June 9, 2010

The Emerging Church

2010 1516 page16 capn July 8, 2005, a Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) television documentary defined the “Emerging Church” as “a growing movement that is rethinking what Christianity and the church should look like in a contemporary culture.”1 The anchor, Bob Abernethy, went on to explain that the emerging church movement is about worship and doing church for the next generation in a changing culture.
What is the emerging church? What does it involve? And why should Adventists care?
What It Is
We might describe the emerging church as a movement within evangelical churches, engaged in adapting worship styles and practices to postmodern culture, with the aim of attracting postmodern secular young adults, believers, and nonbelievers to Sunday worship.
When emerging evangelicals worship, they are likely to use (to give a few examples) various styles of music—from heavy rock to traditional hymns; ancient rituals; spiritual disciplines; liturgical Christian seasons; and Jewish traditions. The liturgy might involve physically moving around the place of worship and engaging in various personal rituals. Such rituals might include certain mystical practices, contemplative prayer, and writing down personal prayers and thoughts. There might also be stations (after the Catholic concept of “stations of the cross”) where worshippers can paint or use other art forms to express their worship to God. Following the sacramental liturgical paradigm, worshippers see Christ in all these rituals.2
2010 1516 page16 linkThe central point of emerging church worship is no longer Bible preaching, but the Eucharist. For some emerging church leaders, “sermons” are optional3; others deemphasize, shorten, or heavily illustrate their sermons with visuals and art forms. In some cases, multiple presenters replace the traditional single preacher; and emergents prefer storytelling to preaching as the “authoritative transferring of biblical information.”4
This new worship and spirituality, then, “emerge” from ancient Roman Catholic liturgy, Eastern spirituality, contemporary charismatic worship, and postmodern culture.5
What the Phenomenon Involves
Complex movements have many interrelated causes, and the emerging church is no exception. A number of broad-reaching issues catapulted its rapid ascendency and acceptance in evangelical circles. Among them we find, for instance, the sense of inner dissatisfaction (a) about the present status of evangelical theology (persistent doctrinal divisions)6 and (b) in regard to ministry (the specter of young evangelicals leaving the church).7 All this combined with the “eureka” conviction of having found the key to overcoming these issues, by using new resources available both in the supermarket of ancient traditions and in postmodern culture.
The emerging church movement, however, involves more than changes in worship styles.8 Evangelical theologian Justin Taylor describes the leaders of the emerging church movement as “self-professed evangelicals seeking to revision the theology, renew the center, and transform the worshiping community of evangelicalism, cognizant of the postmodern global context within which we live.”9 This indicates that the emerging church movement is not just about worship innovations. Instead, a major overhaul of evangelical belief, theology, and ecclesiological identity are also under way. The aim is to renew the center of the evangelical movement.
The emerging church movement intentionally seeks to adapt Christianity to postmodern thinking. According to Stanley Grenz, a theological leader of the emerging church movement until his death in 2005, the earlier embrace of faulty modernist ideas10 led evangelicals to fundamentalism and the liberal and conservative divisions that arose across Protestant denominations by the middle of the twentieth century.11 Grenz thinks that the solution to evangelical theological problems is to embrace postmodern ideas. In practice, this implies surrendering all absolutes (philosophical and biblical) and embracing Christian tradition and postmodern culture as the new basis on which the Christian church should stand. The new movement sees itself as emerging from Christian tradition as a “postmodern reformation” of the church.12
As emerging Christians interpret Scripture from the hermeneutical perspective of church tradition,13 they unavoidably embrace theological pluralism, relativism, and Roman Catholic ecumenism.14 Consequently, the emerging movement does not “have an airtight system or statement of faith.”15 Instead, the emerging theological project promotes overall Christian unity by embracing a “generous orthodoxy”16 that includes most traditional teachings and practices as they have “emerged” throughout Christian history.
Stanley Grenz convincingly shows that the evangelical movement and the Protestant Reformation are ecumenical in nature.17 By returning to their roots, emerging evangelicals aim at becoming the leading center of American evangelicalism.18
Why Should Adventists Care?
During the past 50 years, the use of “evangelical” materials by Adventist leaders has increased steadily. Instead of thinking in faithfulness and creativity from Scripture, many Adventists have been playing “follow the leader.” I suspect those who do it assume that evangelical theology and ministerial practices are compatible with Adventism, because they’re supposed to stand solely on Scripture. This uncritical borrowing takes place not only in theology but also in ministry, spirituality, worship, and mission. An increasing number of Adventist pastors recommend emergent literature to our members to use in their devotional life, ministries, mission, and worship. Left unchecked, this process can redefine Adventism after the image of the emerging church.
2010 1516 page16We should bear in mind that in the emerging church movement pastoral practice and missions emerge, not from Scripture but from Pentecostalism and Roman Catholic mystical spirituality.19 At first, I could not understand emerging evangelicals embracing mystical spirituality and retrieving liturgical forms from Roman Catholicism. Obviously, they find Roman Catholic mysticism compatible with the gospel.
To understand why, we need to bear in mind that an epochal paradigm shift in worship and spirituality had already taken place in evangelicalism. The charismatic (Pentecostal-celebration) worship style paradigm has largely replaced the biblical Reformation worship paradigm centered around the Word.
In addition, we also need to remember that because the charismatic and Roman Catholic worship styles operate on the same philosophical and theological assumptions, rituals are seen as mediating the presence of God to the worshipper. No wonder, then, that emergent evangelicals see no objection to following Roman Catholic spirituality, not only in private spiritual disciplines, but also to enhance the appeal of their public worship services to a wider postmodern audience craving to experience God directly and not through Scripture. The emerging church is going back to Rome. If we continue to play follow the leader, new generations of Adventism will go back to Rome, as well.
Yet there is strong opposition to the emerging church movement among evangelical leaders and laity. Understanding that the emerging church is radically redefining evangelicalism, some evangelical leaders are engaging the movement critically.20 Not surprisingly, the debate is about the role of Scripture in theology, ministry, and worship. These leaders correctly question the rejection of Scripture as the sole source of theology and ministry.21 Faithfulness to Scripture and its interpretation is the bottom line dividing the evangelical movement. The gospel and the identity of the movement are at stake. The destiny of the remnant church is also at stake.
As the remnant church, our mission, identity, and nature stand on the consistent understanding and intelligent application of all biblical teachings. Our lives, ministries, worship, and mission should stem from a deep study and commitment to the Bible—only and entirely. We should also be committed to follow the Bible only—entirely, and first of all. This means that the Adventist way of thinking around the world should stem only and entirely from Scripture, and not from their various cultures and traditions.
If you are among those Adventists using emerging-church resources, then I probably come across to you as narrow-minded. After all, you know there are good things in evangelical—even emerging—materials and resources. And you are right—there are some good things in these circles. Yet I would suggest, based on the evidence presented, that we should not simply “download” them into our minds, ministries, and churches. Instead, we should assess everything critically in the light of biblical thinking and the Spirit of Prophecy, retain what is good, and reshape it to fit the Adventist theological vision as presented throughout Scripture and conveyed in all scriptural teachings, principles, and doctrines. This critical process, however, requires that ministers and laity engage in a deep understanding of the history of God’s love in the great controversy, as revealed in Scripture.
Our Challenge
Culture is changing rapidly. Evangelicalism is mutating. Ecumenism is intensifying. History is fulfilling prophecy. And the stakes are high for God’s final remnant. Will Seventh-day Adventists stand on Scripture alone, or will they accommodate to tradition and culture?
To fulfill their mission, Adventists should stop playing follow the leader after the postmodern reformation of Evangelicalism and become the leaders of a biblical reformation22 by following Scripture alone and generating an alternate ecumenical movement.
In personal and theological faithfulness to Scripture, Adventists should be creative in finding ways to penetrate all cultures with the complete biblical history of love and salvation. After all, God called His remnant church to play the leading role in the final chapter of the great controversy between good and evil. 
1 Bob Abernethy, “The Emerging Church, Part One,” PBS, www.pbs.org/wnet/religion?andethics/week845/cover.html.
2 Dan Kimball, Emerging Worship (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2004), p. 95.
3 Ibid., p. 87.
4 Ibid.
5 D. A. Carson, Becoming Conversant With the Emerging Church (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005), p. 12.
6 Carson, p. 14.
7 Philip Clayton, Transforming Christian Theology (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 2010), p. 46.
8 Scot McKnight, “Five Streams of the Emerging Church,” Christianity Today, February 2007.
9 Justin Taylor, “An Introduction to Postconservative Evangelicalism and the Rest of This Book,” in Reclaiming the Center, ed. Millard J. Erickson, et al. (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2004), p. 18.
10 Carson, pp. 25, 26.
11 Stanley J. Grenz, Renewing the Center (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2000), p. 86 ff; pp. 326-331.
12 Leonard Sweet, SoulTsunami (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1999), p. 17.
13 Grenz, pp. 214, 215, 315.
14 Ibid., pp. 346-351.
15 McKnight, Ibid.
16 See, for instance, Brian D. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2004).
17 Grenz, p. 325.
18 Ibid., pp. 350, 351.
19 McLaren, p. 175.
20 See, for example, Roger Oakland, Faith Undone (Silverton, Oreg.: Lighthouse Trails Publishing, 2007).
21 Chad Owen Brand, “Defining Evangelicalism,” in Reclaiming the Center, pp. 295-304.
22 Angel Manuel Rodríguez, “The Adventist Church and the Christian World,” Perspective Digest, 2008, p. 17.
Fernando Canale is a professor of theology and philosophy at Andrews University Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan. This article was published June 10, 2010.