Engaging the Emergent Church Part 2

Posted: October 11, 2009 by Josiah Batten in Book Reviews, Current Issues, Emerging Church
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Before I deal with the content of the next chapter of  Stories of Emergence, I want to voice a complaint I have with the emergent church as a whole.  I’m sure we’ve all heard exaggerated stories about spiritual happenings in the mainline Evangelical church… to borrow from Steve Furtick those stories that are like “I sat down by a lesbian wiccan on a plane, and she said to me ‘Sir, does thou readest the Holy Scriptures?’…”  Now my emergent counterparts rightly point out that such exaggerated stories are not authentic (assuming, of course, they are exaggerated and not true).  I will even cede that these stories often sound cliche (even though calling something “cliche” today is very cliche), and create a culture of fakeness in the church.

However, I don’t think the emergent alternative is any better.  Emergents seem to base their theology on miniscule absurdities of life, it often sounds like “I bit into a frosted pumpkin cookie and realized it was turning bad, at that point it occurred to me that the church is a lot like that cookie…”  It’s just so annoying.  Far from being “authentic”, it leaves one believing that emergents just go through their day looking for ridiculous analogies, trying to capture the “essence” of a “story” that “can’t be reduced to principles and formulas”.

At any rate, that is simply a pet peeve of mine, it has no substantive value in the “conversation” emergents are trying to create.

I read Spencer Burke’s chapter titled “From the Third Floor to the Garage”.  It details his move from working on the third floor at a megachurch to creating TheOoze.com from his garage turned office.  Given how much emergents love “stories” one would think their tellings in this book would be remarkable, but Mr. Burke (who would probably be annoyed that I called him “Mr.” since that sounds too business-like and CEO-ish) does not tell a great story, though he makes some good points.

Of course, to start Spencer’s move from megachurch pastor to his garage must be incredibly “authentic” and “real”, or so the post-moderns tell me.  Though I don’t see how a garage is any more real then a third-story office in a megachurch.  I guess the “real” part deals with three things Spencer points out in the Evangelical church:

1.  Spiritual McCarthyism.  Spencer rightly points out that churches today are often business-like.  I agree.  This pastor-as-CEO model, Spencer claims, can go bad and lead to spiritual McCarthyism; this McCarthyism doesn’t allow for Christians to question things like homosexuality as a Biblically condemned sin, in essence it encourages everyone to remain orthodox and stick with the mainline so as to avoid ostracism.  And apparently the ostracized are the “liberals”, which Burke says is the worst thing you can be called in the Evangelical community today.  I sometimes wonder if the emergents realize theological liberalism and political liberalism are two seperate things, I don’t think they do, but they would do well to.

That the Evangelical Church today encourages people to wear masks and not to question certain things is very true.  While I agree “fear, intimidation and control shouldn’t be the defining hallmarks of Christianity”, I also believe certain things, like belief in the fall of man, the life and resurrection of Christ, and the Bible as the inspired and inerrant Word of God, should be.  The defining hallmark of New Testament Christianity is belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ.  If that is not what defines us, then we are talking not about the Church, but about something else entirely.  If Jesus is not Lord, then I have no reason to love my neighbor.  If the people around me are not created imago Dei then I have no motivation to alleviate human suffering.  Emergents want all the benefits of Christianity without understanding the foundation of those benefits.

That leads us to Burke’s next point, the church today suffers from 2.  Spiritual isolationism.  Like every other emergent on the planet, Burke doesn’t believe the church has “engaged” the culture, especially in the area of fine arts.  Our McCarthyism has lead us to be spiritual isolationists.  My frustration here is that emergents equate “engaging” culture as “conforming” to culture.  I believe “engaging” is more related to “undermining”, and is very far from “conforming”.

Emergents believe just because a culture is going one particular direction we need to jump on board and adapt every aspect of church to accommodate that cultural shift, this they call “engaging”.  I think that when the church sees culture going a particular direction, rather then jumping on board with it we need to evaluate it, to analyze it according to Biblical truth.  Generally, the culture seems to be moving away from Biblical truth (even the belief that there is such a thing as truth).  Our job here is to demonstrate by our lives, by our mental reasoning, and by the power of God released  through His Spirit, that such a shift is detrimental.

For example, take the issue of dating.  Culture has shifted towards very recreational relationships.  They encourage one-night hookups, friends-with-benefits relationships, etc…  Our job as the church is not to change our standard or to compromise and say “well, the Bible doesn’t really condemn sex before marriage”.  Our job is to undermine this wicked system by how we date, and what we propose about dating (based on solid evidence that demonstrates how horrible relationships based on society’s methods are).  We engage by undermining the cultural system, not conforming to it.  We need to challenge these assumed standards and engage our culture by showing them a better way.

In his third point, Burke says we suffer from 3.  Spiritual darwinism, the belief that bigger is better.  His proposition is that we teach all churches should grow, use the “new programs”, pastors should advance up the food chain, etc…  I don’t doubt that many churches assume that position, but not all do.

To conclude his chapter, Burke talks about authenticity, particularly on his website.  He says the essence of the emerging church is treating those who hold opposing views with great dignity.  Unless of course, that person is a fundamentalist, or a spiritual darwinist, or something like that.  It seems there is little tolerance for those people.  And that’s my last point; for all the hypocrisy emergents point out in the mainline church, they are full of it themselves.  You may say I’m not treating Burke with dignity by challenging his ideas as I do, at the very least I’m taking his ideas seriously and I would never question his right to hold to these ideas.  On the other hand, emergents are notorious for simply dismissing their critics as any number of things.  But in the end that’s what they do, they simply dismiss them.  The only story they want to hear is their own and the only books they take seriously are their own (these last comments are said generally, not necessarily in reference to Burke… even though all the blogs on TheOoze.com that I’ve seen affirm one position).

Question 1:  Spencer experienced seminary as a place that squelched differing viewpoints.  What has been your experience with seminary, Bible college, or the church?

Absolutism provides an underlying precondition for open and free thought.  If one position is right and another wrong, I have good reason to listen to those with whom I disagree to determine if they are right.  However, if we hold that no position is necessarily right and that most things are relative, then I can simply ignore and dismiss whomever I disagree with on the basis that their ideas are just subjective.  In this sense, because I’ve been raised among absolutists, my experience has helped me to gain a more full understanding of differing viewpoints.

Question 2:  Give some thought to your experiences with contemporary Christian culture.  Have you been content?  Discontent?  What changes do you anticipate?

In some ways I’ve been content.  However, I think we’ve conformed way too much to the secular culture around us, especially in terms of our ability to know moral and religious truth, in our present dating and marriage practices, in our leadership structures, and in how we engage culture.  I anticipate we’ll get this straightened out, though we may have to leave a great deal of the “church” behind to do it.

Question 3:  Spencer describes Spiritual McCarthyism as idolatry, “finding righteousness in something other than Christ.”  Do you agree or disagree with his assessment?  How big a temptation is this in our culture?

I agree, but I don’t think the assessment goes far enough.  Idolatry also includes valuing things more then we value God, and I have to ask if people like Burke value the approval of a secular culture on an issue like homosexuality more then they value God’s statement of fact on the matter.  In all, idolatry of all forms is a major tempation.

Question 4:  Spencer says he believed in spiritual isolationism during his growing up years.  What is your take on spiritual isolationism?  Is it always bad?

My take is that we need to be in the world but not of the world.  If we talk about spiritual isolation in a physical sense where Christians live in one city and non-Christians in another then yes, that’s bad.  If we talk about spiritual isolationism in terms of resisting secular philosophies and developing a truly Christian mind then that’s good and even commanded.

Question 5:  Is it possible to practice Spiritual Darwinism with integrity?  Does God want you to pursue “big”?  If not, what does he want you to pursue?  Explain your thinking.

Yes it is possible to practice “spiritual darwinism” with integrity if our practice is a “holy ambition”.  As John Piper explains, a holy ambition is something we really, really, really, really, really want to do that God wants us to do also.  I think there are big God-given visions, but ultimately our pursuit is not a vision, but God Himself.  Outside of our pursuit of God we can have no passion to do His work, no vision to know what His work is, and no stamina to carry it out.

Question 6:  What issues in your life do you need to hand over to God in “severe honesty” and with “authenticity, in all its messiness”?  Are you willing to hand them over?

I have to be vague here, since this is  a public blog.  One issue for me is my tendency to rationalize things and try and figure them out myself, ultimately I need to just seek God on the matter.  Yes,I am in the process of handing this over.

Question 7:  TheOoze and other organizations tolerate “differences and treats people who hold opposing views with great dignity.”  Is that helpful to the church?  Threatening?

It’s every helpful to the church.  In demonstrating the truth of the Gospel we must treat people with all the love and respect inherent in carrying the message of reconciliation to beings created imago Dei.

God bless!


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