Identifying and
defining the ‘emerging church’ is like nailing Jell-O to a wall – it’s virtually
impossible. In fact, leaders of the ‘emerging church’ movement refuse to allow
it to be defined for fear that definition will lead to codification and codification
will lead to institutionalization and institutionalization will lead to what
we already have – insulated spirituality in closed communities disengaged from
culture. This is why ‘emerging church’ guru Brian McLaren refuses to use the
term “movement” to describe the ‘emergent church.’ 1

As best as I can
tell from my numerous readings on the subject, ‘emerging church’ is a term used
to describe a new generation of believers who are coming out from under the
rubble of a failed institutional church. This emerging generation of new believers
is interested in discarding the unnecessary restraints of a church they believe
has lost its ‘ancient faith.’ As ‘emerging church’ proponent advocate Dan Hughes
argues, ‘The dominant churches have too often been on the wrong side of history
choosing insular irrelevance over engagement; political complicity over prophetic
dissonance; self-perpetuation over self-sacrifice.’ 2

Hughes goes on
to argue that the ‘emerging church’ is a rejection of the ‘revenue-driven faith
franchises and religious corporations that are actively trading on the name
and reputation of a homeless man and will not be the source for personal healing,
local renewal, ecological stewardship and international, interracial or inter-communal
peacemaking so long as they find their purpose in the empty excellence of the
various trickle-down spiritualities that make up Christianity, Inc.’

Emergent church
gurus envision a more methodologically and theologically fluid spiritual movement
that infiltrates culture rather than confronts culture from a juxtaposed position.
Hughes argues, ‘We imagine a system…that is among us. Amidst these systems we
privilege and savor the investment of physical touch and embodied time that
is the space of our shared meanings.’

The terms are telling.
The ‘emerging church’ uses terms/phrases such as ‘participatory spirituality
whose modalities rest more in the patterns of day-to-day life than in the cycles
of attendance and consumption,’ ‘modalities,’ ‘networks of relationships,’ ‘processes,’
‘journey.’ These terms/phrases give rise to an understanding of Christianity
that is less codified, defined, organized, institutionalized, corporate; more
intuitive, relational, linear, communal, creative, etc. Ultimately, as Hughes
argues, the goal is to avoid the ‘privileged trinity of Christian industry –
the spiritual discipline of devotional literacy, spiritual life as attendance,
and the gospel as syllogism.’ In other words, according to Hughes, the three-part
goal of the ‘emergent church’ is: 1) to avoid a closed, literary
Biblicism that does not allow for theological experimentation, 2) to
reject the obligatory participation in a local fellowship that limits
cross-generational, cross-societal interaction and 3) to oppose
the gospel as logical truth.

What are we to
make of this movement? It must be acknowledged that the enticement of this movement
is the rejection of the corporate, the institutional, the codified. The ‘emerging
church’ movement is right in criticizing much of the current state of affairs
in modern Christianity, especially in a supposedly ‘Christianized’ west. It
is a known fact that too many local bodies of believers are disconnected from
culture and that a brand-name mentality has invaded the modern church. In other
words, the church has become like Wal-Mart or McDonalds – one on every corner
packaging and selling spiritual commodities for busy spiritual consumers, devoid
of personal concern and relational depth. The church has become the first church
of the consumer.

Having acknowledged
these appropriate criticisms, the dangers in the ‘emerging church’ movement
are many. Let me deal with these dangers by using Hughes’ ‘privileged trinity
of Christian industry – 1) the spiritual discipline of devotional literacy,
2) spiritual life as attendance, and 3) the gospel as syllogism
– which he desires to replace with a new trinity, namely: 1) reconfigured…textures
of hyper-literacy, 2) networked living and 3) enacted gospel.

literacy vs. textures of hyper-literacy

Those within the
‘emergent church’ movement decry definitive statements of faith. These statements
are viewed as parochial, narrow, exclusive and non-conducive to true community
and spiritual development. This is why traditional Bible studies, sermons, lectures
are viewed with suspicion – they cut off dialogue, debate, investigation. Instead,
‘emerging church’ leaders/participants desire an ancient faith that is non-descript.
To make declarative statements reminds them of the spiritual rubble they have
chosen to leave where declarative statements were often unsubstantiated. Declarative
statements cut off and limit relationships with both believers and non-believers.

But if truth statements
are rejected outright, how can we know the gospel itself, since Scripture defines
the parameters of the gospel in definitive terms? For example, Jesus definitively
said in John 14:6 that He alone was the way to the Father. Acts 4:12 affirms
this truth. Further, we know the parameters of the gospel as defined in one
its earliest expressions stated in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11.

While the gospel
is relational, it is also rational. It is not an either/or proposition; it is
a both/and issue. The gospel is relational because it brings us into a vibrant
relationship with the living God through the person of Jesus Christ as lived
out in the Spirit. Yet, the gospel is rational in that it makes intellectual
sense. It can be explained. The gospel is logical to the mind. The desire of
the ‘emerging church’ is to move to what Hughes calls a ‘hyper-literacy’ where
faith statements are less defined and more dialogical in relation to the Bible
and other expressions of faith. This is dangerous because process becomes more
important than principle, experience becomes the arbiter of truth and the journey
of faith becomes a never-ending sojourn from one spiritual perspective to another.
To illustrate, the plane circles the airport, but never gets to land. To land
means to end the journey, to bring closure, to cut off debate.

Most dangerous
is that experience trumps Scripture. The rational, logical and relational nature
of the truth of Scripture is trumped by human reason, human experience and human
envisioning. The ‘emerging church’s’ refusal to definitively declare the gospel
and its antecedents is its’ Achilles heel.

life as attendance vs. networked living

Having grown up
in Southern Baptist churches, I have experienced my fair share of attendance
campaigns and church stewardship emphasis. Some of these experiences were ‘cheesy,’
many were meaningful. It is understandable that the ‘emerging church’ would
want to divorce itself from many of these institutional forms of the body of
Christ. Instead of terms like institutional and organizational, emerging believers
prefer terms like relational, network, systems, modalities, community, conversation.
In other words, the ‘emergent church’ draws a line in the sand between institutional
church life and Christian living within communal relationships.

Granted, too many
churches spend way too much time and energy sustaining their own existence.
Yet, isn’t it the nature of the church to organize itself for effectiveness
and efficiency? For example, we know as early as Acts 2:42-47 that the church
had developed a system of basic beliefs (the apostles’ doctrine/teaching), a
system of ministry (selling their possessions and goods) and a system of meeting
together (in the temple courts and house to house). Further, we know that as
the church grew the need for an organized method of caring for the widows was
necessary (Acts 6:1). In addition, we know that as the church spread Jerusalem
and Antioch became centers of Christian teaching and ministry from which missionaries
were sent to the nations. We also know that there was an organized meeting called
the Jerusalem Council where centralized authorities decided the nature of the
gospel in relation to both Jew and Gentile (Acts 15).

For better or for
worse, the church begs to be organized because God is organized. He created
in six, sequential, meaningful days; He called one nation to be His people;
there are twelve tribes, twelve apostles, sixty-six books in the Bible, etc.
It is interesting to note that church attendance was a part of the early church,
as well. Somehow, the early believers new that 3,000 were saved and baptized
on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41). Acts 4:4 notes that on another occasion
5,000 were saved. In addition, the writer of Hebrews 10:25) notes that church
attendance was important – “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are
in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as
you see the Day approaching.” In other words, there is evidence all over the
New Testament to indicate that the early church was organized for effectiveness
and efficiency.

The ‘emergent church’
is rather naïve to believe it can avoid organization. In fact, the term network
is the beginning of the end of a naiveté for a church that desires pure and
non-organized community. The ‘emerging church’ sets up a false choice – a choice
between organized community and non-organized community. The choice is not between
a spiritual life defined by simplistic attendance to an institution disconnected
from culture or reality versus a supposedly pristine network of believers
untarnished by institutional parameters. In fact, I would suggest that the seeds
of demise have already been planted within the ‘emergent church’ movement when
they published their first book, organized their first conference and set up
their first website. If the ‘emergent church’ movement was true to its word,
it would have never endeavored to do any of these things. The next thing you
know, there will be the ‘emergent church’ publishing house, network office,

The real question
is: can the visible church – organized, structured – reflect the invisible church
constituted by true, spirit-filled believers? If ‘emerging church’ leaders think
that they have stumbled upon a new paradigm they are misinformed and ignorant
of church history. The visible church has always struggled with its relationship
to the invisible, apostolic church made up of true believers in relation to
the living God. Again, I predict that the ‘emerging church’ is already in demise
because of its disconnect from definitive, biblical truth and because it is
seeking its own definition, and defining a thing means a degree of codification,
institutionalization, structure, etc. To be critical of the traditional church
can be helpful; but for the ‘emerging church’ to be critical, yet not offer
a viable alternative that does not avoid theological bankruptcy, is naïve and

as syllogism vs. enacted gospel

A final contrast
is the gospel as syllogism versus an enacted gospel. I take it that what Hughes
means by ‘enacted gospel’ is what used to be labeled as ‘incarnational gospel.’
Again, ‘emergent church’ leaders set up a false dichotomy, i.e. either true
believers embrace a gospel that is lived out in the fluid nature of day-to-day
living or the gospel is a logical proposition that it is be given cold, calculated
intellectual assent. But is this the choice?

Surely, the gospel
is to be lived. Call it an ‘enacted gospel’ or an ‘incarnational gospel,’ Scripture
teaches that the gospel is not only absolute truth that can be defined, it is
life itself. The gospel is a way of life for the true believer. Further, it
is a life lived out in true community with other believers. In addition, the
gospel is to be lived out before an audience of one (God) in the presence of
many, including unbelievers. Granted, it is true that traditional church structures
can inhibit authentic Christian living. However, to say that all believers who
are not a part of the ‘emergent church’ movement are disingenuous is, to say
the least, a bit overstated.

To suggest that
a believer has to make a choice between the logic of the gospel and the implications
of that gospel for daily living is, again, naïve. Scripture affirms that we
are to ‘be’ salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16). Yet, to live out the gospel does not
preclude making logical, even syllogistic statements about the gospel. For example,
the Sermon on the Mount can be understood as an overall picture of what a disciple
of Christ looks like in thought, behavior and action. Yet, this same ‘sermon’
is given in rational statements, sequential illustrations and declarative commandments.

A biblical example
is in order. In Acts 17 the Apostle Paul visits Athens. As was his pattern,
Paul would enter a city and visit both the sacred places (synagogue) and the
secular places (the market). You cannot get anymore secular than Athens. Acts 17:16 notes that the entire city was “full of idols.” And what was Paul’s tactic
in spreading the gospel to this secular city? Did he dialogue with its leaders?
YES! Did he engage the culture? YES, even quoting one of their poets. Did he
engage the culture based upon an unresolved gospel? NO! Paul was absolutely
clear in the principles and parameters of the good news – 1) God is sovereign,
creator, Acts 17:24-28; 2) God is not a manmade ideal that is under intellectual
construction or development, but a real and living God, Acts 17:29; 3) the
gospel of God calls for people to repent from the ignorance of sin, Acts 17:30;
4) knowing that God will judge all men by the resurrected Lord, Acts 17:31;
5) this gospel is based upon the clear and sequential historical events
of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Acts 17:32.

Did Paul offend
some? YES! Did others reject what he said? YES! But did some receive the truth?
YES! So, Paul engaged his culture with a clear gospel in relation to the church
that had sent him on mission and in relation to the pagan culture he was attempting
to engage so that they might believe. Paul’s gospel is stated in clear syllogistic
logic enacted in the most secular, pagan marketplace of his day.


The ‘emerging church’
envisions itself as an absolutely new expression of the church. Further, its
criticisms of the institutionalized church need to be heard. However, the means
by which this movement seeks to reinvent the church leaves the church vulnerable.
The ‘emergent church’ is more concerned about being disconnected from culture
than it is being disconnected from the truth.

Biblical Christianity
is a life lived out for the glory of God within a dynamic relationship with
Jesus Christ. This life is not to be lived in isolation from other believers
or from the world itself. Instead, biblical Christianity is best seen in the
individual believer living in community with other believers and non-believers
visibly expressed in a local body of believers organized for missional purposes,
yet joined together with the invisible church made up of believers from every
tribe, tongue and nation.

The church has
been given a declarative Word to the nations, a Word that stands in contrast
to what the believer should be, calling him/her to be more than what he/she
is. The ‘emerging church’ is but a poor, nebulous construct of the New Testament
church; yet, it is a construct that, I fear, will end up leading the church
to be theologically bankrupt and culturally consumed so that the church is no
longer salt and light.


Dr. Kevin Shrum
is Pastor of Inglewood Baptist Church in Nashville, TN.


1. McLaren quoted in Southern Baptist Texan, 4.18.05

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