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D. A. Carson critiques the Emerging Church - Part I

A Review of

Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church:

Understanding a Movement and Its Implications

(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 250 pp. 

I can’t count the number of times over the past six months that people have asked me: “When are you going to write about the Emerging Church?” That question is almost always followed by: “Have you read Brian McLaren’s books?”

The answer to the second question is Yes. If I’m not mistaken, I’ve read all of McLaren’s books except the one on evangelism (“More Ready Than You Realize” [Zondervan, 2002]). I even used his book “Finding Faith” (Zondervan, 1999) as a required textbook in the course on Christian Thought that I taught at Wheaton College. But I’ve refrained from writing a review of any of them, in large measure due to the developing nature of his thought. In other words, it seems with each new volume another layer of the onion is peeled, revealing something surprising or sad or, on occasion, moderately encouraging. I’ve thus been fearful that no sooner would I write a response than he’d disclose something unexpected and render my comments either obsolete or inaccurate, or both.

Upon reading his most recent volume, “The Last Word, and the Word after That” (Jossey-Bass, 2005), in which he tries to reconstruct (and, in my opinion, ends up denying) the classical Christian understanding of hell and eternal punishment, I was tempted to enter the fray. But then I received in the mail Donald A. Carson’s new book in which he responds to McLaren and others who have identified with what is known as The Emerging Church or simply Emergent. McLaren is generally acknowledged to be the primary spokesman for the “conversation” (they resist the word “movement”, although Carson will use it) and he has certainly written more on the subject than anyone else, as far as I can tell. You may recall that McLaren was one of the 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in Time magazine’s recent article by that name. After reading Carson’s response, one may question whether the label “Evangelical” is an appropriate one to describe where McLaren is on the theological spectrum.

A quick aside. What I just did is precisely what McLaren and others in Emergent despise most. He/they are extremely unhappy with the tendency among evangelicals to define who is and who is not an evangelical. This “obsession” with “who’s in and who’s out”, based largely on one’s doctrinal convictions, is precisely what those in Emergent dislike most about the contemporary church. They are impatient with (and skeptical of) the “belief” that our beliefs can be known with a degree of confidence or measured certainty that would justify making judgments such as those rendered by Carson in this book. I’ll come back to this point as we progress through Carson’s critique.

As I said, McLaren is only one of many who have joined the Emergent “conversation” and who have written on any one of several topics (from youth ministry, to evangelism, to worship) they consider crucial to the life and posture of the church in contemporary society. Carson’s book is by no means restricted to McLaren, but he does devote a considerable amount of space responding to his proposals. That said, Carson is keenly aware of the diversity within the Emerging Church such that “penetrating criticisms that apply to one part of it are sometimes inappropriate to some other part” (45). This being true, he hopes to avoid the sort of generalizations that end up being unfair to virtually everyone involved.

So, instead of writing a review of Emergent, I’ve decided to write a review of the review! Perhaps in the days ahead I’ll write my own response. But for now, Carson will have to do. And that’s a good thing, as far as I’m concerned, because I’m in almost total agreement with his evaluation of the Emerging Church and the contribution of such folk as McLaren and Steve Chalke (of the U.K.).

What I propose is to summarize Carson’s book, chapter by chapter, or at least seven of the eight, since the eighth is less a response to Emergent and more an exposition of a relevant biblical passage. More on that later.

So let me begin with chapter one in Carson’s book, entitled, “The Emerging Church Profile,” and a few comments on chapter two, “Emerging Church Analysis of Contemporary Culture.”

What is “Emergent”?

Perhaps many of you are hearing for the first time of the Emerging Church and wonder what could possibly warrant all the fuss. At the heart of the “conversation”, says Carson, “lies the conviction that changes in the culture signal that a new church is ‘emerging.’ Christian leaders must therefore adapt to this emerging church. Those who fail to do so are blind to the cultural accretions that hide the gospel behind forms of thought and modes of expression that no longer communicate with the new generation, the emerging generation” (12).

Carson’s first chapter is devoted to identifying some of the more prominent characteristics of the “movement” (the latter word is Carson’s, not theirs). Perhaps the best description of those features is found in Robert Webber’s book, “The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World” (Baker Books, 2002), although I must confess I found Webber’s categories a bit too tidy, even simplistic, at times. Still, it’s a good place to start if you are new to this whole debate.

At the heart of it all, says Carson, is protest, primarily against the socially and theologically conservative evangelical church out of which many of Emergent’s leaders have come. I often get the feeling when reading their works that they believe mainstream evangelicalism has not sufficiently distanced itself from what they see as the cultural isolationism, social separatism, and theological fortress mentality of American Fundamentalism. They long for what I would call “a kinder, gentler” version of evangelicalism that is devoid of the doctrinal dogmatism, moral certainty, and absolutist mindset that they are convinced is out of touch with so-called postmodern developments in our culture.

In chapter one, Carson summarizes the lives of several contributors to the book, “Stories of Emergence: Moving from Absolute to Authentic” (Zondervan, 2003) (by the way, that sub-title ought to tell you a lot!). He singles out three: Spencer Burke, formerly of Mariners Church in Irvine, California, and founder of TheOoze.com, a website devoted to facilitating “conversation” about Emergent; Todd Hunter, former director of the Vineyard USA who is currently giving oversight to the Alpha program in North America; and Chris Seay, former pastor of University Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, and currently pastor of Ecclesia, a church in the arts district of Houston, Texas.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it isn’t so much against the evangelical church per se that Emergent leaders protest as it is the failure of the former to recognize the demise and passing of so-called “modernism” and the ascendancy of “postmodernism” and the countless ways it affects both the larger culture and how we live as Christians and pursue ministry as the Church. Carson will have more to say about “modernism” and “postmodernism” in later chapters, so I will withhold comment until then.

For now it must suffice to note that many identify the fundamental issue in the move from modernism to postmodernism as epistemology, i.e., how people attain knowledge or think they attain it, and on what grounds they base their claim to knowing truth. Here is Carson’s helpful summary:

“Modernism is often pictured as pursuing truth, absolutism, linear thinking, rationalism, certainty, the cerebral as opposed to the affective – which in turn breeds arrogance, inflexibility, a lust to be right, the desire to control. Postmodernism, by contrast, recognizes how much of what we ‘know’ is shaped by the culture in which we live, is controlled by emotions and aesthetics and heritage, and in fact can only be intelligently held as part of a common tradition, without overbearing claims to be true or right. Modernism tries to find unquestioned foundations on which to build the edifice of knowledge and then proceeds with methodological rigor; postmodernism denies that such foundations exist (it is ‘antifoundational’) and insists that we come to ‘know’ things in many ways, not a few of them lacking in rigor. Modernism is hard-edged and, in the domain of religion, focuses on truth versus error, right belief, confessionalism; postmodernism is gentle and, in the domain of religion, focuses on relationships, love, shared tradition, integrity in discussion” (27).

In two later chapters Carson will demonstrate how these distinctions are not as tight or clear as many Emergent leaders suggest. He will also address the many ways in which the terms “modernism” and “postmodernism” are used and, all too often, abused. Briefly, though, we note how most in the “conversation” see this as leading to an emphasis on narrative rather than propositions (“tell me your story, don’t explain principles”); on affections and feelings over against rational, linear thought; on experience over truth; on inclusion rather than exclusion; on the corporate over the individualistic, etc. Tolerance is the principal virtue, as nothing is more indicative of the mentality of modernism than telling someone they are wrong (either intellectually, doctrinally, or morally).

Like Carson, I have found a number of Emergent analyses of cultural change to be insightful and challenging. Their task, as they see it, is to identify and interpret the changes in our culture and to propose those adjustments they believe are essential if the church is to communicate the gospel effectively. The fact is, cultural change is a given. There’s no way to deny it, but many in the evangelical world, so goes the charge, have sought to escape it by withdrawing into a religious cocoon that preserves what is most comfortable to Christians who grew up under the influence of western individualism. Carson acknowledges that many in the American church

“remain under the illusion that we Christians live outside these cultural changes. We therefore address the changes from a kind of independent bastion of impregnability. In other words, we observe the changes in the culture and strategize about how to respond faithfully to them, but these changes are all happening out there, in the culture – but not in us. In short, many Christians have yet to come to grips with the fact that we ourselves are part of this rapidly changing culture, and we cannot help but be influenced by it” (51).

The motivation of many in the Emergent conversation in stepping outside the ecclesiastical fortress is evangelism. They should be applauded for their commitment to reaching with the gospel those whom the traditional church has so often ignored. Mainstream evangelicals can learn much from how they embrace the outcast and the marginalized, especially those in our society who are distinctly shaped by postmodern assumptions.

Thus, in summary, the Emergent “conversation” is often dominated by its perception of widespread cultural change and how the church has or has not adapted. Carson will focus much of his discussion both on how Emergent leaders have diagnosed the changes in our culture as well as their prescription for what the church must do if it hopes to maintain its public profile and exert a measure of influence for the kingdom of God. Carson is right to ask the following question, and with it I’ll close this first installment of my summation of his book:

“Is there at least some danger that what is being advocated is not so much a new kind of Christian [alluding to the title of McLaren’s most popular book] in a new emerging church, but a church that is so submerging itself in the culture that it risks hopeless compromise?” (44)