McLaren and the "Emergent" Church: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I know I promised to start some discussions about history and revelation, but the occasion of a talk by Brain McLaren in the Seminary chapel makes it necessary and relevant to dialogue about the "emerging church" and the state of Christian churches in America in general.

I will not attempt to summarize what McLaren spoke about (partly because it requires quoting his rhetorical flourishes), but those who feel "in the dark" should read, or at least skim thoroughly, his most recent and best work, A Generous Orthodoxy. Those who are familiar with McLaren's writings probably recognize his characteristic weak areas, which were evident as expected in this talk. I will highlight a few of these weak points in a bit.

First, I want to highlight where I am in agreement with McLaren and why. I will present these in numerical order, but there is no reason for this order, other than the order in which they come to my mind. To begin:

(1) I agree that the church in America is facing, or will face very soon, an emergency of drastic proportions. I hate to sound apocalyptic about this, but I think McLaren is mostly right in this regard. Of course, he is by no means the only one aware of this pending disaster. He is simply one of the most outspoken about it. The nature of this emergency is up for serious debate, but I think McLaren summarized it well when he stated that we are in a paralyzing "Cold War" scenario, in which churches and individuals have chosen "sides" (e.g., conservative/liberal, Republican/Democrat) which characterizes the Other as "wrong." Such a state of affairs freezes the faith (making it no faith at all), emphasizes "safe" models of "success," searches for profitable and powerful "solutions" to keep denominations and churches alive (but only superficially), and all the while forgets (intentionally or unintentionally?) the Gospel. This is obviously a gross oversimplification, but it is largely true.

(2) I agree with McLaren's over-simplistic but generally correct statement that the "Mainline" churches are dying, and the Religious Right churches are going brain dead. And I also agree that, for now, the Religious Right is going to see (a Pyrrhic) victory in its pursuit of establishing the new American civil religion. But that will not be the end of the story (cf. Revelation).

(3) I agree that the church today needs to not shut down failing churches (usually to provide financial stability for the denomination), but that to keep Christianity alive, we need to plant new churches. And these church plants need to be characterized by innovation within the local cultural context, not imitation of the "parent church" or what the denominational "ideal" is according to those in power. Denominations need to take a financial risk by planting churches that are not financially secure by any means. Denominations need to be prepared to lose money on a church plant, rather than keeping the money safe -- and hence, unused. (Parable of the Talents, anyone?)

(4) I agree that churches need to welcome and encourage the theological thought of the younger generations, marginalized persons and people groups (and that includes ALL people groups), and those who do not have the means to go through professional education. In other words, churches need to recognize the abilities and possibilities among those who are ignored -- ignored quite often, unfortunately, by those who received a high-class seminary education. Much of this new thought will not take place in book form, but rather through the various artistic and creative means at people's disposal. Do churches today have the ears to hear and the eyes to see what is being produced?

(5) Finally, I agree with McLaren's hesitance to use the term "emerging church," though we need to consider his rhetorical alternative, "the church emerging." I also agree with his preference for the term "emergent conversation," since it does not give off the sectarian flavor of wanting to establish just another denomination in a vast sea of others. We do not need the Emergent Church as equivalent to the Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church, Baptist Church, etc.

Okay, enough with the sermonizing. All of what I just stated was present in McLaren's talk tonight. But we need to address the holes and the inherent problems.

(1) First, the "emergent conversation" has yet to provide a systematic (read "consistent" or "orderly" if you prefer) way of how to use and understand the ancient and modern traditions. These innovative, new churches are pulling from all kinds of sources -- using creeds, liturgies, rituals, monastic rules, et al. -- but they have no way of regulating how individuals and individual churches read, understand, and put into practice these traditions. This is a serious problem! I recognize that McLaren does not want to create a new denomination, but what's being created instead is thousands of churches without any regulating authority to guide how these churches develop and use these ancient and modern texts. It is not enough to use the creeds on Sunday mornings. There is a reason why the mainline churches have well-developed polities in order to provide guiding principles for how churches should operate. McLaren's emphasis on innovation is important, but without hermeneutical guides and an understanding about how to appropriate and use ancient texts and traditions, these innovative churches threaten to become islands of individualism without any clear way of connecting these churches into the wider community of saints.

(2) Connected with this criticism is the corresponding lack of critical judgment in McLaren's writings regarding theology. McLaren openly promotes a kind of "generous orthodoxy," by which he means a Christianity that is ardently ecumenical and seeks to bridge the chasms between denominations and theological schools. This is a worthy goal, to be sure, but what he needs is some solid ground upon which to stand and think out of. Jüngel may be polemical and controversial, but that is because Jüngel is unwaveringly consistent and believes the truth should never be compromised for the sake of agreement. McLaren could use a heavy dose of uncompromising commitment to a theological framework. But his books consciously thrust off any such framework. He has no foundation from which to point out the strengths and weaknesses of other people's views. He wants to draw from all these modern/contemporary theologians (and he rattled off a bunch of names right at the start, though Barth, Jüngel, Webster, and Gunton were conspicuously missing), but many of these writers disagree with each other -- so how does he or anyone else in the emergent community read these theologians? I suspect that they pick and choose what they want to emphasize and put into practice, which is probably how many of them also read Scripture. I find this to be very disconcerting. Is Moltmann right about the Trinity? McLaren apparently thinks so, but why? Is Newbigin right about missions? McLaren thinks so, but why? What makes these theologians "right"? And by gathering ideas and thoughts from all these many sources, how does he or anyone else actually differentiate between what is helpful or not helpful? How does he recognize that which corresponds most appropriately to Scripture and the Christian tradition? In other words, how does a movement that tries to use all the traditions actually stand within a tradition? If the emergent community avoids tradition, then who are they and what will they become?

(3) McLaren's books have -- since A New Kind of Christian -- been too comfortable with the oversimplistic understanding of the postmodern as something altogether different and better than the so-called modern. In the book just mentioned, McLaren's characters speak about the year 2000 as the beginning of the "postmodern era," which is not only historically inaccurate, it's also misleading in terms of intellectual developments. (It's funny that in 2002, Jungel wrote about the end of postmodernity!) This is why I am not any more comfortable with McLaren's term "the church emerging." Emerging from what? From a dark womb? from being lost in the thickets? from "postmodernity"? from out of nothing? The church is not emerging; it's already emerged. It emerged with the apostles of Jesus learning to be disciples and "fishers of men"; it emerged even more with Jesus' resurrection and the Great Commission; and it finally became living reality with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. So what is this talk of "the church emerging"? The church has been here for quite some time already. However, reading McLaren sympathetically, I suspect his rhetorical urges have led him to say things he does not mean. What he probably means is that we are ready to shift gears, to emerge into something that is untried and experimental and insecure -- and hopefully a little better.

More of course needs to be said for and against the emergent movement. From a future theologian's perspective, I suggest that this burgeoning community needs to find a coherent and consistent theological foundation in order to emerge with hope for the future. As it is, the community is too focused on their style and environment of worship. But there needs to be a strong, fertile connection with their theology. Some of these communities are getting it right, but because there is no oversight and structure to these independent churches, it's not unlike the evangelical Free Churches, except that these use creeds, candles, and have fancy websites.

In closing, here is a quote from local Portland author, Don Miller, whose books include Blue Like Jazz and Searching for God Knows What. He is kind of like an emergent version of Anne Lamott, with a strong West Coast, hippy flair. I recommend his books, which are not theology, but rather hilarious yet serious memoirs about his life and his faith. This passage from Blue Like Jazz is relevant, I believe:
A friend of mine, a young pastor who recently started a church, talks to me from time to time about the new face of church in America--about the postmodern church. He says the new church will be different from the old one, that we will be relevant to culture and the human struggle. I don't think any church has ever been relevant to culture, to the human struggle, unless it believed in Jesus and the power of His gospel. If the supposed new church believes in trendy music and cool Web pages, then it is not relevant to culture either. It is just another tool of Satan to get people to be passionate about nothing.
Personally, I want to take his statements a little further. The Christian church that proclaims the gospel of Christ is not only relevant as Paul the apostle tried to be, but it also subverts and interrupts culture by proclaiming the Word of truth. The gospel of justification through the work of Christ is one that is both winsome in its form and interruptively critical in its content. Such is the nature of Jesus himself, who came in the form of a man, but overturned tables and proclaimed himself to be the way, the truth, and the life.



Very nice post. Two things:

(1) Talk to Shane to find out how he got that anti-spam verification thingy to prevent posts like the one above.

(2) You wrote: "He wants to draw from all these modern/contemporary theologians (and he rattled off a bunch of names right at the start, though Barth, Jungel, Webster, and Gunton were conspicuously missing)." I thought it important to modify this in two places. First, he did not explicitly use the delimiters "modern / contemporary" and thus (second) there are certain other glaring omissions. The Christian traditin prior to the 20th century was completely ignored. No Calvin / Luther / Thomas / Augustine / or any other theological giants of the tradition were mentioned.
Shane said…
I'm going to add my comment to Travis's. Nice summary/critical evaluation David. I agree that emergent is an important thing happening, but i'm very wary of it. I also would like to put my two bits in for an important name excluded from the list of authorities. I'm going to make up little bracelets to wear whenever i meet evangelical theologians: What About Saint Thomas?

Note well Shane, that I mentioned Thomas in my list of names excluded. ;-)
Shane said…

you are right. apologies all around.

So since I am of the opinion that McLaren does a decent job of pointing out the problems with American Christianity but is incapable of providing a solution, my question is this: What really could be done to address the crisis facing the church? How can one work within the existing traditions in a way that is both innovative and responsible? I would like to hear what people have to say regarding this question.
My gut reflex would be to say that one has to be very deep in the tradition in order to be innovative in a truely helpful way. We don't want innovation for the sake of innovation, and we don't want innovation "ex nihilo" either. Therefore, I remain an ardent fan of classical theological education and would only suggest that we add a required course in innovative practical ecclesiologies, or some such drivel. ;-)
Shane said…
i'm not sure i like the word innovative . . . so, clearly there is the pejorative sense of doing something new for newnesses sake, which is not what you guys are advocating, i realize. but i still have my misgivings about it because it seems to imply breaks, gaps, discontinuities between past and present. 'Innovation' is a perfect word of emergent churches with their (often) unprincipled eclecticism of traditions. Having said that, i don't know that i have a better word at my fingertips to suggest in its place.

I think what we want is a term that means the critical appraisal of a tradition and the attempt to present that tradition in such a way that it becomes persuasive to others. Often critical appraisal will mean a return to the original source from which the tradition stems. Luther was right to read the Bible, but wrong if he thought he was refounding the church (maybe he didn't--i'll let the lutherans argue about that).

I think travis is right that you have been really deep--up to your eyebrows deep--in the tradition to really be able to do this. you have to know what has been done and whether or not it worked and why it worked or didn't work. The only thing is that once you get in that deep its hard to really see your way forwards. you are up over your eyebrows and can't see anything else anymore.

We need the ability to 'step back' from the detail and to see the overarching whole. there's a circle here, you see the parts, you step back and then find the whole, and then you realize that seeing the whole helps you understand the parts and so forth . . . interpreting the tradition well has to be caught up in that hermenteutical circle but to have something like a critical, but creative interpretation of the tradition we need the ability to sense when the hermeneutical circle has missed the point, or is circling the wrong direction. the right thing to do then, I suppose, is to figure out where the circle went wrong and why and try to do go a different way. If Augustine's zigging on the problem of predestination led the church down an unhelpful path, go to Augustine and try zagging and then note how zagging leads to other conclusions and compare that with the received tradition. Maybe zagging will, in fact, lead to greater understanding and will resolve the problems which you discovered. (probably it won't augustine was a smart guy, but you have to try).

but of course, there is no method for this. what i've outlined is just a sensible thing to do, it has no special methodological status and it is far too vague to be anything like a guide to good interpretation. The truth about Method is that there is no True Method (apologies to H. G. Gadamer).

Douglas said…
Regarding your agreements
1) While Christianity cannot be reduced to politics, social justice is an important part of faith. There is an important political aspect of living out one's faith in a democratic republic such as the US. While the politicization of our churches may be a problem, it is not the root of the problem in my estimation. It strikes me as much overblown in some circles. Perhaps, that is because I don't come from a church tradition where I see that as being a problem at all.
2) I agree with the preface, but not necessarily with the conclusion that the "Religious Right" will succeed in establishing a new civil religion. I actually think it is more likely that America will slowly become more secular and intolerant of Christianity (and any other religion with truth claims). I base this idea on the left controlling the educational establishment. Short of a renewal in Christian education that is solid academically and fully orthodox, I see no way to fully reverse the progress made by secularists in converting the culture. The evangelical churches in America have developed a pop-culture of sorts that has been fairly effective in passing on the faith to the next generation. However, I don't see deep theology being a part of this culture, and that is needed to regain the ground lost at the university level.
3) No comment.
4) The church does need to reach out to all people groups as stated. However, I think it should be made clear that the Church does not need to reach out in acceptance of immoral behavior. The church should extend an invitation to those whose behavior is inconsistent with the faith to change. Homosexuality is the most glaring example of how some have either not reached out or abandoned Christian principles to attempt to reach out.
5) I don't see how the "emergent church" can exist in a unity if it does not take a denominational form.

Regarding your disagreements:
1-3) I agree that there needs to be some binding force and some way of regulating how these creeds/liturgies are implemented. As I see it, without an ecclesial unity and heirarchy, such decisions will be left up to individual pastors. This is an inherrantly unstable situation, with much riding on the charisma of the individual church leadership. That is not the way the early church from which these creeds, liturgies and traditions come from operated.
Travis, I question your almost flippant response about adding a course in practical ecclesiology. That just doesn't get at the heart of the problem. The issue with churches today, as I see it, is that there has yet to be a concerted effort to turn contemporary theological discoveries into ecclesial reforms. The so-called "emergent" church is attempting to do this, but without the foundations I already criticized them for not having.

There is also a serious leadership problem in churches today, which can probably only be remedied by later generations actually seeking out these positions and doing something about it.

I think there must be an international effort to bring the different branches of the Christian church family into -- if not unity -- at least summit meetings among the various leaders. I can envision a meeting where Catholic archbishops, Orthodox patriarchs, and Protestant denominational heads meet to discuss how the church should address certain issues facing Christianity today. That's a rather implausible vision for the present, but something that I believe every Christian should be working towards if they truly call themselves Christian. Our current society is more divided and divisive than ever before, and the church is acting no differently. A Christian church that can act is relative unity would be drastically more effective in proclaiming the gospel message.

Doug, I think the "victory" of American fundamentalists will be a Pyrrhic one. After a couple decades, their efforts at establishing a true civil religion will be revealed as a sham, and the house of cards will come tumbling down.

Also, Doug, I am curious about your comment that "I don't come from a church tradition where" the politicization of the church is a problem. Really? And you are a Roman Catholic? And Catholicism is the official state religion of many countries still? And your church tradition does not have a problem with politicization? Would you care to explain how that can possibly be?

My response was meant to be a bit flippant. Here is why. I agree that there are issues in the Church at the moment. I do NOT agree that doing special courses on those problems or as an effort to patch them up is going to help. If I had to choose between having a pastor (or having a colleague in the ministry) who had courses on the interesting problems facing the church today or one who had a solid, thorough liberal (in the sense used when speaking about "liberal arts") theological education with no special courses, I'm going to pick the guy with the theological education every time. And, let's face it, there simply isn't time to do both in a three year degree when you have a majority of people with no theological background (yes, the majority of students hear at PTS have no previous theological education). That's how I slice the pie.

Also, you said:

"I think there must be an international effort to bring the different branches of the Christian church family into -- if not unity -- at least summit meetings among the various leaders. I can envision a meeting where Catholic archbishops, Orthodox patriarchs, and Protestant denominational heads meet to discuss how the church should address certain issues facing Christianity today. That's a rather implausible vision for the present, but something that I believe every Christian should be working towards if they truly call themselves Christian."

This very thing happens multiple times a year. Each mainline denomination and European denominational family has ecumenical talks underway with the Roman, Easter, Coptic, Syrian and any other number of churches, and with each other. The level of dialogue being experience is unprecedented. Evern evangelicals are in the mix and multiple volumes have been published about the evangelical - Roman Catholic conversation.
I am aware of the ecumenical dialogue, and of course want to see this expand and affect churches on a deeper level.

About your original response, I want to make sure you realize that in questioning your flippancy, I am not arguing that practical ecclessiology courses are what I am advocating. Far from it. I, like you and Shane, agree that a deep theological education is what is necessary. (Hence, my own pursuit of a theological education.) But I simply think the problem requires a hell of a lot more attention than you are giving it.

I guess my frustration with Christianity in America stems from my personal frustration with the growing divide between systematic and practical theologies, and the widening chasm between the intellectual elite and the ordinary blue-collar workers who happen to be at their local church on Sundays. The problems are too systemic for me to gain an excellent theological education without translating those radical concepts into a more radical understanding of the church. And I am tired of traditionalists who think the word "radical" only refers to liberation models of church or alt.worship fads from the UK. Isn't a Eucharist-centered, disciple-forming church radical? And is such a vision impossible within the current denominational structures? If so, then I want to change those structures. But if those structures resist these changes, then I might actually support a kind of emerging church -- but only against my will.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the insightful critique. I think McLaren's use of generous and orthdoxy are wily and key. I've been re-reading a required text from my pastoral training about Peter Abelard (the castrated tragic-genius heretic!) and I realize that I am more and more persuaded by the moral theory of the atonement and less and less comfortable with the substitutionary (esp. penal-orthodox?) . Just one example of my 'emerging' theology (at 55!) where I must plead for 'generous' grace and mercy from other more 'orthodox' evangelicals...

As I see your quote from TS Eliot (quoting Julian of Norwich) All will be well and all manner of things shall be must wrestle with some of these heretical views, too? (Hard to believe we shall all be well if we are all living 'in the dock, on the clock...'

I apprecaite your thoughtful posts.
Anonymous said…
Please no kicking or screaming when you come. It's ok to sit on the sidelines and question. I haven't joined in the game, but I'm welcome to...