In 2006, I wrote six articles on why I was not a part of the Emerging Church. Here is the final one, and all you have to do is read backward to find the rest. At that time, I predicted that the Emerging Church movement would fall apart and cease to exist in the years to come. I didn’t say that out of animosity or a desire to curse them. Unfortunately, the Emerging church movement was decontructionist in nature, and thus subject to the same inertia of all deconstructionist movements: They fall down with their own tendency to self-criticize.
In other words, once you start throwing stones as a group, you inevitably start throwing stones at each other. Decontructionist movements always devolve into bickering.
A few years ago Dan Kimball–who wrote the book “The Emerging Church“– wrote an article where he admitted the movement had splintered and was no longer a viable entity. Others such as Scot McKnight and Andrew Jones (a.k.a The Tall Skinny Kiwi) also have lamented and written about the fragmentation of the movement.
But all three men have one thing in common: They still believe in the principles of the Emerging Church even if they no longer believe the movement is viable. The problem is, every one of them recognizes a significantly different set of principles that embody their view of the Emerging church. Perhaps this is another reason it has come to an end.
But since I was a bellringer for this movement’s demise, perhaps it is time to admit some of the things I learned from reading, meditating and participating with some of the leaders of this movement. This is not an homage to something I didn’t believe in–I’m not Cassius Brutus or his kin–but rather this springs from my desire to acknowledge the good things the Emerging church was trying to do.
1. The Evangelical Church Has Become Shallow: As with any retrospective, my analysis of all things related to churches will be painting with a broad brush. Not all evangelical churches are shallow. But there is a pattern which goes back over twenty years in prominent Evangelical churches of emphasizing style over content. Let me just give a few examples:
- Dominance of bass boosters, fog machines, expensive lighting systems, electronic keypads etc. in large megachurches.
- Pastors buying the sermon series of other preachers instead of digging into the Word on their own (thank you Rick Warren for that egregious error).
- Christian bestsellers are all penned by superstar pastors since these pastors can guarantee that their congregations will buy the first 50,000 copies. Therefore, most Christian books are ghost-written and designed for marketing instead of teaching..
- Worship services are designed to sound like concerts instead of providing a place for the congregation to have communion with the Holy Spirit.
- Tendency to mirror conservative political buzz instead of being a prophetic voice.
The Emerging Church desired to have more intimate gatherings of people instead of the consumerist approach we buy into. In this, they are correct. As I wrote in this series on the Walmartization of the church, this trend will not stop as long as people desire little commitment to a local church. I am sorry the Emerging Church was not able to make more of an impact on these practices.
2. Social Justice: If you look back ten years to the messages preached from Evangelical pulpits, you didn’t hear much talk about climate change, recycling, feeding the poor, sex trafficking, backyard gardens, gender equity, GMO proliferation etc. The Emerging Church dedicated themselves to social justice and their voices convinced many in the Evangelical world that this was true and undefiled religion. Now you can hear them being preached everywhere. I am concerned that as the Emerging Church loses its soapbox, we may forget these critical emphases.
3. Narrative Theology has one great result: Narrative preaching seeks to understand where each book of the Bible can be found in the larger story of God. That is to say, all Scripture was penned as a partnership between God, the writer and the culture to whom he was writing. Evangelical preachers have sought to understand what God was saying in each passage, keeping in mind the human elements of the writers while not really paying much credence to their personality. For instance, we recognize the difference between the Gospel written by Doctor Luke and the one that comes from the mouth of the peasant John. Their language is different as is their focus. But that’s as far as we go. We rarely, if ever, parse the cultures to whom books were written. This is a serious error and I thank the Emerging church and their emphasis on reading the original culture as well as reading the original language. It helps to know that culture’s views on poverty, slavery, sex, women, homosexuality, marriage, divorce, church leadership etc. before we finish up our study. Evangelicals are too inclined to only look what God might be saying and not enough to the ideas of the author and the contextual culture. I suspect that as the Emerging Church disappears, we may go back to only one side of the Scriptural partnership. Hopefully writers like Tom Wright and Roger Olson can help us stay on a good interpretive track.
4. People Are Leaving Church Because We Are too Institutional: This past year, well-known writers such as Rachel Held Evans and Donald Miller have admitted they rarely go to church. CNN ran a series of articles three months ago suggesting that children who grew up in Evangelical churches are leaving those same churches when they hit their twenties. Everyone has proposed a different reason for this, but I think the Emerging Church identified the reason better than all the rest: The Millennial Generation doesn’t perceive real community in their home church and this is what they yearn for more than anything else.
Recently, our church decided we need to buy a building so our current ministries don’t die off. We are meeting in 7 different locations around the city doing the work we are called to do. As I met with various members of the church to discuss a move, I asked them one question: What do you value about our church? The answer was consistent and overwhelming: People join our church because of its sense of genuine community. We actually know each other. We are involved in each other’s lives. The biggest fear that people expressed about owning a building is that we would get too big and lose that sense of belonging to one another. This response has made our leadership team sit up and ask tough questions. Primarily, we want to know if we can do this and stay close to each other. If at any point we decide that is not possible, we will give up trying to have a building.
Today’s Evangelical church must come to grips with the movement of young people away from the “Show” and the “Celebrity Pastor”. If we are not intimate, genuine, relational and humble, our churches will die just as surely as the Emerging church.