Sunday, November 13, 2005

Understanding Before Critique: Let's Really Become Conversant with the Emerging Church

I recently became aware of a post in an Internet group of the countercult community. A post had been made sharing links with resources critical of the evangelical emerging church movement, and it stated that if one wants to see the effects of the emerging church on someone from the countercult to see my Blog. I contacted the person making this post through personal email to respond to problems with the post, and to share concerns about countercult (and some apologetic) critiques of the emerging church. A few of these thoughts are included here.

First, I am no longer a part of the evangelical countercult community. While I have worked within this community in years past, I no longer utilize the paradigm and methodologies of this community, neither do I identify with them as a member of their community. Instead, I utilize an interdisciplinary, cross-cultural missions approach in the area of new religions and alternative spiritualities, and I consider myself a missionary and missiologist.

Second, it is inaccurate to say that I have been influenced (positively or negatively) by the emerging church movement. Over the last several years, I have been influenced by fresh reflection biblical studies, the history of Christian missions, anthropology, religious studies, the sociology of religion, intercultural studies, and most notably, missiology. This interdisciplinary perspective, with a primary influence coming from missions, has been the driving force behind my move from an apologetic to a missional paradigm (that also incorporates a culturally-relevant and intellectually rigorous apologetic element when appropriate) in the area of new religions. My study and work with the emerging church has likewise been influenced by these studies, but the emerging church has not colored my other areas of ministry.

Third, discerning and missional Christians should be very concerned by some of the criticism of the emerging church in the evangelical world. One aspect of it has been simplistic in its analysis, resulting in condemnation of the movement to the point of labeling it "a threat to the gospel," as seen in denunciations by Albert Mohler, and the Southern Baptists. The assessment and indictment by some in the countercult community is even more disturbing, including the simplistic and critical aspects of the previously mentioned critiques, as well as an unfortunate anti-Catholic element.

Perhaps more disconcerting, given his status as a scholar and the quality of his previous work, is the problematic critique of the movement of D. A. Carson. While I have the utmost respect for his scholarship in the area of his expertise, I fear that his latest work is a reminder of the dangers of straying from one's specialty. His book, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church Movement, is frequently cited by critics of the emerging church as if it were the definitive summary and critique. Carson's book does provide some criticisms worthy of consideration, but overall the book is flawed, both in its understanding of the emerging church, and in many of the concerns it raises. I refer the interested reader to a few sources that confirm my concerns. Eddie Gibbs recently wrote a brief review for Christianity Today that provides reflections from a church growth and missions perspective. Dr. David Mills wrote a good critique of the ideas presented in book from Carson's lectures at Cedarville. And Fuller missiologist Ryan Bolger has some good critical thoughts on the book found at his Blog. The point of reading these articles critical of Carson is to recognize that Carson's book is flawed and that it does not live up to it's title: its content was written by someone who was not truly conversant with the emerging church.

Fourth, the uncritical acceptance of Carson's critique by the countercult and some evangelical apologists demonstrates both the unfortunate willingness to accept that which confirms our immediate suspicions without careful analysis, and the all too common leveling of criticism before genuine understanding. I don't believe the emerging church represents "the answer" for the church in the Western world, but at least they are asking some of the right questions, and experimenting in response to cultural change. A successful church in the West will be found in a redisovery of and new commitment to the missio Dei, and I hope the emerging church places greater emphasis here in the near future. But regardless of one's view of the emering church, these movements deserve to be understood, appreciated, and critiqued fairly.

All of this causes me to wonder that if the "discernment community" has such serious problems in fairly assessing a movement within its own fold, how far can we trust their analysis and prescription for the challenge of new religions in the West?

For those interested in a new book that is now available via, I recommend a book co-authored by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger titled Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Baker Academic, 2005). The book draws upon research in the U.S. and U.K., as well as the expertise and experience of the co-authors in the areas of missiology and church growth.

And check back with this Blog in December. Ryan has agreed to an electronic interview on the subject of emerging cultures, emerging church, and emerging spiritualities that will be published in installments here in the near future.

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