This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2011 vol. 168 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
Evangelicals Engaging Emergent: A Discussion of the Emergent Church MovementB&H Academic, Nashville May 1, 2009
This book contains essays on issues related to the emergence and growth of what has come to be called the emergent or emerging church. The editors explain that “this book purposes to be a provocative look at the Emergent Church”; yet it “is not intended to be an attack” (p. 2). They acknowledge that “the movement (or conversation) asks good questions, ones that the bridger generation is presently asking” (pp. 2–3). The editors also acknowledge that problems “do exist among those who serve as Emergent proponents” (p. 3), and they hope readers inside and outside the movement will benefit from the book.
After a brief introduction by Henard, two overview essays are particularly helpful for understanding the emerging church. Mark Devine, “The Emerging Church: One Movement—Two Streams,” gives an overview of the movement by identifying two major streams, one of which is “doctrine wary to doctrine averse” and the other of which is “doctrine friendly” (p. 8). Thus for Devine, attitudes toward theology and the Christian tradition become the basis of classification. He concludes with a call for a blending of the two streams, “an unashamed confession of core doctrines combined with evident zeal for church-planting and conversion-seeking evangelism” (p. 46).
In “The Emergent/Emerging Church: A Missiological Perspective” Ed Stetzer sketches the history of the emerging conversation to “provide a framework to suggest bridges and boundaries for an Evangelical engagement with the E/EC movement” (p. 48). Stetzer also discusses a variety of other attempts to categorize and classify participants in the movement across a spectrum of beliefs and practices. This is an excellent overview of the issues and persons involved. Stetzer’s conclusion is carefully articulated. He notes that much “good has come out of the E/EC and its call to view the Church as something other than a purveyer of religious goods and service. The call to ‘be’ the Church, to live an embodied ethic, and to engage the world by pointing to the King and the kingdom is always needed in any age and any day” (p. 90). At the same time he identifies the potential danger for any reform movement “of pressing too far. We cannot give up nor give away the gospel under the rubric or ruse of contextualization. We must contend for the faith once delivered to the saints. We must stand for biblical truth—truth that can be known, known through language, and believed. We cannot afford to waffle on doctrine, and we cannot refrain from the call to holiness” (ibid.).
After these introductory chapters the book is divided into three major parts. In the first section, several essays critique the emerging church leaders’ view of Scripture, with particular emphasis on Brian McLaren. Though McLaren is a major voice in the movement, he is not the only one. These essays take a strongly critical tone toward McLaren and the entire emerging church movement, as represented by the conclusion of Norman L. Geisler and Thomas Howe in “A Postmodern View of Scripture”: “The so-called emerging church is not emerging: it has already emerged. And what it has emerged into is not Christian in any traditional, historical, or orthodox sense of the words. Indeed, it has emerged from orthodoxy to unorthodox, from infallibilism to fallibilism, from objectivism to subjectivism, from absolutism to realism, and from realism to agnosticism” (p. 108).
The second part, “Theological Section,” includes essays on Christology, soteriology, and ecclesiology. In contrast to the tone in the previous section, these authors see a great deal of diversity within the emerging church, and they recognize both positives as well as negatives in these Christian leaders. John Hammett (“The Church according to Emergent/Emerging Church”) represents this tone in his conclusion: “Much that has been written has been critical of the emerging church, especially in conservative evangelical circles, and there are certainly causes for concern over the ideas and directions being taken by some (not all) in this movement. But the passion among many in the emerging church to develop churches that are both biblically faithful and culturally relevant is something to applaud, learn from, and join” (p. 260).
The third major part of the book, “Practical Section,” includes essays on ethics, preaching, and evangelism. Daniel L. Akin (“The Emerging Church and Ethical Choices: The Corinthian Matrix”) develops ten ethical principles from 1 Corinthians 6:12—13:13. He then uses these principles to criticize the lack of emphasis on abstinence from alcohol within the emergent church. In “To Preach or Not to Preach: An Evangelical Response to the Emergent Homiletic,” Jim Shaddix is harshly critical of emergent preaching. He claims that “the emergent church and its homiletic will be short-lived, and its constituents will move on to something else in hopes that it will satisfy the longing in their souls. . . . It will run its course and fizzle out” (p. 306). In “The Emerging Church and Evangelism,” Chuck Lawless is much more positive, although still critical. He observes that “the emerging church rightly recognizes serious issues with the established church’s approach to evangelism, particularly in attempting to reach a postmodern culture” (p. 333). Yet he concludes that the movement’s response is “too weakly tied to the proclamation of propositional truth” and has an inadequate view of the “lostness of human beings and the reality of hell” (ibid.).
This book is particularly helpful for those who want to understand the diversity of the movement that has been called the emergent (or emerging) church. The essays need to be read carefully, as several authors overgeneralize from one or two representative voices and sometimes overstate their criticisms. On the other hand most of these essays are fair and evenhanded in their evaluation. As editor Adam Greenway concludes, “Readers seeking either hagiography or hatchet-job will likely have emerged from these pages disappointed; those desiring honesty and helpfulness will hopefully have found both within” (p. 336).
—Glenn R. Kreider