Sadly though, this is the age of extremes. On the one hand, there are Christians that no doubt find Disney classics such as “Snow White”, “Sleeping Beauty”, and “Pinocchio” too racy for their tastes. And on the other, there are those professing to be Christians that cannot adopt quickly enough the popular fads and affectations of any particular moment. One prominent example of overeager accommodation to the spirit of the time is the Emergent Church movement.
If one is to chastise the Evangelical and Fundamentalist wings of Christianity for overly embracing social conservatism as epitomized by the Republican Party, to remain consistent one would also be required to enunciate an admonishment against the Emergent Church’s headlong rush into what could probably be described as countercultural liberalism. Realizing the sway postmodernism has over Western society and the power of its methodology to expose potentially hidden hypocrisies and inconsistencies, advocates of the Emerging Church believe that the wiser course may be to surf the postmodern wave on a Christian board than to firmly plant one’s feet and fight against the tide.
Emergent Church leaders such as Brian McLaren hope that the postmodernist impulse to examine and in most cases set aside the cultural assumptions often below the surface we are not aware of will assist believers to get back to the earliest expressions of the Christian faith that existed before it was institutionalized as a socio-cultural edifice. McLaren views the impact of modernity upon the Church as having been especially deleterious.
Fundamentalists not that familiar with the direction in which McLaren takes his analysis might initially think they have found an ally in McLaren. However, in many respects, McLaren is harder on those one might categorize as conservative Evangelicals than he is on the shortcomings of the contemporary world.
According to McLaren, modernity in the West has fostered the desire to conqueror and control all of the structures of reality from the physical to the epistemological through the process of scientific analysis and classification. The result has been to mechanize all of existence (including human beings) to the point where the souls encountered by the Christian and the resulting relationships are not seen as ends in themselves worthy of care and nurture but rather as strategic stepping stones simply along the path to accumulating conversion statistics (230).
Concerns raised by McLaren regarding authenticity are quite valid. Even for those that have been Christians for years and even decades, it is easy in a megachurch setting to feel like little more than a statistic used to justify the next phase of the building expansion while in a small church it is easy to come away with the sense that one is not welcome unless one is in complete enthusiastic agreement on nonessentials if one is an average pewsitter. However, there are a number of dangers that result from the Emergent Church’s posture against dogmatism.
According to McLaren, the modern age was marked by a quest for certainty and absolute knowledge (230). In the Church, this has manifested itself in the tendency to insist upon an exclusivity of belief that points out the deficiencies of competing faiths and emphasizes the superiority of Biblical revelation. Of this approach to matters of theology and religion, R.Scott Smith writes, “In that process…faith tends to be treated as a rigid belief system that must be accepted instead of a unique, joyful way of living, loving, and serving (230).”
Ideally in a world accepting of and at peace with the Gospel, that would be how Christ would be introduced to those hungering to have their sins forgiven and life more abundantly. And though the Christian must always strive to show as much respect and kindness to the unbeliever as possible, neither can it be ignored that the world has been so warped by sin that Satan is always on the prowl seeking those whom he may devour. There are those out there that are wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing seeking to infiltrate the church for the sole purposes of destroying it.
There are things that are just plain wrong. Both clergy and possibly even more so the laity must be on guard against them.
If the Christian does not possess an existential certainty that makes the leap of faith from the ledge of high factual probability, though one does not attend to secure salvation one can think of a number of more enjoyable ways to spend Sunday morning. A number of these would include remaining in ones nocturnal raiment rather than slipping into the most uncomfortable garments likely hanging in one’s closet. More importantly, if one is to be of the mindset that it is improper to point out where other faiths and creeds do not measure up to Christianity, how are the young to protect themselves when these competitors attempt to lure them away? For especially when (as in the case of Islam) these outlooks have no qualms about insisting upon the superiority of their own practices and dogmas.
To the Christian fatigued by some of extremist Fundamentalism’s rules which in some circles extend to no facial hair on men despite there being no Biblical mandate for such a grooming preference, the care free times of the Emergent Church with its disdain for systematized doctrine may sound like a relief. However, once the prospective adherent delves deeper into the movement, disillusioned Fundamentalists may discover they have merely exchanged one form of excessive control for another.
R. Scott Smith writes in his analysis of the Emergent Church that Brian McLaren believes, “modernity has emphasized inordinately the autonomous individual … Likewise the church has perpetuated this individualism to the detriment of the body of Christ (230).” This assumption is itself in need of careful examination.
If by this McLaren means that under the banner of modernity that many an individual has abused the freedoms of the contemporary world to ignore those behavioral restrictions given to us that a percentage find stifling or inconvenient, he could very well be correct. Yet in a Time Magazine profile naming him one of the nation‘s most prominent Evangelicals, McLaren did not seem all that concerned about the growing support for gay marriage and homosexual intimacy. To McLaren, lamenting the advance of individuality means something else entirely.
For example, in an interview broadcast in June 2010 on Issues Etc. with Todd Wilken, McLaren kept emphasizing that Jesus did not so much come into the world to live the sinless life that we could not, die in our place as the penalty for our sins, and rise from the dead so that we might enjoy eternal life with Him in Heaven. To McLaren, the traditional Christian emphasis of Christ’s work of reconciling the individual to God in preparation for eternity is secondary to establishing God’s Kingdom here on earth.
To McLaren, the transforming power of Christ is not so much about the changing of the human heart one individual at a time on a level imperceptible to merely human eyes. McLaren believes that such shifts in consciousness or perception (to borrow New Age and postmodernist phraseology) need to be societal or planetary. However, such a revolution would not so much turn the world into one giant campus extension of Bob Jones University or Pensacola Christian College campus with well intentioned busybodies armed with rulers measuring to see if young men’s haircuts are short enough, young ladies’ hemlines long enough, and a respectable distance kept between the two sexes as they perambulate down the street.
Things would, more likely, come to resemble a form of religious socialism where the morality of an economic decision would not be determined by how well it benefited the individual or by how closely it adhered to the explicit dictates of Scripture but instead by the criteria of how it benefited the overall group, predetermined oppressed classes such as ethnic minorities, and whether or not the decision adhered to the consensus of the community. McLarenite Emergent Church types have often condemned how those on the Evangelical Right have long served as the dupes of the Republican Party; however, those enunciating such criticisms have turned right around and snuggled up with Christian leftists such as Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo who have little problem with homosexual domestic partnerships or professed Communists such as the Sandinistas of Nicaragua.
In every direction the Christian turns, he finds adherents of every conceivable worldview gaining ground throughout Western civilization and around the world. Constantly bombarded by these competing perspectives, after a while the mentally fatigued believer can grow so weary that it is easy to throw up one’s hands wondering what is the point in even trying anymore. Often it is concluded that the best strategy would be to cordon ourselves off in a Christian subculture in the attempt to preserve sound doctrine and their family’s spiritual purity.
Though that might be a noble sounding justification, it is often not the case. Often on the grounds of aspiring to a simple “just give me Jesus” kind of faith, many believers shut down their minds all together to the point of where they do not only fail to familiarize themselves with the knowledge of their adversaries but also fall into appalling ignorance of Christian things as well.
William Lane Craig points out in the essay “In Intellectual Neutral” that, on tests of generalized knowledge (think of the Jaywalking segments from the Tonight Show), Christian young people faired little better than their unbelieving counterparts. Of these findings, Craig concludes, “If Christian students are this ignorant of the general facts of history and geography then the chances are that they…are equally or even more ignorant of the facts of our own Christian heritage and doctrine…If we do not preserve the truth of our Christian heritage and doctrine, who will learn it for us (5)?”
Thus, when the Christian disengages from what are snidely referred to these days as the “Culture Wars” as if our way of life was somehow not worthy of preserving or fighting for, he does not succeed so much in keeping himself from deeds he considers impure such as heated disagreement and argument. Rather the result of such surrender is ultimately the erosion of our civilization if Christians do not rise to the challenge in a variety of venues ranging from government, academia, and even the new social media such as blogs and podcasts. If such happens, those trapped by the blinders of secularism may never otherwise be exposed to these ideas and concepts.
As a neglected discipline in many Christian circles, it becomes an easy temptation for those enthusiastic to promote a more intellectually rigorous and vital expression of the faith to downplay more existentialist manifestations of it. However, if anything, one thing that can be adapted from the Emergent Church movement is the need to be consistent and authentic in regards to how our lives should reflect closely the things that we say.
In Ecclesiastes 1:9, scripture assures that there is nothing new under the sun. Sean McDowell in the essay “Apologetics For An Emerging Generation” insists that, despite the complexities with which the issues dress themselves when confronting the inhabitants of the contemporary world, the young continue to ask the same but profoundly deep questions that they always have (260).
Therefore, it remains essential for the Christian to remain grounded in the foundations of the faith as well as familiar with the assorted challenges always arising to undermine the faith once delivered unto the saints.
By Frederick Meekins