Well, this started out as a comment on my friend Rick’s post, but then it was getting too long to really be a comment. Also, I haven’t posted for a while.
I went to a service that was Emerging-influenced for about 6 months and really liked it before I had to move. It was theologically orthodox as far as I could tell. But the video in Rick’s post raised some good points about McLaren’s beliefs about salvation that I didn’t know about. I read McLaren’s The Secret Message of Jesus, but that focuses less on McLaren’s views on Christ as Savior than on the Christian life and the meaning of the kingdom of God. It was helpful to see his views on salvation explored by the video (a bit snarky for my taste, but helpful nonetheless).
I think that the strength of the Emerging movement is in its concept of Christian living. It challenges the American-evangelical synthesis that tends to equate the Christian life with American middle-class existence and also tends to automatically approve of (and sometimes give biblical warrant to) American capitalism and foreign policy. Yes, there are exceptions, and it seems that these exceptions are increasing. But the American-evangelical synthesis still seems to be a pretty powerful cultural current in the church today.
What the Emerging view of the Christian life does admirably, in my opinion, is challenge us to look anew at the kind of life that Christ wants us to live. Whatever its other faults, The Secret Message of Jesus explores Jesus’ kingdom ethics in a serious way, trying to take the Sermon on the Mount at face value rather than making it safer and easier as Christians sometimes have. The Emerging movement seems to call people away from hyper-individualism into a more community-oriented way of thinking and calls people’s attention to the message of social justice in the Bible that the American-evangelical synthesis tends to minimize, in my opinion.
But there are a couple problems that have probably struck you already. First, the truly Christian life is inseparable from saving faith in Christ. What I am suggesting is that the Emerging perspective may have some insights that we don’t see, just as a follower of liberal theology or even a non-Christian like Gandhi sometimes perceive things that believers miss. In other words, as Russell Moore says in this discussion of the Emergent church, we can learn from the critique.
Second, there seems to be in some Emerging circles (and definitely McLaren’s writings) the belief in a heaven on earth. There are definitely different perspectives on the end times and what “the kingdom” means, but there’s really a this-worldly emphasis in what this means for some Emerging writers, it seems. In one way, this is a good reminder that we are called to make a difference for Christ in this world. In a sense, it doesn’t seem all that different than the evangelical post-millenial views that produced reform movements, including abolitionism, in the 19th century. We need people who dare to say that things can be different or perhaps even that, as McLaren called his recent book (which I haven’t read), Everything Must Change.
But this poses two dangers. First, the Emerging approach can de-emphasize eternity to a pretty radical degree, which I don’t think that 19th-century evangelicals did. Secondly, the kingdom-on-earth movements seem like they’re ripe for disappointment. I live in Illinois, which has become famous as the most corrupt state in the Union. There may be a drive to clean up state politics, and it may even succeed. But will this really solve all future problems? Or will the sinful nature of future generations of humans find new ways to be corrupt? The latter seems to be the only plausible answer. It’s my understanding that even the optimistic evangelicalism of the 19th century died as it ran up against the horrors of the Civil War.
In conclusion, we may be able to find the cure for both the American-evangelical synthesis and the missteps of people in the Emerging movement in the early church. The apostles and the Christians that followed them in the early centuries did indeed set up a community that radically challenged the culture surrounding them, including rich and poor, men and women, Jew and Gentile, (repentant) homosexuals and (repentant) Pharisees. They shared with each other and often refused to participate in the Roman army (some for pacifist reasons). But they also preached the gospel: Christ as the only way to the Father.
If God’s people live on earth with these principles, the American-evangelical synthesis and kingdom-on-earth ideas can be overwhelmed by a greater reality. We don’t have to bring about God’s kingdom here and now or carry water for “the American way of life.” We can by used by God to carry out his purposes here on earth, which we often aren’t fully aware of. If he gives us great victories or causes/allows us to be frustrated, so be it. To quote from the notes on a recent presentation by Mark Dever (which helped me form my thoughts for this paragraph):
We cannot finally judge the correctness of what we do by the immediate response that we get. The need for numbers puts an unnecessary stress on pastors and misunderstands the way that God saves.
We must practice our ministries realizing that some of us will be like Adoniram Judson or William Carey, who had no converts until after seven years of faithful gospel ministry. It’s a fact that most people don’t believe the gospel the first time they hear it.
In the same way, we can ask God to help us combine a full commitment to preaching the gospel with living transformed lives in a fallen world.
I’d greatly value any responses to the ideas in this post. There are a lot of general statements that I hope to explore in future posts.
Filed under: 21st Century | Tagged: Emerging church | 11 Comments »