Emergent No has recently posted a full-length presentation by Phil Johnson on the “emerging church”, which he gave at the Shepherds’ Conference at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA. His presentation was titled, “Absolutely Not! A critical look at the emerging church movement”.

Phil begins his talk with the statement:

I don’t suppose anyone who knows me expects me to be very positive about the emerging church movement. I’d love to stand up here and spend the first half hour or so listing features of the emerging church that I think are admirable. I do think there are actually a few valid and important points being made by people in the movement, and I’ll get to them, but I’d rather not start there, if you don’t mind.

My goal in this hour is not to persuade people who are already sold on the emergent idea that it’s a bad idea. My aim is to help conservative pastors of established churches who are committed to biblical principles by making you aware of some of the things that are going on in the so-called emerging church movement. And I hope to explain why I believe it is worth the struggle to resist these trends. Because you will invariably be confronted with pressure to embrace some of the philosophy and style of the emergent movement in your own ministries. And judging from what I know of church history–especially recent church history–it will be a difficult struggle for some pastors to resist.

(By the way, I realize it would be very stylish if I took the other approach. If I gave you an ambiguous review and a totally dispassionate analysis, so that when I finished you couldn’t actually be sure whether I think the emerging movement is a good thing or not, that would fit perfectly with the postmodern paradigm favored by emergent types. And I’m sure a lot of them would congratulate me for it. But that would not reflect my own honest perspective, and I’d prefer just to be totally frank with you. So that’s what I’m going to do.)

Phil Johnson said this about me on his blog on July 29:

Rhett Smith is the very model of a postmodern college minister. It’s interesting to watch him wrestle with evangelical faddism from the paradigm of a young emerging church leader.

So since he has labeled me postmodern it really isn’t going to matter much what I have to say. Obviously that wasn’t a compliment on his part, but I took it as one. If Phil liked my theological views I would’ve probably have been as concerned about falling into the fundamentalism camp with him, as he would have been about appearing to be postmodern.

With that being said, I want to say upfront that Phil is very, very smart and I am a consistent reader of his blog. I also think that he has done a lot of research on the “emering church” and I think that is evidenced by his knowledge and resources in his presentation. But with that being said, I would like to look at a few of his thoughts and critiques. (Notice the lack of ambiguity in my statement, and my passionate analysis? So does that make me postmodern, or post-post modern, or modern? )

Full-disclosure. My own experience with the “emerging church” is this. I have been to two of the conferences in San Diego. I have had Donald Miller come and speak to our college group this last year, though he isn’t really “emergent” (but more on that later). I have read the literature, though funny enough, I have read very little McClaren, but rely more heavily on the research, writing and work being done by people like Fuller professors Ryan Bolger and Eddie Gibbs, and retired Fuller professor Ray Anderson, whose new book, “Emerging Theology for the Emerging Church will be released this summer.

Background. I was raised in a non-denominational Bible church, went to a Souther Baptist college, did my M.Div. at Fuller and am working on my M.F.T. there, and I work at Bel Air Pres and am “under care” to be ordained in the P.C.U.S.A.

College ministry. I happen to work with college students from UCLA, USC, LMU and other surrounding schools. And even in my four and half years as the head college director at The Quest, I have seen a shift away from a very classical apologetical approach to theology, to a more postmodern, incarnational type apologetic in theology. We experiment with aesthetics and music and styles of preaching and teaching. If that’s what one calls “emergent” than I suppose that’s what I do on occasion. But I rather see it as the beginning of a paradigm shift in the church, which is the beginning point in the process of reform. And I also see it as an attempt to be open to grow and learn and be challenged, rather than opening ourselves up to relativism, “narcissism” and “man-centered worship” as Johnson puts it.

So upfront, let me say that I hardly fit or work in what Phil would describe as an “emergent church.” But I do think that the “emergent conversation/movement” is an important one and that there are some good things that are coming out of it and that can be learned. Like any church denomination, or non-denomination, or movement, things can be pushed to either extreme which isn’t usually helpful.

Phil begins by saying this about the word “emerging” and its relation to the movement:

Emerging. In the first place, I object to the implications of the word emerging. This movement is not some beautiful new butterfly coming out of a cocoon. Although people in this movement sometimes claim to represent the next great step forward after the failure of modernism, my assessment would be that what we are really seeing here is the collective dying gasp of every major modernist idea evangelicals and fundamentalists have stood against for the past century and a half.

Virtually all the literature, style, and philosophy associated with the emerging subculture are shot through with conspicuous elements of worldliness, man-centered worship, the narcissism of youth, liberal and neo-orthodox theology, and the silly, ages-old campaign to be “contemporary” at all costs.

I agree with Phil in that this is not some “beautiful new butterfly coming out of the cocoon”, but I do think it is something new in the way of a paradigm shift. And paradigm shifts are never usually beautfiful and seamless, but rather are messy and confusing and difficult. Thomas Kuhn in his seminal work on paradigm shifts, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions observes the following:

“The pre-paradigm period in particular, is regularly marked by frequent and deep debates over legitimate methods, problems, and standards of solution, though they serve rather to define schools than to produce agreement…….Novelty emerges only with difficulty, manifested by resistance, against a background provided by expectation.”

I think that the “emerging church” represents part of this paradigm shift, and whether it’s pre-paradigm or not, I’m not sure. There are always forerunners in the process of reforming. Martin Luther, had forerunners who had attempted reform such as John Wyclif and John Hus. But it was Martin Luther whose attempts at reform were ripened and came to fruition with invention of Johann Gutenberg’s printing press. And please note, I’m not comparing the “emerging church” to those involved in the Reformation, but am simply making a point about the progression and stages along the way in paradigm shifting and reforming. Phil and his blogging allegiance would become squeamish at the thought of the “emerging church” being a catalyst for reform in the church, and I’m sure that would also work vice-versa.

Phil continues:

Church. Second, questions have also been raised from within the movement itself about whether it’s really appropriate to speak of “the emerging church.” Brian McLaren is without question the leading American figure and most prolific writer in the movement. He said last summer that he now prefers to speak of the emerging “conversation.”

I see what Phil is getting at here and so I’m not going to argue on this point. But rather, from my own standpoint, I do see this as more of a “conversation”, and not in an attempt to avoid clarity (as Phil might think), but rather as an attempt to debate, discuss and move towards some clarity on certain issues. Clarity on issues cannot be reached unless conversation and dialogue is part of that process. And as Kuhn points out, the pre-paradigm shift is where the struggle over problems, methods and solutions exist. Conversation is about addressing these problems, methods and solutions. In my own experience in attending conferences and reading the literature and visting “emerging” churches, etc., I believe that “emergent” is less of a “church movement” and more about the conversation that is helping churches bring clarity to the qualities that they believe the church should possess. What’s also funny is that just because I have “emergent voices” on my blog, or talk about “emergent” things, I am often quickly labeled as an “emergent.” Can one not have a conversation and dialogue with people who hold other views? Can one not respect and admire and think that other people’s views are worthy, without necessarily buying into all of it?

Phil continues:

Movement. That’s not all. In some important ways the emerging subculture is not really even a movement in the classic sense. There are no clear leaders or universally-recognized spokespersons who would be affirmed by everyone associated with the emerging church. The closest to a dominant figure would be Brian McLaren, and he is so controversial and so prone to making disturbing statements that many who have adopted the emerging style or otherwise identified with the emergent movement say they don’t want their ministries or opinions to be evaluated by what he says. And I don’t blame them.

I agree with Phil on this point that there are not really any clear leaders or universally-recognized spokepersons, though he points to McClaren as being the most dominant figure. And as he will mention later on, I do think this is intentional and that “emergent” has resisted the attempts to define itself. But this resistance for definition is also what I have liked about “emergent” because I feel that the “conversation” is very important right now, and any attempts to define in order to please the critics can be premature. Many people are uncomfortable with undefined boundaries and no clear definitions. One, because I think it makes them unable to pin-point someone down, and therefore, give them the ability to exclude. Two, it doesn’t give them the “ammunition” that critics need to criticize and tear down. “Emergent” is not about being undefined forever, but I believe it is about being undefined until more clarity and agreement of solutions can be reached.

There are no clear-cut leaders in this movement, and what I find most interesting, is that those who are often labeled as “emergent” have never said a word about “emergent” or have ever been really involved in the movement/conversation. (i.e. Donald Miller and Rob Bell to name a couple of them). They may be linked with “emergent” because their views, approach and theology resonate with “emergent”, “postmodern” types, but they don’t fly the flag of “emergent.” Miller is a writer and Bell is the pastor of one of the largest and fastest growing churches in America.

Phil goes on to define “emergent” in parts, but I want to close by looking at his three concerns with “emergent.” Phil writes:

1. It fosters contempt for authority. The New Testament idea of church government is not anarchy. It’s not even democracy or mobocracy. The church is certainly not supposed to be the sort of populist organization where everyone has an equal voice in everything that happens.

I think Phil is both right and wrong about this statement. Right, because I do think the “emerging church” has attracted a certain populace that is attracted to anarchy and the overthrowing of authority. I only need to talk to some of my friends in “emerging churches” to know that this problem exists. I don’t think it’s unique to the “emerging church” though, but rather the “emerging church” doesn’t have the structure to quell anti-authoritarian behavior that the more established churches have. Here I am mainly speaking of the congregation, but I know Phil is probably thinking of the leaders. I know there is some contempt for authority in the “emerging church” that exists in leadership positions in various churches, but again, how is that unique to the “emerging church” movement? But I also would not confuse someone disagreeing with Phil’s theological stance as contempt for authority.

Andrew Jones on February 10th said this:

The third wave, says MacArthur is the emergent church movement that he characterizes as believing the Bible is “hopelessly ambiguous”and avoiding debate with anyone except people like himself -who apparently-are the only people true to the Scriptures. [I feel a third book coming on] MacArthur believes the main threat comes from a lack of clarity regarding the Scriptures–that the Bible has never been clear (his take on MacLaren) or is only NOW clear (his take on N.T. Wright) rather than a MacArthurite Absolute Clarity, as expressed when he states in his presentation . . .
“We have the mind of Christ, We know EXACTLY how he thinks!”

I find that statements such as these made by MacArthur reflect the idea that anyone who disagrees, or whose line of thinking is different, is out of line, or is in contempt of the Biblical authority that he possesses. Earlier in Jones’ post he says this of MacArthur:

John MacArthur Jnr has been describing the emergent church as the 3rd wave of movements that threaten our clarity of the Scriptures. The first two waves, according to MacArthur were the charasmatic momement (which he tackled in “Charasmatic Chaos” [see also Vineyard Response to Charasmatic Chaos .pdf, and this letter] and the Seeker Movement (which he confronted in “Ashamed of the Gospel”).

So am I right in assumming that John Macarthur for example, believes that anyone who disagrees with him is in contempt of authority since he states that we have the mind of Christ and knows what He thinks? If that is true, then why is MacArthur’s opinion more valid than any other Christian or pastor’s opinion?

I think there is also fear in the more established churches over the “emergent church” because they are afraid of their own authority and position coming into question. I think “emergent” has less to do with “contempt for authority” than fear that the powerbrokers of evangelicalism and American theology could one day be possibly usurped. What is a seminary student or pastor to think, if Barna’s thoughts in Revolution were to materialize, or the findings in Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures were to come to fruition? There would be a lot of shifting in the structure of the church. There would be a lot of pastors without jobs as they take up “tent ministries” alongside of their church work. There would be loss of power by those in power. When it comes to contempt for authority there is the flipside of those who fear losing authority.

Phil continues:

2. It breeds doubt about the perspicuity of Scripture. You understand the principle of perspicuity? It speaks of the clarity–the “understandability”–of the Bible. The Westminster Confession of Faith says it like this: “All things in scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of scripture or other, [so] that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” Perspicuity. The Bible is not too hard for us to understand……

……This is a huge issue–in some ways the pivotal issue. The overwhelming message coming from the “emerging church movement” often sounds like a flat denial of the clarity and perspicuity of Scripture. That is a denial of one of the basic tenets of biblical Christianity, Protestant history, and evangelical conviction.

Hey, there are some things coming out of some of the “emergent” camps that I disagree with, and I have heard some differing doctrine than mine and I have seen some differing practices as well. But there are also some things coming out of some of the other areas of the church that I disagree with. One issue I will name, but will not go into detail here, but will save for a later post. The exclusion of women in ministry, from the pastorate down. I see that as a denial of the clarity and perspicuity of Scripture. But I suppose you all saw that coming from a Fuller graduate and member of the P.C.U.S.A. Here is a topic of theology where different people have a different perspicuity of Scripture. Are we both wrong? Are we both right? Is it either/or? If I disagree with your view, than do I have contempt for authority? Does my view mean that I am postmodern and lack clarity of truth?

Phil continues:

3. It sows confusion about the mission of the church. I’lll just sum up my final point with this one observation: The “missional” emphasis in the “emerging church movement” seems to be entirely focused on an effort to adapt the church to the culture, with very little stress on the church’s duty to proclaim a message of repentance and faith in Christ that calls men and women to forsake the world…..

…..The true mission of the church is embodied in the gospel message and the Great Commission. It is truth that demands to be proclaimed with clarity, and authority and conviction, and if you refuse to do that, even if you insist you are being “missional,” you are not fulfilling the mission of the church at all.

I agree with Phil in the importance of the gospel message and the work of the Great Commission. But I also think that much of the disagreement between the “emerging church” and other parts of the church such as Phil’s, is that Phil would prefer a clear-cut line. Such as, this is the mission of the church, and this is not. This is what a Christian looks like, and this is not. This is the way to interpret this passage, and this is not. This is clarity, and this is not. It’s an either/or mentality that I think many fundamentalists or “modernists” or whatever, adhere to, and when things are not clear cut, it creates fear and confusion.

On the other hand, things cannot not always be without some semblence of structure or mission and some “emerging churches” lack this element, which I think drives other parts of the church crazy. But I also think the “emerging church” is in the beginning stages of formulating its mission as well.

Miroslav Volf in his remarkable book Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation looks at the work of Christian missiologist Paul Hiebert. Volf states:

“Christian” missiologist Paul Hiebert suggests that we make use of the mathematical categories of “bounded,” “fuzzy,” and “centered sets.” Bounded sets function on the principle “either/or”; an apple is either an apple or it is not; it cannot be partly apple and partly a pear. Fuzzy sets, on the other hand, have no sharp boundaries; things are fluid with no stable point of reference and with various degrees of inclusion–as when a mountain merges into the plains. A centered set is defined by a center and the relationship of things to that center, by a movment toward or away from it. The category of “Christian,” Hiebert suggests, should be understood as a centered set. A demarcation line exists, but the focus is not on “maintaining the boundary” but “on reaffirming the center.” (Volf, pp. 71. n.3)

I think that the “emerging church” represents an element in the pre-paradigm shift of the church that is on its way. I think that because the “emerging church” is in this stage, conversation best suits the task and mission at hand, which is identifying the problems, developing methods and finding solutions. This shift has elements of ambiguousness that I believe makes a lot of people uncomfortable, but I also think it strikes fear in those who position for authority within the theological and ecclessial world. Others would prefer that the “emergent church” can be defined and controlled because it is easier then to either “exclude” or “embrace” to use the lingo of Volf. It makes it easier then for others to say, “those Christians, “the emerging” church, does not fit our categories of what it means to be Christian, and they are in contempt of authority and their orthodox is suspect.” But like Hiebert’s definition of a “centered set” which is a movement toward or away from the center and the relationship of things to it….I think the “emergent church” along with other denominations and churches hold Christ at the center, and don’t do any less so because their methods, practices, worship and certain non-essentials of doctrine are different.

Christians usually cet up a circle in which they can decide who is in and who is out. That makes things easier and more clear cut for us. But to follow Christ is to draw people towards the center of the circle, towards Christ.

And last, as Phil indicated on a blog a while ago, he thinks I am the perfect example of a postmodern college pastor. Plus I think that such neo-orthodox theologians such as Barth and Bonhoeffer are brilliant, and I noticed he didn’t seem to fond of neo-orthodoxy. So it would have been obvious from the outset that we hold different theological positions. And it would seem obvious that he would find my post all to ambiguous and lacking clarity to represent Truth. All that being said though, I do appreciate his intelligence and work ethic and his convictions by which he speaks. I think he made some good points that I could agree with, and some points that I disagree with.

May we all continue to move towards Christ, the center.

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