The term “emerging church” identifies a loose collection of individuals from both Evangelical and Liberal Christians traditions who want to go beyond current ideological divisions between the two groups. They tend to be “postmodern” (or “ultramodern,” as I prefer to say), and are often willing to place all Christian doctrines as contingent and changeable given sufficient dialogue between Christians and between Christians, adherents of other religions, and agnostics/atheists. In a way they are radically individualistic, holding the Kierkegaardian view that people must find their own path to Christian faith. However, many also focus on small groups and house churches in order to build community. They believe that worship styles must adapt to the current chaotic postmodern world. Many also tend toward socialism or social democratic liberalism, which they include under “social justice,” though many emerging church adherents participate in projects to better their communities. They emphasize spirituality and spiritual formation, using an eclectic approach with resources from different Christian (and sometimes non-Christian) traditions.
Although my focus will be on critiquing the movement, I first will focus on positives. A major strength of the emerging church movement is its emphasis on spiritual formation. In the past, churches have de facto ignored spiritual development, and seminary training was intellectualistic with little room for developing spirituality. Although the New Testament, particularly the Pauline letters, emphasize all of a Christian’s life as part of spirituality, surely there is room for prayer, meditation, and other forms that help draw a person closer to God in his whole being, not just in his head. Good spiritual formation should help in moral development, including the habituation in good actions that leads to moral virtue.
Another positive is the works of mercy performed in communities by Christians in the emerging church. They put their labor where their mouth is, and work at homeless shelters, at educational programs for disadvantaged youth, and for programs trying to transform crime-ridden communities into communities of virtue.
There are a number of theological difficulties, however, with the emerging church movement. First, the theology is amorphous, varying widely fro individual to individual. There may be a loose unity of thought, but even then there lacks a commitment to the finality of any dogmas the church has pronounced. Influenced by the epistemological relativism of postmodern thought, these Christians flounder about as they seek their own personal theologies. How far a person drifts from traditional orthodox Christianity is left up to the individual. There is no firm theological ground on which a person can stand. What if someone, in his personal journey, denies the bodily resurrection of Christ or the Virgin Birth? What if someone challenges traditional sexual ethics on marriage, which has already been tried by some emerging church members, including scholars who have influence on young people? If such conclusions are part of one’s “personal jouney,” do they apply to others? If so, this is inconsistent; if a person denies consistency as an epistemological norm, there is no room for further discussion. The Christian who accepts the bodily resurrection of Christ, is on the postmodernist account of knowledge and belief, no better off than the person who denies it. There is no metanarrative, no “Truth” with a capital “T,” The result is theological chaos, and William Butler Yeats cry, “the cenre cannot hold” becomes reality. Even spiritual formation, rather than using approaches in one tradition that can only be adequately understood within that tradition, takes A from the Eastern Orthodox, B from the Roman Catholics, C from the Baptists, and so forth, to some up with suggestions for members to find their individual methods of spiritual formation. The loosening of tradition to the point that it has no meaning can only lead to significant numbers of Christians leaving the faith and turning to Buddhism, Hinduism, or some other non-Christian religion. Others may turn to Humanism. What could be wrong with that on the emerging church’s conception of truth?
Of least importance, but deserving to be mentioned, is the political naivety of the emerging church movement. It assumes that the best way to gain “social justice” is by a socialistic or left-wing social-democratic system of government and economics. “Social justice” is often considered to be synonymous with “socialism.” This view ignores other alternatives to the greedy corporatism dominating America – examples include redistributionism what encourages more local ownership of property or agrarianism. Usually the best efforts to aid communities are small scale, within an individual community, where those who help are the residents or know the residents well. The Roman Catholic principle of subsidiarity surely applies here.
Overall, I believe the emerging church movement is more of a negative rather than a positive for Christianity. A creative recovery of tradition is a better alternative to the individualistic theological chaos of the emerging church movement.