F YOU DRAW A BLANK UPON HEARING THE TERM THE EMERGING church, you probably have a lot of company.
I first heard about the phenomenon in April 2008, during a meeting of the Associated Church Press in Westlake, Texas. At the time, the idea seemed rather innocuous to me and I gave it scant attention. But sometime last year, I received a call from a retired Adventist Church administrator, alarmed about what he saw as the growing negative impact of the movement.
Promising to look into it, I began by reading the book that had triggered his apprehension: Roger Oakland’s Faith Undone, with its teaser subtitle: The emerging church . . . a new reformation or an end-time deception (Silverton, Oreg.: Lighthouse Trails Publishing, 2007).
One problem I found in Oakland was a tendency to see the emerging church under every bush and a proclivity to criticize elements of the movement that, on their face, describe what every good Christian should be or do. He seemed a tad too eager to brand the movement as satanic, before properly laying out the case. All this said, the latter part of the book presents what appears to be credible evidence that the emerging church is attempting to take Christianity on a road back to medieval mysticism and Roman Catholic worship practices, complete with candles and incense, smells and bells, stations of the cross, and the veneration of saints. If Oakland’s evaluation is correct, then alarm bells should sound.
For a totally different perspective, I turned to an article in Christianity Today’s online edition for February 2007 entitled “Five Streams of the Emerging Church” (www.christianitytoday.?com/ct/2007/february/11.35.html). Written by North Park Theological Seminary professor and emerging church advocate, Scot McKnight, the essay describes the emerging church as “the most controversial and misunderstood movement in the church today.” And though, as an Evangelical, McKnight has had his “concerns” about it, he thinks, nevertheless, that “what emerging Christians bring to the table is vital for the overall health of the church.” He quotes two practitioners of the movement, who define the emerging churches as “communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures.” “A notable emphasis of the emerging movement,” McKnight says, “is orthopraxy, that is, right living. The contention is that how a person lives is more important than what he or she believes.”
As an Adventist, I struggle to avoid the knee-jerk reaction to every religious event or development. We shouldn’t see ourselves as the beginning and end of all good things spiritual. The Spirit, after all, moves where the Spirit wills. It’s possible that—misguided or not—the emerging church movement is an attempt to discover new ways “to do church” in a cynical, postmodern climate. And that’s a common struggle for all Christians.
So where do we come down on this one?
I remember the New Age rage some years ago. And I remember one Adventist woman’s repeated requests that Adventist Review confront the issue head-on. For some reason, however, we weren’t convinced we should go there. To us, the phenomenon seemed too fluid, too slippery, too difficult to pin down. In retrospect, I think we made the right call. Today—unless I’m misreading the situation, New Age ideas are generally seen to have been a passing fad.
Is the emerging church phenomenon different? Has the movement peaked and, like so many things modern, already begun to wane, giving way to the next excitement? We don’t know. But we considered it wise in this case to sound an alert—not an alarm. And the fact we’ve devoted a two-article cluster to the issue (see pages 16-22) suggests we think it’s something important to watch. What we intend here is not to present the last word on the subject, but to provide readers a handle on what may still be—no pun intended—an emerging phenomenon.
Roy Adams is an associate editor of the Adventist Review. This article was published June 10, 2010.