The Emerging Church’s Response to Evangelicalism

Up/rooted is gathering over at the Vine Thursday night 7 p.m. to discuss the relationship between emerging church and evangelicalism. I think evangelicals of all types are taking notice of the emerging church/missional church and its variations. It’s rise to prominence owes in part to the rejection of the evangelical church by many sons and daughters of (Boomer) evangelicals. Jon at Up-rooted asked us to talk about this question: What real or perceived shortcoming (singular on purpose!) in evangelicalism do you see the emerging church responding to, and what are the strengths and weaknesses of that response? Scot McKnight and Wayne Johnson (from Trinity Evangelical Div School) will be chiming in along with myself on this question. Here’s what I’ll be talking about.
A We’re in/You’re Out Mentality
One weakness in evangelicalism I believe the emerging church is responding to is: evangelicalism’s excessively rationalist approach to truth and salvation that birthed a stubborn “we’re in/you’re out” mentality. Like I said on the churchandpomo blog, there has been an impulse in evangelical fundamentalism towards a.) an intolerant judgmental exclusivism, b.) an arrogant, even violent, certainty about what we do know, and c.) an overly-rationalized hyper-cognitive gospel that takes the mystery out of everything we believe.

Many of us grew up with this. This was most expressed in the way we made hell the selling point of the gospel. We said those who do a.) and b.) are pardoned from their sin and escape hell. Those who do not do a.) or b.) are going to hell. We built an apologetic and a mindset that defended this to try to prove to people outside the church they are doomed. It came off arrogant, coercive, unloving, and indeed antithetical to the very nature of the gospel. In a world of democratic pluralism, the gospel’s witness became shut off, dispassionate and downright sectarian. It became impossible to represent such a gospel as “good news.”

McLaren talks about this in New Kind of Christian when he says:

If we Christians would take all that energy we put into proving we’re right and everyone else is wrong and invested that energy in pursuing and doing good, somehow I think more people would believe we are right. p. 61

If you ask me whether I believe there is a hell I will tell you yes. To me the reality of hell is real and it is evident in the evil and destruction of souls I see here on earth all the time. If you ask me whether I believe that the salvation God has worked through the person and work of Jesus Christ has direct consequences on our eternal destiny as persons, again I will tell you yes. But if you ask me whether this singularly defines what it means to be saved, here is where I would say no. For our eternal life is the end of a life lived in His salvation (Rom 6:22), not the goal in and of itself. And so let’s not put the cart before the horse. The good news is that God has come in Christ inaugurating his salvation in the world. In Christ (and His Kingdom) there is now forgiveness of sins that is sets loose grace and forgiveness among us and to the world. In Christ (and His Kingdom) there is reconciliation with God that breeds a new reconciliation among us and to the world.(2 Cor 5:18-20) In Christ (and His Kingdom) there is a healing that has begun through the cross among us and to the world. In Christ’s Rule there is indeed a new politic, a way of being, living in the life of God made possible in Christ’s life, death and resurrection that takes shape among us and into the world. Behold all things are made new. (Rev 21.1.; 2 Cor 5:17). Our calling is nothing more nor less than to invite the world into this incredible new life.

A Separation of Personal Justification from Social Justice
A second weakness that I believe emerging churches are responding to (giving a healthy corrective against) is the individualizing tendencies of evangelical ways of thinking and being Christ’s church. Our churches are organized to meet the spiritual needs of individuals and our salvation is incredibly individualistic. Perhaps the most stereotypical way this comes out is the way we have made Jesus into a personal Savior dangerously sounding like Jesus is in the same category as my personal barber, personal trainer or dental hygenist (BTW I don’t have a personal trainer). And of course the danger is salvation becomes all about me. I know it didn’t start out this way in evangelicalism, but it was latent in the structure of our soteriology. And so we have almost romanticized our relationship with God, created a narcissitic experience of it, and end in itself. And churches become all about preserving, and maintaining and nurturing this experience in their parishioners.

But the gospel is not about getting something, it is about participating in Something, God’s work of reconciling the whole world to Himself … and yes we do have a relationship with God which becomes personal .. between me and God .. but it is inseparable from His mission. As I said in an article I wrote for Allelon:

imagine what it would be like in our churches, if there were no such division (between personal justification and social justice). If we were not invited to go forward as individuals to receive a packaged salvation from God that gets us off hell, but instead came forward to become part of something, what God is doing in the world through Jesus Christ – the reconciliation of all men and women with Himself, each other and all of creation (2 Cor 5:19), which BTW inextricably must still include my own personal reconciliation/relationship with God.

Again, McLaren is speaking to this when he says in an article


The term missional asks this question: what is the purpose of the church? To enfold and warehouse Christians for heaven, protecting them from damage and spoilage until they reach their destination? Or to recruit and train people to be transforming agents of the kingdom of God in our culture? The missional church understands itself to be blessed not to the exclusion of the world, but for the benefit of the world. It is a church that seeks to bring benefits to its nonadherents through its adherents.

Weaknesses of the Emerging Response
The question from moderator of the up-rooted session asked each of us to also talk about a weakness in the emerging church response. I’ll try to post on this after Thursday night but real quick, I would say that the strength and the weakness of the emerging response to evangelicalism’ judgementalism has been the wide embrace of descontructive theology. For deconstructive philosophy/theology certainly gives us the skills to diagnose our narrow mindedness, the lost voices we have shut out, our contextualized imprisonment, the ways we have imprisoned God in the rationalized controlling structures of certain Reformed Western rationalities. Yet it fails to deliver for the truth is always “yet to come.” It inevitably leaves the gospel disembodied. As I have argued elsewhere, there are resourses in McIntyre, Yoder, Hauerwas to be embodied communities, communities of hospitality, open communities of witness here and here.”

In relation to emerging church’s response to the false evangelical dichotomy between personal salvation and social justice, I think the missional mantra – that God is already working, let us just join up with Him wherever he is working – sometimes ignores that God is not working everywhere. There are powers in rebellion against God. We fail to deal with Foucault’s great insight : that worldly power is this homogenous totality that engulfs, absorbs indeed incorporates all resistance within it. So in essence, we start out working for justice against the dominant Symbolic order and end up supporting it, helping to spread its injustice even more. The discourse totalizes us. In short the emerging church is right when they say “NO JESUS WITHOUT JUSTICE” but naïve to think we can know JUSTICE WITHOUT JESUS. And I by no means mean that all works of justice and mercy require a gospel tract to be handed out. This is quite simply NOT WHAT I MEAN. But I’ll have to explain this later for those who haven’t read this blog or my writings on this subject before.

If you’re around Thursday, come on over and join the conversation.

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