Around the turn of the century (the recent one and not some other turn of the century), a new movement began among Evangelical Christians. It could be argued that the movement was inevitable due to the advent of the Internet and the events surrounding the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001, and the onward progress of the fact/value split certainly played a factor, but regardless of the initial cause, so entered the Emergent Church movement. Now, this movement was spearheaded by the writings of several prominent pastors, but perhaps the most well-known among them were Brian McLaren and Tony Jones. Certainly there were other leaders, but if one book encapsulated the Emergent Church movement it was “A New Kind of Christian,” written by McLaren and published in 2001.
Now, there were several identifying factors of the Emergent Church movement, but because the individual writers covered such diverse material, it was hard to pin down exactly what this movement’s stances actually were. Oh, it was easy to see what they reacting against. For the most part, this movement was reacting against the mega-church movement, which had been around for a while but was unceremoniously brought to the public attention through the publication of a small book that had a big impact on many churches, called “The Purpose Driven Church,” by Rick Warren. The book certainly didn’t kick off the megachurch movement but, perhaps to those in the Emergent Church movement, it was the impetus, the first inkling that something was wrong with the modern Evangelical church.
But it wasn’t simply the mega-church movement and outsider’s reactions to this McChurch model that propelled the angst of the Emergent Church. At its base, this movement was driven by the idea that people these days were no longer thinking like Modernists, but had evolved into a Postmodern realm of thinking. Now, philosophy in a modern or postmodern capacity is a lot to unpack, so let’s just point out the obvious features of postmodern thought. For one, Postmoderns had fully latched onto the idea that there is an obvious difference between how one reveres knowledge gained from our senses and knowledge gained from other sources. Simply put, knowledge gained from our senses could be considered a fact, while knowledge gained from any other way was relegated to a lower rung: that of opinion. Therefore, Science and all that it revealed was higher on the knowledge scale because it was based on observation and repeatable methodology, while Religion, Philosophy, and the Arts, were all shoved into the cattle pen known as opinion.
In addition to this structuring of knowledge, Postmoderns were also influenced by the dearth of worldviews presented to them by the Internet and the plethora of news concerning the fallenness of Evangelical leaders to all sorts of sinful traps. In addition, Postmoderns were concerned with social justice issues and less with sitting in pews as nameless participants, listening to sermons aimed at bettering themselves. Postmoderns desired a experiential relationship with their religion and their God, not a smattering of dry doctrines to understand through rote knowledge and shallow relationships with the body of Christ.
Now, to be completely fair, the Emergent Church writers were adept at pointing out some obvious flaws in the modern church structure. The one pastor for entire church structure presents some difficulties. First, this structure tends to enforce the sacred/secular divide. If the pastor is the one getting paid to lead the church, then he must be the one to carry the majority of the sacred load. With the pastor as the lead minister of Christ in the immediate community, the emphasis will be placed on the Sunday morning worship service and all others who wish to participate in ministry will be relegated to supporting this one-man (or one-woman) show.
Next, the emphasis is not only placed on the “man of God” in our midst, but the building at which we all congregate to participate in this thing called “church.” So, there is a tendency to spend the majority of the money, not on the poor and disenfranchised in the community, but on the church building where the church meets for church. Evangelism is reduced to inviting friends and family to church to hear the gospel from the “man of God.” Spiritual gifts are available for use only on Sunday morning and only in connection with the “church service.” Kids church is enhanced to attract unbelievers as are peripheral ministries that would be attractive to those in the community. A plan for discipleship is almost non-existent.
Postmoderns can’t get the intimacy and authenticity they crave from the Sunday morning worship service (which, I may add, is usually reduced to 3-4 songs, a message, and a prayer and offering time). Postmoderns don’t feel like they are serving the community, assisting the poor, striving against social injustice when their entire church experience can be reduced to one hour on Sunday morning (or for the more adventurous – an hour during the week with a small group). Of course, Postmoderns also don’t like to be told that Christianity is the ONLY way to heaven or that the Bible is the only representation of TRUTH among a group of religions that amount to (in their eyes) little less than one opinion over another.
Now, the early Emergent Church authors were not too fond of naming specific fixes as much as they were insistent on pointing out particular problems. But the overall conclusion among these authors was a reducing of biblical authority, a reverting to tradition elements in the service, such as candles, and an emphasis on questioning instead of proffering answers. The authors did not reach, as stated before, a consensus on the path to fix the modern church and make it more inviting to the postmodern mindset, but they were of one mind that a conclusion needed to be reached before the church as we know it slipped into non-existence.
And, before they could reach a consensus on the solution, the Emergent Church movement slipped into non-existence. Maybe their short existence was the reason so few critics addressed the Emergent Church movement. If you’d like to read one of the books by the critics, I would suggest “Truth and the New Kind of Christian” by R. Scott Smith, “Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church” by D.A. Carson and “Why We’re Not Emergent” by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck. The last book is probably the most accessible as Carson’s is a bit scholastic and philosophically based by Smith’s is pretty much in the middle.
So, where did the Emergent Church movement go? The leaders didn’t die, but they did, for the most part, get absorbed into Progressive Christianity. For an excellent example of what they’re up to these days, see the Sojourners website. And yes, it seems as if Rob Bell has joined their ranks (if he wasn’t already firmly in their camp) as well as some other prominent names and they still push for less of a reliance on the Bible and more of a push for social justice (or at least that what they appear to strive for as they continually decry doctrine that was long-accepted by every faction of mainstream Christianity up until recently, such as the doctrine of Hell, doctrine of the sole-legitimacy of the gospel (or soul-legitimacy…no, I’m not doing puns. Nevermind), and a seemingly universalist approach to Heaven. I could be wrong as just when you think you’ve got someone cornered, they turn a 360 on you.
But, I am not really concerned about pointing out how Progressive Christianity deviates from classical Christianity. There are plenty out there who do a great job already, such as Alisa Childers. But I do want to take another look at the Emergent Church movement’s complaints concerning the modern church and how or even if those complaints should be addressed.
First, to get it out of the way, I don’t think there’s any solution to get around the postmodern mindset that says all truth is relative or simply opinion (at least all moral and religious truth). First, anyone who says that ALL truth is relative or depends on the individual or community is nuts. There are moral truths that are objective or are applicable to every individual in every place at every time in history. And yes, someone could say, “What about this or that tribe that believes killing or lying or whatever is alright?” Well, just because they believe it, doesn’t make it right. And second, it’s killing or lying or whatever in a certain context. I’m sure if you snuck up behind their family and killed their children just because you wanted to, they would feel just as much outrage and injustice as members of any other society. Plus, an objective morality allows us to pronounce societies such as Nazi Germany as wrong. Without objective morality, Nazi Germany was just expressing its right to have its own subjective morality and we, therefore have no right to judge its actions as wrong.
Second, we cannot simply state that all religions are true or equally true. Why? There are religions that clearly contradict one another. Can something be white and not-white at the same time? Come on people, it’s simple logic. It’s called the Law of Non-Contradiction and it’s there for a reason.
Third, what about the authority of the Bible? There are many who call themselves Christians who do not get their authority straight from or only from the Bible. There are many who call themselves Christians who rely on tradition or a new interpretation or a new revelation or a new whatever. But, see, the word Christian means “Christ-follower.” And if you’re following a Christ that was handed down to you by tradition or you follow a Christ as He is interpreted by this or that person, and that Christ does not align with the Christ outlined in the Bible, then you are not following the Christ that the mainstream church has followed for the past 2000 years. The mainstream Christian church has followed the Christ that is described in detail in the Bible. If you’re following the “Spirit of Christ” or a “New Imagined Christ” or if you’re following “Christ minus the miracles” or pretty much if you’re not following the Christ as completely defined by the Bible, then you’re not following the historical Jesus and really shouldn’t be calling yourself “Christian.”
Let me illustrate. Say I lived in Stepford and my wife was a robot. Now, she could look like my wife and have the memories that my wife had. She could have my wife’s foibles and personality. But if, in the end, this was really just a robot designed to look and act like my wife (except how I wanted her to act – can’t forget that important part), then I couldn’t really say that this robot is my wife (at least not exactly my wife). It isn’t my real wife, because inside she’s just a mess of cogs and gears and computer parts and stuff. In other words, if it’s not 100% my wife, then it’s not my wife.
The same is true for Jesus. If it’s Jesus form the Bible, but I cut out the miracles and resurrection because science had disproven miracles and I’m not comfortable with that aspect of Jesus, then it’s not 100% Jesus. This Frankenstein Jesus is just a Jesus of my own creating. It’s a Stepford Jesus. If we don’t take Jesus as He is and attempt to mold Him into an image that we’re more comfortable with, then He ceases to be the historical Jesus and becomes a new creation. So then, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we can’t rightly say that we’re following Christ if we’re not following a 100% Christ. So, we’re not Christians. We can be Stepford Christians, but not Christians. Get it? Moving on.
Okay, so now I get to officially move into the territory that I like to call “legitimate concerns” of the Emergent Church movement. And I’m going to list them out and then I’ll hit each one in turn. First, there seems to be a disconnect between beliefs and actions or, more specifically, there is an emphasis on believing the right things and not having the right actions. Next, there is not enough emphasis on social justice issues, such as taking care of the poor and homeless, and addressing social injustice in our midst, such as racism. And finally, the weekly service design leaves a lot to be desired and actually creates more problems than it solves, especially in areas of discipleship and evangelism.
First, let me preface this with the following caution: any particular information I bring up is not meant to bash any certain preacher or church. I have had a hand in church starts for the past 15+ years and only in certain denominations. I recognize that there are pastors slugging away week after week and it is not my intention to say, “Look what an awful job you’re doing.” They deserve respect for the awesome work they’re doing for God. But it is definitely my intention to say, “Maybe there’s a better way, a more efficient way of doing church.” Just keep that in mind. I love the body of Christ and want to see it flourish.
Okay, so there appears to be a disconnect between having the right beliefs and having the right actions or an emphasis on having the right beliefs over having the right actions. Now, this one hits right at the book of James. Faith without actions is dead. Boom. End of story. But you can’t force people to act a certain way. Jesus says that there will be people who are saved worshipping right next to those who aren’t (Tares versus wheat), and there’s nothing we can do about it. I had a friend who said our job was to be fruit inspectors and there’s some truth to that. But people are funny. They can imitate an awful lot. Look at the kids that grew up in church. Look at the parents who grew up in church who act one way on Sunday and a different way every other day of the week.
Really, the best solution to this problem is to get into other people’s lives and allow others into your life. If there are real relationships with real Christian accountability present, hopefully people won’t feel like they need to pretend that they’re better off than they are, especially when they see that no one else is pretending either. Now, with this relationship atmosphere, there are other challenges. What do you do with those who don’t desire to be transparent? You can’t force them to be transparent. The best we can do is present an atmosphere that not only acknowledges the sinfulness of every person, but encourages them to separate themselves from that sin. Unfortunately, love does not overlook faults that are potentially or realistically destructive, which means that church discipline up to and including removal from the body is not only necessary but loving. Of course, that kind of church discipline should really only be as a last resort as prayer and accountability should be the first line of defense.
But make no mistake, because Jesus repeated this a few times, and that’s “yeast gets in and can infiltrate the whole batch of dough.” That’s the mission of yeast. Unfortunately, it’s also the mission of sin. You start allowing one kind of sin in the church and you slide down the hill to compromise every time. The trick is to cultivate an atmosphere where everyone is loved, but sin is discouraged. Why? It’s one of the church’s forgotten virtues: purity. Yes, God loves everyone, but He loves them enough that He wants to see them become more like Jesus every day. And Jesus was without sin. Sin stops our ministry and usefulness to God. We’ve got the Holy Spirit so we don’t have to sin. Does that mean we can be without sin? Probably not while we’re on earth, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t shoot toward that goal.
Now, with that being said, biblical illiteracy is at an all-time low. People, even those who identify as born again, just don’t know the basic doctrines of Christianity. And is important to know what you believe. Remember when Paul (or Peter. Can’t remember which one) came up to these believers who had not received the Holy Spirit? They told him they had been baptized by John the Baptist. So, here were some believers who weren’t functioning at peak levels because they only had half the information. They had never been baptized by the Holy Spirit. We have a responsibility to know the right things because people are going to ask. Why do we believe in baptism and taking communion? Why do we think Jesus is God? These are kind of important to know.
So, how do we handle this situation: this lack of knowledge? We’re supposed to worship God with all our minds as well. Can’t just worship Him with our souls and strength. Easy. Remember that part about getting into other people’s lives and allowing them into yours. Not only is that where accountability and caring come from, but that’s where discipleship happens as well. And it can be one on one or in a group or whatever. But God didn’t save you and transform you so you could stay the way you are. He wants you to grow in spiritual maturity and become more like His Son. Yes, the local body itself can have discipleship classes or some alternative, but if forming a close friendship with another believer gives you the added benefit of holding each other accountable and authentic, doesn’t it make more sense to do discipleship together as well? I’m sure there are plenty of ways this can be done correctly.
Social justice is a hot issue and always has been. Of course, we could just hearken back to the last point about how faith without works is dead, but let’s elaborate just a little. First, a little background music. I worked at a homeless shelter for about 2 ½ years, so I’ve got a little experience with certain areas of social justice. I know that a good majority of homeless have mental issues but could not afford the medication, which is why they self-medicated and continue to do so. There are also those who choose to roam from city to city, because they don’t like to be attached or under anyone’s rule. And I know that there are plenty of shelters and other organizations that are out there that can help a person get cleaned up, get clothing, have a temporary residence and get employment if they wanted. If you care about the homeless situation, give to these organizations that are already working to help those who want to be helped.
Besides the homeless though, there are plenty of poor here in America and abroad as well as people in our communities that simply can’t help themselves very well. There are good ways and bad ways to go about helping people and fixing these problems. But, whatever you do, I’m sure the Bible is pretty clear that you don’t have to help the poor or feed the hungry or whatever in order to get saved. Salvation is a free gift that was purchased by the blood of Jesus on the cross. It’s a done deal. The work of helping the poor and fighting social injustice is what comes after salvation. And it’s a “do it because you love God” kind of thing, not to earn salvation or anything else. The Bible is pretty clear about that (even though I’m sure there will be tons who’ll want to argue with me about that).
Now, how to best handle helping the poor, widows and aliens and fighting against social injustice? Well, first, I’ll just come out and say that I firmly believe that I have a hard time buying that the injustices we see must be fought on a systemic level. First, there’s nothing saying that any system ever sinned against God. People in the system sinned against God, but not the system itself. Therefore, I’m pretty sure the system cannot be saved. If we fix the people, we fix the systemic problem. Racism is a personal sin. Greed that hurts the poor is a personal issue. The problems could be coming from a business, but the people that instituted the programs that hurt the poor can be brought to salvation and those practices can be reversed. Systems will not be in Heaven. I can guarantee that. Laws can be changed, but they will only be changed by the people who institute the laws.
Okay, so I read two interesting books on helping the poor. “When Helping Hurts” is by Brian Fikkert and “Toxic Charity” is by Robert Lupton. Both of these books have a central message about helping the poor at home and abroad and that message is “Helping the poor is much more than just throwing money at them or going on short-term mission trips to do some project. In fact, engaging in these little bursts of charity may actually hurt the ones you’re trying to help.” Why? People need the dignity of being able to help themselves. That’s not to say there aren’t emergency situations where people need immediate need, because these do exist.
But long-term poverty needs long term solutions. There are attitudes that need to be challenged, habits that need to be canceled and new habits that need to be started. Again, this is relationship territory here. And see, that’s really what Christianity is all about. Christianity isn’t a band-aid solution. Christianity is a full-person makeover. And the only way we can address the whole person is by getting to know the full person and immersing our lives in their lives. We need to get messy.
What are some ways that we can make real change in long term poverty areas? Well, we make changes just like God saves lives: one at a time. (Okay, sure we had the kickoff to the church where Peter preached and thousands got saved, but there was follow up). Some can move into poverty areas and help form the inside. Some can come alongside leaders from the community or churches located in the community. But the main thing is the follow up. You can’t determine the real problem and work out a real long-term solution my just breezing by, throwing money at what you perceive is the problem and then chalking one up for your good deed of the day. You are seriously wasting your time and the time of others. By working alongside those in the community, the people in the community gain a sense of pride and buy-in that can never be produced by just giving people what you think they need.
Do me a favor, read the books. I do a terrible job of conveying the information. But the central point is the same: Love is not a band-aid solution. Love is a relationship for the rest of our lives. It’s a commitment to one another, not a random act of kindness. If you really want to help someone, think of them as a person and not a project or a notch in your “helps” belt. The same goes for racism. Have you helped to change the hearts of any neo-Nazis this week? What about those you work with or live around? Salt can’t be salt if it stays away from the meat. Light only shines the brightest when it’s in the darkness.
Now, on this last point, I don’t want to offend anyone, but I feel like I really have to point out how the way the modern church celebrates the weekly service could have contributed to problems and misconceptions within the church. And I’m not saying that there aren’t churches that may have gotten it right. Maybe there are churches that avoid the problems I’m going to mention. Hey, if you’ve got it figured out, share the wealth. That’s all I’m saying.
Okay, first the problems and then the possible solutions. Most Sunday morning services go a little like this: 3-4 songs, sermon, offering and alter call. Sometimes it’s mixed up with a baptism in there somewhere or some sort of special song, but that’s basically the format. Now, notice what gets the majority of attention in the local church. How many hours get poured into the Sunday service, precisely because this may be the only chance that most people get to hear the gospel? How many pastors feel the pressure of hitting a homerun with each and every sermon? How much is spent on lighting, instruments, children’s church, building maintenance and utilities each month for each church?
How much does the Sunday service contribute to the illusion of the sacred/secular divide? When this is the pastor’s job, how much responsibility do the attendees really have to do ministry? If someone else has the spiritual gift of preaching, when do they get the opportunity to exercise and perfect this gift? If our evangelism breaks down to “just invite them to church to hear the gospel,” how much responsibility do the individual members actually feel they have to share the gospel themselves? Can the individual members of the local body share the gospel (do they have the knowledge)? How much of the money being poured into maintaining a building could be spent investing in the surrounding community instead?
Now, some would say that this is not an either/or but an and problem. We should have a Sunday morning service where we invite unbelievers so they can hear the gospel and we should train our lay people to share the gospel. We should maintain the building and give money to the poor.
I find at least several problems with the “and” approach. First, we encourage non-commitment from the majority of the attendees. They’re just there for the show, the worship, to hear the preaching. After all, they don’t really have to do anything. All they need to do is sit and soak it all in. In fact, we’ve made it easier for the attendees to be anonymous. They just need to arrive and leave and then check it off their weekly cards. There’s no commitment. No engaging if they don’t to engage. They come. They eat. They leave.
Second, the service atmosphere really encourages the divide between parishioner and laity. See, the ministers are the ones leading the service. All the rest are the sheep. The sheep just need to obey and be led. Of course, the next logical question is how can the local assembly be the body of Christ if only the big toe is getting the ability to perform its function? How does the rest of the body perform its function? Or does everyone else simply have the spiritual gift of helps?
Now, I’m not against the pastor and worship leader. They’re working with what they’ve got. In fact, when church planters begin, they usually begin alone. But the model reinforces this alone minister concept. I’m not saying that pastors have failed anyone. But what I am saying is that church can be done differently. It doesn’t have to be this way. Ministry shouldn’t be for a select few. It shouldn’t happen just within a building or when we intentionally set out to do ministry. Ministry should be a lifestyle and I should be the lifestyle of everyone who makes up the church. It should define how we relate to others.
Okay, smart guy. So, what’s the solution to the Sunday morning service? Well, first, I don’t think there is one particular shoe-fits-all way of doing church. We were all made in the image of a God that is very creative. We should employ creative problem solving to this and all our problems. In fact, because we literally have God inside of us, Christians should be more creative than anyone else. I know of at least three different ways of doing church, that could potentially solve some of these problems. Maybe they have problems of their own. Maybe they won’t work where you live. That happens. How can we be the body of Christ exactly where we’re at right now?
There’s a book (I read a lot of books) called “Saturate” by a guy named Jeff Vanderstelt. In this book, Jeff and his wife moved to Tacoma, Washington to start what they refer to as a missional community. Francis Chan stopped leading a megachurch and eventually went on to write a book that described a house-church concept. Or maybe you can find a way to integrate discipleship, evangelism and serving others alongside the Sunday service.
Remember, we succeed or fail not as a local building or a Sunday service, but we succeed only when God gets the glory. We fail when we get the glory.