Reframing the Story: The End of the Emergent Conversation

by Carol Geisler

Carol Geisler works at Lutheran Hour Ministries and the LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations. A former teacher and principal, she earned the Ph.D. in historical theology from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.

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The emergent church movement is by no means a new conversation (the description preferred by its advocates) but the discussion continues to attract mainline denominations searching for practical ideas in ministry. Emergent interests such as social networks, personal stories, and “authentic” spiritual experiences are pursued to reach the unchurched or to encourage a generation of young Christians. Admiration between denominations and emergents is something of a one way street, however, as emergent advocates tend to regard the denominations (sometimes referred to as “tribes” or “villages”) with a certain amount of disdain. There are emergents from many tribes, including Baptists, Roman Catholics, and Lutherans, but emergent theologian Tony Jones comments, “In the end, the new definition of ‘Christian’ may not be what particular doctrines one believes or which flavor of church to which one belongs but whether (and how thoroughly) one is woven into the fabric of global Christianity.”[1] The language and practices discussed in the emergent conversation also attract listeners from the Missouri Synod tribe eager for new ideas in evangelism. Before Lutherans join whole-heartedly in the conversation they may want to consider the discussion’s general direction because it is not an open-ended dialogue. What do its leading voices have to say? What will the fabric of global Christianity look like when the conversation ends and the emergent reweaving is complete?

Emergent conversationalists do not necessarily present a unified front, and their writings offer a wide variety of opinions. Those opinions may even be characterized as conservative or liberal. Some emergents are primarily interested in reaching a generation more likely to enter a Starbucks than a church, or they may only want to discover new ways to provide “vintage” spiritual experiences for those who already attend church.[2] Some voices once associated with the emergent conversation are more conservative than others in their beliefs concerning salvation and Scripture. For that reason they have withdrawn from the conversation.[3] Other emergents turn the conversation in more unsettling directions, hoping to provoke new ideas with new questions. Some of these writers are considered leaders of the movement and they express a desire to emerge free from history in order to shape a faith which in the end bears little resemblance to “the pattern of sound words” entrusted by the apostle Paul to Timothy. Emergent leaders want to embrace a “generous orthodoxy,” promoting a new church that is “emerging from the compost of Christendom.”[4]

Even though the highly prized plurality of emergent thought makes it difficult to disentangle the voices, there are some common threads to be found throughout the conversation. Emergents express a desire to distance themselves from the institutional church in its present forms. They also wish to separate today’s Christian communities from the church’s history in an effort to nurture new and fresh expressions of faith. To this end, they may at times claim to emerge, not only from historical compost, but from the eschatological future into the present “age of the Spirit.” Emergent voices affirm a fluid and plural truth that, along with the authority of Scripture, is subject to the whims of conversational flow. Scripture is thus open to “reframing,” which generally means that if you do not like the answers you have in hand you must ask different questions. The reframing of the Christian story results in a new biblical narrative and new ideas concerning God, mankind, salvation, and the future. On this emerging framework global Christianity is being rewoven into a very different fabric.

Old Wineskins

Emergents express a desire to retain the Christian faith as confessed in the historic creeds but they also believe the twenty-first century church to be badly damaged by Western, modern, colonial, and imperial “viruses,” its vintage gospel carried in dated, institutional wineskins inadequate for work within today’s culture. The church must be released from these decaying forms that are simply unable to contain a new Spirit-driven faith. According to emergent theologian Ray Anderson, “The raising of Lazarus (John 11) might be viewed as a parable of the emerging church . . . I have the feeling that the emerging church appears a bit naked to those who see it unencumbered by the traditional institutional forms and polity of the church. The vestments of the pastoral office, though often vibrant with color, may still carry the musty odor of the tomb.”[5] Along with this desire to be free of institutions, emergents tend toward a selective view of their continuity with historic Christendom. They claim to be “a contemporary expression of the first-century church’s existence and mission in a postmodern world,” but they prefer to trace their descent from the apostle Paul and the “church of Antioch” rather than the “church of Jerusalem.”[6]

Jesus’ disciples and the early Jerusalem church represent centralized authority and institutional religion. The church of Antioch is thought to have been developed by the work of the Holy Spirit apart from Jerusalem’s pre-existing structures of Jewish tradition and synagogue worship. Anderson explains, “Paul’s emergent theology of the Spirit did not come from the emerging church at Jerusalem but directly from Christ through the Spirit. Paul’s theology and missionary work was developed and affirmed in Antioch, not Jerusalem. For this reason I envision Antioch, rather than Jerusalem, as the source for an emergent theology for emerging churches.”[7] Emergents hope to anchor theology that is relevant to contemporary culture in the ancient roots of the Antioch church. Theologian Doug Pagitt draws a distinction between Jesus’ teachings and the church’s infancy as an illustration of the need to be free of history: “It may be quite necessary for some of us to move forward with the way of Jesus in ways that are not encumbered by the history of Christendom, in the same way the early Christians had to move on with the way of Jesus beyond the temple or synagogue model of Christianity’s beginning.”[8] This effort to bypass Jerusalem in favor of Antioch and Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles is reflected in Ray Anderson’s comment that Jesus’ own disciples “contribute so little to our theological understanding of Jesus, as compared with Paul, who never ate with him, touched him or heard him preach to others.”[9]

The desire to emerge unencumbered from history is also expressed in The Great Emergence by Phyllis Tickle. According to her reckoning, every five hundred years a “great emergence” occurs, a period of turmoil and new development arising within Christendom as the church shakes itself free from the burden of tradition and institutionalized forms. As evidence, Tickle presents three earlier emergent events—the reforming papacy of Gregory the Great in the sixth century, the eleventh century schism between eastern and western Christianity, and the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Like many emergent advocates, Tickle refers to the political and social influences said to have damaged the faith during and after Constantine’s rule, a time in which Greek philosophy and Gnosticism are thought to have thoroughly reshaped Christian belief.  Hinting at the emergent conversation’s conclusions, Tickle describes changes in the faith after Constantine: “The whole purpose of ‘salvation’ began to shift from a means of effecting or living out God’s will on earth to being a ticket for transplantation into a paradisial hereafter.”[10] Now, a convenient five centuries after the sixteenth century Reformation, comes the next upheaval in The Great Emergence time scheme, the appearance of the emergent church. The five hundred year time frame permits Tickle to compare Martin Luther and emergent spokesman Brian McLaren, a comparison McLaren himself adopts in composing a ninety-sixth thesis to summarize his ideas.[11] Tickle also borrows from the thought of the twelfth century mystic Joachim of Fiore to designate three eras or ages of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, an arrangement which has the emergent church standing in the year 2000 on the leading edge of the age of the Spirit—a scheme unfortunately in disagreement with Joachim’s own calculations in which the age of the Spirit was to have begun in about the year 1260 A. D.

Uncertain Confidence

In spite of their wish to stand distinct from history, emergent writers—in response to criticism concerning their teachings—affirm their belief in the trinitarian Christian faith and the historic creeds. At the same time they are reluctant to make doctrinal statements, believing that such statements serve a “gatekeeper function,” determining which people may or may not be included in the conversation, in church membership, or in salvation, decisions emergents believe are best left to God.[12] The desire for one correct point of view is understood as an issue of power, a means to marginalize or oppress those who think differently. In emergent thought, it is common to speak of the Spirit’s call for the church to repent of its imposition of normative rules and the accompanying marginalization and oppression of those who have different beliefs. These imposed and oppressive doctrines make the Christian faith unattractive to those outside of it. One emergent author carries this low opinion of doctrinal gatekeeping to an extreme position:

If a relationship with a specific person, namely Christ, is the whole substance of a relationship with the God of the Bible, then the vast majority of people in world history are excluded from the possibility of a relationship with the God of the Bible, along with the Hebrews of the Old Testament who were without a knowledge of Jesus Christ—the person. The question begs to be asked: would God who gives enough revelation for people to be judged but not enough to be saved be a God worth worshiping? Never![13]

Not every emergent writer takes the point of view quite that far and most affirm their belief in the Holy Trinity, a teaching used to support what is believed to be a necessary plurality of truth.

The Trinity, author John Franke explains, is characterized by plurality in unity and unity in plurality. The Father, Son, and Spirit are one God within an interdependent relationship and so “the eternal life of God is characterized by the plurality of truth in interdependent relationality.”[14] In the emergent conversation, plurality, even the plurality of truth, is expected, desirable, and required. The diverse confessions of church bodies reflect this plurality of truth, although those confessions are often used to justify the suppression of differing views within the plurality of Christendom. Doug Pagitt likes to think of this plurality of points of view, and the debates which it generates, in terms of a song and dance. Differing expressions of the faith are most suited to the time and place in which they developed. Pelagius’ view of human ability and involvement in salvation, for example, reflects and is preserved within the “dance” of Irish Celtic spirituality. Augustine’s teaching on grace is a different tune, reflecting the “dance” of Greek thought and Roman spirituality of his day.[15]

Within the song and dance of plurality, emergents still consider the ultimate truth to be the affirmation of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. However, the affirmation of the lordship of Christ and the desire to witness to Him proceed comfortably hand in hand with an unwillingness to express any certainty concerning the eternal outcome of religions that do not confess salvation through Christ. The uncertainty found within plurality—plurality within Christendom or among other religions—is not thought of as something negative. Uncertainty is an emergent mark of humility. “‘I’m humble,’ an emergent might tell you, ‘because I don’t know what I’m wrong about today. I’ll speak with confidence, and I’ll speak with passion, but I won’t speak with certainty.’”[16] Such passionate uncertainty leaves little room for academic or pastoral leadership. Although regarded with somewhat greater authority, scholarship and sermons are simply additional voices in the discussion. A pastor brings expertise but the conversation of the Christian community brings the pooled expertise of all of its participants. Emergent sermons may be deconstructed by listeners who are equal partners in the discussion. Scripture is also subject to communal interpretation as an additional member of the community and another voice of the conversation.

In Conversation with Scripture

The flow of conversation between Scripture and the Christian community is influenced by the current cultural setting. Emergents believe that the biblical text should not be used to support the construction of gatekeeping doctrinal systems. Instead, participants in conversation with Scripture listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit in the text. Doctrinal frameworks are thought to hinder the emergent ability to hear the speaking of the Spirit. Because Scripture shares in the conversation within the contemporary culture it provides guidance that allows the Christian community to more effectively address its present and future circumstances. “From this perspective, the history of this Spirit-guided interaction may be viewed as a series of local theologies, traditions, and iterations of Christian faith that are closely related to the different social and cultural situations to which they are responding.”[17]

To provoke thought, Ray Anderson suggested to a group of graduate students that as Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, his brain was also “reconstituted” along with the rest of his body, allowing him to have new ideas and intentions. This new and forward-thinking risen Christ is present in the Christian community as His Spirit speaks to the church, although speaking in ways, Anderson admits, that are consistent with Scripture. In this conversation among community, Spirit, and Scripture the work of God is interpreted along with, and may often trump, the word of God. The decision to ordain women to the pastoral office is used by Anderson as an example of this process. The work of the Spirit in anointing women for pastoral ministry (who, as a result, believe themselves called to that office) is seen as “a text to be read alongside” the reading of the biblical text, allowing for new interpretations of passages previously used to forbid the ordination of women.[18] Refusing to recognize the work of Christ’s Spirit in contemporary settings, Anderson argues, hinders the work of God.

The plurality of scriptural interpretation is not simply a result of the community’s discussion. The biblical text itself is a collection of voices, a plurality reflected, for example, in the fact that there are four gospels, not one. Brian McLaren writes that the Bible should not be read as a legal constitution, using “framers’ intent” to win a case and impose the supposed intent of the original authors as binding law. Instead he recommends that the Bible be read as an inspired library which “preserves, presents, and inspires an ongoing vigorous conversation with and about God, a living and vital civil argument into which we are all invited and through which God is revealed.”[19] Some emergent voices speak of the Scriptures as written truth and as normative for Christian witness. John Burke fears losing hold of “the anchor of the authority of the Scriptures” in a sea of relativism, yet he also points out that knowledge of God is biased by culture.[20] John Franke states that Scripture, while normative, is at the same time “the first in an ever-expanding series of presentations of the Christian faith throughout history for which it is paradigmatic.”[21] An unbiased view, untainted by engagement with the surrounding culture, is not possible. The plurality of the world’s views and stories impacts the interpretation of Scripture and the church’s message. Doug Pagitt comments:

What kind of Jesus-way would we have if we no longer saw Christendom, or perhaps the church, as being the sole proprietor of the hopes of God through Jesus? What would that do to our understanding of sacraments, authority, our interpretation and application of the Bible, and the general role of the church in our culture? The questions theology must deal with in our pluralistic world are of this nature.[22]

In contemporary society, individual narratives, rather than the one meta-narrative of Christendom, are the stories to be trusted. These are the personal stories of faith that shape community, stories that form a plural narrative. Phyllis Tickle explains that such a narrative “is the song of the vibrating network. It is the spider’s web in its trembling, a single touch on one strand setting all the others to resonating. . . . Narrative speaks to the heart in order that the heart, so tutored, may direct and inform the mind.”[23] This plurality of voices within the emergent Christian community reflects the plurality of the voices of Scripture, all of which is in turn believed to be a reflection of the plurality in unity of the triune God.

Constructing a New Frame

The plurality of scriptural voices provides a fluid paradigm subject to change rather than a normative standard for Christian teaching. Phyllis Tickle believes (possibly overlooking the fact her views may also be culturally biased) that Scripture is a dated, culturally biased foundation in need of rebuilding. She writes that Luther’s sola scriptura is now seen as “hopelessly outmoded or insufficient” and that emergent Christianity “must discover some authority base or delivery system and/or governing agency of its own.”[24] While emergents have no wish to impose any previously established doctrinal framework on the conversation with Scripture, they are more than willing to shape the conversation’s conclusion by imposing a new frame constructed out of questions. The search for a new and less oppressive global Christianity involves “what if” questions. What if the faith is supposed to exist in many forms? What if we stopped arguing about which form is correct?  What if there is no truth apart from our own individual beliefs? To follow an “alternative biblical script” emergent theologians “often press hard at questioning the underlying assumptions in any previously articulated framework.”[25]

The outdated, doctrinally imposed framework for Scripture is often described in emergent theology as the Greco-Roman narrative. It is thought to be a framework constructed of Platonic dualisms of soul and body, natural and supernatural, male and female, dualisms undermined by current scientific and medical research. The Greco-Roman narrative describes the perfection of Platonic forms in Eden, a fall into sin, condemnation, a fallen world, redemption (the ascent out of Plato’s dimly lit cave), and justification, followed by heaven or eternity. Brian McLaren asks if this was the narrative believed by Old Testament figures, by Jesus or Paul, or by Christians in the first three centuries of Christianity. He asks if the narrative contributes to a higher vision of God and a deeper engagement with Christ. He answers his questions in the negative, asking, “How in the world, how in God’s name, could anyone ever think this is the narrative of the Bible?”[26] Within these reframing questions the biblical narrative concerning a God whose wrath must be appeased, the origin of evil, and the relationship between creator and creation must be reconsidered. The God of the old narrative is described by McLaren as a dictator, an idol, and a god of profit, and as such is called into question. The Greco-Roman narrative and its god permit the marginalization and exclusion of certain groups of people, and not only allow, but encourage, injustices such as slavery, prejudice against homosexuals, anti-Semitism, and racism.

In view of this past encouragement of injustice and oppression, emergents often prefer to use the term kingdom, as opposed to the word church, in the reframing process. The church, with its doctrinal gatekeeping, is understood to be exclusive while the kingdom of God is actively inclusive. Jesus was a revolutionary in his proclamation of the kingdom, a radical teacher who opposed the existing cultural systems of his day. According to emergent author Ryan Bolger, “Although the culture valued patriarchal relationships, Jesus created an alternative to this system. In his community there is no father—only mothers, brothers, and sisters.”[27] The reframed Jesus announces the good news that God loves all people and wants them to follow a new way and participate in the transformation of the world. In a common emergent narrative, Jesus dies on the cross primarily to show his solidarity with the suffering world and give courage to the oppressed. He does not die to reconcile human beings to God but rather to restore broken relationships among people in the world. The Jesus of the old (Greco-Roman) framework, the Savior sacrificed for the sins of the world, is irrelevant to the social problems of contemporary society. A different Jesus is needed, one who by his teachings and by his life provides an effective model to follow. Within the new frame, Jesus’ redeeming work is accomplished to save humanity only within history. Setting itself up in contrast to the Platonic, Greco-Roman narrative with its goal of “saving souls,” the new framework tends to champion matter over spirit:

Jesus came to become the Savior of the world, meaning he came to save the earth and all it contains from its ongoing destruction because of human evil. Through his life and teaching, through his suffering, death, and resurrection, he inserted into human history a seed of grace, truth, and hope that can never be defeated. This seed will, against all opposition and odds, prevail over the evil and injustice of humanity and lead to the world’s ongoing transformation into the world God dreams of. All who find in Jesus God’s hope and truth discover the privilege of participating in his ongoing work of personal and global transformation and liberation from evil and injustice.[28]

Jesus’ disciples no longer lived by the framing story of the Roman empire because they had been witnesses to the resurrection. They learned to live in imitation of Jesus’ love, which was stronger than the power of Caesar and his armies. Brian McLaren explains that in much the same way, in this global salvation, God is liberating the world from its earlier, violent framing stories.

Where Does It End?

The reframed biblical narrative describes something of an evolutionary process. McLaren (joining his name to Luther’s once again) believes he is in agreement with Luther’s original intention when he paraphrases the first of the ninety-five theses: “…Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite, willed that the whole history of the Christian faith should be repentance, rethinking, and quest.”[29] The quest for a new framework reveals that the devastating events of Eden do not represent a fall from Platonic perfection, but indicate instead a step up for human beings into an agricultural life and beyond, as well as steps forward in a developing understanding of God as reflected in the evolving interpretation of Scripture. In this process, humanity progresses from building cities to building oppressive empires, a development which causes a true fall into corruption and murder. Evil increases as people naturally oppose the dominant framing stories which oppress them.[30] In opposition to this downward spiral, Jesus inaugurated a new generation of humanity which continues to progress upward through stages of independence, individuality, and honesty (exemplified by the current emergent quest), to a stage of peace or ubuntu, an African term used by McLaren to reflect interconnectedness and the common good. Beyond that stage, McLaren suggests, may be another, a further sacred quest to see God’s goodness reflected in all things.

Ryan Bolger writes that people who follow the reign of God “live with the understanding that the gospel primarily addresses how to live life—not solely one’s eternal destination.”[31] The time of ubuntu, and the stages which may follow, take place within human history, within this universe of space and time. The Christ whose second coming is prophesied in the outdated Greco-Roman narrative is described by McLaren as the “jihadist Jesus,” a violent figure who comes to bring destruction.[32] The God of the Greco-Roman narrative decrees judgment and destruction; the God of the reframed narrative is welcoming and inclusive. The central message of the reframed kingdom of God is about this life, about living according to the way of Jesus within this present society, not about eternity or an afterlife. McLaren writes, “Regarding the second coming, our best Bible scholars are largely united in realizing that the New Testament writers were not anticipating the ‘end of the world’ and the destruction of the space-time universe. They were anticipating the ‘end of the world as we know it’ and the beginning of a new spiritual-historical age or era.”[33] Although the resurrection does not usually receive very much text time in emergent writings, it is the risen Christ who inaugurates or ushers in this new spiritual age within history. It is a new beginning with an indefinite future. There is no “fixed day” on which God will “judge the world in righteousness” (Acts 17:31). In McLaren’s emergent, reframed narrative the parousia refers not to Christ’s appearance as judge at the end of history but to a new age in human history when Christ is present or manifested in the community of people who carry on his work as they move upward through ever-evolving stages.

Finished Fabric

For some of the leading voices in the emergent conversation, the Christian faith has little to say about mankind’s rebellion against God or about God’s redeeming love in Christ, a “meta-narrative” considered unbiblical, exclusive, and hopelessly outdated. In the new narrative (which of course is really not all that new) Jesus is an example to follow, a revolutionary who resisted the power of Rome as a model of resistance to the injustice of oppressive power structures, secular or sacred. It can be difficult to argue with some aspects of this reframed narrative because Christians should work for justice and peace in the world. But the new narrative does not offer much in the way of lasting peace. It is a reframing that in the end—to borrow the words of Jeremiah 8:11—will have “healed the wound” of people far too lightly. Multiple possibilities for truth make it difficult to pin down the deep healing of hope in Christ and the peace found only in the forgiveness of sins. Emergent reweaving leaves the fabric of global Christianity in a sorry state. Certainly there are people associated with the emergent conversation who know that Christ’s return will be more than the manifestation of his Spirit within the Christian community, and not every emergent advocate believes that the story of salvation ends abruptly within human history. But if we were to accept the conclusions drawn by leading voices in the emergent conversation, Paul’s comment in 1 Corinthians 15:19 would also require reframing: “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

Emergents would like to emerge unencumbered from history and the institutional church, but historical compost is sticky stuff. It tends to cling to us and remind us where we’ve been. Emergents of course know this, and (rightly) do not want to repeat the oppressive or un-Christlike behaviors of which Christians have been guilty in the past. But history also reminds us that some of the ideas found in the emergent conversation have been suggested before and (rightly) discarded. Many of the earliest Christians were offered the opportunity to keep their personal narratives of faith as long as they recognized each personal narrative as merely one story among many in a culture of plural philosophies and multiple gods. They could not accept the offer. “Jesus is Lord,” they said, and that was the end of the story. Centuries before the emergents’ great emergence, the Athanasian Creed confessed God as three Persons to be neither confused nor divided, “Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity” to be worshiped, not ‘plurality in unity and unity in plurality’ to be used as an excuse for multiple expressions of truth. Before Martin Luther emerged as Brian McLaren’s role model, he had (published) words with a conversation partner who, sounding somewhat postmodern himself, wondered, “Now admitting that whoever has the Spirit is certain of the meaning of Scripture, how can I know if the claims he makes for himself are true? What am I to do if many people assert different opinions, every one of them swearing that he has the Spirit?”[34] Long before Phyllis Tickle told us that the vibrating spider web formed of individual narrative strands “speaks to the heart in order that the heart, so tutored, may direct and inform the mind,” another voice commented, “Religion’s essence is neither thinking nor acting, but intuition and feeling.”[35] Proud postmodern emergents may prefer to think of the past as something dead or dying, conveniently left behind where it cannot block the view of the present or the future. History, however, usually manages to get in the way. Referring to the relationship of Judaism and Christianity, author Gerald Bruns suggests that history is something much more alive and active: “But in fact time is split lengthwise as rift among adjacent histories, not hierarchically as a progression of epochs.”[36] History, our past and its record, runs alongside and shapes our present, and is more than capable of doing some framing of its own.

If Missouri Synod Lutherans wants to join in the conversation, we need to be cautious about the emergent dismissal of history and institutions, about plural truth and individual narratives of personal feeling that obscure the great narrative of salvation in Jesus Christ. We need to approach carefully the sticky web of reframed Christendom that extends no farther than “this life only.” There is no need to be humbly uncertain when we can in all humility express our certain confidence in Christ and the forgiveness found in his name. We do not need to apologize for a confessional framework that, rather than imposing itself on Scripture, provides a biblically anchored safety net (a much more substantial kind of web) that prevents spiritually disastrous falls in Christian preaching and teaching. Even the comparatively recent history that runs alongside and shapes the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod reminds us that we have heard at least some of this discussion before. Tony Jones describes the way in which the emergent conversation attempts to free the fiery, glowing gospel from its institution-encrusted state:

Like the scorching-hot lava that bubbles in the mantle of the earth, the gospel is scalding-hot and dangerous—and also strangely compelling. And although it has been crusted over for eons, it will inevitably find a time and a fissure, and opportunity to blast through that crust and explode, volcano-like, into the atmosphere . . . . emergent Christianity is an effort by a particular people in a particular time and place to respond to the gospel as it (once again) breaks through the age-old crusts.[37]

Decades separate Jones’ comment from the following observation but the two are linked by a shared illustration and a similar disdain for institutional forms and traditional expressions of faith. The Missouri Synod’s founders were familiar with (and rejected) this earlier conversation partner who also hoped to free the fire of religion in general from its dead and lava encrusted state:

I invite you to consider every faith humanity has confessed, every religion that you designate with a definite name and character and that has perhaps long since degenerated into a code of empty customs and a system of abstract concepts and theories. If you investigate them at their source and their original components, you will find that all the dead slag was once the glowing outpouring of the inner fire that is contained in all religions, and is more or less of the true essence of religion as I have presented it to you.[38]

We know that the glowing “lava flow” of the gospel is not buried but powerfully channeled by those ancient institutional forms of Word and sacrament. At the same time we must certainly be involved in contemporary conversations about institutional forms, interpretations of Scripture, and expressions of faith. But it can be very helpful to give a sideways glance to history now and again. If we did so we might wonder, “Didn’t we already have this conversation?”

[1] Tony Jones, The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 57.

[2] Witnessing at Starbucks is something different than imitating Starbucks’ marketing methods. Author Ted Kluck cautions against using Starbucks techniques to market the gospel, commenting that “Starbucks wasn’t designed to help me have a venti-conversation. It was designed to help me spend venti-dollars.” Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck, Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009), 68. Dan Kimball advocates a “vintage” approach to worship, writing that worshipers “want to see the arts and a sense of mystery brought into the worship service, rather than focusing on professionalism and excellence.” Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 121.

[3] Mars Hill (Seattle) pastor Mark Driscoll has distanced himself from the emergents and “teaches that certain doctrines—the Trinity, Jesus’ atonement, and the Bible as the inerrant word of God, among others—go in a closed hand.” Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Practically Theological,” Christianity Today (March 2010): 29. Since much emergent theology is “temporary” and shaped in local conversation, it is carried in an “open hand.” See also Mark Driscoll, The Radical Reformission (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004).

[4] Tony Jones, The New Christians, 7.

[5] Ray S. Anderson, An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 92–93.

[6] Anderson, Emergent Theology, 11–12.

[7] Anderson, Emergent Theology, 68.

[8] Doug Pagitt, “The Emerging Church and Embodied Theology,” in Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches, ed. Robert Webber (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 132.

[9] Anderson, Emergent Theology, 50.

[10] Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008), 161.

[11] “In the same way that Martin Luther became the symbolic leader and spokesman for the Great Reformation, so too has Brian McLaren become the symbolic leader and spokesman for the Great Emergence.” Tickle, 164, note 7. McLaren’s ninety-sixth thesis: “It’s time for a new quest, launched by new questions, a quest across denominations around the world, a quest for new ways to believe and new ways to live and serve faithfully in the way of Jesus, a quest for a new kind of Christian faith.”  Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 18. Martin Luther isn’t always regarded with favor. Tony Jones comments, “[Luther] was definitely wrong about the hating Jews part, so isn’t it reasonable to think that he might have been wrong about some of the theological parts as well?” Jones, New Christians, 79.

[12]Jones, New Christians, 233. The Emergent Village website states: “We are committed to honor and serve the church in all its forms—Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal, Anabaptist. We practice ‘deep ecclesiology’—rather that favoring some forms of the church and critiquing or rejecting others, we see that every form of the church has both weaknesses and strengths, both liabilities and potential.” .

[13] Samir Selmanovic, “The Sweet Problem of Inclusiveness,” in An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, ed. Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 194–95.

[14] John R. Franke, Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), 61.

[15] Doug Pagitt, “The Emerging Church and Embodied Theology,” Listening to the Beliefs, 128–29.

[16] Jones, New Christians, 140.

[17] Franke, Manifold Witness, 84.

[18] Anderson, Emergent Theology, 129.

[19] McLaren, New Kind of Christianity, 83

[20] John Burke, “The Emerging Church and Incarnational Theology,” in Listening to the Beliefs, 61.

[21] Franke, 86. Karen Ward characterizes the United Church of Christ motto, “God is still speaking,” as “brilliant.” Karen Ward, “Response to Doug Pagitt,” Listening to the Beliefs, 157.

[22] Pagitt, “The Emerging Church and Embodied Theology,” Listening to the Beliefs, 133.

[23] Tickle, The Great Emergence, 160.

[24] Tickle, The Great Emergence, 150–51.

[25] Jones, New Christians, 40.

[26] McLaren, New Kind of Christianity, 35.

[27] Ryan Bolger, “Following Jesus into Culture,” in Emergent Manifesto, 137.

[28] Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 79–80.

[29] McLaren, New Kind of Christianity, 259.

[30] According to McLaren, the conventional Greco-Roman view “easily becomes ‘an opiate of the masses,’ pacifying them with dreams of a better afterlife ‘by and by’ rather than motivating and mobilizing them to transform our world here and now.” McLaren, Everything Must Change, 81.

[31] Bolger, “Following Jesus into Culture,” in Emergent Manifesto, 134.

[32] McLaren, Everything Must Change, 144.

[33] McLaren. New Kind of Christianity, 197.

[34] Erasmus, A Discussion of Free Will, Collected Works of Erasmus, vol. 76, ed. Charles Trinkaus, trans. Peter Marcardle and Clarence H. Miller (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 19–20. In his reaction to Erasmus’ early postmodernism, Luther remarks, “In short, what you say here seems to mean that it does not matter to you what anyone believes anywhere, so long as the peace of the world is undisturbed,” and more famously, “The Holy Spirit is no Skeptic, and it is not doubts or mere opinions that he has written on our hearts, but assertions more sure and certain than life itself and all experiences.” Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 33, ed. Philip Watson (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), 23–24.

[35] Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, ed. Richard Crouter (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1988), 22.

[36] Gerald L. Bruns, Hermeneutics Ancient and Modern (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 208.

N. T. Wright comments, “History and faith are, respectively, the left and right feet of Christianity. Modernism hops, now on this foot (skeptical ‘historiography’), now on that (unhistorical ‘faith’). It’s tiring, dangerous, and unnecessary.” N. T. Wright, “No, We Need History,” (A Response to “Should We Abandon Studying the Historical Jesus?” by Scot McKnight) Christianity Today (April 2010): 28.

[37] Jones, New Christians, 36–37.

[38] Schleiermacher, On Religion, 99.






3 responses to “Reframing the Story: The End of the Emergent Conversation”

  1. Jaime Nava Avatar
    Jaime Nava

    Great article. I see, in some emergent theologians quoted above, a mixture of Law-Gospel reductionism, a post-modern historical criticism (based on emotions and not objectivity), and improper distinctions between the Left and Right Hand Realms.

  2. Sense and Sensibility: Emergent Mystique or Emerging Mistake? | thisweconfess Avatar

    […] in her May 13, 2011 article “Reframing the Story: The End of the Emergent Conversation.” (He is also critical of a corresponding CTCR document about the Emergent Church Movement. […]

  3. "Moruti" Lutz Avatar
    “Moruti” Lutz

    Quite a good overview of some key emergent ideas, I would say. And it also demonstrates, why some of these developmets may be rather important for the future of the Church in living the Gospel out in our day and age, though the author does not seem to like that too much.

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