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Why We're Not Emergent (by two guys who should be) (1)

Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck


(Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008; 256 pp.)


Part One


I start to get really nervous when I hear others speak in unqualified, glowing and glorious terms about a book or speaker. Nothing can be that good, I say to myself. I’m really resistant to trendy endorsements of the next greatest thing. So I was obviously on guard when I began hearing and reading endorsements of the book, Why We’re Not Emergent (by two guys who should be). But darn it, they were right. When I read blogger Phil Johnson’s three word response to the book (“Wow, Wow, Wow”), I was more than a little suspicious. But now I’m ready to add one word to his summation: “Wow!” So, yes, I’m here to join the chorus and jump on the bandwagon and drink the Kool-Aid with the rest. This is the best book I’ve read in years.


Of the many questions I’m asked these days, especially by those perusing my website, perhaps the most frequent is whether or not I’ve written anything on the emergent church. Aside from my seven-part review of what D. A. Carson wrote in his book, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Zondervan, 2005), the answer is no. I’m quite sure that, having now read this book by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck, I won’t have to. They’ve said it all, and boy do they say it in a thoroughly persuasive and winsome way. So don’t write or call asking if I’ve written an article or preached a sermon on this subject. Just go get this book and read it several times.


It’s no longer true, obviously, that I haven’t written anything on the emergent church. This five-part review of DeYoung and Kluck counts as something. But I don’t regard it so much as my comments on the movement as I do an extended commentary on theirs. My fear is that some will not heed my advice and fail to read the book for themselves, so I’m going to give you the next best thing: my summation of its contents together with personal observations, rants, raves, and other assorted responses. So here goes.


Kevin DeYoung is the thirty-year-old pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan, who is the first of two who “should be” emergent. “With all the television and movies I’ve seen,” notes DeYoung, “I should be less linear, and more attuned to stories and images. At the very least, I should be in some quarter-life crisis of faith. I should be wondering how all that I’ve known as Christianity can survive this postmodern matrix. I should be questioning church as we know it and reimagining church for my generation. . . . I should be joining many of my peers in decrying the evangelical ‘bubble’ and its closed-minded, doctrinally rigid accounting of the Christian faith. . . . I should have tried to make peace with my conservative upbringing and the more liberal Christianity of my professors by veering off into the emergent world of mystery, journey, and uncertainty – the perfect porridge of not quite fundamentalist, not quite liberal. I should have . . . rebelled against my family upbringing, finding it, in hindsight, stilted, stoic, and staid. I should have, like so many of those in the emerging church, chaffed against my evangelical past and charted a more emerging future. But I haven’t” (14).


Instead, DeYoung says that he preaches “long, doctrinal, expositional sermons that proclaim the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, the reality of hell, the demands of obedience, the call to evangelism, the duty of mercy ministry, and the glorious truths of unconditional election and particular redemption” (14).


Ted Kluck is thirty-one-years old and is a professional writer, mostly of books on sports themes. He describes himself as looking the part of an emergent Christian, but don’t be deceived. “I really like church” (26), confesses Kluck, in spite of its “requisite plastic chairs, lame carpet, and bad coffee” (27). Kluck writes what he calls the “shorter, and more ‘experiential’” chapters in the book, while DeYoung devotes himself to the “longer and more propositional” and more “thinky and academic” ones (27).


Just so you know, I plan on devoting most of my time to the chapters by DeYoung. That’s not because Kluck’s are unimportant. Far from it. They are a sheer delight to read and you will miss much if you overlook them. But since they are of a more personal nature and portray his own encounters with emergent people and churches, I’ve decided to focus on the theological analysis of emergent found in DeYoung.


Before I go any further, a brief word about the term emergent is in order. DeYoung and Kluck wisely choose to use emergent and emerging interchangeably, in spite of all the efforts by many to draw some significant distinction between them. What’s important for our purposes is that you know what emergent means. Instead of a formal definition, the authors provide this description. It’s long, but quite typical of their insight and refreshing style. Trust me, you’ll love it. Read it as if Jeff Foxworthy just said, “You might be a redneck if . . .”


“You might be an emergent Christian: if you listen to U2, Moby [this is Storms: will someone please tell me who or what “Moby” is?], and Johnny Cash’s Hurt (sometimes in church), use sermon illustrations from The Sopranos, drink lattes in the afternoon and Guinness in the evenings, and always use a Mac; if your reading list consists primarily of Stanley Hauerwas, Henri Nouwen, N. T. Wright, Stan Grenz, Dallas Willard, Brennan Manning, Jim Wallis, Frederick Buechner, David Bosch, John Howard Yoder, Wendell Berry, Nancy Murphy, John Franke, Walter Winks [sic] and Lesslie Newbigin (not to mention McLaren, Pagitt, Bell, etc.) and your sparring partners include D. A. Carson, John Calvin, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and Wayne Grudem; if your idea of quintessential Christian discipleship is Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, or Desmond Tutu; if you don’t like George W. Bush or institutions or big business or capitalism or Left Behind Christianity; if your political concerns are poverty, AIDS, imperialism, war-mongering, CEO salaries, consumerism, global warming, racism, and oppression and not so much abortion and gay marriage; if you are into bohemian, goth, rave, or indie; if you talk about the myth of redemptive violence and the myth of certainty; if you lie awake at night having nightmares about all the ways modernism has ruined your life; if you love the Bible as a beautiful, inspiring collection of works that lead us into the mystery of God but is not inerrant; if you search for truth but aren’t sure it can be found; if you’ve ever been to a church with prayer labyrinths, candles, Play-Doh, chalk-drawings, couches, or beanbags (your youth group doesn’t count); if you loathe words like linear, propositional, rational, machine, and hierarchy and use words like ancient-future, jazz, mosaic, matrix, missional, vintage, and dance; if you grew up in a very conservative Christian home that in retrospect seems legalistic, naïve, and rigid; if you support women in all levels of ministry, prioritize urban over suburban, and like your theology narrative instead of systematic; if you disbelieve in any sacred-secular divide; if you want to be the church and not just go to church; if you long for a community that is relational, tribal, and primal like a river or a garden; if you believe who goes to hell is no one’s business and no one may be there anyway; if you believe salvation has a little to do with atoning for guilt and a lot to do with bringing the whole creation back into shalom with its Maker; if you believe following Jesus is not believing the right things but living the right way; if it really bugs you when people talk about going to heaven instead of heaven coming to us; if you disdain monological, didactic preaching; if you use the word ‘story’ in all your propositions about postmodernism – if all or most of this torturously long sentence describes you, then you might be an emergent Christian” (20-22).


Note well, this means you might be an emergent Christian, not that you certainly are. After all, there are a few things in that long list that I applaud, but I’m far from being emergent in any sense of the term! You also might be inclined to respond to this descriptive sentence by saying, “But there are so many false dichotomies! It’s not always ‘either-or’ but sometimes ‘both-and’.” Of course! But that’s one of the annoying things about emergents. They are given to an array of false dichotomies. But I’m getting ahead of myself.


The fact is, DeYoung and Kluck themselves applaud some of what they say about emergent distinctives:


“We too are weary of marketing gimmicks, how-to sermons, watered-down megachurches, and the effects of modernism. We fully recognize that the Bible has been abused and no one understands it exhaustively. We agree that there is more to Christianity than doctrinal orthodoxy. We welcome the emergent critique of reductionistic methods of ‘becoming Christian’ (sign a card, raise your hand, say a prayer, etc.). We are glad for the emergent correction reminding us that heaven is not a cloud up above for disembodied souls in the sky, but the re-creation of the entire cosmos. We further agree that we ought to be concerned about bringing heaven to earth, not just getting ourselves to heaven. In short, we affirm a number of the emergent diagnoses. It’s their prescribed remedies that trouble us most” (22-23).


This last sentence is important. For several years I’ve said that emergents are quite good at analyzing our culture and the trends that have captivated and often enslaved the church. But their proposed solutions to the problems they’ve identified are largely off the mark, even dangerous.


Well, enough by way of introduction. It’s time to get down to specifics. My one wish is that you will be sufficiently intrigued by what you’ve read thus far that you go buy the book and become so immersed in reading it that you never return to additional installments of this lengthy review. Nothing would make me happier than to know that these are the last words of mine that you’ll read (assuming, of course, that it’s because you’ve been captivated by DeYoung and Kluck). But if you do choose to continue with me, please don’t consider this review a substitute for studying the original.