June 10, 2008 / David Fitch

Why the Neo-Radical-Young and Restless-Reformed is Not the Way Forward


I have just begun reading David Well’s The Courage to Be Protestant. I hope to post on it from time to time in the immediate future. A quick perusal of the book however reveals that prof. Wells continues his attack against church marketing-mega-church business modeling of the church as well as the Emergent/emerging church where he takes his swipes against McLaren and postliberal theology. Ironically he sees the two as somewhat related, both contextualizing and thereby watering down the gospel. He surveys the stunning changes on the cultural landscape and sees these two movements as evangelicalism’s massive failure to respond. For Wells, both the church marketers and the emerging churches are abject failures of evangelicalism. He then proclaims the answer for such an evangelicalism in the midst of this crisis: a return to Reformation Orthodoxy, a courage to be protestant.

I am not prepared to offer a full analysis right now. Prof Wells deliberately writes this book in an unscholarly fashion (because, as he states, he is recapitulating his previous four books). To be fair then, I have to go back and read the other volumes. I don’t know if I can do that right now. Yet I read this book with interest. I greatly respect David Wells, his work and his service to the evangelical church. I resonate with some of his rants against church-marketing and the loss of a place of honor for the church. Yet I will be offering a completely different reading of evangelicalism at AAR this fall (at the Christian Theological Research Fellowship). If the first chapters of Wells are any indication, I see things differently.

In short, I do not see church marketing (mega church-ease) and the emerging church as coming from the same impulse to contextualize. I do not see post liberal theology as a passing fad (as Wells states on page 16). Instead I see much of emerging church, missional church, neo-monasticism, the Evangelical Manifesto etc. etc. as a response to the inherent lacks that have been revealed in the evangelical theological system/social structure of the past fifteen -twenty years. I see post-liberal theology and all its variants as a fruitful direction for theological faithfulness (as opposed to prot. liberalism and evangelical fundamentalism).

Wells sees the answer to the current lacks in evangelicalism as a return to Classic Protestantism. I see most of the inherent lacks of evangelicalism as seeded in the very structure of Classical Protestantism. Evangelicalism, as I see it, is the outworking of the inherent contradictions latent in the Protestant reformation that allowed for the individualizing, interiorizing, privatizing of the Christian gospel that we have today. These ills then, that Wells so decries, are the outgrowth of the very solution he proposes. BTW many have seen that the seeds of modernity and all its ills also lie deep within the impulses of the Reformation. I would like Wells to consider (along with the Radical-Reformers), could it be that Classic Protestantism, along with its cousin Enlightenment modernity, is the real culprit that led us to the kind of sick Christianity so manifest in America and the West in general?

In contrast to the solution proposed by Wells, the emerging/missional/neo-monastic churches (the pieces that I applaud) seek to recover community, wholistic gospel, embodied incarnational presence in the world, corporate spiritual formation and the sense of cosmic Mission. Granted, I believe the neo-reformed people seek similar things in certain respects. Yet the call from Wells for a “return” to the Sola Scriptura, where the individual (or historical criticism) is in charge of interpretation, and the penal substitutionary view of the atonement, which has allowed the gospel to be packaged and transacted in the first place, hardly seems to further the church beyond the dilemmas of our day. These may be characterizations, yet these doctrines still seem prone toward these kind of errors. I think the New Reformed need to at least address the way these dictrines have led to this mess we are in. I still affirm both the inerrancy of Scripture and the penal view of the atonement. But we must go beyond. The authority of Scripture must be lifted up amidst the new contest of narratives. The atonement must be explicated in all its depth wonder and profundity. Its interpretation must be taken from the entire history of the God’s work in Christ. In these ways, I see the emerging/missional movement as more promising than the “Radical Reformers,” the young, restless, Reformed.

In summary, as the atrophy of traditional evangelicalism spreads across N. America, I have my doubts as to whether the young, the restless, the Reformed, can lead us to a place of new faithfulness without eventually leading us to more of the same that got us here in the first place.

This is just a preamble to a more serious engagement with prof. Wells’ twenty years of work on this subject. These are just my initial impressions. What do you think? Can neo-Reformed theology ala Driscoll, Piper, Carson, Wells et.al. lead us to a more faithful evangelicalism? Or will it lead us eventually to repeat the same mistakes of rampant individualism, the transactionalizing of the gospel, and an anemic sociality that leaves us impotent to live a socially embodied gospel in distinction from the world?

P.S. For an intelligent debate over some of relational issues between Emergent and Radical Reformed see Tony Jones interchange with Collin Hansen at Christianity Today.

Driscoll: “They don’t have converts” – Redux

I just got finished looking over at Out of Ur where my original post on Mark Driscoll (from a couple of weeks ago here at “reclaiming”) was re-posted. You remember I tried to make the case that all converts are not necessarily the same in terms of time and context needed. (YES THEY ARE THE SAME IN GOD’S SIGHT!). I argued that emerging/emergent, neo-monastic communities and megachurches (yes I still believe Mars Hill is a megachurch) aim (intentionally or unintentionally) at different contexts, and in some cases for different purposes. Well, there were alot of comments over there. There were many that I think merit a response. I could not answer as many as I wanted to over there in a comment (because there’s a limit of 1500 words) so I thought I’d respond in one post over here. So for what it’s worth, here goes. The quote from the comments is listed first, and then a SHORT response is offered.

From Leonard: If missional churches are not lasting for more than three years then they need to be rethought as to how they are planted, who is planting them and exactly what their mission is. If churches are not making converts in this culture then we need to ask hard questions about boldness, about methods and about not being distracted from the truth that brings grace.

DF: Leonard, I think we agree. I think it is the expectations placed upon missional planters from exterior sources that inhibit their success. Too often missional church plants have expectations laid on them regarding numbers and finances that come off the church planting scripts of traditional churches in Christendom America. We need to prepare missional church plant leaders to set entirely different expectations (including being bi-occupational, indeed self supporting) See my post on this. Your second point reverts back to my suggestion that converts take more time in post Christendom.

From Mike h: 1) The author talks about how difficult it is to develop a missional community. But then the word “organic” is used in the same sentence. One of the beauties of the organic church is not how difficult it is, but simple. I don’t see how developing a complex megachurch is easier than starting an organic missional community.

2) It also seems (from the same paragraph) that the difficulty is getting the missional community large enough to support the “planter”. Is that the goal? If the goal is to get missional communities large enough to support a “planter” than I agree it’s difficult. But if the goal is to incarnationally help a group of people live the gospel, does the require a paid leader?

3) The author states “The conversion of a post-Christendom “pagan,” who has had little to no exposure to the language and story of Christ in Scripture, may require five years of relational immersion before a decision would even make sense.”

I’m not sure where the 3-5 year time frame came from. But it would any less time for a megachurch to reach them, than a missional community?

DF: Mike, again I think we agree. If church is organic, and self-sustaining from the beginning, it should by definition be less difficult. Nonetheless, my experience with church planters is they continually have expectations placed upon them that they are not prepared to fend off. Most are not prepared for the financial and social pressures they will face doing church missionally.

In regard to your second question, I never said that the missional community needs to get big enough to support the “planter.” Anyone who knows me knows that I argue for a sustainable missional pastorate whose support from the church comes only from necessity, as he/she must be released for more ministry at the call of the community.

In regard to your third question, I tried to outline in the post why I think mega church conversions are different. The dynamic of a large church of 2-3000 or more and the attractional reasons for being there (9 times out of 10) generate a person already familiar with the gospel. A pagan however who knows nothing (at least in an orthodox way) would (9 times out of 10) not be attracted to a large service and would inherently need a whole new level of immersion in the gospel story for a decision to be anything more than a consumerist one. These statistics have been borne out in places like C Pritchard’s study of Seeker Services which you can get a Amazon.

From Willy: For goodness sake, this article clearly indicates one of the major problems with all these types of discussion on Emerging Church, namely that everyone seems to have a different definition of what it means to be “missional”.
To my mind Mars Hill is a “missional” church in so far as they look at themselves as being missionaries to their locality.

DF: I agree Willy. I didn’t really define missional here. I didn’t have the space. But let me say that all churches that are Christian in anyway would assume they are missional on your terms. I am following the work of Darrell Guder et al. (GOCN), Alan Roxburgh (Allelon), and Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost. These authors and churches emphasize incarnational forms of church versus attractional, the church as Missio Dei versus mission being a program, organic forms of missionary living in the neighborhoods versus ministry set in a building, and many other notions that they exegete NT forms of church as a minority presence in society. (For a better definition listen to Alan Hirsch at Out of Ur here)When you describe missional in these terms, I take it Mars Hill simply doesn’t fit. I’m not accusing of them of being apostate or lacking in ecclesiology. I just assume a church with systems and organization sufficient to funnel 7,000 people through their walls cannot operate in this missional fashion. The point of my post is that conversions will look differently and be of a different kind between the two different contexts.

From Willy again: Oh, and another thing, when Jesus simply called the disciples with the words “follow me” he didn’t seem to worried that they were making a “consumerist decision”.

DF: Jesus asked them to “hate their families” and “pick up their cross” and follow him. Enough said. Luke 14:26-27

From Melody: “But missional missiology is aimed at those lost in societies of post-Christendom with no understanding of Christ whatsoever. And this kind of mission takes longer.”

Jesus’ ministry lasted for only three years before he ascended back into heaven and look at the number of converts in that time. He walked up to total strangers and said, “Come, follow Me”, and they did! No building of relationship first. All of the relationships Jesus had with believers occurred after their conversions. In fact, according to Matthew 4:17, the first word out of Jesus mouth when he began his ministry was, “Repent…”

The apostles got right out there and preached the gospel to a culture that had NEVER heard any of it. People were converted on the spot. Wow!

DF: OK … but really, we are not given that much information in the gospels on Jesus’ background relationships with the men that became his disciples. Some, who became his disciples after the ascension were indeed his very own brothers, James being among them. It is very likely he knew all the men he said “Come, follow me” to.
Even if he didn’t know any of them, all of the disciples and the vast majority of converts, even into the Gentile territories, were Jews, well schooled in the history of Israel and the coming of the Messiah. They knew the entire story and what they were saying yes to!

From Dan Kimball: I was on staff at a megachurch for over 10 years and very familiar with the whole scene – and we planted a new church 4 years ago. I don’t see the way it was described of the differences between megachurches and small churches in conversion. Whether a large or small church, when you listen to the stories of how the Spirit moved in the person life, each story is unique. The Spirit does the convicting and drawing someone to Jesus and uses all types of things, from music, to conversations, to altar calls, to Scripture etc. which happens in small churches, medium sized or megachurches.

DF: Dan, I think you know that I certainly agree that every conversion story is unique. I agree that the prevenient work of grace in the Spirit is what guides it all. What I am pointing to here is the difference between someone converted from a previous background in Christianity and someone who has had no knowledge or language to understand what following Jesus as Lord might even mean. When someone has known the whole Scripture story of God in Christ as taught say in a high church catechesis program but never made (or was asked) to make a decision, there remains sufficient background to understand who Jesus is, even if they have gone through a horrific life in between. When someone however, has no knowledge of Christ, except maybe from the Oprah show, the challenge to invite him or her into Christ is totally different.
My experience is, that the majority of attractional conversions are of the first kind. Other statistics exist that also prove that the majority of mega churches land sons and daughters of high church traditions who left and went astray. There is nothing wrong with these conversions. I am just contending that the other kind of conversion, where they know nothing, takes longer.
I have statistics on this. I have missionary histories that study pioneer missions in people groups who have no exposure to Christ ever. They all suggest that post-Christendom type conversions are different, requiring more time and relationality. In other words, if we send a missionary team into Muslim country, we should not expect a 6,000 member church in 6 years or else call it a failure. We should not expect 500 conversions in the first five years or cal it a failure.

Having said all of that, all conversions are good, and a glory to God. It is just when we say that emerging/missional churches do not have conversions, we should be able to make some of these finer discernments. eh? Continued Blessings on your ministry at Vintage Faith Church!

Peace to all, and thanks for the great conversation.
David Fitch