Church people and get the impression that their lives are just as messed up and just as much missing God as people in legalistic churches. That doesn’t make me want to sign up for their programs.
6. Listen to God: So little is said in Emerging Church circles about God’s leading and God’s provision and God’s voice and God’s power. But without those things, this movement is going to fall flatter and harder than the World Trade Center. God has to be at the center of a movement, or it is doomed. I don’t see God at the center. It all sounds like humanity discovering the Path again. How is that different from what Herman Hesse was looking for? Read Siddhartha and you will be just as confused about your journey toward God as when you started. God must help us, God must provide for us, God must be the source and the end goal. I hardly ever hear that in the Emerging Church, and until these principles become the underlying focus, this is never going to fly.