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Emerging Church

Posted Saturday, July 21, 2007 by Charlie Trimm
Categories: Culture and Theology  

I have recently read two books either about the emerging church or heavily influenced by it. Both of them were certainly the usual style of books I read, as they were not about the emerging church as they were by the emerging church, which has a fairly different approach to life than I am used to. The two books are Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches (read: Five ways of being emerging church) and Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller.

It seems that most of the emerging church has come out of something (hence, emerging). This is usually classic evangelicalism, and most of them react against that background to a greater or lesser extent. Miller is an example of that type of history. Blue Like Jazz is a collection of semi-connected stories about spirituality discussing various topics. The book is designed for young postmoderns trying to make sense of their Christianity, and I can see it being fairly helpful for college students (I read that Campus Crusade handed out free copies of the book on some campuses). It was fun to read, although he did seem somewhat modernistic in how neatly he tied together each chapter: it didn’t bother me, but that neatness seems like it would disturb the very target audience he is trying to reach. The thing that did bother me was the lack of biblical references. I don’t mind the rather rambling style (after all, rambling is all I am doing right now!), but fitting in his conclusions with an authority greater than him simply saying it would be better in my mind. He is trying to get away from proof-texting, which is admirable, but one still needs to stay with the text. Another interesting theme throughout the book is that Miller seems to say the kind of thing that many want to say about the church but are afraid to, such as that people outside the church are often nicer than people inside the church. For example, he presents a hippie community he lived in as one of the greatest examples of love and acceptance he had seen. I can sympathize with him, but I see a trend within postmodernism that is somewhat disturbing: love is subtly equated with acceptance. But that is not biblical love: love must often be tough love. But perhaps I just misread what he has written. By the way, Miller is associated with a Mars Hill spin off church in Portland, which shows some of his influences (Mark Driscoll is never referred to by name in the book but only as “the cussing pastor from Seattle”). 

The other book is set up in the format of a viewpoint book, with each author presenting their view of how to be (not do: this is an emerging church book, after all) the emerging church and then the other four presenting their reaction. The book was interesting but could have been made much better. The essays are all over the board, and apparently only one author actually answered what the book wanted. Mark Driscoll presents a somewhat disappointing essay in which he simply discusses the Trinity, the Bible and the atonement with conventional evangelical terms and verses. While I agree with most of what he said, I was disappointed because there was little about what made him different from a standard evangelical church or how his church existed. Actually, Driscoll is frankly annoying in this book, even though I am closest to him theologically. The next two authors, John Burke and Dan Kimball, gave more helpful essays describing their views of the emerging church. While I agreed with much of what they said, there seemed to be an underlying current of not saying that anyone is wrong. Postmoderns really have a problem with this. But there was much that was good in these chapters about the importance of understanding culture and applying theology to the culture. That was actually a theme among all the writers of the book: theology must be something that is not exclusive to the pastor, but especially for everyone in the church. The last two essays (Doug Pagitt and Karen Ward) were more disagreeable for me. The editor of the book called them “edgy” and they were certainly off the edge of my standards. For example, Pagitt seemed to view the view of Pelagius as a view that is acceptable. Both of these writers were all about listening to what others had to say and valuing their input, but having very little concern for the accuracy of what was being said. Another annoying fact from Pagitt’s chapter was that he condemned the early church for being so influenced by Greek philosophy, but his entire viewpoint is based upon postmodernism! How can he say that they shouldn’t have been influenced by their surrounding culture? Pagitt also notes that most non-Christians like his approach to church, while most Christians do not. It seems to me that he has removed the offense of the cross in order to make church more palatable to the world. But then, he has some words in his chapter for people like me who make judgment calls on his views.

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