Over the past decade, there has been growing controversy about “a new way of doing church.”
Many of our sons and daughters are forming or joining congregations that don’t look or sound like our kind of church. Yet, they are likely to tell us they are just trying to be authentic followers of Jesus, and that many of us have been unfair in our criticism of them.
The emergent movement, however, has met with conflict. Some members of the traditional evangelical church have characterized these communities as critical, culturally obsessed, biblically illiterate, and more interested in taking the church apart than in building it up. Let’s take a closer look:
Many of these emerging churches affirm:
1. The triunity of God as a basis for valuing community rather than self-centered individualism.
2. Church as a mission, a conversation, and a movement of Jesus’ people rather than just an organization.
3. Spiritual leaders who listen as well as teach, and who influence through example rather than authority and control.
4. A willingness to think through together the stories and mysteries of the Bible rather than just taking for granted inherited doctrinal statements.
5. Living and enjoying the Bible rather than just studying and defending it.
It’s important to understand, however, that these values often are expressed as a reaction to, and disillusionment with, the churches of a parent generation.
Emerging communities often take issue with traditional evangelical churches, which they see as:
1. Regarding ideas that are possible implications of the Bible as if they were necessary implications, absolutes, and tests of orthodoxy.
2. Emphasizing theology, favorite doctrines, and the letters of Paul rather than telling the stories of the Bible and of lives changed by Christ.
3. Giving the church a hypocritical reputation by politicizing homosexuality and abortion while ignoring sins of pride, racial prejudice, greed, and the abuse of women.
4. Interpreting and applying the Bible as if it were written to our generation rather than first trying to understand what it meant to the people living when it was written.
5. Seeing church authority as a matter of hierarchy and control rather than the example and servant attitudes of Jesus.
But the pendulum of change often swings from one extreme to another, and reactions can result in overcorrection.
For that reason, and because we’ve already acknowledged some of the issues that traditional evangelical churches struggle with, there are also problems that can show up in emerging church communities.
In reacting to the oversights or excesses of a parent church, emerging congregations can fall into opposite extremes:
1. In an effort to honor the mystery of God and not go beyond what has been revealed, they may say less than the Bible makes clear.
2. In an attempt to live out Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan, some emphasize social action at the expense of eternal considerations.
3. While talking about a lifelong journey of faith, some are neglecting the decision that begins the journey.
4. In an effort to experience personally the way God can speak to us, some may forget that all of the New and Old Testament teaching is inspired by God for our spiritual growth.
5. While trying to avoid judgmental and condemning attitudes, some neglect what Jesus said about a coming judgment.
On the basis of such overreactions, some of us have been inclined to write off emerging churches just as we feel they have dismissed us. In the process, we have sometimes acted like enemies rather than as family with honest concerns for one another.
All of this reminds me of another group of “emerging churches.” Just before the end of the first century, the apostle John described the resurrected Christ returning with personal words of encouragement and warning.
In Revelation 2–3, Christ indicated that the seven churches had serious issues.
Ephesus had sound teaching and a lot of activity, but they had lost their “first love” (probably their first love for Jesus) and were in danger of being shut down. Smyrna was enduring persecution and needed courage in the face of real fear and loss. Pergamos was infected by sexual behavior that was as dangerous to the church as it was common to the culture. Thyatira seems to have had false teaching combined with the sexual scandal of a teacher. Sardis was a traditional church with a good reputation that was now just going through the motions. The church in Philadelphia was a weak church in a difficult environment. And the church in Laodicea apparently was as spiritually poor as it was materially rich.
In each case, the Lord encouraged them to look at Him, as a way of seeing themselves, and then work to come to terms with the problems that were threatening their ability to represent Him.
But what if the seven churches had been doing the equivalent of writing books, posting Internet articles, and adding to the rumor mill about the problems of the other “six.” What if they had been calling attention to the failures of one another as if there were not serious issues with themselves?
So it is today. Whether in emerging or traditional evangelical churches, all of us have our blind spots. Only when we are willing to listen to one another, and to come to terms with the downside of our own way of “doing church,” will we have the humility and spiritual sobriety we need to work for, rather than against, the body of Christ we share.
Father in heaven, once again we need Your help to treat one another the way we’d want to be treated. Please give us the grace to relate to others with the realization that You deserve far more, and far better, than any of us have given You. —Mart De Haan