The Emergent Church (1): Introduction

In May 2007, an unknown Canadian author by the name of William P. Young self-published his first novel with the help of two friends. Despite the paltry initial marketing budget of $300, it spent 120 weeks on the New York Times best seller list including 52 weeks at #1; no mean feat for a book originally intended as a Christmas present for family. The book is called, The Shack.

The Shack received widespread literary acclaim, but its impact was far greater than the average best-selling novel. The passage of time has demonstrated that its publication was a catalyst for transforming the “emerging church” from a little known anti-evangelical protest movement regarded with deep suspicion, to the widely accepted and pervasive influence on mainstream Christianity that it is today. Though not the author’s intention, a combination of coincidence and clever marketing has quickly rendered The Shack one of the most powerful weapons in the arsenal of the “emerging church” movement, which is currently engaged in an all out assault on what it refers to as “fundamental evangelicalism.”

Emerging Manifesto

Behind the cover of vivid imagery and an emotionally charged narrative, lies a subtle and dangerous allegory making The Shackas much a doctrinal textbook as anything originating from the pen of the movement’s theologian-in-chief, Brian McLaren. Influential leaders such as Eugene Peterson (translator of TheMessage Bible) have likened its impact to that of Pilgrim’s Progress, while Michael W. Smith (contemporary Christian musician) has likewise given it his full endorsement. While much of the teaching is presented under the guise of harmless fiction, it belies an agenda paralleled by that of the “emergent church,” which seeks to redefine much of what the Scriptures lay as foundational; the Christ of God; the Word of God; the House of God; and the Gospel of God. The shared strategy is to adopt the “neo-evangelical” method of avoiding “separatism,” the Biblical truth that Christians are to be distinct and different from the world (2Cor 6:17; 1Peter 1:16) in favor of “reclaiming the secular space,” a type of Christianity which not only accepts worldliness, but redefines it as “spiritual.” In the process of seeking to present a more attractive and palatable Christian proposition to the so-called “unchurched,” the very character of God is being redefined.

Emerging or Emergent?

But what is the “emerging church?” More conservative advocates take great care to distinguish between the “emerging” and “emergent church,” while opponents tend to treat them synonymously, referring to both as the “postmodern” church (due to its tendency to imbibe contemporary culture). Proponents of the “emerging church” merely identify it as an ecclesiastic response to a “postmodern” society. According to Mark Driscoll (a leader in the “emerging church”) there are four strands to the movement as a whole. Firstly, the “emerging evangelicals” who hold to core Biblical doctrine but seek to make themselves and their churches as culturally relevant as possible, by incorporating novelties such as secular music and conversational preaching. Next is the “house church” movement which avoids forming large congregations, choosing instead to meet in homes, coffee shops, or via the Internet. Thirdly, are the “emerging reformers,” including Driscoll himself, who hold to reformed traditions but embrace the use of charismatic gifts. Defenders of the “emerging church” movement contend that despite the presence of unbiblical practices, inappropriately worldly lifestyles, and irreverent gatherings, the core Biblical foundation of these three strands (forming the emerging church) is basically sound.

Emergent Rejection

Providing a definition of the fourth strand of the “emergent church” is extremely difficult (a task described by one commentator as “nailing Jell-O to the wall”) due to its chosen policy of promoting ambiguity and avoiding dogmatic doctrine. It is by far the largest and most dangerous strand and is led by men such as Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, and Doug Pagitt in North America, and Peter Rollins and Steve Chalke in the UK. Some of its fiercest critics are found within the “emerging church” (the first three strands), which rejects much of the emergent protestation at the uncompromising doctrinal stance of “fundamental evangelicalism,” but especially its tendency towards universalism and a postmodern denial of absolute truth. This and future articles in this series put the spotlight on the “emergent church,” due to the dangerous philosophical and cultural views it has imbibed, and the particular form of erroneous liberal theology it espouses.

Cultural Origins

To properly understand the origins of the “emergent church” a little history is necessary. How did postmodernism, the philosophy behind the “emergent church,” come to hold sway in our western culture? Historians contend that the 18th century “enlightenment” ushered in a period of history called “modernism,” an era in which man’s own ability to think rationally and establish evidence based on research and logic, provided a sense of legitimacy and authority, and, ultimately, absolute truth. The accompanying scientific progress and material prosperity was expected to usher in a utopian age, a notion discredited by the advent of two world wars and the resultant extermination of millions of people. This human tragedy caused the next generation of philosophers to assert that the concept of absolute truth (something true at all times, in all places, for all people) was a figment of religious and rational man’s imagination. Instead, truth was redefined as “relative” (dependent on individual perspective). So, of necessity, were ethics and morality. As a consequence of this philosophical shift, the second half of the 20th century was characterized by hedonism (pleasure defines meaning), egoism (position defines meaning), materialism (wealth defines meaning), and nihilism (there is no meaning). These societal features have created post-Christian generations (known to historians as generations X and Y) that are marked by very little comprehension of right and wrong, a pluralistic attitude to religion, and a skewed view of morality. In addition, the impact of globalization and, in particular, the effect of the Internet in democratizing and pluralizing society cannot be overstated. Youth today can download, direct to their Smartphone, an eclectic mix of global music via iTunes, homemade YouTube video, and “open source” information via Wikipedia. This is postmodernity, and it is to this post-Christian, “digitally native” generation that the “emergent church” seeks to make itself relevant.

Church Origins

The “emergent church” is regarded in the US as a protest against the prescriptive management techniques of the “seeker sensitive” movement started in the mid-1990s. In the UK it is traced back further to the “alternative worship” movement, rooted in the urban club scene of the mid 1980s. Church historians assert that the early developments were made in the UK due to its more aggressive spiritual decline, but the recent developments resulting in its mainstream acceptance have occurred as a result of the strident movement in the US. At present it is a phenomenon confined to the Anglo-American world, with some traction in English speaking countries such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Emergent thinkers such as Brian McLaren and Rob Bell expend great energy (and ink) progressing their agenda by asserting that Christianity has been hijacked by the rational and dualistic thinking of modernism, and in so doing has become divorced from the “God of the Bible.” It is to solving this conjectured problem that they focus their attention with much enthusiasm and not a little presumption.

Going Mainstream

A common misconception with regard to the “emergent church” is the assumption that it has already peaked, an argument advanced in the light of the rapid decline in Internet traffic it has generated of late. This could not be further from the truth. Those with responsibility for the teaching and shepherding of local assemblies (and especially the young) need to be aware that like the older New Age and Word-Faith movements before it, the “emergent church” has instead gone “mainstream,” and in so doing has already become “the norm,” thus making it far more dangerous. A recent “emergent” conference in San Diego was sponsored by popular publishers Zondervan and InterVarsity Press, and attended by 1,500 pastors from across North America. It featured Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, and Shane Claiborne; they appeared alongside more “traditional” evangelicals such as Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, and John Ortberg. It is very much alive.

In summary, the “emergent church” is marked by a denial of absolute truth, a protestation against philosophical modernism, and a rebellion against the church doctrine and practice of mainstream evangelicalism, all of which is facilitated by a deliberate distortion and complication of the written Word of God. Its rapid growth and widespread acceptance in recent years has much to do with its sordid union with secular society, but also its propensity to employ the storyteller to communicate its agenda.

As Philip Pullman, a popular atheist novelist has stated; “We don’t need a list of rights and wrongs, tables of dos and don’ts: we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.”