Making a statement about “emerging churches” at this point in my acquaintance is perhaps not as responsible as I would like it to be. But, it is sometimes important to be responsible enough to speak when a word of witness is appropriate.
I did not hear about the “emerging church’ until this past summer, and have only had a sampling of the statements and writings of those who identify with this new attempt to make the church more effective.
When I read the lead article in the summer issue of “Mosaic”, by Dr. Garry Nelson, I took notice of the mention of a book, “Emerging Churches,” written by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger; and I ordered one right away, in order that I might be somewhat intelligent about the subject if it should come up at Convention in Wofville. The subject did not get raised at Convention.
As I read the book, and became sensitive to some of its concerns and solutions, I was brought back to the concluding address made at the 2005 convention in Moncton. The speaker was Dr. Garry Nelson. At the conclusion of his address, Gary made a reference to some things that he believed we needed to do as a denomination. As he articulated these points, he paused at the end of each one, and said, “Amen?” and the delegates responded with a confirming “Amen! That is, until the last of his suggested reforms, which was to be willing to be less committed to our denominational distinctives. When he asked for a confirming Amen from the delegates there was silence - until someone from the assembly said, “It looks like you’re standing alone, brother.” I was impressed that these delegates were not going to be led into a declaration that, even though suggested by a denominational executive, was not in keeping with Baptist, and, I believe, biblical, principles.
The book, “Emerging Churches” makes it very clear, that, in their opinion, “evangelicalism” is a way of being church that has lost its appeal. The authors believe that we need to abandon it in favor of something that is less “rational,” less based upon something “printed” - and more rooted in the experiential.
A statement of page 134 of “Emerging Churches” causes my inner being to wince. Here it is:
Because of their confidence in Jesus, members of emerging churches venture out and truly listen to those of other faiths, and even seek to be evangelized by them. They no longer feel that they need to argue for the faith. Instead, they believe their lives speak much louder than their words. They do not believe in evangelistic strategies, other than the pursuit to be like Jesus in his interaction with others. They do not target people or have an agenda but rather seek to love all those whom God brings to them. They do not hope for a belief change for their conversation partners as much as a life change. (Italics mine) Because of their high level of engagement with other cultures, the sacred/secular split is overcome as they practice the kingdom in their midst, in community.
On page 129 of this book the authors of this book make this statement which is a dichotomy.
For emerging churches, evangelism takes the form of presence rather than proclamation.
It is very difficult for people like me to harmonize that with the Great Commission. Although the authors attempt to differentiate themselves from liberal theology, the above statement is very much the kind of declaration I have heard from many liberals.
This is a very incomplete statement of my initial understanding of the Emerging Churches. It includes some views that I honestly believe are worthy of strong criticism.
One of the reactions I have to the book is that it is so uncharitable towards those who believe as I do. I am an evangelical, and the book states that we, as evangelicals, are motivated by a consumerism mentality. It describes us as putting on a program that will appeal to the parishioners while they give the money to pay for the show. It relegates evangelicalism to a box of their making, and then blasts away at us as hypocrites that need to repent and become like them. They paint themselves as purged Christians who have a pure Christianity, and from the writings of this book, at least, seem to be more willing to understand other religions than their brother Christians.
Having said that, it is important for me to love these zealous proclaimers of Emerging Church ideas, and to treat them with respect, even when I don’t respect their ideas.
It is right that we need to be more understanding and less creedal. Baptists have always shied away from creeds that are statements of beliefs that are authoritarian. But we believe in stating our faith. There are beliefs which we consider to be rooted in Scripture; and Scripture is the bedrock of our faith.
Let me come at this situation with a bit of my own witness. In 1953, I graduated from Gordon Divinity School with a BD. I was seminary trained and was pastor of a church.
In the summer of 1954, I took a course in Pastoral Care at Worcester State Hospital. It was my first real exposure to secular teaching or training. I was immersed into a situation where people who had been subjected to all manner of stressful and punishing situations were housed in a confined space to be treated for their emotional or mental illnesses. Here, I saw the faces of wretched people and heard the agony of their cries. As I learned to relate to these people, I became aware that my responsibility was to listen to them. When somebody cared enough to listen, they responded. I discovered that I had learned to teach and to preach, but that I had somehow missed the skill of intentional listening. It changed my ministry. So, I know that there is some measure of justification in what I have read in the book, Emerging Churches. Often the church is guilty of preaching and not listening. But there is no justification for listening and not speaking the matchless truth that God is love, and that His love is more healing than mine is. It may be helpful for me to listen to Muslims, as I did in Turkey for three and half years. But I didn’t go there to be evangelized by them.
On page 131 of the book, Emerging Churches, there is this statement to which I cannot help but take sharp exception:
Christians cannot truly evangelize unless they are prepared to be evangelized in the process. In sharing the good news, people are enriched by the spiritual insights, honest questions, and depth of devotion demonstrated by those of other faiths. Including others involves listening to them and, in so doing, learning from them. Much of what exists in other faiths may not necessarily be hostile to the kingdom. Christians can learn much from other walks of life.
In Proverbs 6:6, we are told that we can learn from the ant as it makes provision for the cold weather by storing up supplies when the warm temperatures of summer make plenty of food available. But, we are not being evangelized by ants. Anyone who equates what we as Christians share with the world that is in darkness, with the truths of Islam or the truths of native spirituality, has not had the blinders removed from his spiritual eyes and is walking in darkness. He cannot, in my estimation, be an evangelist because he has not yet seen the truth of the Evangel. If he had, be could never cheapen it, as the above quote does, by putting it in the same category as the teachings of other religions.
In my opinion, we, as evangelicals, have a lot to share with the Emerging Church, so that they can get back to the ageless truths of the Bible and stop worrying about keeping up with the constantly changing culture. Postmodernism cannot last because it is without a sound foundation. So, why try to accommodate it? It needs to be saved. So let’s show them who can love. If they try to smear us, we should out-love them, and show them that we do not need them to show us how to get out of the darkness in which they think we are lost. Let’s make it clear that we want them back in the fold that has only One Shepherd.
Douglas Spinney, D.Min.
EMERGING CHURCHES: Creating Christian community in postmodern cultures
Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger
Published by Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, Michigan – 2005
ISBN 10: 0-8010-2715-2 345 pages