Tony Campolo, who, despite absolutely awful theology for some reason continues to be an exceedingly popular Christian speaker and author, recently weighed in on the Emerging Church in an article published in the Winston-Salem Journal. He describes the movement as expressing “progressive evangelicalism,” and defines this as meaning that they hold to traditional Protestant theological distinctives while rejecting the structures and styles of institutionalized Christianity.
Most conservative, Reformed believers would have no issue with people meeting in small home-based churches rather than in the type of church buildings that are foreign to the Scriptures. As a matter of fact, church often seems to work better in small numbers than in large. “The Emergent Church turns away from spending money on buildings. Instead, most congregations meet as “house churches” or gather in makeshift storefronts and warehouses.” While I believe that statement is, in theory, true, when these churches begin to grow they will have no choice but to either continually split into smaller groups or invest in buildings. At the beginning of the movement it is easy to reject a church building, but as the emerging movement picks up steam and more people join it, buildings will become as much a part of the movement as they are to mainline evangelicalism. Mars Hill Church, one of the more significant emerging churches, has grown to thousands of people, obviously far beyond what can meet in homes.
Campolo goes on to describe the way these churches function. Community and equality are emphasized, authority is de-emphasized. Involvement is emphasized and beaurocracy is not. Fine. But then we get to the part that really makes me nervous.
“The worship in emergent churches often includes classical music, and such congregations often follow a more formal liturgical style that may even incorporate such ancient forms of praying as that of monastic orders.” Of course I have no issues with classical music and with forsaking contemporary worship tunes. But then Campolo mentions prayer. These monastic forms of worship involve centering prayer, contemplative prayer, the labyrinth and so on. I have written about these before so will not repeat my thoughts here.
The article continues “The Emergent Church is … not about to damn the likes of Gandhi or the Dali Lama to hell simply because they have not embraced Christianity.” Uh oh. This is where things deviate very seriously from evangelicalism. How can they not teach what the Bible teaches with painstaking clarity – that without Christ no one can be saved? Gandhi and the Dali Lama, while they may be good by worldly standards, are lost without Christ. The best of what we bring as unbelievers is still valueless and absolutely corrupted by our sin. Evangelicals are not the ones who make exclusivisitic claims about salvation – God is the One who does this! When believers teach that Christ is the only way to salvation, they merely echo what the Bible teaches time and again. To deny this is to deny the very foundations of Christianity.
“In many ways, these Christians express a postmodern mindset that may come across as being somewhat “new age.” They see care for the environment as a major Christian responsibility. They are attracted to Christian mysticism. They talk a great deal about “spiritual formation” and focus significant attention on the healing of illnesses through prayer.” Oh my. Mysticism, new age. What is going on here? Earlier Camplo wrote that “The Emergent Church is often somewhat indifferent to theological and social issues that seem urgent to mainstream evangelicalism. These church members tend to think that the crusade against homosexual marriage is a waste of time and energy.” While I can understand their hesitation to become involved in social issues, why would they instead focus on environmental issues? Is there not a contradiction here?
“This new expression of Christianity is growing faster than most sociologists could have predicted. It is thriving, in part, because so many people are fed up with the arguing and pettiness that they claim are all too evident in the rest of Christendom.” This is an important point. People are fed up with arguing and pettiness, so have left to begin a church that they feel does a better job of living out what God calls them to be and to do. The beauty of beginning your own church is that you can make it into what you want it to be. You can take a bit of Protestantism, a bit of Catholicism, a bit of new age and a bit of whatever else you want, mix it all together, and create your own version of Christianity. It may bear little resemblance to biblical Christianity, but at least it will make you happy, at least for a while. This is what I believe lies at the heart of the emerging church movement – a dislike of traditional Protestant distinctives. It seems to me that most emerging churches place greater emphasis on being different than being biblical. They want to forsake doctrine as well as buildings, biblical worship along with theological distinctives.
If this movement were merely about throwing off the trappings of the institutionalized church I would be more sympathetic towards it. Perhaps there are some churches where this is the case. But whenever I read broad descriptions of the movement it seems it is geared towards discarding theology that should be near and dear to the Protestant heart. So long as that is the case, I can have little sympathy for it.