Does the emerging church offer a legitimate and helpful critique of Western evangelical Christianity in the 21st century? Or is it merely a movement comprised of disgruntled cranks intent on deconstructing Christianity to the point where there is nothing meaningful left?
I was reminded of these diametrically opposed interpretations of the emerging church today when giving a seminar titled ‘Is Religion Doomed?’ at the New Horizon conference at the University of Ulster in Coleraine.
New Horizon is a must-attend event for many evangelicals in Northern Ireland, with between 2,000 and 3,000 people turning up every year. It includes worship times, sermons, prayer meetings, and seminars for people of all ages.
Because I’m trained as a social scientist, I took a social scientific approach to my seminar topic, first providing some data on the decline of religion in the West. I then examined the ‘emerging church’ movement, presenting it as one response to the decline of traditional religious institutions.
I said that people involved with the emerging church saw the decline of religion in the West as in part a by-product of the failings of the institutional churches.
As Cary Gibson reminded us in a recent guest post on this blog, when we are discussing the relationship between the emerging and the institutional churches, we must be careful that we are clear about what we mean by the ‘institutional’ churches.
So, since the emerging church is driven primarily by former evangelicals in the UK, Ireland and North America, I suggested that its critique is concentrated on what they see as shortcomings in the evangelical churches.
There is of course a great deal of diversity within evangelicalism, so even reducing the ‘institutional’ debate to evangelical institutions doesn’t fully satisfy Gibson’s call for clearer definitions. Even so, I argued that the emerging churches’ major critiques are:
- Evangelical churches have been interested in the wrong issues: personal morality and sexual matters (sex before marriage, restricting gay rights, abortion) at the expense of more important social justice issues
- Evangelical churches have sold their souls politically. In Northern Ireland this has meant aligning themselves with unionism; in the US this has meant aligning themselves with the Republican Party
- Evangelical churches have been wrong to insist on literalist readings of the bible; people in the emerging church would say the bible should be read as a dynamic document that is up for debate
- Evangelical churches have created unrealistic expectations, such as Christianity is about being happy and fulfilled all of the time, Christians should never have any doubts about their faith, and God will always answer your prayers the way you want as long as you have enough faith
- Evangelical churches have created unrealistic and damaging images of Christ, whether that is a ‘buddy Jesus’ or a vicious, all-conquering king who will vanquish his enemies in a bloody battle at the end of time
- Evangelical churches have told people they should not have doubts about their faith; people in the emerging church would say that doubt should be embraced, not resisted
A member of the audience pointed out that these critiques caricatured evangelical Christianity. I understand why he would say this.
To the extent that the emerging church has developed primarily out of evangelicalism, it unavoidably defines itself against it. Because emergent Christians are offering a critique, they pick out all evangelicalism’s shortcomings, making it seem like they are pounding away at a ‘straw man’ or a stereotype.
Indeed, that was Christianity Today writer Scot McKnight’s main complaint about emerging Christian Brian McLaren’s new book, A New Kind of Christianity – that McLaren had painted an ugly picture of evangelicalism that he did not recognise.
Prior to the seminar, I had listed two books as prepatory reading: Peter Rollins’ The Fidelity of Betrayal and John Carroll’s The Existential Jesus. An audience member said that he was familiar with Rollins’ work, and that he saw it as a harmful betrayal of Christianity.
He added that he surprised to see that a New Horizon seminar had recommended a Rollins book, wondered why I had included it, and asked if it should have some sort of health warning.
My response was that if emerging and evangelical Christians are to understand each other, it is necessary to read or hear what the others are saying straight from the horses’ mouths, so to speak.
I think that’s a better alternative than, for example, an evangelical simply reading a Don Carson critique of the emerging church. And that’s better than an emerging Christian simply reading a Brian McLaren critique of evangelicalism.
Another member of the New Horizon audience observed that there was very little positive in my presentation. She asked if there was anything hopeful she could take away from it.
I could understand why the audience member thought my presentation was negative – I did, after all, spell out the emerging churches’ pretty hard-hitting critique of evangelicalism.
Her reaction reminded me that when emerging and evangelical churches interact, there’s a strong possibility that people are going to get hurt, to misunderstand each other, to find it hard to see the good in each other.
When that happens, it is difficult to hear if your conversation partner has anything constructive to say.
But I think it’s a hopeful sign that evangelical cultures throughout the West are dynamic enough to have produced, to a large extent, the emerging church: a reform movement that is interested in critique and debate and living authentic Christian lives.
Evangelicals also are interested in living authentic Christian lives. They also want to make the world a better place. It would be a pity if evangelicals and emerging Christians can’t find ways to talk with each other constructively about all of this.
You will be able to access a recording of this seminar, and other New Horizon seminars, by registering on their website. There is a nominal cost for downloading seminars.
On Thursday, I presented another seminar based on my forthcoming book with Claire Mitchell. This seminar was based on research among evangelicals in Northern Ireland and titled, ‘Life in a Northern Irish Religious Subculture.’