Reaching the Emergent Generation: an extensive study PDF Print E-mail
Written by Calvin Fox   
Friday, 20 February 2009 19:16

According to several recent surveys by Barna Group and others. a large majority of Protestant youth drop out of church before age 23.  Some return after 30, but most do not.  They join an ever increasing percentage of Americans who have no church background at all.  These kinds of statistics fuel the Emerging Church Movement.  EC Leaders and their books insist that America’s churches must seek new ways to reach these young adults.   If we don’t, they will not only not be saved, but churches as we know them are doomed to dry up and die.  We all know churches which are doing exactly that. The Emergent Movement is (or was) basically an evangelistic movement as in the name “Youth for Christ”.   Understand this is where we must begin our study of the Emergent Movement (the actual name is changing or varied and some are now dropping the Emergent label altogether, but the phenomena labeled by it continues to grow world-wide).

Whom are we looking at?  EC Leaders have published volumes of related material in books and on the Internet describing a growing segment of the Country’s population and we must take a serious look at this group.  The appeal is for us to be missionaries to this new culture group and to try to understand them in order to communicate the Gospel with them effectively.  The target people group is not actually defined by age or generation nor does it include everyone who has dropped out of church. Many young adults do not belong to it. It is difficult to determine the numbers involved, but I certainly agree that there are millions of Americans, young and old, in and out of churches, who are lost sinners.  I wonder if EC Leaders are inflating the numbers of the Emergent Generation to strengthen their argument and get support for the changes they personally want to see in today’s churches.  

This Essay is my response to the book Emerging Church by Dan Kimball.  Mr Kimball is one of the major EC Leaders and his book is highly recommended by people in the Movement as a fair and complete overview, although it is now more than 5 years old and the Movement is continually changing.  However, as far as I can tell the characteristics described here remain.   
Part 1

The “emergent generation” currently is predominately privileged white males in the 25-40 year age range who share a certain world view (caution: many American young adults in this age range do not share this world view and many older people do).  This group holds a pluralistic view of culture and religion. None is superior to the others.  The Bible is open to many interpretations and is only one of many religious writings.  All authority (especially religious authority) is questioned.  Faith is in personal experience.  Mystical Spirituality is preferred over organized Religion and Dogma.  Christianity is viewed very negatively as “man-made”, closed-minded, arrogant (claiming to be the “true religion”) and judgmental (particularly about homosexuality).

The emergent generation is a special, but growing, segment of Americans, both Christian and non-Christian, who have been raised under the influence of Post Modernism, academically and culturally.   They have adopted key tenets of that ism and view the world through its prism.  This means this group holds that there is no universal world view.  To claim one is considered arrogant and being oppressive.  There are no absolutes.  However, the PoMo worldview is itself absolute to its devotees and is a singular (universal) view of the world.  But then, they value non-linear thinking and learning and they accept contradiction and illogical conclusions. Rationality, logic and systematic thought are devalued or rejected outright.  Structure, hierarchies and organization are all suspect and not trusted.  Community is valued over individualism. Although ethics and morality are matters of personal choice, relationships and networking are very important and they are the major influences on personal choice (for this group).    They are convinced Language can not have fixed or certain meaning.  Therefore, there can be many interpretations of a word and no one or permanent meaning for it.  There is no inherent meaning in a word, only one assigned to it by the reader or a group of readers.  Image and reality are intertwined and often being ‘reinvented“ (think of celebrities who constantly create new persona for themselves, such as Madonna and Brittany Spears)

Beside having this PoMo world view, the young adults we are studying have grown up in a global, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural world.  They have instant, wired access to multitudes of diverse people.  They have been brought up with world-wide internet connections.  They speak more than one language, have traveled and lived in many countries, have experimented sexually, had many personal relationships and are immersed in a sea of music and video that reinforces 24/7 all their PoMo values and mores.  Most of them are used to a very hedonistic, materialistic, privileged lifestyle.  No typical church has adequately prepared its youth for any of this (in truth, it has contributed to their ready assimilation into it), but most of them leave home and church to live in this world.  It is not “Kansas” or their grandparents world.  But typical churches seem oblivious to all of this.  The EC Leaders are screaming at them to wake up and smell the “pot” that these youth are inhaling.  and to do something about it!

I want to do what many other conservative critics have done: I want to critique religious and moral Pluralism and defend the concept of Absolute Truth, the necessity of Logic and rational thinking and the trustworthiness of the Bible.  I want to defend the classic understanding and use of words and their meaning.  But this approach is wrong and misdirected.  It is necessary and here is a place for it, but such a critique misses the main problem.  Such an approach is irrelevant to these young adults.  It is like arguing that abortion is murder to those who are convinced that the “baby” is nothing more than fetal tissue.  They do not accept the premise upon which the pro-life argument depends.  The best time to convince adults about the importance of logic and rational thinking, as well as the importance of Doctrine and the authority of Scripture, was when they were malleable children.

The sad and tragic aspect to this entire discussion is how many of the young adults we have been describing grew up in churches and became disillusioned with Christianity for that very reason.  We have failed them.  In doing that, we have failed the Lord.  Their disillusionment goes deeper.  Mr Kimball writes of many youth who believe and say they never really met God in their churches.  Worship to them was moribund and far from lively and meaningful.  It was not spiritual.  It did not connect them with the supernatural.  It was all so cultural and expected and predictable.  Add to all that was a sense that many adults they knew in church were hypocrites, often caught in sins.  They were not acting like they were real Christians, only church members.  They did not see love or grace being demonstrated among them, either.  They saw meanness and self-serving.  They heard arguments.  They did not see much compassion for non-members and people in town who were hurting or in trouble.  

This is a terrible indictment of many churches. All of this really came into focus as these young people moved out and went to college and met and roomed with all kinds of other young adults with other ideals and values and belief systems.  They discovered that their church was irrelevant to the real world in which they now lived.  When intellectual issues came up in class or bull sessions, like the one about the meaning of language, they had not been prepared by their families or churches to answer them.  They learned for the first time that the Bible had many critics and maybe many weaknesses.  The heard of alleged atrocities committed by Christians in history.  And they met interesting Jews and Moslems and had no way to reassure themselves that Jesus is the only Way to God.  The list goes on.  And if we are honest, we long time church people must admit that the young adults have a good case for their reasons for turning from church as they have known it!  

Books that attempt to deconstruct Post Modern Philosophies simply do not address these matters.  But these matters matter.  We dare not ignore or deny this situation or the plight of this Emergent Generation.  Mr Kimball gives many suggestions about the kind of church he believes will truly help.  That is what is book is about.  He is not promoting Post Modernism as such or its world view as many critics are saying.  He is trying to reach young adults who have bought into it and bring them into a saving relationship with Christ.  I appreciate his vision, passion and very creative efforts to do that.  

Mr. Kimball is very concerned with the necessity for re-visioning “church”.  He uses four positive characteristics of the young adults he is concerned about to do that. 1.)  They are spiritual.  2.)  They have a very positive view of Jesus.  3.)  They are communal and all about relationships (as abundantly demonstrated by their digital social networking)  4.)  They are very idealistic and concerned about the world they live in.  They want to be active and involved in “making a difference” in that world.  

If you start thinking about building a “church” with these characteristics in mind what do you come up with?  First off, as Mr. Kimball sees it, church will not be about a place or building.  It will not be about organization and programs.  “Church” will be an informal gathering of people for sharing.  Everyone will be welcome and will participate or at least have the freedom to participate.  They will participate in those activities that they feel are spiritual and that connect them with God or Jesus. They will listen to stories from the Bible and share stories about God or Jesus at work in the world and in their lives.  They will love each other and be challenged to go forth and show compassion to others and seek justice in their world, as they believe Jesus did in his time.  They will consider themselves to be his followers, his disciples and not members of any denomination or even of a religion.  

If you add some of the other characteristics of this group, church will not be structured or hierarchal.  The focus will not be on a Pastor or typical, preached Sermons.  There will be no pulpit- too authoritative.  But there will be Teaching.  This group is into Theology and learning about God and Scripture.  But the “Teaching” will use more than words.  It will employ a mix of words, visuals, art, silence, testimony and story. It will be very practical and applicable to their lives and relationships.  Interestingly, surveys tell us that these younger adults are not into neutral, seeker-sensitive large theatre-like auditoriums.  The mega church is not their thing at all.  They are not into watching entertainment up front on a stage. They prefer a much smaller, casual, living room-like environment that facilitates participation and sharing.  A sense of spirituality will be fostered by quiet music and meditation and the use of candles and some rituals.  

It should be obvious that typical Church Services or blended Services will do nothing to reach this group.  The Emergent Church is an entire new way to do church.  No, it is an entire new way to be church.  And there are many of these new churches popping up around the country.  In fact, they are everywhere around the world.  I see no evidence that this is a fad that will disappear.  Some of its elements may be adopted by some traditional churches, but that will not meet the need.  Instead of trying to change today’s typical churches, whose members would not be served by such changes, true Emerging churches must emerge specifically to serve the group we are talking about.  

Mr Kimball surprised and confused me by all that he says about preaching in an EC church.  For starters, the Preacher must be trusted and earn the respect of his audience. But this is true for all preachers in every church.   Messages must be theocentric, not anthropocentric.  Good!  These young adults want to learn about the God with whom they desire to fellowship.  They are not interested in simplistic, fill in the blanks or  3, 4 or 5 steps to anything.  They wants lots of Scripture, not systematic doctrine from Scripture, but the stories in the Bible of God in the lives of people.  The focus is most often upon Jesus and what Mr. Kimball calls Kingdom living or discipleship.  Mr Kimball says he incorporates both expositional and topical messages and these messages do not have to be short.  They are often 40-50 minutes, using the various elements mentioned above, especially the visual as well as participation (questions and answers and testimonies).

Mr. Kimball insists he preaches the Gospel about Jesus, his atoning death and bodily resurrection and about Salvation through grace and faith alone.  He believes the Bible is the inspired Word of God. He teaches the trustworthiness of Scripture, but is not afraid to mention things he has doubts about.  However, he does not seem to believe in propositional truth.  There are absolute truths, but they are personal and often come through relationships.  That is very significant.  Truth is personal.  Jesus is Truth, as he himself claimed.  Kimball gives a lot of importance to incarnating Truth and preaching without words, particularly by actions out in the world- living the Gospel as much as preaching it.  This is not either or but both!

This brings us to Evangelism and it reveals much about what Mr. Kimball believes the Gospel to be.  Evangelism is friendship and conversation and demonstrating love in practical ways.  It is about building relationship in which the non-believer is attracted to the love of God being shown.  That person eventually, hopefully, is drawn into the church and the worship gathering.  There, s/he will experience God and finally come to have and confess faith in Jesus and commit to being a follower of Jesus and his way of living.   A Pastor in an EC church is a servant, mentor and guide, a person who listens to the members of the community, values and encourages their diverse gifts and walks along with them in the way of discipleship.  One size will not fit all.  There must be no formulas, no effort to force every one to be alike or to follow the same step and paths.  That includes growing a local Emergent church.  The second half of the book is filled with practical suggestions.

Mr Kimball concludes his book saying that the church he pastors has a four-fold focus.  It has a commitment to “dialogue, learn, teach and live the biblical story of God and what it means to be a follower of Jesus“.  It includes a commitment “to live out our mission locally and globally through the arts, social justice and inviting others into kingdom living“.  It includes commitment “to deeply connect to and love God with our heart, mind, strength and soul as we live worshipful lives in all that we are and all that we do.”  And it includes commitment “to participate in sharing life together as a church that is equipped to serve God and one another in love and in relationships through our unique diversity, dreams and giftedness.”  I think all of that is impressive and very exciting stuff.

Critics of the EC Movement that I have read or listen to, seem to miss almost everything I have just written.  They typically do not seem to have a handle on what the Emerging Church is about or trying to do.   In discussing the EC Movement and its Leaders there are several facts that must be kept in mind. 
One, the Movement is just that- fluid and changing.  A book written 8 or 5 or even 3 years ago may well be outdated in some sections and must be treated conditionally.  And the EC Leaders/Authors/Speakers do not agree on everything- there are real differences between them.  That means critics can not focus on one (especially Brian McLaren) and consider [him] as representative of, let alone authorized by, all the others.  The latter would be so very un-Emergent!  

Second, the Movement is not out to change “The Evangelical Church”, whatever that might be (there is no such thing, any more than there is “The Emergent Church”).  Mr. Kimball, in fact, says that there is still a need for Modern (i.e.- traditional, old time) and Contemporary (seek-sensitive) churches.  There are multitudes that these churches are effectively reaching for Christ and the EC Leaders are not trying to change or stop them.  Actually, that is an important lesson for young Emergent type Pastors of traditional churches who are, in fact, trying to change them.  In my opinion, do this is flat out wrong.  It does not work and is counter productive, hurting long time members. I know many of them.  Reaching PoMo adults requires, as Dan Kimball says repeatedly, an entire new way to do or, rather, to be the church, i.e.-to reach PoMo, post-Christian adults.  Would-be Emergent pastors should heed this fact and begin new churches, instead of undermining established ones.  

Third, the EC Leaders as I read them are not advocating Post Modernism as such.  Many books very critical of the EC Leaders are written by Evangelical Academics who wage into technical survey and analysis of French Philosophers and the “roots” of Post Modernism as it is found in college courses and popular culture today.  There is a need for doing that, definitely, but that Philosophy is not what Dan Kimball and his friends are promoting.  They are acknowledging that it exists and is pervasive already in a growing segment of society.  That is the problem they are confronting and trying to do something about.  Many young adults, in and out of churches, have been influenced by it and, indeed, have already bought into PoMo for their own world view.  The EC Leaders are not creating that situation, it is the given context in which they work.  They see themselves on a mission to reach those young adults who are already PoMo, for Christ. They are seeking the most effective ways to do that.   (It really would be helpful to have some statistics and demographics here as to whom exactly we are describing and how many they are.)  many Evangelical critics of the EC leaders seem to miss this mission altogether. And typical evangelical churches are not even in the game and have no interest, let alone methods, for carrying out this mission themselves.  

My question (and the main problem I see) is how to carry out this mission to reach the PoMo generation on their own terms without corrupting the Gospel or changing fundamental (Reformed) Evangelicalism. “On their own terms” may be part of the problem.  It is like trying to reach people committed to philosophical Naturalism by first agreeing with their basic premises about a closed Universe and then trying to convince them that there is a supernatural being who is both before, other than and immanent and in that Universe.)  In reading, Mr Kimball’s book (and material on his website and many others) I wonder whether, confronting PoMo values, he has, in fact, come to adopt them.  Some might say, he is using fire to fight fire.   Well, that can be effective, but it is also dangerous.  It is especially dangerous if the firefighter becomes addicted to the fire he is fighting.  Is this the case with Dan Kimball and friends?  They like to quote Paul (I Cor.9:19-22) saying it is necessary to be all things to all people to win some to Christ.  Did Paul actually become a Pagan to win Pagans?  How can we remain true to our beliefs and values and do this work, if we do not approve the way the EC Leaders are doing it?  
Part 2- Responding to Dan Kimball and the Emerging Movement

I find many things that Dan Kimball says in his book, Emerging Church, and on his website and blog are very appealing. He is on target about many things and the book is full of practical suggestions for reaching people in this sub-culture. He is very thought provoking.  He declares his commitment to the Gospel, Salvation and the Scripture and Evangelism.  He is most definitely intends to be God-centered and not man-centered. Contra his critics, Mr Kimball is an Evangelical (although definitely not Reformed, which may be the real problem for many of the critics)  Most Evangelicals would recognize and approve the Doctrinal Statement posted on the website of his church.  http://www.vintagechurch.org/   

That said, I am confused.  I am Reformed and there are bright yellow flags for me.  What are they? I will try to identify and explore them in this Essay.

Responding (at the request of a friend), to Kimball’s book which I read and underlined several times, I end up again affirming some of my core values.  I know human beings learn from experience and through their senses.  I know emotions and intuition are important components in how we “think” and learn.   I know we are influenced, even conditioned, by our environment (i.e.- the context  in which we learn).  I increasing appreciate Mystery and recognize paradox and I certainly know that my personal knowledge is far from complete or without error.  That said, I must reaffirm my commitment to reasonable, logical, consistent (non-contradictory) linear thinking.  We are wired to be rational.  I believe that is the kind of thinking God does and we are made in His image.  It is primary.  The knowledge we claim to have must be evaluated using Reason and Logic. I deny that this is a commitment to Rationalism.  

This Emergent generation is far more visual oriented, more into music, video, film and “the arts” than I have ever been.  I certainly appreciate and use all of these, but I am far, far more oriented to reading and the study of the written word.  That is the primary way I learn.  I reaffirm my commitment to that method.  My Christian Faith apparently is, relative to the Emergent generation, far more intellectual and cerebral (in my head), although I have all the normal human emotions and senses.  Is this difference simply a matter of degree?  The  emphasis, in this book and by others in the Emergent Generation, is on learning through personal experience, using all the senses, and through relationships and community.  That this emphasis is so upfront and dominant, definitely troubles me. Certainly, these have value but the real difference is the primacy, the supreme importance given to their function.  They are epistemological.  Professed commitment to the Bible not withstanding, for Emergents, experience and relationships seem to be the primary means of directly knowing God, trumping both the Bible and rational thought (They seem to have no problem living with contradiction and inconsistence and the illogical). The old slogan is “Fact, Faith, Feeling”.  I have told innumerable people that they must base and ground their faith in the Bible (Biblical promises and verbal truths).  Feelings (experiences) will follow and will do so according to what thoughts we have. Emergents seem to have changed that to “Feeling, Fact, Faith”.  I experience, I interpret what “facts” are by my experience and that leads to what I believe.  Mr. Kimball uses an illustration that declares “experience influences behavior which influences belief”.   In either case, faith comes last.  It is not based on verbal propositions or written Revelation from God.   

The Bible and rational thought are certainly valued and used by Emergents.  Obvious evidence of that is Mr. Kimball’s book itself.  However, the usefulness and truthfulness of the Bible and Reason are judged or measured by experience and relationships. While officially affirming the trustworthiness of Scripture, Emergent Christians do seriously question the trustworthiness of anyone’s interpretation of it, including their own.  After all, they believe, the meaning of all words is arbitrary and always influenced by cultural context.  For this reason (note: reason) Kimball writes of a “humble orthodoxy” and of his desire to avoid dogmatism.  In fact, skepticism and personal questioning of any Teaching is encouraged. Ultimately,  what one comes to believe is determined by what one experiences.   But what do they use to know their experiences are trustworthy?  Many Religions use experience to be in “contact” with God.  Are those experiences valid?  Are the religious experiences of Hindus and Moslems an experience of the Living God of our Bible?  Can Hindus and Moslems contact our God in their Worship rituals?   How do we know the answer to that question?  There are many who practice prayer, meditation (often with candles and incense), music and movement to contact the Center of their being, their Inner Self, or the Eternal Ground of All-Being.  Dancers talk of being “in the Zone”.  How do we know what these people are experiencing is not our God?  If it is not, how can Emergents be sure that what they are contacting in Worship is essentially different than those who meditate?   I submit my experiences to Scripture to see if they are trustworthy, not the other way around.

Emergent Evangelism begins with relationships, building friendship and trust.  (Most evangelicals will agree with that.) It usually proceeds by having friends become involved in a community of Believers and that includes  participating in a gathering to Worship (Evangelicals are increasingly agreeable with this, too). Direct, revelatory “contact with God” (knowledge of God) is supposedly made in that worship, which is intentionally experiential, multi-sensory and participatory. In this trusting, affirming, loving environment, the seeker hears from a Speaker, the overarching Bible Story (beginning in Genesis- literally, no knowledge of the Bible is assumed) and hears the Gospel, particularly the Gospel of the of the Kingdom, and finally comes to faith in Jesus.  Faith in Jesus leads to a life of discipleship out in the world, following him and promoting His Kingdom.  

I get the definite sense that Dan Kimball and friends do not believe Revelation comes in the form of verbal propositions to be processed rationally (and with illumination from the Holy Spirit.  It is common for Emergent worshippers to use Lectio Divina (repetition of words and phrases from Scripture, similar to repeating words and phrases over and over in praise songs) as a way to hear God speak to them though Scripture texts. (Propositional Revelation means words from God written for all to read, which is not the same as “hearing the Lord speak to me”.)

Often on this topic, Kimball and others in this Movement remind me of Barthians (Neo-Orthodoxy) from years back, who believed that non-verbal but genuine revelation happens during and through encounter with God and encounter between people ot within community (cf Buber’s “I-Thou”, while Evangelicals seem to be more into revelation between “I-It“, It being the Bible).  This subject of Propositional Revelation is more basic than the issues of Verbal Inspiration and Inerrancy, which presuppose it.  Believing in propositional Revelation is not the same as believing the Bible’s overarching Story is trustworthy and full of wisdom on many subjects.  The Bible is the Word or Revelation of God which is written, i.e.- Special Revelation  I believe in natural revelation as well: the heavens do declare the glory of God.  But again General Revelation is subordinate to Special Revelation and must be “read” in its light.  This major emphasis on “mystical” spirituality is the first yellow flag I see waving.  Their understanding of the nature and function of the Bible is the second flag.

According to many writing on this subject, the Post-Christian generation is very much into “spirituality“.  According to Mr Kimball the Emergent Generation have an enormous hunger for God now. They want to participate in worship which they believe connects them experientially with God.  They want to sense that God is alive and moving in their gathering.  That is the purpose of gathering. This typically involves all the senses.  Multi-sensory and participatory worship is the hallmark of an Emergent church: hearing, smelling, touching, seeing, tasting along with physical movement.  Everyone is free and encouraged to do their thing during the gathering- whatever facilitates experiencing God.  They are partial to dimming the lights and using many candles and have extended periods of silence.  They often use appropriate quite music, even the old Hymns put to contemporary settings, as well as the more contemporary praise music.  They like acoustic instruments as well as electronic.

They do not like anything that smacks of entertainment.  They do not want to be passive consumers of slick productions up on a stage in front.  For those who rant about the contemporary church, it should be of interest and even good news, that the emerging generation of adults do not like the contemporary church either.  The seeker-friendly and the mega church are not for them at all.

The focus of Mr. Kimball’s Teaching is on the person of Jesus.  He is Trinitarian and worship focuses on God, but evangelism is all about helping people meet Jesus, who is presented as the only way to God.  Being a Christian is primarily understood as being a follower of Jesus.  Although, Mr. Kimball believes the Gospel includes all the usual points about the atoning death and bodily resurrection of Jesus and Eternal Life, the emphasis is on the “Gospel of the Kingdom”.  This is the Gospel of love, compassion and servant hood.  The Kingdom, they believe, is primarily the lifestyle supposedly taught and modeled by Jesus.  It is about grace and mercy for sinners (often understood to mean people who are marginalized and victims of oppression, homophobia and racism).  The emergent Christians I know, while insisting they are Evangelicals, seem to be totally caught up and consumed with this understanding of the Gospel, Jesus and the Kingdom.  They are sincere and marvelous people living out what they believe every day, but I believe their understanding of all three are in error. These are more waving warning flags to me.   

My personal focus is not on “following Jesus“ as Emergent Christians use that phrase.  I do not define a Christian as someone who professes to be a “Jesus follower” or disciple.  My main concern is not “discipleship”.  To me, this is a very unscriptural concept as it is used by Emergents.  Mr Kimball speaks very appreciatively of Dallas Willard and his teaching about “Spiritual Formation”.  (Richard Foster is another influential proponent of this). To Kimball, Discipleship is spiritual formation. That formation comes through practicing the “Spiritual Disciplines” and through experience and relationships in community. But for Emergents (and Liberal Christians of all kinds), “following Jesus”, in practice, usually means being committed to Social Activism, such as  feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless and caring for people who have AIDS.  Somehow this concern always comes across to me sounding like Liberation Theology or Walter Rauschehbusch’s Social Gospel or something advocated by Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement or even the Platform of the Democratic Party.  Reformed Christians for the most part are focused almost exclusively on Confessional Theology, Soteriology and the Gospel of Grace (the 5 Solas) and internecine denominational and institutional wrangling and have failed to teach and demonstrate what the Bible says about social, political and economic matters.  They almost never speak of the Kingdom, except in Eschatological terms)

I do not believe God calls all Christians to imitate the life or style of someone like Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa.  However popular and admired such characters may be today in some circles, they are not models for what it means to be a Christian.  Instead, I believe imitating Jesus or being Christ-like means to be a person who lives in Covenant with God, seeking to obey His will in all things at all costs, as Jesus did.  This applies to all Christians in all walks of life in all cultures.  This is a call for all Believers to personal holiness and a righteous life, as defined by the Law of God.  Such Christians compose the Realm of God in the world.  God’s work of creating and sanctifying His People, as well as fulfilling His purposes in the natural and human worlds, is what the Reign of God is about.  The dynamic Reign and the static Realm of God are, together, the “Kingdom” of God.  The Reign comes first!

Through the ages people’s perspectives of Jesus have frequently changed.  Turning the PoMo table on them, I believe today’s Emergents are arbitrarily reading their ideals and values into the historical person of Jesus.  Instead of who he was and is, they want him to be the Man exhibiting the ideals they admire.  They are imposing their meaning upon him in place of the meaning God gave to him (the Author’s original intent!) before the world even came into existence.  There can be no “Jesus” apart from Christology.  Theology leads to Christology. Christology in turn leads back to more Theology.  My focus is on the God who is known and found in Christ, as defined by the Catholic creeds.

Where in the world is the Church?

One of the great weaknesses of the Emergent Movement (and of most evangelical churches of all kinds) is its understanding of “Church”.  Emergents are very fluid and dynamic and “now” in their definition of “church”.  They have a low or critical view of traditional organized and structured churches as institutions (that often seem to exist for their own sake).  Mr Kimball insists that the definition of church must be changed from its popular usage as a Place (we “go to” church, etc) to the Biblical concept that the church is a local gathering of Believers.  

The Church, to Emergent Christians, is an informal organization for making and growing disciples of Jesus (as defined above).  But, the Church is also defined as those disciples, in action out in the world.  Church is a body of Christians who gather to be recharged and then disperse to love and serve. Thus, Church is a worshipping and “missional” community.   I agree with this concept.

Emergents like to think of their gatherings as being modeled after the 1st Century or “vintage” church.  Through the years many Christians, including myself, have romanticized and idealized the First Century Church. Actually, I believe the Emergent Christians are really a-historical.  They are not committed to the Heritage and Historic Tradition of any Denomination.  In this regard they are the same as most evangelicals I know.  

I believe Christ founded the Church as a dynamic, growing institution with structure and that the early church was exactly that, an organization as well as an organism.  I agree with the Reformers, that a church consists of Believers in covenant with God and each other for Biblical Worship, Preaching of the “pure Word” of God with Sacraments “ministered according to Christ’s ordinance”, which involves duly called and authorized (ordained) Clergy and Discipline. The latter includes an hierarchical structure, with Biblical guidelines for accountable Leadership and Membership. I also agree with the Reformers that such a Church will be always reforming.  

Emergents do not submit to the authority or structure of any historic Catholic, Liturgical Church (there are arguably four possibilities: Roman Catholic, Orthodox Communion, Anglican Communion and Lutheran Churches).  Yet, when they gather for Worship, Emergents often use and value certain “spiritual” practices of Liturgical, Catholic churches (on a pick and chose, mix and match basis as they see).  If the ceremonials are done apart from their Theological and historical context, their use sounds superficial and “cosmetic” (like dressing up as a nun or priest for a Halloween party.   Compare the popular use of Crosses as accessories).  Symbols have historic meaning assigned to them from centuries of use (that sounds PoMo). Assigning new meanings for the moment is inconsistent, self-serving (that is PoMo).
I enjoy and value the spiritual practices of Liturgical, Catholic Worship, but I do so within the Tradition and according to historical usage of the Anglican Communion.  Knowing that connection is what gives them their meaning.  I have committed to the authority and structure of Anglicanism.  I belong to the Episcopal (Anglican) Church and am committed to that Heritage and Tradition.  That was  symbolized by kneeling before a Bishop to be confirmed and received into the Church.   Having been an ordained Baptist Pastor, that was a very major turning point and radical change in my Christian life and it came with a high price. I find it strange and disturbing to hear independent Christians who simply like to gather for worship experiences or “live in community“, say they believe in “the Church” but will not officially commit to it‘s historic Christ-given institutional form.  

The Nicene Creed, that many Emergents recite on occasion and use on their church websites, says we believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.  Those who framed that Creed (rather than Protestants) meant the Institution (complete with Apostles- and clergy in Historic Succession from them who are official representatives of Christ- as well as their Doctrine).  The Framers did not mean a fellowship like what is meant today by the “Emergent Church”.  The adjective “Holy” does not refer to members who live holy or separated lives (as in the Anabaptist/Baptist Tradition), but members who are people called out of the world to belong to a Holy God and are indwelled by the Holy Spirit and are “holy” because of that.  The phrase, Communion of Saints, which is in the Apostles Creed, did not mean a world wide spiritual aggregate or body of Christians, but baptized members of the Institution, alive now and in fellowship (communion) with God, each other and with those members who had passed on into Heaven.   The Creeds also confess faith in Baptism.  The one Church is a Divine institution organized according to its Founder, in which Christians are meant to live their entire lives from Baptism to Funeral.  

Knowledge of God through experience?

All my adult life, as a Christian, I have characteristically had the constant experience of peace with God and the peace of God- a confident spiritual strength and well-being (assured that I am in His hands and keeping) deep within my soul.  These are the products (gifts) of the Spirit. They are also the result of my faith in the promises of God in Scripture (propositional revelation/truth). I have these gifts anywhere, anytime, even in situations or times when I might be going through stress or crisis and am worried or upset on the surface of my life.   This spiritual experience is not the product of doing anything per se in a Worship Service with other people.  I do not participate in Worship Services to find God or to seek such an experience.   If what happens in a Service or anywhere else strengthens my faith in God's Promises, the experience of peace, confidence, strength and joy will be strengthened. Conversely, what happens [anywhere], may also lead to conviction of sin and short comings and repentance and lead to acts of restitution and amendment of behavior.  These experiences also will be the work of the Spirit within me through Scripture.  

True Spirituality?

As human beings we are all born with the faculty for communion with God. As a result of the Fall, we all  are also born with enmity for God- we do not seek Him. On the contrary, we suppress any knowledge of Him. We still have the need for Him, but we seek to fill it with other (false) gods.  We do not seek the one and only true God. We confuse the two and are deceived about what we are doing.  Our so-called search for God is self-deception. We seek a substitute for Him and call it God.  We think we have made contact with God but have not.  What non-Christians feel in any Religious Service may be real emotions, but they are psychological or even demonic.  The phenomenon is common among the devotees of all kinds of Religions.  It may be called spirituality, but it is not Spirit produced.  When their “experience with God” fades, the candles are snuffed out and the music fades, people who have had it may very well be more empty and alone than ever before.  False gods do not satisfy.   To truly know and experience God requires Regeneration, saving faith in the atoning sacrifice offered by Christ and the baptism of the Spirit that comes with that.  All this must all precede any claims to know God experientially.

Salvation by personal relationship?

We are not saved by having a “relationship” with God. Young adults are heavily invested in finding and maintaining personal relationships.  Consider the growth of social networking over the internet and the seemingly non-stop texting and instant messaging.  They are in and out of relationships.  This is the frequent theme of movies and TV series.  It seems many young adults, even the late 30 somethings, are into hooking up and shacking up, over and over.  All of this behavior is “relationship” without commitment.  When they speak of wanting a relationship with God, does the word change its meaning?  Great caution must be used when employing this word in regards to God.  It certainly does not involve any of the above behavior. It is significant that the phrase, “personal relationship”, does not appear in the Bible.  Nevertheless, the concept, properly defined, does.

A personal relationship (simply meaning a person to person relationship) with God is possible when it is understood within the context of a Covenant, i.e.- with the exchange of promises and vows and the beginning of a lifelong commitment to Him. Scripture compares the relationship with God with a Marriage between man and Woman.  Biblical Marriage is hierarchical and complementarian rather than today‘s preferred idea of egalitarian marriage.  Perhaps that is why the vague term, “personal relationship”, is preferred by most over the Covenant and Marriage metaphor).  It is far more Biblical to speak of being in Covenant with God than in personal relationship with Him.  

Actually, it is impossible for any non-Christian to have any kind of personal 1:1 relationship with God.  This is because God is holy and unapproachable to sinners.  Salvation does not begin or derive from a relationship with God. That relationship is a gift to those who have been justified.  A personal relationship with God requires prior Justification and that follows Regeneration, which is the work of the Holy Spirit in a sinners’ heart through [his] hearing the propositional truths of the Gospel. The Gospel is about sinners finding right standing with God.  It is about the gifts of forgiveness, pardon and acceptance/adoption.  These gifts are given freely to sinners at the moment they exercise trust in the work of Christ (which is the sacrifice which atones completely for sin and propitiated the wrath of God).  This is saving faith.

Saving faith is not having a relationship with Jesus.  The latter is a result of saving faith.  A relationship with Jesus does not come from believing that God loves and therefore accepts you as you are.  It does not come from trusting in that love and acceptance.  Saving faith is trust in the atoning work of Christ (the Blood) on the cross. The relationship with God, a Covenant relationship, begins when conviction of their sin drives sinners to that cross where they seek and find mercy and forgiveness.  

Sinners with saving faith are placed by God into a union with Christ. This is called being "in Christ".  This is not a personal relationship but a formal, legal (forensic) relationship.  It is about a right-standing a status, a position before a holy God whose Law has been transgressed by the sinners and who therefore deserve punishment.  Forensic or positional truth must precede subjective or experiential truth. Sinners must be declared (reckoned) righteous, before they can actually be righteous in their thought, feelings and behavior.  Imputed righteousness precedes actual righteousness.  All this teaching seems to be totally missing among Emergents.  The very concept of sinners needing to be made right with a holy God is itself not important with Emergents, if not actually repugnant.   This, they say, is so “Roman”, so legalistic, so Modern!  They do not find it in the teaching of Jesus.

Saving Faith is not commitment to following Jesus. "Following Jesus” can mean most anything and these days.  It often simply means loving and serving others (in ways that are popular or valued by popular culture).  It is far more Scriptural to say following Jesus is demonstrating a love for God's Word and His Law no matter what.  Such a life of obedience to that Word and the commands of God (i.e.-a life of righteousness) is the result of saving faith and an outcome of regeneration and justification. It is also known as “personal holiness“.  Again, Forensic or positional truth must precede subjective or experiential truth.  It must precede following Jesus


I do not focus on the popular Evangelical Gospel.  I think it is inadequate and omits important topics.   I do not focus on the Gospel of the Kingdom or the teaching of Jesus found in the Gospels.  I believe to do so is also inadequate and often very misleading. Rather, I am concerned with the entire Scripture (which includes the evangelical Gospel, the teaching of Jesus and a lot more).  I am intent on being a Biblical Christian more than on being an evangelical or New Testament or “Vintage” Christian (the latter is Kimball’s term).  I am concerned with learning and teaching the Truth Revealed in the Bible.  I ask not “Is this Christian?“, but “is this Biblical?“  

Revealed Truth is found in both the propositions and the narratives of the Bible, but I seek to understand the Bible using certain principles. In general, I use the traditional historical-grammatical (common sense, ordinary meaning of the words) approach to a passage.  I recognize different literary genres and styles of writing and respect each for what they are, e.g.- poetry is poetry, figures of speech like metaphors are just that, parables are parables, etc.  Furthermore, the propositional (didactic) trumps the narrative (e.g. the stories in the Book of Acts must be read in light of Paul’s teaching in his letters).  In addition, the didactic portions (the propositional truths) must be systematized into a “Theology” to make sense (i.e.- to be understood, as Scripture explains Scripture). Theology is the grid through which I read the Book.  Catholic (Creedal) Theology spells out core doctrine which trumps private interpretation, e.g.- The Trinity is a given. Systematic Theology trumps Biblical Theology.

Reformed, Covenant Theology, to me, is the Systematic Theology that best harmonizes and conveys the Truth found in the Bible.   I recognize and respect other approaches.  (Many who are Calvinist are also Dispensationalist.  Many who hold a high view of Scripture are Arminian, etc)  Through the years I have been open to change and have seriously explored alternatives, but I have always come back to Reformed Covenant Theology and am now settled in it.  Therefore, I interpret the Bible in terms of this Theology and I evaluate the Emergent Church Movement accordingly.  There are good qualities that I agree with and benefit from; but, overall, I find it seriously flawed.

In sum, the major concern that I am left with, after this review of Dan Kimball’s book and the issues it raises, is this.  How do we, who are not part of the Emergent Movement, reach the emerging generation?   How can we communicate the Reformed Faith and World View to the growing numbers of young adults who are under the sway of  a Post Modern world view and its values?  Current churches are not doing an adequate job of doing this (to say the least).   The status quo must go.  Church as most of us know it helped create this generation.   Simply perpetuating what we normally do is counter productive.  We need to listen to Dan Kimball and learn from him and other PM Leaders and then intentionally get involved with this Generation ourselves.  We need to reclaim and  do a far better job at promoting the Reformed Faith and World View in all its fullness (the form of it that is most common, seems truncated, vitiated and ossified).  We must become open to new ways of doing what we do as churches (this means planting new churches).  We must intentionally become far more aware, informed and conscious of the dominant culture and the youth around us and intentional engage them for Christ.  


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Last Updated on Friday, 20 February 2009 19:23