Monday, August 28, 2006

Thoughts on the Emergent/Emerging Church

What's in a name? One of the current buzzwords in Christian circles is the "emerging" or "emergent" church. Wikipedia offers this as a definition:

The emerging church is a diverse, controversial movement within Christianity that arose in the late 20th century as a reaction to the perceived influence of modernism in Western Christianity. Proponents of the emerging church embrace postmodernism and call the movement a "conversation" to emphasize its decentralized nature with contributions from people of a variety of beliefs. The emerging church seeks to deconstruct and reconstruct Christianity, as its mainly Western members live in a postmodern culture.

While practices and even core doctrine vary, many emergers can be recognized by the following values:

Missional living

All believers are missionaries who are sent to be a blessing to the culture around them through a lifestyle that brings God's kingdom here on earth through verbal evangelism, social activism and however God has gifted the individual.

Narrative theology

Narrative presentations of faith and the Bible are emphasized over propositional presentations such as systematic theology which are viewed as reductionism.

Generous Orthodoxy

An ecumenical understanding of doctrine which attempts to move beyond the conservative versus liberal impasse in Christianity while honoring the beliefs and traditions of premodern, modern and postmodern Christian denominations. This generosity also extends to dialogue with non-Christian religions and non-religious people for some like Brian McLaren but not others, like Mark Driscoll.


A commitment to emulating Jesus' way of living, in particular his loving of God, neighbors and those normally considered enemies. An understanding of the gospel as one centered on Christ that is a message about the Kingdom of God and reconciliation between God, man and creation.

Biblical Interpretation

An openness to consider a plurality of interpretations as well as the impact of the reader's cultural context on the act of interpretation in contrast to the primacy of the author's intent and cultural context. The influence of postmodern thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Stanley Fish can be seen in the “emerging church” approach to interpreting Scripture.


Favoring the sharing of experiences and interactions that are personal and sincere such as testimonies over scripted interactions such as propositional, formulaic evangelistic tracts and teaching.


Creating a safe environment for those with different opinions to talk and listen with an attitude of grace when there are disagreements as opposed to the dogmatic proclamation found in historic Christianity.

Emerging Church groups also typically emphasize the following elements:
  • A flexible approach to and continual reexamination of theology which causes them to see faith as a journey rather than a destination, and to accept differences in beliefs and morals.
  • A belief in creating communities built out of the creativity of those who are a part of each local body.
  • A holistic view of the role of the church in society. This can mean anything from a higher degree of emphasis on social action, building relationships with the surrounding community, or Christian outreach.
  • Creative approaches to worship and spiritual reflection. This can involve everything from the use of contemporary music and films to liturgy, as well as more ancient customs, with a goal of making the church more appealing to postmodern people.
  • Use of the internet is a dominant medium of communication through various blogs, websites and online videos.

My church fits many of the characteristics of an "emergent" church, although nobody I know uses that term. I think most folks would simply prefer "Church," and would emphasize the continuity with what Christians have believed for the past 2,000 years. But when I read that list, I plead "guilty" or "innocent" or whatever the proper plea is to all of the above. Sounds good to me.

I'll note that I have a seminary education, and value theological rigor to a degree. But the degree stops when it gets in the way of loving Jesus and loving others. It's not that one necessarily precludes the other, and when held in the proper balance theological rigor can certainly inform and enrich love of God and love of neighbor. But how much theological rigor is needed to understand the concepts of dying to self and living for God? The concept isn't hard to grasp. It's just hard to live. And I want and need to be surrounded by people who want to live it.

I am also something of a fish out of water in that I come from perhaps the last generation of modernists, and I currently find myself quite comfortably in the postmodern camp. It's not that I doubt propositional truth. But, to quote and slightly mangle the philosopher Pogo, I have met the enemy, and the enemy is me. Knowing propositional truth didn't do squat for me in terms of following God or avoiding the same addictive traps that have snared untold generations in my family. I come from a long and undistinguished line of addicts, and I'd like to break that chain in my generation. But knowing how to dot all my theological i's and cross all my theological t's only led to despair. From what I could tell, I was a good Calvinist who was predestined to go to hell because of my inability to love Jesus more than myself, and my proclivity toward sin. Praise God.

I think there is a common misperception of emergent churches that 1) they either don't care about theology, or 2) they are content to make up the theology as they go. That has not been my experience. What has been my experience is that the theology isn't debated that much. I believe that orthodoxy (with a small "o") is important, but I also believe that it's more important to be known by how I live and what my priorities are and how I spend my time and money. That's what the world sees. And what I want them to see is that I am a part of a church culture that is welcoming. I want non-Christians to show up for church. I want homeless people, drug addicts, homosexuals, porn addicts, prostitutes, and Democrats to show up for church, as well as the regular broken uptight Republican evangelicals. I want all kinds of broken, dysfunctional people to find a home, and a place where Humpty Dumpty can be put back together again. And they do. And I'd rather live with the messiness and the theological fuzziness than to exclude anybody because of their theological understanding, or lack thereof. The theology will sort itself out if people stick around.

I am old enough to have lived through and survived the Jesus movement of the early '70s. It's when and how I became a Christian, and thank God there were people then, too, who thought there were alternatives to stained glass and pipe organs and hardwood pews. But this, whatever this is -- Emergent Church, Third Wave, whatever you want to call it -- is different. I don't see an attempt to reinvent the Church. I don't see the hubris that automatically accompanies any attempt to be "an authentic New Testament Church." I see great respect for Church history and tradition. I see wholesale borrowing from that history and tradition, in fact, often in some strange and challenging mix 'n match ways. But I see it all being subsumed under the greater goal of loving people, including those who are most unlovable. And, in my opinion, that should always trump theology. It's what the evangelical church, as a whole, has done very poorly. We can judge like the experts we are. But we just can't seem to get that part about love down very well. For what it's worth, I'd like to change that in my own life, and I'd like to be a part of a church that wants to play a part in changing that in the culture at large.


Mark K. said...

I've heard the term "Emergent Church" and various descriptions of it and thought, "OK, so what?" But now that I've read your quote of the Wikipedia article, now I am disturbed, ... mostly by, "An openness to consider a plurality of interpretations as well as the impact of the reader's cultural context on the act of interpretation in contrast to the primacy of the author's intent and cultural context." Once someone separates the interpretation of a passage from the author's intent and cultural context, he or she has crossed a dangerous line. This allows the infusion of unintended meaning from the reader. The whole point of inspired scripture is to hear from God, not from yourself. If I supply the meaning to a text, then I'm just hearing from myself and ultimately worshiping myself. I don't want to worship myself, that's what's brought the most damage into my life. I want to hear from and worship God. Divorcing the meaning of a text from the author's intent just allows anyone to make the text mean anything they like - if someone is going to do that why should they bother with scripture at all?

But an even more severe flaw in this method of interpretation is that it's self contradictory. One would have to say, "the author's intent does not control the meaning of a text, well, except when I write my book explaining that the author's intent does not control the meaning of a text, then I do control the meaning but other than that, the author's intent does not control the text's meaning." The truth is everyone believes that the author's intent controls meaning, even if they say otherwise. When they say otherwise, they expect you to understand what they're saying - something that what they are saying does not allow.

Since interpretation is the foundation of all other areas of faith and practice, do we want to have a method of interpretation that is fatally flawed and allows our us to read our own meanings into a text?

Andy Whitman said...

Mark, I would say that something of a balancing act is required. True, allowing biblical readers to essentially "make up" their own interpretation of Scripture is a recipe for disaster. However, a dry, academic understanding of a biblical author's intent and cultural context can be equally a recipe for disaster.

Scripture can and should speak into our lives, and although we are not free to make it up as we go, there is a subjective component. Scripture must speak into *my* life, just as it must speak into yours. Furthermore, because we believe that the Holy Spirit can speak into our lives, we can also believe that much more is going on here than "us supplying the meaning to a text."

Neither a dry, academic understanding of Scripture nor a totally subjective interpretation of Scripture are sufficient. We need the wisdom of history and church tradition to help us make sense of what we're reading. And we need to be open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit as we encounter these divinely inspired words. One keeps us from going off the deep end. The other keeps us spiritually alive.

Anonymous said...

I don't know why orthodoxy and love have to be opposed. I know that some churches act as if it's a win-lose proposition, but that makes no sense. Love your neighbor and love your enemy are orthodox statements. I think the issue you are wrestling with is that some churches concentrate so much on right thinking that they forget about right doing. The emphasis should be on how we live and what we do. The teaching should proceed from an orthodox position, but should address the living and doing.

I think I've shared with you my own test of churches in a community that I am new to: if this church ceased to exist tomorrow, would anyone besides the members notice? If the answer is yes, it's worthy of consideration. However, if I then find a serious straying from orthodoxy (I tend to focus on the major issues of orthodoxy, not the current flavor of the age. For example, I have no problem with women in leadership, and I base that on my own experience and my reading of the bible.), I will probably look elsewhere.

I'm not sure about applying deconstructionism a la Derrida to biblical interpretation, but I'm not sure that's a major issue here. Remember, anyone can post to Wikepedia, including those who think deconstructionism is a great approach to understanding things one reads (I remain skeptical).

Anonymous said...

What shall we say, shall we call it by a name
As well to count the angels dancing on a pin
Water bright as the sky from which it came
And the name is on the earth that takes it in
We will not speak but stand inside the rain
And listen to the thunder shout
I am, I am, I am, I am

fm "weather report suite"
by weir/barlow

Mark K. said...


When you say, "Scripture must speak into *my* life, just as it must speak into yours. Furthermore, because we believe that the Holy Spirit can speak into our lives, we can also believe that much more is going on here than "us supplying the meaning to a text." " you are bringing up a different issue than interpretation. The goal of interpretation is (or should be) discovering the author's intended message for the original readers. That is what the Spirit inspired, the author's message to the readers. There is only one interpretation to be found.

What you are referring to is the application of scripture. The goal of application is discovering how that original message now applies. (Some authors use the term "significance" for what I'm calling application.) There can be many applications of the one meaning of a text. You cannot have valid applications if you miss the interpretation. E.g., if you interpret "enemy" in "love your enemy" as a military enemy on the battlefield, then you won't apply the meaning of love to the neighbor that you can't stand.

Whether interpretation is "dry and academic" does not matter if it produces a true understanding of the author's intent. I don't see a balancing act between dry and academic and subjective. I see a process starting with the discovering author's intent and ending with applying it to me or a contemporary audience. Good Bible study starts with interpretation and finish with application, regardless of which part is dry, exciting, or whatever.

If I can make a guess about where you are coming from (a risky endeavor, please excuse me if I get it wrong), you seem to be reacting against Bible study that focused on interpretation and lacked application - since I know a bit about your life you could of been in circles where this happened. Criticizing Bible study that lacks application is a good thing to do. This is what I think you are trying to do (assuming the meaning of your text represents your intent), I'll do it with you. But that is a different issue than saying the meaning of a text is detached from the author's intent. Bible study without application is bad Bible study. Separating the text from the author's intent isn't Bible study at all.

The reason why I'm reacting strongly is because this issue has been around for a few hundred years. The Emergent church did not produce this idea. Originally this was not an attempt to make the Bible have "more meaning for me." The liberal movement in theology (not politics) birthed the idea of detaching the meaning of a text from the author's intent partly to make it easier to abandon things like miracles, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, etc. Theologically liberal churches can't offer God, they offer modernity. The example of the liberal movement and their hermeneutics should be noted as a warning by any group that wants to abandon the scriptural author's intent. Separating the text from the author's intent is separating the text from the inspiration of the Spirit. If any group wants to abandon author's intent and cultural context as primary in interpretation, "then they will be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men ... " I.e., they trade the Spirit's thoughts for men's.

Of course, when we interpret and apply the Bible, we should seek the Spirit's help. I argue that since the Spirit inspired the biblical authors, then the Spirit will push us to those authors' intent so we then can apply it to ourselves.

Andy Whitman said...

Mark, I think you're using the term "interpretation" in a very strict and formal sense. Nothing wrong with that, and I agree with what you're saying.

But I suspect that most people think of "interpretation" as encompassing both the author's original intent and what we're supposed to do with that today. Thus, two people -- one person who has never experienced a significant tragedy, and another person who has -- might "interpret" Phillipians 4:7 very differently: "And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." The apostle Paul's meaning and intent hasn't changed. Is it good, nay, even critical, to know what that meaning and intent is? Sure. But the person who has never experienced tragedy will understand that verse in a much more detached (and perhaps academic) sense than the other person. However, the peson who has experienced real tragedy in his or her life will either be profoundly comforted by such a statement, because he or she has experienced it to be true, or will be profoundly skeptical, because he or she has experienced it not to be true.

If confronted with the latter situation, we have a choice. We can say, "Well, too bad, but Paul's original intent is clear, and therefore there's a problem if you haven't experienced the peace that transcends understanding." Or we can take the person's experience into account, and be as compassionate as we can be with someone who may not benefit from our right thinking, but who may benefit from our love.

These are tough calls, and I'm intentionally setting up an impossible conundrum that has no good answer. But honestly, what are you supposed to say to, say, a grieving parent who has just lost a child, and who denies that there is such a thing as peace that transcends understanding? Too bad, you missed it, because Paul says it's true? Is such a response helpful? That, to me, is what "an openness to consider a plurality of interpretations as well as the impact of the reader's cultural context on the act of interpretation in contrast to the primacy of the author's intent and cultural context" really means. It's not discarding the original intent. But it is saying that not only the authors of Scripture, but also the readers/interpreters of Scripture, matter. It is saying that we as human beings cannot help but interpret Scripture in light of our own stories -- that someone, for instance, with a distant or abusive Father, might have more problems with the notion of God the Father than someone who comes from a warm, loving family.

We cannot escape this. And it's fine with me if you want to separate that component via a more strict definition of "interpretation." Just so long as we deal with it.

Mark K. said...

I am using "interpretation" in a strict and formal sense. The language of the Wikipedia article makes me think that's how Emergent Church is using it; the language sounds very similar to the technical reading I've done regarding interpretation (I've done a lot). If so, then I have a serious problem with this type of interpretation, in case you couldn't tell from the lengths of my prior posts. I'm not surprised that we agree after clearing up our semantic issues.

How we apply scriptural truth to suffering does vary with the sufferer's situation. Someone in the situation of losing a child and not feeling transcendent peace will rarely benefit from an analysis of the "usus loquendi" of "peace." Absolutely, applying Scripture by nature must consider the context of the reader whether they are suffering or not. Another component of application is the work of the Spirit, which the interpreter cannot control but can request and expect,

10 As the rain and the snow
       come down from heaven,
       and do not return to it
       without watering the earth
       and making it bud and flourish,
       so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
       It will not return to me empty,
       but will accomplish what I desire
       and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (Isa. 55, NIV)

So, when we apply scripture, we should request and expect the Spirit to empower the meaning to have its effect. The stereotype of an academic interpreter of the Bible making dry pronouncements about the meaning of a text has not arisen for no reason but if we respectfully call on the Spirit to empower his word in someone's life, no one will care about the stereotype, they will hunger for more of the word and it's effect.

Have we exceeded the American Idol thread length yet?

e said...

Not sure whether this is still a "live" conversation, but I wanted to say how much I've enjoyed it.

And, I can't get away without adding:

Mark, I would have to say that your definition of "interpretation"--the one that leads you to say there is "one interpretation" is acontextual.

The assumption--which sounds to me like a Hellenistic notion of truth rather than a strictly Hebrew one (not that this matters much)--is that God superintends a certain reading for scripture and that, by using the right hermenutic, we can parce what that is. I think you're right in indicating that it was liberal German theologians, so called, who first worried that we have cast biblical renderings a certain way and that this reading is not necessarily what was originally intended by God.

But as, even with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, there is some difficulty in knowing just what certain passages of Scripture are supposed to mean (not all passages, just some), the idea was that we should try to pick out what seemed "man-made" and what didn't seem man-made. This is a hopeless project and perhaps inevitably leads to complete relativism about the biblical texts. But theoretically it was well-meaning in its origin.

The point is, however, that even knowing whether portions of the biblical text are supposed to be taken literally or figurtively, narratively or didactically, descriptive or proscriptive, etc. are all matters of interpretation. Within the middle ages communal understanding of Scripture interpretation, this wasn't much of an immediate problem, as interpretation was top-down and a matter of education and the pronouncments of the Church.

Post-Reformation, however, when anyone can take Scripture in hand and interpret it however they wish, the notion of right interpretation seems pretty dang important and at the same time elusive. Who's to say that your "right" interpretation is exactly right and mine wrong/less right? Who has the authority to make this kind of claim? Hence the appeal to divine inspiration: only the Holy Spirit can tell me which interpretation is the right one. But who's to say I'm rightly hearing from the Spirit?

This, I think is at the root of "emergentism"--the recognition that hermenutical/theological projects are destined to produce competing visions soluble only by different groups taking cultural authority. Rather than scrambling for that interpretive authority, perhaps the project of non-denominational churches and sects, emergent churches are attempting to reassert communially constructed interpretations of scripture. But since the churches emergent churches are emerging from are often not connected to a particular creedal tradition, they end up steering too far from building consensus theology and toward creating consensus experiences and "life application" scripture reading.

And it's maybe this trend that you're reacting to...?