Emergent, Missional and Traditional Christianity

Richard Sturz


I - Introduction

1. Overview

From time to time movements sweep through the Church. Often they are ephemeral and leave no permanent marks. At other times they change the whole complexion of historical Christianity. Permanent change was brought about by the reformers in the XVI century. In the XX century the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements profoundly affected the form and practice of Protestant Christianity. On the other hand, the "God is Dead" theology of the 60's hardly lasted a decade.

In this beginning of the XXI century a movement is sweeping through American Christianity, a movement whose beginnings go back almost 50 years, but which has reached a peak in the last couple of decades. Whether or not it has reached its peak and is beginning to fade, or is on the verge of changing the churches in America is not known yet. What is known is that in its various forms it is sweeping across America taking both churches, seminaries and publishers (e. g. Zondervan) in its path.

While some of us have only recently heard of the emergent church, most of us don't know a thing about it. The emergent church is a cultural reaction to traditional Christianity which it perceives as having become too political and intellectualized, both in its organization and in its belief system. As a result, traditional churches are accused of having separated "what one is" from "what one is and does". It was a doctrinal and cultural reaction to a faith that had become irrelevant to babyboomer culture. Actually, this reaction is not so much something new as it is the resurrection of elements from XIX century Social Gospel and XX century Liberation Theology, the roots of both going back to Kantian Idealism.


2. Primary characteristics

Two primary elements characterize this movement which were not evident in either the Social Gospel or Liberation Theology. One is its adoption of Postmodern philosophy; the second is its wholehearted acceptance of the cultural context in which the churches are planted. Below we will demonstrate how these two premises destroy biblical Christianity by rejecting essential teachings of the Scriptures.

While there is great diversity between the churches in the emergent movement, there has also appeared a reaction within it, dividing it roughly in two wings". Those who are reacting claim that the others have gone too far in rejecting the Scriptures along with their belief that man can't know real truth. A reaction that would find a closer connection to Jesus and the early church. While this reaction prefers the term "emerging" to "emergent", the literature uses both terms indifferently for all those who in one way or another adopt postmodernism. Carson refers to the two sides as "hard" and "soft" emergents. [D. A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2005, 250 p.)].

The "emerging" or "soft" emergents are also known as "missional". Now "the word missional is simply a noun missionary adapted into an adjective. Just as 'adversary' is your enemy, so 'adversarial' is one who acts as your enemy...A missional church is a church that acts like a missionary in its community." (Ed Stetzerin the Christian Index, 10/13/05). Thus the name "missional" doesn't imply "foreign missions", but missionary outreach to its own community.

Two determining factors move these churches, one of which is cultural and the other philosophical. They don't see the church as over against culture, but as embracing it. The philosophical factor which determines both belief and practice is called "postmodernism". Shortly, we will look at the effect of both of these on the emergent church. How important is this question? Paul wrote his epistle to the Colossians because that church was almost destroyed by a combination of pagan (Phrygian) culture and philosophical principles.


3. How bad does it get?

According to the Barna Group, "Our continuing research among teenagers and adolescents shows that the trend away from adopting biblical theology in favor of syncretic, culture-based theology is advancing at full gallop, ["Americans draw theological beliefs from diverse points of view" (www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?)].


II - Emergent and Missional vs. Evangelical Christianity

At first glance, the emergent and missional church movements seem to picture what liberal and evangelical Christianity have been preaching over the years. Liberal Christianity was swallowed up by culture while it attempted to impact culture, particularly in the OT sense of caring for the poor and oppressed. Evangelicals, on the other hand, had a vision of a transformed people, one which assumed Jesus' charge to His disciples. Instead, one and the other have become so identified with the American culture that one cannot tell by lifestyle who is a Christian and who isn't.

Honsberger tells us that the emerging church, the emergent, the conversation (whatever the name) is muffling the voice of the Lord. And as a result, the weakest among us will suffer. "While notoriously hard to pin down, one point consistently made by the most well known among them, is that the Bible is up in the air, that the meaning is dependent upon interpretation at best, and no interpretation is better than any other. Forget the meaning that the author had in mind--the Author is Dead--and the reader is born. Known formally as Reader response theory, this view stems from the postmodern contention that one cannot know the meaning intended by a given author and so meaning is found only in the interpretation of the reader, whether individually or corporately. The reader's interpretation rules supreme, and none can object." (William Honsberger, "Eat the Poor!" in The Haven Newsletter, 3/07, p. 1).

In "The emerging global church" Kjos cites Leonard Sweet as affirming in his Soul Tsunami that we should "flow with the currents of change and leave God's unchanging gospel behind." The author of the "Distinctive Teachings and Goals" affirms that the church can only be kept relevant and effective by an extreme transformation so that it can accompany a radically changing world. To this challenge the emergent church people insist that the church has been culture bound both in belief and practice.


1. What they reject in the Traditional Churches

Both emergent and missional, in thesis, reject what the traditional churches have de facto become in the US though for different reasons. Dan Kimball in His book, They like Jesus, but not the Church, notes a number of issues that gave origin to this movement away from traditional Christianity:

* The emerging movement finds the traditional churches to be a form of organized religion with a political agenda. What the emergents want is a community organized to serve others.

* They find the churches to be judgmental and negative regarding culture. They want to be positive agents of change, loving others as Christ would love them. (Jesus welcomed publicans and prostitutes).

* They find the churches to be dominated by males who oppress females. Christian feminism finds no home there.

* They also find them to be homophobic. The churches must learn not to treat gays as "untouchables".

* They reject the claims of traditional churches that all other religions are wrong. This is a huge protest in the emerging churches.

* They reject the arrogance of these churches that are full of fundamentalists that take the Bible literally. According to them, the traditional churches must be humble and learn to be Christ-like.

These criticisms come from people who have adopted changes in American culture which traditional Christians have rejected. How do we respond to their criticism? Why is it that we Evangelicals adopt some social changes and not others?


2. Some characteristics of this movement

It's hard to characterize fairly the churches involved in the emergent movement since there is so wide a diversity between them. Yet the following four characteristics seem to be generally true of both the emergent and the missional churches.

First, there is an evident move away from theological categories to a "narrative" form. The emerging movement wants to do theology from a story perspective. They point out that the Bible is full of stories. In fact, aside from the wisdom literature in the OT and the epistles in the NT the Bible is almost all stories. It is the story of God's creation, the fall and the recreation of His people. Even the NT sermons directed toward Israel are narrative in form (Acts 2:14-36; 7:1-53; 13:13-41). All of this was culturally relevant to the Israelite culture. But Paul's sermon in Athens takes an entirely different form because it was directed toward Greeks. And its form was culturally relevant to the Athenians. Yet it's not that the emergents forget that Western culture was based on Greek and Roman ways of thinking and not on Hebrew ones. But rather, that stories allow both for a more relational atmosphere and for individual interpretation. They also allow an escape from the "truth" problem.

Secondly, they have swung from orthodoxy (right belief) to orthopraxy (right practice). Evangelicals have often emphasized the former over the latter. Liberals emphasized orthopraxy as early as the XIX century Social Gospel and more recently in late XX century Liberation Theology over orthodoxy. Obviously, both orthopraxy over orthodoxy must be integrated in a church that reflects the practice and teaching of the Lord Jesus (Mt 28:19-20). But hidden in the adoption of orthopraxy is an attempt to escape from the question of "truth".

Thirdly, not only would they move away from classical ways of thinking, but they would move away from the historical church. How can they reject the church and yet still have Jesus? Since the church with all her defects is the body of Christ, it would appear that either they retain the church with Jesus or, in rejecting the church, they should also reject Him. It is evident, however, that the Jesus they want to retain is not the one fully revealed in the NT. Rather they want the Jesus who called disciples to follow Him, the Jesus who dedicated Himself to healing the sick and caring for the oppressed. But not the Jesus who died vicariously for our sins; the one who affirmed His oneness with the Father; nor the one who declared that there is no other way to the Father than by Him (Jn 14:6).

Fourthly, they emphasize "discipleship" as being more relational and interactive than the traditional churches which tend to be more programmatic. Hence, they emphasize the experiential element in worship instead of "here's the church and what she's about". To do so the emerging communities bring Christian symbolism into both worship and the very physical appearance of the buildings to draw the worshiper into an experience. In doing so there may be an unconscious return to Roman Catholic medieval worship practices.


3. Scripture or Culture?

The emergent church people would apparently toss out all Scriptural injunctions regarding unacceptable kinds of behavior as well as what must be believed. Those like Rick Warren who put today's emphasis on behavior rather than beliefs miss the essential element of revelation (truths) which undergirds the behavior which is acceptable to God. They are anxious to use the name of Jesus, but apparently reject His commission to the Church: "teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (Mt 28:20). Nor do they find the death of Christ on the cross to be relevant. Rather, Rick Warren's celebrated eight point P.E.A.C.E. program (eradicating poverty, gender inequality etc.) sounds like the liberal social activist agenda. (David Van Biema, "Warren of Rwanda" in Time magazine, Aug. 22, 2005).

Why this rejection of all Scriptural injunctions? And why this embracing of the culture of a rapidly changing world? Here the enabling factor which determines both is their adoption of the postmodern philosophy which rejects the idea that finite man can know real truth.


III - So what about the church and culture?

1. Christianity has always been culture bound

We must admit that Christianity has been culture bound from the very beginning. The cultural forms and doctrine of the Jerusalem Church was bound to Judaism (Acts 2:46; 21:20; Gal 2:11-13). The Antioch Church, on the other hand was bound to Gentile cultural forms. And, as noted above, the Colossian one was bound to a heresy that linked Christianity to Phrygian culture and philosophy.

Coming down to the present, missionaries have often carried to the field American cultural forms of Christianity: not only forms of worship, but also the kinds of music and even the times of services. Brazilian Baptists don't generally like our American worship services, wanting not only more hymns, but to sing all the verses. Merrill Skinner has told us that in Cote d'Ivoire the services run up to 3 hours and are quite different in form. Anyone vote for a three hour Sunday service?

In theory, therefore, the emergent church people wanting to adapt their worship services and church methodologies to XXI cultural forms is no problem. The error of the emergent churches, however, is double: it sees no evil in culture and it not only adopts the whole range of culture, but it also throws up for grabs the whole content of the Christian message.


2. The good and bad of culture

While culture was ordained by God (Gen 1:28-30), it was created by fallen mankind (Gn 11:1-4; 15:15). Hence, while culture is necessary to bring society into being, once created by sinful mankind, culture always carries with it evils that God's people must avoid. Israel was sent into captivity because instead of destroying the Canaanites, she assimilated their entire culture.

In the NT Paul insisted that Christians not conform to the culture of the world around them (Rom 12:2). He noted that the Ephesians before being saved followed the ways of this world and called them to a different kind of life (Eph 2:1-3). But it was in Colossians that Paul detailed how the Christian is to leave cultural practices behind and be transformed by Christ.

By adopting the whole of culture, including that which the Scriptures forbid, the emergent church also throws away the traditional teachings and forms of Christianity. The Scriptures teach us that we have access to absolute truth through the revelation of God's person and demands. As for the person of Jesus, the emergents make much of His example of care for the poor and oppressed, but apparently little or nothing of His vicarious death on the cross. God is seen as "love", but His judgement of sinners for their sin is sublimated. How do they do this? By adopting Postmodernism.


3. Postmodernism vs. modernism

Postmodernism is the mindset of the XXI century. It takes the place of Modernism and Premodern traditionalism which preceded it. Now these three forms of philosophy are really matters of epistemology, declaring what we can in fact know. In philosophy "modernism" differs as to content from religious modernism. In the latter, the reference was to doctrines denied. But in philosophy the reference is to epistemology, how we know that we know. D. A. Carson's book Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2005, 250 p.) dedicates chapter 4 to an overview of three forms epistemology. He gives a clear contrast between the bases of premodern, modern and postmodern approaches to knowledge.

The premodern mindset through the XVI century which begins with God as the given who substantiates truth. (Carson, op. cit., p. 88-92). He then elaborates six elements of modern epistemology. First, it began with "I" (Descartes' Cogito ergo sum). God is not the "given", man must "come to know things". Second, Modern epistemology was foundational in that all human knowing is based on an appeal to well-defined foundations. Hence God is no longer the foundation. Third, This epistemology was constrained by rigorous method which with the right foundation would arrive at truth. Fourth, due to steps 2 and 3, few doubted that objective knowledge was attainable and that eventually certainty about many things would be achieved. Fifth, modernism embraced the concept that the truth discovered was universally true. Sixth, While the early figures of the Enlightenment were either theists or deists, in time many modern thinkers adopted philosophical naturalism. (Ibid., p. 92-95).

Postmodern epistemology challenges all six of the elements of modernism. First, while it also starts from the finite "I", each "I" is different so that the point of view expressed is bound to be different, one may lay less emphasis on the individual and more on its particular cultural group. (96). Second, It is profoundly suspicious of foundationalism, affirming that as products of finite beings, they are evident only within given cultures. Third, there are different methods all of which produce distinguishable results, but none of which is more true than those of the others. Fourth, Hence objective knowledge is neither attainable nor desirable. While both start with the finite "I", by this fourth element postmodernism is in absolute opposition to modernism. Fifth, hence truth cannot partake of a historical universality. All truth claims are merely true for some people. (97). Since postmodernism does not rely on rigorous methodology inherent in modernism, it is more open to mystical appeals. (Ibid., p. 96-98).

Some strengths of postmodernism: It has exposed weaknesses and pretensions of many strands of modernism, including the fact that the finiteness of the "I" means that certainty is much harder than many have thought; it has helped show the non-rigorous elements in human knowing; its openness to other cultures has sometimes erred in finding them equally good, but has been helpful in rejecting the idea that my (or, our) culture is superior to all others; and above all, postmodernism has insistently demanded that the implications of finitude in all claims of human knowing be recognized. (Ibid., p. 103-104).

For all its insights, postmodern epistemology displays severe weaknesses. Carson cites only four. 1) Many channel the discussion into a manipulative antitheses. The fact that man is finite (not God) doesn't mean that he can't know anything. 2) However great the difficulties of knowing and communicating are, a great deal of knowing and communication do occur. Few postmoderns are scientists and hence have little knowledge of the matter under discussion. 3) Another weakness of postmodern theory is its handling of moral issues which often becomes intellectual justification for each one's pursuit of pleasure, i.e. moral relativism. (Ibid., p. 104-115).

For the emergents we have no foundation for any beliefs and hence cannot know absolute truth. This is based on their false antithesis which "demands that we be God with all of God's omniscience, or else forever be condemned to knowing nothing objective for sure.


IV - "Clarifying Emergent vs. Missional" by Topher

The missional church movement prefers "emerging" to "emergent" to distinguish itself as something less defined regarding its close relation to the presuppositions of the emergent churches. They also tend to be less organizational. Yet they are similar to the emergent in that they are "prophetic", that is provocative in relation to culture and its need to change. In spite of a more biblical content and program, they remain "postmodern" in their skepticism of "meta-narrative and are hesitant regarding any certainty about our knowledge of the transcendent. Hence this movement is "praxis" oriented; their worship is sensory oriented and missional. It is "post evangelical" and "political", being involved in social issues.

Topher finds that emerging congregations tend to relate more to one or two sets of values that relate them either to missional or to traditional churches. He labels these as IWA and ADH.


1. IWA Communities

Incarnational. These go into cultures that already exist and become like them to reach them. "They believe that God is already present in these cultures and therefore their role as missionaries is not to bring God to them nor take them out of their culture.

Wholistic*. They see God's prevenient grace at work in places which have not been reached by the church. They show the Gospel lived out in their ordinary lives and situations. The people see a spirituality that meets them where they are as they are. (The author probably was reaching for "holistic" though The Random House College Dictionary, 1988, admits this as an alternate form).

Apostolic. Emphasizes the responsibility of each believer to play a role as leader by listening and obeying. As they gather, these lifestyle disciplines provide an informal liturgy for the community.


2. ADH communities

Attractional. An organization which seeks to provide a spiritually comfortable space within a culture that can serve as the community's hub and to which they can draw people into this space, extracting them from their old context and transplanting them into this new Christian community.

Dualistic. This paradigm divides the world between sacred and ordinary. While God is in both, the sacred spaces are specifically designed for an encounter with God.

Hierarchical. Characterized by a separation between clergy and laity. The latter entrust a few qualified leaders to provide them a vision for the organization's role in the kingdom.


3. Diversity

According to Stetzer and Putman, Missional is a move from programs to processes, demographics to discernment, models to missions, attractional to incarnational, uniformity to diversity, professional to passionate, seating to sending, decisions to disciples, additional to exponential, monuments to movements. (Ed Stetzer and David Putman, Breaking the Missional Code, Broadman and Holman, 2006).

The above distinctions are meant to distinguish missional from traditional churches. Just as we might find Topher's ADH characterization as a limited statement of who we are, I presume that that the missional ones would also find the IWA one limited. Yet placed side by side they do give a sense of how the two are essentially different.


V - Missional as a return to Traditional?

1. A Friend of Missional, July 10, 2007

David Horrox in his "The 'Missional Church': a model for Canadian churches" writes "The church should stop mimicking the surrounding culture and become an alternative community, with a different set of beliefs, values and behaviors." And he adds that the traditional ways of evaluating "successful churches--bigger buildings, more people, bigger budgets, larger ministerial staff, new and more programs--should be rejected. New yardsticks would include the extent to which each member is 'sent', how much the church is impacting the community with the Christian message and values.

Dan Kimball in The Emerging Church (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2003) describes the Missional church as a body of people sent on a mission who gather in community for worship, encouragement and teaching from the Word.

While adopting Horrox and Kimball as presenting the essence of a missional church, the author reminds us that the word missional over the years has been co-opted and tagged as meaning seeker-sensitive, cell-group church, or other church growth concepts. He finds it to be more than just another program, but rather the full expression of who the ekklesia of Christ is and what it is called to be and do.


2. What is a Missional Community? by Jason Zahariades, 7/21/07

Jason defines it as "a group of Jesus' apprentices who so trust His brilliance and mastery of life, that they learn from Him how to be like Him for the sake of the world. Through this apprentice/master relationship, the community journeys together to become the fullness of God and thereby become a finite earthly expression of the finite Tri-community just as Jesus was in His earthly life. A missional community is about becoming by grace what Christ is by nature." This seems to be an obvious rejection of postmodernism, but is it a bowing before the Scriptures?

He goes on to affirm that "in a missional community, the church is God's sent people." The church is "wherever God's people find themselves in their daily lives." From here Jason goes on to explore four questions regarding God's call:

* What does it really mean when we call Jesus Lord? Structure life to spend time with Him.

* What does it mean to be authentically spiritual? Embody God's fullness (holy love): embody love, joy, peace, etc. I find it strange how he omits holiness from the list of characteristics Christians are to embody. And not only he, but particularly the emergents.

* What does it mean to be God's people? How do we live as a community? Here the weakness of our traditional churches is evident: we don't "live" as a community. At best we get together on Sunday mornings.

* What does Christian leadership look like in this community? The popular model of the pastor as CEO is brain dead. All relationships in the community must be mediated through the Lord Jesus.

How does one lead people who are supposed to be following someone else (God, Holy Spirit) and someone else's (God's) vision? Hunter's hypothesis is that is by serving, coordinating, and empowering. (http://toddhunters.blogspot.com/2003_02_16_toddhunters_archive.html)


3. What are we to say?

How different is the missional from the emergent church? Just when I thought that I had a hold on the distinctions between them Jason Zahariades, a strong representative of the missional cites with approval Brian McLaren of the emergent side.

Now Brian McLaren, a prominent controversial voice in the emergent church movement, is founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church (1986), Spencerville, MD. He has authored numerous books, including the A New Kind of Christian trilogy, which deal with Christianity in the context of the cultural shift towards postmodernism. He favors postmodern epistemology as a guide to faith and praxis. This epistemology "allows faith to exist without objective propositional truth to believe." It "also creates an antithesis between personal trust in God and belief in his propositions."

McLaren suggests that new Christians should remain in their specific contexts." Thus it may be advisable that many people become followers of Jesus and remain within their Buddhist, Hindu, or Jewish contexts. (McLaren, More Ready than you Realize, p.80-81).

He also asserts that biblical hermeneutics Evangelicals "to political conservatism" while he himself is "an outspoken advocate of issues such as social justice and peace." In A New Kind of Christian he affirms that "our interpretations reveal less about God than they do about ourselves. They reveal what we want to defend, what we want to attack, what we want to ignore, what we're willing to question..." He's right, of course. But his criticism strikes home more at his own hermeneutics than at that of the Evangelicals in that the latter at least seek to find what the original authors sought to reveal and teach. His own interpretation of the text rejects even this external control.

McLaren's epistemology has been criticized generally in that it provides no basis for dogma and that without any basis, dogma is abandoned in favor of "generosity and conversation." Carson has a very enlightening review of McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2004). (Carson, op. cit., p. 157-182).

Mark Driscoll, from the conservative wing of the emerging church movement condemns McLaren's advocacy of open theism, his downplaying of substitutionary atonement and his implicit denial of hell. (Driscoll in Helseth). Carson affirms that McLaren has "largely abandoned the Gospel" (Op. cit. p. 186-187).


VI - Conclusion

1. An Alien Community

We have been called to be an "Alien Community " in this world (Phil 3:19-20). See esp. Stanley Hauerwas, and William Willimon who develop this concept in their Resident Aliens. (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1989, 175 p.). One major problem is that "American Christians cannot be distinguished in any significant way from secular culture...There are also no noticeable differences between Christians and their secular counterparts in areas of morality or ethics." And adds "The church has completely adopted American culture." (Dawn Haglund, cited by Jason Zahariades).

While these two concepts differ dramatically between themselves, both emergent and missional types of churches are built by and composed of fallen creatures. The "old man" is painfully evident in both their leaders and membership. Both types of community also suffer from the distance between "nature" and "identity." By nature is meant what God has called the Church to be (una, sancta, catholica et apostolica); by identity is meant that she is in fact neither una, nor sancta, nor catholica, nor even apostolica. Thus in her identity she is divided, worldly, fragmented and removed from her origins. By becoming totally contextualized so much gets sacrificed that one wonders what happened to her nature.

Both movements (emergent and missional) also suffer from the need for funds, lots of funding to bring about the transformation of the body of Christ from what she is to what she should be. On the one hand, it takes lots of money to get the kind of music and leadership that will draw the crowds so that they will be transformed into disciples who will actually reach their neighbors with the Gospel.

If one is not to try to persuade people that the Gospel is true, how do these churches grow? If proclamation be not the key, how do outsiders join the community? The idea is to converse with them, befriend them, and thus gradually draw them into the circle. As they become part of the community, they will be able to understand what is believed and taught. Thus Robert Webber affirms that "People in a postmodern world are not persuaded to faith by reason as much as they are moved to faith by participation in God's earthly community." [Robert Webber, Ancient Future Faith (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1999,), p. 79]. But the emergents present us here with another false antithesis: the choice is not either a purely cerebral attempt to talk people into believing correctly or an unqualified invitation to join our group.

According to Paul Proctor the method functions in the following manner: the whole process is geared to reaching people who are culturally distinct from the church. The idea of Willow Creek is to maximize the entertainment value of the service, presenting the best and the most attractive singers and young actors with a Rock band and choreography that will explode the emotions. The goal is to make the church "seeker sensitive". Now there is nothing wrong with trying to reach the lost by being "seeker sensitive", as long as one is trying to make them over in the image of Christ. But to transform the church into the mold of the world's culture in order to draw them in is hardly what Christ meant in the Great Commission (Mt 28:19-20). (Paul, Proctor, "The Hegelian Dialectic, the Church Growth Movement and the New World Order", http://www.crossroad.to/articles2/2002/proctor/hegelian_dialectic.htm).


2. A postmodern favor

Lastly a word of thanks to postmodernism! In spite of the evil it does to the Christian faith, postmodernism has made a invaluable, though indirect, contribution by destroying the stranglehold science, via modernism, held on the biblical truth that God intervenes in human history. It led culture to secularism by its insistence that only is true what can be scientifically demonstrated.

Postmodernism, by its insistence that man can't know any truth absolutely, struck not only at transcendental truths, but also at scientific ones also. It declared all so-called truths culturally determined and hence non-demonstrable. The scientists of course struck back. But it's obvious that scientists also are fallible, both in their methodology and their proofs. Of course, while it is apparent that gravity is universal regardless of culture, there is much taught in school as absolute truth that is not is evident by the need to correct the science books every few years!