Warning: Long post ahead….
I rarely, rarely ever try to specifically talk about someone in a negative light, and I hope this isn’t negative against a person, but about their opinions. I received from a friend a mass letter going out to supporters of national radio preaching ministry. He sent it to me to read since the whole letter was about "the emerging church".
I was really dismayed and saddened to read this letter he sent out. It was a fund raising letter for his radio ministry which I went on his radio ministry blog and found that my name was actually listed in his list of who he sees as emerging church leaders. So this became personal, since he mentions me on his radio blog and also raised my interest more in what he was saying in the letter.
Unfortunately, what I read in the letter was, in my opinion, hyper-exaggerations with nothing listed or a specific emerging church cited to back up his claims (at least in this letter). If I was a radio listener and didn’t know what the emerging church was about, after reading the letter I certainly would have my fear raised to find out how to avoid them as the letter says they are a "threat" and "the danger is real". Many of the descriptions in the letter of "the emerging church" were ones that I commonly hear over and over again and most of them are much like a stereotyped cartoon caricature. Sadly, for the grandparents and parents and all those reading this letter, this stereotype is all they end up hearing which then forms their opinions. Let me show some examples of what he wrote in this letter:
"People who are drawn to the emerging church generally place high value on ambiguity and mystery. They reject the notion that God’s Word is clear, and anyone can understand its meaning. That means every doctrine you and I find precious is subject to new interpretation, doubt and even wholesale rejection. Everything is being questioned and deconstructed. Unlike the noble Bereans who used Scripture to test what they were taught and refine their understanding of the truth, people associated with the Emerging Church regard God’s Word as too full of mystery to warrant handling any truth in a definitive way."
As I read this I am asking "What emerging church is he possibly talking about?" In our church, we actually use the Acts passage about the Bereans as one of our staple verses about what we try to do. He says that the Bereans are commended as they used to Scripture to "test what they were taught", so why is it wrong when emerging leaders continue to do what the Bereans did? I learned from this very radio preacher in my early years in ministry that I should not just accept anyone’s teaching but to constantly be looking into the Scriptures and testing everything as the Bereans did. That is what I see many emerging leaders doing, so I am not sure what is wrong with that. I will comment on his words about doctrine and mystery in the next section.
"The result is a movement that thrives on disorganization, lends itself to mysticism, distrusts authority and dislikes preaching, feeds intellectual pride and recognizes few (if any) doctrinal or moral boundaries. You can see why the movement is so appealing to college-age people young people – it is fleshly rebellion dressed in ecclesiastical robes."
Again, as I read this, I am thinking "Who in the world is he talking about? " That is so unlike any emerging church I have ever been to. It is describing something that really doesn’t exist. When he says that emerging churches "dislikes preaching", I have been to a dozen or more emerging churches and in every single one, they had preaching for at least 30 minutes long, and usually more like 40 minutes, sometime 45 minutes. In every one of them, they may not all have been teaching through entire books of he Bible (but several do), but they were teaching long sections of Scripture, not just isolated verses pulled out of context. People at the emerging churches I have been to had Bibles themselves with them or provided for them. Several of them had teaching handouts or notes. I don’t know what he is saying that they don’t like "preaching". They may not like angry forms of preaching, or pastors whose preaching is more about being moral police to the world than about being a follower of Jesus type of preaching, or preaching that is not based out of the Scriptures but out of the pastors opinion – but to say that emerging churches don’t like preaching? I can only assume he has never actually been to an emerging church. I only see a renewed hunger for the Scriptures and teaching in emerging churches. Many have participation in preaching where questions are asked (like Jesus did in His teaching) so the learning and retention goes higher than just a one-way presentation. Many emerging churches I know offer theology classes and I don’t know what he is talking about when he says "they don’t like preaching".
I also don’t know what he is talking about when he says they "thrive on disorganization". Most emerging churches I know have leadership structures, teams, multiple home communities or house churches in addition to the weekend gatherings – which cause a need for a great deal of organization, leadership, accountability and structure. There might be some very small organic type of emerging churches out there that can be disorganized, so maybe he is thinking of some of them? But the ones I know are highly organized, even more so than many other churches because they involve more people in decision making than just the senior pastor, so it causes the need for a more organized structure than just a top-down type of structure. So, again – in my experience I have not seen a single emerging church which "thrives on disorganization", quite the opposite.
When he says they all "lends itself to mysticism" – again, in every emerging church I have ever been to I have never seen any "mysticism" in how I imagine he is thinking of it. There is no mantras or mindless chanting or rubbing crystals or whatever he may be thinking. There is a lot of prayer in emerging churches, so maybe he is equating praying in worship gatherings with "mysticism"? I don’t know.
He says that emerging churches "recognizes few (if any) doctrinal or moral boundaries". Again, I am surprised he didn’t take the time to go on some of the web sites of emerging churches – as he would have discovered that within a few mouse clicks he could have found that on almost every emerging church there are very clear "This is what we believe" doctrinal statements listing specific theological beliefs held to by the church. So where he is getting the information that most emerging churches don’t hold to doctrines? All the emerging churches I know believe in the inspiration of the Bible, the Trinity, the atonement, the bodily resurrection, and salvation in Jesus alone. You go on their web sites and you quite often see the Apostle’s Creed or Nicene Creed listed. So to say emerging churches don’t have doctrines is very incorrect. There may be an isolated few that don’t, but the majority do. Put this to the test and go look on some emerging church web sites, and you will easily see why he is wrong with this. In my experience I don’t know of any emerging church who does not believe that God has revealed truth for us to know. I don’t know of any emerging church who doesn’t teach doctrines in their church. The stereotype that most emerging churches do not believe in truth, or that emerging churches don’t hold any doctrinal positions is plainly a myth and an urban legend.
He says that emerging churches recognize "few if any..moral boundaries" and that is why "it is so appealing to college-age people – it is fleshly rebellion..". Again, who the heck is he talking about here? The emerging churches I have been to call people out on sin and un-Jesus-like behavior regularly. They confront those who are not taking care of each other, or being greedy and hoarding to themselves, or when they are not involved in the social justice the Bible so clearly speaks of that we should be involved with, or about repentance from all types of sin issues. I was just at an emerging church who called people to repent and allowed them to get on their knees in repentance. In our church a few months ago we taught a whole message on repentance. I listened on-line to a series in an emerging church that was on sexual purity and sex being designed within the covenant of marriage and sharing how sex outside of marriage would be sin. We did a whole series on this in our church and just 2 weeks ago in the sermon taught our position on homosexual practice. I don’t see emerging churches ignoring sin or repentance. So, I am wondering who where are these stories coming from? He doesn’t list a single emerging church who does these things, he simply paints a picture of mystical, anti-preaching, anti-doctrinal, anti-organization churches in a broad stereotypical way.
There was more to the letter, with similar things. But I better stop here, as this is already a very lengthy post. I seriously am not trying to be defensive, but it is hard not to when I see my name on the list on his web site, and the assumption is then all leaders listed are in churches like he described in the letter.
I would have hoped that the pastor would have done his research, visited emerging churches or called and asked leaders to describe what they do, or what doctrines they hold to. I think he would have learned from D.A. Carson’s over-generalization in his book on the emerging church of how he narrowly portrayed the whole emerging church according to one or two leaders instead of the whole of everyone – as so wonderfully pointed out in a recent lecture by theologian Scot McKnght. Scot actually has been to emerging churches and knows many of the leaders, so his critical analysis was really insightful of the book D.A. Carson wrote.
As Scot McKnight pointed out, "the emerging church" is not about one, two or three people. I travel a lot and I talk to a lot of people in what I would consider as missional emerging churches all across the country. There may be a very small percentage that possibly are ones this pastor would be concerned about, but the majority, not the minority, of "emerging churches" are absolutely nothing like he described. To his defense, perhaps this information was given to him by ill-informed students or others giving these descriptions of churches that don’t really exist, or if they do they are the rare ones, not the norm.
For those with concerns or for those who hear all these descriptions of "emerging churches" like the one in this letter, I would lovingly like to challenge you to to please actually check the sources of who is telling you about them. When someone starts saying with authority "This is what the emerging church is like..", ask them if they have ever been to one. When I read all these very weird things said about emerging churches, ironically it is never based on anyone’s experience who actually visited one. When I ask someone where they heard these descriptions of emerging churches, it all comes from other sources, who have never been to an emerging church either.
These stereotyped descriptions about "the emerging church" going around like the ones written in the letter are like an urban legend. They are stories and caricatures that developed on the internet and repeated so many times over and over in various circles that it eventually becomes thought of as a fact. The Scriptures say in Matthew 12:36 that one day we will have to give an account to all the words we say, and I think we should be choosing our words very carefully when we accuse people of almost being heretical, like the letter pretty much was doing.
I just get so weary of these types of things. At the conference I blogged about in the last post, the same questions arose. I am all for always, always wanting to hear from people if something is going astray somewhere with me or our church, so I can be in constant check. So I never want to discount someone coming with an outside perspective and I always be open to listening. There are things in emerging churches that do need to be pointed out corrected or questioned, and that does happen. It should be happening in all of our churches, not just emerging churches. We all need to never be closed to caring and concerned people asking questions or correcting things as we all make mistakes. But this letter was not doing that. It was simply an alarm and warning letter re-stating these consistent caricatures and overblown stereotypes as facts – that will be read by many people who will then assume they are all true. Thus reinforcing the stereotype to good people who probably don’t know any different and won’t do research to see if what the letter said was accurate or a stereotype and over-generalization.
If you know me, you might be surprised I wrote this, as I normally don’t get defensive and I apologize if any of this is not coming out as loving. I am trying to write in love as best I can – but maybe by posting this, some may hear that they shouldn’t believe all the hear about the emerging church until they check one or two out themselves or talk to a leader themselves to see if letters like this one have truth or not or are about isolated churches or leaders and not the majority which aren’t like what is normally depicted.
This past summer we had two students from the seminary the pastor teaches at show up at our church for a visit. Afterward, one of them said "This is nothing like we thought it was going to be." And they said how at the college the stereotype written about in the letter is what they hear on campus.
So, if there any critics or people who have these impressions of emerging churches, talk to one of us. Ask us questions. Visit our churches. You might be surprised when you actually find out what our beliefs and practices actually are. You’ll probably go after visiting one "Where is the mysticism? Where are the new-age mantras? How come people here are reading Bibles? I didn’t know you had sermons? You seem very organized, not disorganized and filled with chaos and rebellious like I heard. Your core theological beliefs are like the core beliefs at our church, I didn’t know that?" etc. You might be shocked that all the stories you hear about what most emerging churches do, are not real for the overwhelming majority, but more of an fictitious overblown stereotype that has developed.
I am being redundant, but please – next time you read on the internet or hear someone speaking on "the emerging church" and what it is like, ask them: "Which specific emerging churches have you actually been to? Where have you actually seen them doing these things you are describing? Have you actually seen people chanting and practicing Buddhist meditation? Have you been to an emerging church that didn’t have preaching? Or are these simply things you heard somewhere? If you did see them, what specific churches have you seen these things in? Is it one church or only one or two church leaders you are then making a conclusion it is the same for everyone else? Have you asked the leaders of emerging churches for doctrinal statements to see what they actually believe, or do you lump everything in together and assume the majority of emerging churches all believe the same thing?" Be a Berean and test those who are teaching things about "the emerging church" to see if what they are saying is actually true.
Please don’t make a conclusion or talk about "the emerging church" based on reading or hearing about only one or two people and think the whole "emerging church" is all the same. Even the leaders you probably are critical of always are saying they don’t represent everyone. None of us represents everyone. But, please ask us questions, please visit our churches. Don’t fall into believing urban legends or over-generalizations without checking them out. Please don’t stereotype the emerging church anymore.
Oh Lord Jesus. Come quickly. What a mess we sin-tainted human beings create. Please forgive us all.