Criticizing the emerging church

In the next few months, there's going to be a lot of criticism of the emerging church. It's just becoming known to a lot of people, and the reaction isn't always going to be friendly. That's part of the reason I wrote the column for Christian Week: it would be sad to only see the worst of the emerging church without also recognizing what is good. Like every stream within Christianity, there is lots of good and lots of bad mixed in together. Jacob wrote in the comments the other day:
Some things that I've noticed about the emerging church that really concern me are: 1) Profanity. There's an emerging 'Pastor' proudly blogging right now that he uses the f-word and other profanity to reach people. His blog entries regularly include this type of language. This is terrible logic and slippery slope theology. 2) Relativism. In their attempt to reach the post-moderns, they themselves have have embraced post-modern thought. Everything is ok (except the tradition church and traditional theology), especially lifestyle issues. There seems to be a blurring of personal lifestyle before and after salvation. 3) Lack of Urgency for Salvation. They don't use the term 'saved' unless it's in a mocking kind of way. Do they even believe in Hell? Just some observations. I hope I'm wrong.
My first reaction was that this seems to be a bit of a caricature. I know where the descriptions come from, but they seem a little exaggerated. Part of the problem is that emerging, like evangelical, is so broad a term that it's almost become a catch-all. It's hard to describe what the average emerging type is like, just like it's hard to describe the average evangelical. Some thoughts: 1) One of the values of the emerging church is being real, even raw. That means that some of the sins that are glossed over in more traditional churches are not hidden within the emerging church. That means that the sins are more visible, but not necessarily any more present in the emerging church than anywhere else. (Thanks to LT for this insight). 2) Profanity is often stupid and rude, but it is not always immoral. There is plenty of earthy, almost vulgar language in the Bible. Paul himself uses a profanity in Philippians 3:8. I am not a big fan of profanity, and believe it can sometimes be immoral, especially when used against people. Words are powerful. Any word we choose has incredible power to heal or to hurt. But even those who are profane can still have something worth listening to from time to time (witness Martin Luther, who had a pretty salty tongue). 3) The issue of sin is probably one that needs attention in both evangelicalism and the emerging church. Stephen Shields recently wrote on this topic. I think evangelicals could benefit more from seeing sin as more than personal - to see systemic evil and issues of justice as worthy of attention. Likewise, the emerging church could probably talk about sin a little more. I'm not sure relativism is pervasive in the emerging church, but I think evangelicals and emerging types tend to emphasize different sins. 4) On being "saved" - Evangelicals tend to focus on the decision or the point at which someone is "saved". Emerging types tend to see discipleship as much more of a process than a point, and see the trajectory and current relationship as more important than a past decision. I think it's both/and, and the theological implications of this discussion run pretty deep. Again, emerging types could probably emphasize the afterlife a bit more, just as evangelicals could probably talk about entrance into Kingdom life here and now rather than focusing primarily on the afterlife. 5) Finally, I think Jacob's instincts are right. There is much to criticize within the emerging church, as there is in any stream. As soon as there are people involved, there will also be sin involved, and that means that we need to be careful and show discernment. My hope is that we will be as charitable about the positive in other movements as we are about our own, and that we will be as self-critical about our own movement as we are about others. The Lord knows we all need help. I also hope that emerging types won't be overly defensive. We have lots to learn from one another.

Book launch

I love books. I think it's cool to meet authors at book signings. But I've never been to a book launch, until yesterday. I almost didn't make it either. Charlene was sick, and so I had a couple of kids to look after. I don't know if you're supposed to take kids to a book launch, but I sure wasn't going to miss it. I also didn't know if blue jeans were okay, or whether something more was expected. But we went. Kids were okay; the kids sat with the authors' children. Jeans were okay; the event was held at a university. There was wine, cheese, and other great food. There were songs and tributes and of course books for sale. I've picked up my copy of Colossians Remixed, and it looks great. The best part for me was seeing the authors behind the scenes, mainly getting ready and looking after their kids. This is in keeping with the preface of the book, which says:
We made a commitment to each other, and we make it to you our reader, that we would not propose a way of life that we ourselves were not living out. St. Paul knows that the vision he is talking about makes no sense if it doesn't shape the Christian household as an alternative to the dominant Roman model of household life. And so the testing ground for anything we say in this book is first and foremost our family. Our three children...did not have to "suffer through" the writing of this book. If they did the book would in fact lack credibility. We did not "sacrifice" family life through long absences while researching and writing. So we offer the kids no apologies. Rather we thank them for grounding our lives in the important things like learning and housekeeping, playing and growing up, stories and nighttime prayers, tears and laughter.
Cool. It's hard not to envy a couple who are friends with N.T. Wright - how cool would that be - and who have just published a great book. I didn't stick around long enough for them to sign my book (my son was keeping me grounded by about 8:30), but it was a good night.

Theology and the emerging church

One of the charges I hear leveled against the emerging church is that it is weak on theology. Like every generalization, you can find examples of shaky theology that seem to prove the case. It's just as easy, though, to find examples of shaky theology within evangelicalism, for instance. That doesn't prove the case. A lot of the questions being asked by the emerging church are theological in nature. The primary concern is not how to cater the Gospel to make it more palatable. Quite the opposite. The concern is to understand where modernity might have obscured the Gospel. It's an attempt to see the Gospel through a different lens than that of modernity. You don't get more theological than trying to answer the question, "What is the Gospel?" That seems to me to be the primary question that's being asked. Everything else is gravy. Dan Kimball is an example of an emerging church pastor who is not ducking the theological issues. Dan says this in the latest issue of Preaching:
One week I talked about what was death in the Old Testament...It's somewhat like teaching a theology class. We're specifically going into word studies, we are hitting a lot of historical context. I think what people are looking for in our culture is depth, We talked about hell an entire night, so that's almost like the total anti-seeker model, you might say

Learning from the emerging church

I've written a guest column in the latest edition of Christian Week:
At the heart of the emerging church is a reexamination or deconstruction of the assumptions of modern Christianity. The emerging church asks if we are practicing and understanding authentic Christianity, or if we have baptized rationalism and the enlightenment and created a pragmatic version of Christianity... It would be easy to dismiss the movement. It