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Emergent Church — Nothing New Under The Sun

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The November issue of Christianity Decay Today featured an article entitled The Emergent Mystique which examines the so-called emergent church. The subheading says ‘The ’emerging church’ movement has generated a lot of excitement but only a handful of congregations. Is it the wave of the future or a passing fancy?’

The emergent church, knowing elsewhere as the emerging church seems to defy description. I have read long, drawn-out discussions where various members of this movement have tried to put together a working definition. Generally they were unable to agree on one. Andy Crouch, who wrote the article in Christianity Today, says ”the phrase ’emerging church’ captures several important features of a new generation of churches. They are works in progress, often startlingly improvisational in their approach to everything from worship to leadership to preaching to prayer. Like their own members, they live in the half-future tense of the young, oriented toward their promise rather than their past. But if their own focus is on what they are ’emerging’ toward, perhaps most surprising are the places they are emerging from.’ These churches are emerging from what they consider the dust and ashes of the failure of the modern age of Christianity and are emerging towards a new way of doing church — church for the post-modern generation. Men whose names continually arise in discussions about the emerging church are N.T. Wright and Brian McLaren. The article in Christianity Today focuses on Rob Bell, who was influenced by both of these men, and began Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Bell is a young, trendy type of guy who probably could have made a good living selling cars. But at the age of twenty eight he planted Mars Hill and in just a few years has seen attendance swell to thousands of people every Sunday. He is known for doing just about anything to make a point in a sermon, even bringing live animals onto the stage with him or covering himself with a Jewish prayer shawl. He has tried to rediscover rabbinical preaching, eschewing traditional preaching methods.

In the interview Bell and his wife revealed how they began their journey away from traditional church. They tell how they became increasingly disillusioned with church, even the church they were running. But then the breakthrough came when they ‘discover[ed] the Bible as a human product,’ as Rob puts it, rather than the product of divine fiat. ‘The Bible is still in the center for us,’ Rob says, ‘but it’s a different kind of center. We want to embrace mystery, rather than conquer it.” It was only through their discovery that the Bible is a human product and not a book that was sanctioned or decreed by God that they were able to see things clearly. They continue, ”I grew up thinking that we’ve figured out the Bible,’ Kristen says, ‘that we knew what it means. Now I have no idea what most of it means. And yet I feel like life is big again’like life used to be black and white, and now it’s in color.”

The author writes, ‘An earlier generation of evangelicals, forged in battles with 20th-century liberalism, prided themselves on avoiding theological shades of gray, but their children see black, white, and gray as all equally unlifelike. They are looking for a faith that is colorful enough for their culturally savvy friends, deep enough for mystery, big enough for their own doubts. To get there, they are willing to abandon some long-defended battle lines.’

It would seem from the article that the Bells have given up on trying to discern what the Bible really means; that their view of the human origins of Scripture have made them decide that the Bible is not a book God gave for us to pour over and study and do all we can to understand. Rather, it is a mysterious book that we can never really know. We have to let go of the black and white of past days — the black and white of saying that we know what the Bible means — and instead embrace color — new, trendy ways of doing church. We have to embrace doubt and mystery.

If we cannot know God through His Word, then we have to find him in other ways. It is little wonder, then, that the emergent church is embracing mystical practices of days past. The labyrinth and Catholic mystics find their way into emergent worship. There is renewed emphasis on meditation and new methods of preaching. The Bible is taught as a guidebook, not as an authoritative manual for the Christian life.

I have no issue with worshipping God in new ways, provided those ways are Scriptural. I have no issue with different styles of delivering a message or having a pastor with two-tone hair. But when the emphasis of the church is removed from the Word of God and the focus is placed instead on mystery, on experience and on removing the old simply for the sake of removing it, I have to object.

And here we see that the emergent church is nothing new, for it merely harkens back to the continual cycle of the church. The Bible is rediscovered and soon left behind. The emergent church removes the emphasis from the Word, portraying it as too deep and mysterious to understand, and emphasizing instead mystery and doubt. Does this sound like anything we have seen in history?

Perhaps what is most tragic, or even ironic, about this movement is that many people involved in it believe they are doing something that is original, yet this simply is not the case. As the wisest man once said, ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’ The emergent church proves this axiom to be true.

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