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Emerging or Diverging: In what Direction is the Emergent Church Movement Heading?

Worldview Forum Presentation March, 2009 ―The Dogma is the Drama‖
Bryan C. Hollon

Good evening. I’d like to first thank the Worldview Forum Committee for inviting me to participate in tonight’s debate. I’d also like to thank Brian McLaren for joining us today. The size of the crowd assembled here tonight is an indicator that, whatever it is that he has been saying in recent years, many people are paying attention. And having a conversation like the one we’ll be having tonight is always a good thing. I’d also like to say, up front, that although I am here to enter into a debate, I find myself in considerable agreement with McLaren on many issues. Certainly, I appreciate McLaren’s political observations. When I read his most recent book, Everything Must Change, I found myself saying Amen quite frequently. But most importantly, McLaren quotes one of my dearest mentors, the late Jim McClendon, with some frequency, so I am forced to like him at least a little simply for Jim’s sake. But that is enough of the sentimental stuff – we’ve come here to debate. When this particular forum was still in the planning stages, there was some confusion as to what exactly the theme should be. At some point, it was decided that the debate should focus on this question: ―Emerging or Diverging" In What Direction is the Emerging Church Movement Headed?‖ In other words, would the title ―divergent‖ be a more fitting descriptor than the word, ―emergent?‖ Is the emerging church movement or conversation or whatever we want to call it, leading people off the rails, so-to-speak? Or is it on track? Would we all be wise to jump on board?

he tells us can be used in reference to (and now I am quoting) ―Small saplings that grow up in the shadow of the mature forest canopy. specifically. I will not attempt to discuss all of these types. to state it clearly. Also. as many of us obviously are. to McLaren and his writings. though I know others make distinctions. but in truth they . I’ll very likely use the words Emergent and Emerging synonymously. is no – I do not believe we should jump on board. Brian McLaren has been identified as one of the chief spokespersons for the most progressive branch of the Emerging movement. So let me return to the question. In a recent article. some of which I’d like to point out tonight. However. then we should listen. let me first offer a few qualifications. McLaren borrows an idea from his friend Stephen Free to describe his vision of the Emergent Church. When I use these words. restrained by the shade of the mature trees. It seems to me that the emerging movement does indeed show signs of going off the rails in a number of ways. emergents. Mark Driscoll (probably the author of the limp-wristed Jesus comment) mentions at least three distinct kinds of Emerging Churches and church leaders. Many of you may know that the Emergent Church is quite diverse. so when a movement like the Emergent Church comes along and attempts to offer a vision of a renewed and more authentic way to do Church. stunted. In his most popular and controversial book to date. The word.‖ In a sense. There are ominous signs on the horizon for Evangelical Christianity in America. but we should get involved in the conversation. they may seem dwarfed.2 Before I go any further in answering this question. Generous Orthodoxy. so all of my comments tonight will refer. We don’t have to buy it all. Is the Emerging Church movement on track? Should we jump on board with McLaren and work towards a new kind of Christianity? My answer to this question. they’ll always refer to McLaren. I also believe that we should all be paying attention to the conversation.

David T. One of the most recent statistics I’ve read is that. then the mature trees have already begun to show signs of severe strain and even decay. Even the Southern Baptist Convention. seems to be following Europe by just a few generations. Evangelicals may very well be next.. Olson of the American Church Research Project predicts that by 2050 only 10% of Americans will be in a Christian Church on any given Sunday. So…. evidence is mounting to suggest that Evangelical Christianity is entering into a period that will very likely entail steep numerical decline. the emergents are there. Indeed.3 are waiting. and one of the reasons I do is because I tend to be somewhat pessimistic about the future of Protestant Christianity in America. I’m going to list them . mainline Protestants – not just evangelicals. acknowledges the problem. Now I’d like to turn my attention to three characteristics of McLaren’s thought that I find especially problematic. in other words. along with Brian McLaren. and If it turns out that my pessimism is warranted. and truly evangelical form of Christianity will indeed be waiting in the shadows. Orthodox. that a new. that the Emergent Church movement can or should fill that role unless it changes directions in several fundamental ways. up to 88 % of all the youth growing up in Evangelical churches today will cease going to church at all when they become adults. authentic. however. And Olson is talking about all Christians (Catholics. America. faithful.If the naysayers turn out to be correct. I doubt. then I pray. for a long time the strongest of all the Protestant denominations. if current trends continue. Its already happened to the liberal mainlines. ready to soar up and fill the gap and thrive in the light now available to them. If the Evangelical landscape can be described as a forest. Whenever one of the mature trees dies. Southern Baptist officials are predicting that as many as half of all Southern Baptist Churches will have closed their doors by 2030. ready to shoot up towards the light when the forest starts to thin out.‖ I like this quotation.

Third. ―rises to a higher level. McLaren insists on too radical a break between modern and postmodern Christianity. enfolds. McLaren is suggesting that . embraces. what I consider. integrates. ancient. and modern church thinking what homo sapiens is to homo erectus. and his approach to the salvation of non-Christians. For example. more foundational issues. and. I’ve received several emails from readers of McLaren’s works alerting me to particular doctrinal issues like his rejection of the idea of hell. Once again. so I am going to focus on. Emergent thinking has been an unspoken assumption behind all my previous books. each epoch embraces. So let me begin with my contention that McLaren misunderstands the nature of the Christian message as it relates to history. Emergent Church thinking is to early. modern. like a ring on a tree….‖ In other words. and postmodern…In my understanding. but McLaren is suggesting a progression in Christian history. He writes: Some thought seeks to embrace what has come before – like a new ring on a tree – in something bigger. 316-317) I don’t know if you caught that. in A New Kind of Christian I presented an admittedly simplified schema for talking about human history in five epochs or stages: prehistoric. First. and I quote. Second. I believe McLaren misunderstands the nature of the Christian message (the Kerygma if you will) as it relates to history. This is emergent…thinking. his views on the end times. medieval. (Generous Orthodoxy.Each stage enfolds. McLaren misunderstands the nature of Christian Truth (or Dogma if you will) and therefore fails to appreciate the importance of Christian confession. rises to a higher level. in so doing. integrates. medieval. and revalues the gains of previous stages. I assume that some of these very important issues will be brought up in the question and answer session. McLaren uses a tree to explain what it means to be emergent. I’ll quote him at length here. I’ll direct your attention to the same chapter in Generous Orthodoxy that contains the metaphor of the emergent saplings in the forest. Each new stage of development builds on its predecessors and each new stage.4 first together and then discuss them one at a time. and consolidates the gains of the previous ones and then extends those gains into new territories.

In apostolic traditions such as Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. and I would like to suggest a different and more traditional way of understanding the relationship of the Christian message to history. will our current emergence yield a superior and ultimate form of Christianity? Will this emerging form finally get it right? Of course not. one of the expressed roles of bishops is to guard this good treasure and ensure that it is handed on to the next generation of Christians . To be fair. This is why towards the end of the Nicene Creed. I believe McLaren is missing the point. has evolved. and resurrection. Christians throughout history have affirmed their belief in the ―One. (GO. there is a clear message that needs to be preserved and passed along. culminating in his . Our articulation and understanding of the Christian message. but the message itself does not change. 323) While I genuinely appreciate the humility in this passage. where Paul implores his young apprentice to ―guard the good treasure‖ that had been entrusted to him. Thus a generous orthodoxy is an emerging orthodoxy. That message is the great Drama of salvation that begins with God’s promises in the OT and then moves through all the stages of Jesus’ life.‖ And then he asks.‖ No more than a teenager is superior to a child or than a senior citizen finally gets it right in comparison to a middle-aged mother.5 our understanding of the Christian message. death. our thinking. In other words. Each generation must translate the content of the Christian faith into their own time and cultural context. No more than a dying person is the ultimate and final form of a human being.intact.‖ To say that the church is apostolic is to say something about its proclamation. and Apostolic Church. necessarily changes over time. Consider the famous passage from Jude 1:3 where we are urged to ―contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. Catholic.‖ Or how about 2nd Timothy 1:13. It’s to say that the message can be known and indeed remains the same – there is one message because there is one Lord and savior Jesus Christ. Holy. McLaren adds that ―no emergence is perfect. in other words. never complete until we arrive at our final home in God.

We. Modern apologetics. of course. as members of the one. the depth of our understanding of this message might ebb and flow. McLaren insists on too radical a break between modern and postmodern Christianity. and there is always a faithful remnant to preserve it and pass it along. During such times we have previous generations to consult. for instance. to repeat the criticism. are charged to protect it and pass it along. Augustine and Aquinas and Catherine of Sienna and Calvin and Dorothy Day and a multitude of others are elders in the faith who will gladly guide us as we wallow around in our own shallow understanding of the one great faith once and for all given to the saints. and articulated in the creeds of our faith. It is preserved in the great Dogmas. McLaren suggests that the message itself changes and that no generation gets it just right. Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum. Often. and therefore modern theology. we will find that we’ve not moved beyond them at all.a situation where the faithful remnant seems to be too few in number. There is no evolution of this Kerygma. By modern.6 ultimate judgment and the restoration of all things. offered . Quite the opposite. he means Christianity as it was practiced from the 17th through the end of the 20th century. There may be periods in history when the number of the faithful are few. but the message itself remains the same. focuses on the thinking individual. Modern epistemology. holy. Now I’d like to move on to my second criticism. In the modern era. I disagree. far too much emphasis was placed on the thinking individual and her ability to know things for certain. Granted. He means theology wedded to European enlightenment philosophy and particularly dependent upon foundationalist epistemology like that of René Descartes. and apostolic church. catholic. So. I believe the basic message is clear and unchanging. But when we find ourselves in a situation such as this . which means ―I think therefore I am‖ is the most famous articulation of this.

For example McLaren suggests that a ―generously orthodox‖ Christian ―does not ―claim to have the truth captured. When McLaren makes statements like this. In a recent book co-authored with Tony Campolo. By post-modern. and pontificating be if we stopped missing the point about reality – if we moved beyond objectivity instead of stopping there – if we . At the end of a chapter on the nature of truth. and his favorite of all Cockburn lines comes from a song titled. other than as objective facts. I’m certain that Christians cannot claim to understand nothing. metaphor. static. McLaren means abstract.‖ (GO. debating. stuffed. objective knowledge. poetry. 293).7 thinking individuals ―evidence‖ that demands a verdict. Postmodern Christianity is more comfortable with story. dividing. polemicizing. McLaren asks. rigid.‖ of systematic theologians. McLaren means Christianity that does not rely so heavily upon indubitable foundations. and mounted on the wall. empirically verifiable certainty. Moreover. Postmodern Christianity does not want to focus on the ―timeless truths. Modern theology tended to work with the assumption that.‖ The line goes. by Modern. and scientific precision. McLaren asks. and perhaps dualistic. ―understanding nothing. neighboring. as abstract absolutes. etc. 262). studying. that it has the truth fully in its grasp. worshipping. without objective. understanding nothing.‖ (GO. ―How were the truthclaims of Christianity presented in the modern era. as a kind of impersonal third party intruding upon our subjective experience with objective information? (Missing point. ―All these years of thinking ended up like this – in front of all this beauty. historically or scientifically verifiable (we hoped). How different would our preaching. evangelizing. Postmodern Christianity does not want to claim that it ―knows‖ things. theologizing. people begin to think that he is a pluralist and a relativist – someone who doesn’t think Christianity is distinctively and exclusively truthful. So. Christian faith would collapse. he tells us that his favorite musician is Bruce Cockburn. 291) While I understand the appeal of this line.

did in fact move through objectivity toward a very rich participation in God’s redemptive story. I agree especially with the idea that we need to focus upon our ―situation as participants in God’s amazing story. and reconciled? (Missing the Point. 269) This is the kind of quotation that sounds good at first. one of his chapters is subtitled. broken. In modern Christianity we have all our doctrinal ducks in a row and what matters is that we can believe all these doctrines and defend them all through rigorous argumentation. is that modern Christianity. the founders of Malone College offer a wonderful example of evangelical Christians who devoted themselves to ministering among the poor during the modern era. McLaren tends to write off modern Christianity almost completely. however. But is it really fair or even helpful to generalize and then tar and feather modern Christianity in this way? Didn’t evangelical Christians in Great Britain and America lead the abolitionist movements? Weren’t evangelical Christians such as the early Pietists and the Methodists and a multitude of others famous for their devotion to the poor and oppressed and for their organized charity work? Indeed. participatory form of Christianity. Walter and Emma Malone and their peers certainly move beyond objectivity into a . In his book. Church on the Other Side. with its emphasis on Doctrine and absolute truth. McLaren never explains why.‖ What he fails to consider. How we live is an unrelated matter. In modern Christianity truth becomes static and stale.8 became more mindful of our intersubjective situation as participants in God’s amazing story of relationships made. Although he acknowledges that ―objective truth-claims still must have great value‖ for postmodern Christians.‖ He portrays Modern Christianity as dualistic and perhaps even Gnostic.‖ Let me give you an example. So I am left thinking that he really doesn’t understand how objective truth claims might be profoundly important for an ―intersubjective. ―prepare to de-bug your faith from the viruses of modernity.

If there was a tendency in modern Christianity to be too cerebral and rationalistic (and I would certainly concede that there was). And wonders of His love. One of my professors in graduate school used to say that in the Protestant tradition. and as we sing it. their hymns were both doctrinally rich and focused on God’s redemptive story. Watt’s has covered the whole history of redemption here. from the 17th through the 20th centuries.‖ as an example. When we sing the hymns of these great Christian thinkers. hills and plains Repeat the sounding joy. This hymn. of Isaac Watts. And makes the nations prove The glories of His righteousness. He comes to make His blessings flow Far as the curse is found. Take one of Isaac Watt’s most famous hymns. Nor thorns infest the ground. we are called out to enter into the story of God’s redemption. No more let sins and sorrows grow. He rules the world with truth and grace. we are praising God with our minds fully engaged. were also theologians. While fields and floods. This is a song that focuses on the reign of God coming to earth. And Heaven and nature sing. Joy to the world. is not static nor rationalistic. Its not even other worldly. and it is among the greatest gifts of the modern age to all generations of Christians who come after. as is the case with the vast majority of the great hymns produced during the modern era. Joy to the earth. I would also like to mention Protestant hymnody. Not only did they. Moreover. the great Church hymns provide a seamless transition between doctrine and adoration. the Savior reigns! Let men their songs employ. the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King. ―Joy to the World. Charles Wesley and Fanny Crosby. rocks. for example. but I would suggest that their devotion to sound teaching was a fundamental dimension of their faithful living. We all know how it goes. The best song-writers. . then this tendency was balanced by those who transformed Christian doctrine into song. Think.9 participation in God’s redemptive story. Let every heart prepare Him room.

In McLaren’s emergent movement. There is a wellknown Latin phrase. and I believe this comes from a misunderstanding of the nature of Christian Dogma. there seems to be an insufficient appreciation for Christian Dogma. I think McLaren would agree that it is very easy to get Jesus wrong. Christians after the first century began referring to this kerygma as the ―rule of faith‖ or sometimes as the ―deposit of faith. By Dogma. I’ve already mentioned the core Christian message. the kerygma. The Christianity of the early Creeds strives to understand God by reflecting upon and summarizing his own self-disclosure so that we may do what we were created to do – and that is worship God. I suspect they don’t understand it. Doctrine helps us read scripture rightly so that we can get Jesus right and therefore worship the God whose power and glory are most fully revealed on the cross. or good doctrine is an absolute prerequisite to faithful worship and witness. then you need to understand God so that your prayer won’t be misdirected. Sound belief. Dogmatic Christianity. I mean Christian teachings that are irrefutable for those who claim to be Christian. Emergent leaders treat doctrine as though it were a dirty word. Serious theology and concern for sound doctrine is a given for those who love God with all their mind. At this point. which is translated as ―the rule of belief is the rule of prayer. Confessional Christianity. and handing on to future generations. protecting. And here it is.‖ In other words.10 I would like to suggest that the best of confessional Christianity during the modern era understood something that Emergent leaders seem confused about. that Christians are charged with preserving. if you hope to pray to God or worship God. good doctrine is absolutely necessary for good worship and faithful Christian witness. Lex orandi. Lex credendi.‖ The rule of faith was simply a summary of apostolic . I’ve already begun explaining my third criticism.

like the Old Roman creed. summarized by the Creeds. That God is three and one. in any way. theologians like Augustine believed that they were speaking truly. we affirm as a matter of dogma that Jesus is fully human and fully God. is a great place to go for more on this matter. Indeed. to be True in an absolute sense. Yet. Chesterton’s book. It was literally. they did not think they were somehow exhausting the mystery of God. the rule of faith was further condensed and put in the form of Creeds. from the Nicene Creed. the rule of faith was a criteria used during the process of canonization of the New Testament.K. That the Church is sinful and yet Holy. Indeed. These great Dogmas are like kindling for properly directed creative Christian thinking. We can and we must affirm these core beliefs. For instance. the great Dogmas of the Christian faith enable us to avoid idolatry because they preserve mystery by embracing paradoxes. Soon. for instance. This is among the most foundational of Christian Dogmas. Orthodoxy. G. However. stifle imagination.11 teaching. Most Christians would claim that in the kerygma. we have truth with a capital T. when the Church Fathers were working out these most basic Dogmas of the Christian faith. If a potential NT text conflicted with the rule of faith. For instance. which later became the Apostle’s creed. a concise summary of the great biblical drama. but in doing so we are not claiming to be omniscient. Saying that God is a Trinity does not mean that we’ve got God completely figured out. When they confessed that God is a Trinity. These Christian truth claims do not. we must affirm that God is a Trinity lest we fall into idolatry. that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human is taken. the claim. . both conceptual and lived. it did not make it into the canon. by most Christians. but they did not believe that their theological descriptions of God had the flavor of omniscience.

And we will find it not by emerging but by remembering. do and must know. McLaren recommends pluralistic relativism as the proper road to travel as we search for the new way.‖ (GO. absolutist Christians are right – pluralistic relativism is dangerous? …. covertly. as we emerge so to speak! Let me affirm boldly. it is hard for me to take them seriously when they do. While we certainly do not comprehend God fully. There is something above and beyond fundamentalism and relativism – and that something is called the classical Christian Proclamation. and shrink-wrapped forever. or unconsciously) to have final orthodoxy nailed down. . ―I believe there is something above and beyond the current alternatives of modern fundamentalism/absolutism and pluralistic relativism.‖ And yet. I also believe there is something above and beyond the alternatives that McLaren lays out. in response to the charge of relativism and pluralism McLaren decries anti-emergent thinking ―that claim[s] (overtly. McLaren and other Emergents are often accused of being pluralistic relativists because they don’t like so-called ―timeless truths. orthodox Christian faith. as I’ve already mentioned. exclusivist. We affirm them because they are the Christian message handed down.‖ McLaren. there is much that we. I mentioned at the beginning of this presentation that I don’t recommend jumping on board with McLaren and the Emergent movement.Is it possible that the way ahead is not to stop short of a pluralistic phase. emerging into something beyond and better?‖ And then he continues. 325) He goes on to ask the question.12 We affirm these Dogmas absolutely. as Christians. Though Emergents spend a great deal of time talking about tradition. So. ―is it possible that modern. freeze-dried. My primary concern is that the Emergent movement is too much at odds with classical. protected and preserved. but rather to go through it and pass beyond it. likes the idea that all is mystery and that he understands nothing.

Whatever the church of the future looks like. The fact is the precise opposite. I’d like to share a statement from Dorothy Sayers. I pray that Christians will place much more emphasis on the exclusivity of Christian truth and sound doctrine than they currently do – not less. Let me conclude by saying. friend of C. She says: Official Christianity. We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine—dull dogma as people call it. not since the Middle Ages has the average Christian been more biblically and doctrinally illiterate than they are right now. of late years. British theologian and novelist.13 Grabbing a bit of liturgical worship here and a bit of mysticism there is not the same thing as embracing the main contours of the great tradition and respecting our Christian forebears by taking their faith seriously.R. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. Lewis and J.S. has been having what is known as a bad press. .R. She wrote these words in the middle of the 20th century not long before European Christianity went into a steep decline. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man—and the dogma is the drama. Tolkien.