Trevin Wax|3:56 am CT

The Emerging Church: In Retrospect

robbieToday, I am posting an interview with a good friend of mine, Robbie Sagers.

Robbie is a Ph.D student at Southern Seminary and serves as Special Assistant to Dr. Russell Moore, the senior vice president of SBTS. Robbie has contributed a chapter to the recent book, Evangelicals Engaging Emergent: A Discussion of the Emergent Church Movement (B&H, 2009).

Trevin Wax: You and I have talked about being weary of the Emerging conversation. I’ve got my reasons for being weary of the discussion, but I wonder what about the discussion tires you and why we keep talking about it if we’re weary about it!

Robbie Sagers: It’s been said so often that it’s probably become cliche, but even trying to define the different conversationalists in the emerging church discussion can be like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.

Several different taxonomies for understanding the different groups or subsets (or even “streams”!) have been provided – Scot McKnight, Mark Driscoll, Ed Stetzer, Darrin Patrick, and Phyllis Tickle, among others, have all tried their hand at it, but up to this point it doesn’t seem that any one breakdown has won the day. The emerging/Emergent distinction was helpful for some time–and is still helpful insofar as it goes–but even it seems a bit outdated at this point. So… discourse over something that seems so inherently amorphous can be tiresome.

That being the case, in thinking critically about the emerging church movement, it can be even more difficult to critique the critiquers. Every time someone lumps, say, Dan Kimball in with, for example, Brian McLaren, I find myself thinking, “But they’re so different! There needs to be greater clarity as to the distinction.”

And so goes the cycle. Those within the emerging church movement claim to be misunderstood by some who seek to understand them–and there may be some truth to that.

But at the same time, the question must be asked: why is it so difficult to understand a theological and methodological conversation that has been carried out for well over a decade? The blame for the lack of clarity here cannot all be placed at the feet of those who critique; those critiqued must know that a lack of clarity (quite different than theological mystery or paradox) is not a virtue in itself.

Another reason why some may be growing weary of the emerging church conversation is that the conversation is losing participants, and those left – with a few notable exceptions – seem to be speaking more softly. I think there are any number of reasons for this, the lack of direction regarding the movement not being the least among them.

Certain segments of the emerging church movement certainly did emerge from something – in the case of those on the most radical wing of the movement, they emerged right on out of Christian orthodoxy. But I think it would be difficult to make a strong case that many within the emerging church have emerged to anything. In the end, it’s hard to continue to gain followers when the leaders don’t seem to have a clear sense of where they are going.

Trevin Wax: In Evangelicals Engaging Emergent, you contribute a chapter on the various views of salvation within the Emerging Church. What are some of the positive aspects of the ECM regarding salvation?

Evangelicals Engaging Emergent: A Discussion of the Emergent Church MovementRobbie Sagers: I think that some within the emerging church movement keyed in on some things that have been under-emphasized in evangelical churches for some time. In other words, perhaps one of the reasons that the emerging church movement gained a hearing with so many evangelical Christians is that so much of what has been said is true, and biblical.

For example, many within the emerging church movement seek to recover an understanding of salvation within a narrative context.

Seeing the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as the climax of God’s story of redemption can be much more powerful when understood within the flow of history (as opposed to isolated proof-texts), as detailed in places like Matthew 1 and Luke 3. The genealogies of Jesus are not placed in those Gospels to make our eyes glaze over as we read; instead, they speak to the fact that God has been working in human history to bring about one Man from a remnant of Jews from the nation of Israel formed by the tribes of twelve brothers descended from Jacob the son of Isaac the son of Abraham the worshiper of the God who created Adam and Eve. Everything leading up to the coming of Christ had been purposed to bring about this seed of the woman who would crush the head of the serpent.

Understanding one’s own story as ultimately fruitless and hell-bound apart from its being crucified and raised in the crucified and raised Messiah can help one to make sense of his life – his past, his present, and most certainly his future.

Others within the movement have emphasized the need to bear fruit in keeping with repentance, as the Christian life ought to be characterized not simply by a one-time past decision but by ongoing repentance of sin and continual faith in the Lord Jesus.

Brian McLaren, for example, uses the illustration of a runner competing in a race: the person who ascribes to salvation as a one-time decision is similar to the person who stops to congratulate himself after having just crossed the starting line. Not to persevere to the end of the Christian life may evidence someone who was never really running at all.

To propose a dismissal of any distinction between justification and sanctification, as Tony Jones suggests Christians ought to do, is going much too far in this regard, of course, as would be any suggestion that there isn’t a point in time in which God rips out a sinner’s heart of stone to replace with a heart of flesh, even if the exact moment of that conversion is known only to God. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something of this emerging church impulse that should be heard and received through the framework of the Scriptures.

The focus on the future cosmic redemption of all things as having implications for Kingdom seekers today – perhaps even in, for example, the spending of a Saturday sprucing up the local city park – is also helpful in thinking through the now and not yet tension of the Kingdom of God, and the rejection of a sacred/secular dichotomy that infects some evangelical churches.

And lastly, the emphasis of some within the emerging church movement on the need for the individual believer to display his believing within the context of a community of fellow believers – within, that is, the church – is a much needed correction to the individualistic tendencies inherent within some segments of evangelicalism.

Trevin Wax: What worries you about some Emerging Church views of salvation?

Robbie Sagers: What I find concerning about some emerging church leaders’ salvific beliefs is

  • a blunted view of the radical depravity of mankind;
  • the dismissal of the necessity of the bloody, penal substitutionary death of Jesus;
  • the denial of a literal hell in which Christ-rejecting sinners will experience the absence of God covenantally – as well as his presence in his wrath – for eternity (or, at least, the denial of the belief that anyone will actually be there);
  • the possibility of turning the gospel of Jesus Christ into another incarnation of the Social Gospel;
  • and the affirmation that salvation comes only through Christ – while concurrently remaining unclear as to whether one needs to confess with his mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in his heart that God raised him from the dead in order to be saved.

I admit that these concerns, however, could be applied to more segments of Christianity than simply to some within the emerging church movement.

Trevin Wax: How is the atonement treated by different Emerging Church authors? I understand there’s a wide variety of authors out there. Are there any accurate generalizations or does the diversity keep one from making pronouncements about the movement as a whole?

Robbie Sagers: When it comes to the atonement of Christ, what it seems that some in the emerging church movement have in common – to employ perhaps another cliche – is not so much what they are for, but rather what they are against.

The view of the atonement as the penalty-paying, blood-spilling, wrath-of-God bearing, substitutionary death of Christ on the cross on behalf of sinners seems not only reprehensible but also incomprehensible to some emerging church adherents.

  • McLaren, through one of his fictional characters, suggests that such a view of the atonement “sounds like divine child abuse.”
  • Spencer Burke and Barry Taylor believe that penal substitution “can reinforce a caricature of a God who is angry, bloodthirsty, and judgmental.”
  • Doug Pagitt calls penal substitution the “judicial” view of the atonement, exclaiming in response: “Yikes!”

So while they may put any number of things in the place of penal substitionary atonement, some within the emerging church do want to make clear: when they talk about the atonement, they don’t mean that!

Trevin Wax: What will the long-range impact of the Emerging Church be on evangelicalism?

Robbie Sagers: That’s a very good question, and I think that only time will tell what – if any – lasting impact the emerging church movement will have on evangelicalism.

Part of that uncertainty is due to the somewhat shifting nature of evangelicalism itself; after all, what is an evangelical? (A question for another day, perhaps!)

Regardless, these last months certainly do seem to have indicated the demise of the emerging church movement, at least in terms of comparing it to the furor surrounding the movement in recent years. After all, fewer books are being published by self-identified emerging church adherents, less conferences planned, Emergent Village has been disbanded, and some of the movement’s key leaders are now deeply entrenched not primarily in the church per se but rather in national politics–or, at least in one case, running for political office themselves.

I can tell you what I hope the long-range impact of evangelicalism will be. My hope is that conservative evangelicals, after having endured from some segments of the emerging church movement a challenge to doctrinal orthodoxy and orthopraxy, will avoid the temptation to a more-doctrinal-than-thou mentality that can be destructive to the soul. False teaching should be pointed out, yes, and corrected when possible. And there certainly is a place, biblically speaking, for sharp language in pointing out wolves among sheep. But such words should be spoken not with triumphalism, but rather with sobriety, in love.

Instead, I hope that evangelicals will discern humbly, through the lens of the Scriptures, those weak spots that led to some emerging church adherents’ exploitations of certain aspects of evangelicalism in the first place.

If evangelical Christians are able to hear the good and right critiques of their faith and practice coming from some leaders of the emerging church movement, and then adjust their life and doctrine accordingly, such would certainly be honoring to Christ. If that were to be the case then evangelicals may, in some sense, even find themselves praising God for the emerging church.

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