New Kinds of Christians? (pt. 3)

“The concept of seeker-sensitivity, properly understood, is not new and not controversial — because it’s biblical. In fact, the apostle Paul said, ‘Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity’ (Col. 4:5). He also said, “’ have become all things to all people . . . for the sake of the gospel’ (1 Cor. 9:22-23).” — Mark Mittelberg, Associate Director of the Willow Creek Association

“In their zeal for converts, seeker-sensitive churches may convert God’s message into a form more likely to impress but less likely to save the unbeliever. If cultural relevance is our guiding principle for evangelism and church growth, we can become irrelevant to God’s agenda, for the gospel will always contest, subvert, and make foolish ‘the wisdom of the world’ (1 Cor. 1:20).” — Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D., Denver Seminary

These two quotes capture the essence of the opposing viewpoints that surround the seeker-sensitive model for “doing church” in contemporary culture (the topic of part 2).  Funny how the proponent of each perspective provides a scriptural basis for their point of view.  There are interesting ways in which these seemingly opposing perspectives demonstrate, in different ways, the same reality of “an evangelical church [that] is steeped in and shaped by the modernist mindset” (Glen Stanton’s review of A New Kind of Christian, CT June 10, 2002; which we previously considered).  Stanton (drawing from McLaren’s book) described characteristics of “Christ molded by modernity” that find both sides of the “seeker-sensitive” model wanting:

We run our churches with the efficiency o fthe industrial age.  We make ourselves and conduct our services in the spirit of capitalist consumerism.  In the modernist exaltation of knowledge, we teeter on a biblicism that sees the Christian faith as a religon of the book rather than a relationship with the Triune God and our neighbors.  We often make the Bible the foundation and center of our faith.  But, as Neo tells Dan [again, from McLaren], “the Bible never speaks of itself this way.'” It speaks of Christ as the foundation of the church; thus we are historically known as Christ-ones.

Before we turn to what McLaren and the “emerging church” have to say about becoming “new kinds of Christians,” read the essays by Mittleberg and Groothuis (quoted above) from “Pro and Con: the Seeker-Sensitive Church Movement” posted on the Christian Research Institute’s website http://www.equip.org/article/pro-and-con-the-seeker-sensitive-church-movement/

Emerging Christians

“It is said that emerging Christians confess their faith like mainliners—meaning they say things publicly they don’t really believe. They drink like Southern Baptists—meaning, to adapt some words from Mark Twain, they are teetotalers when it is judicious. They talk like Catholics—meaning they cuss and use naughty words. They evangelize and theologize like the Reformed—meaning they rarely evangelize, yet theologize all the time. They worship like charismatics—meaning with their whole bodies, some parts tattooed. They vote like Episcopalians—meaning they eat, drink, and sleep on their left side. And, they deny the truth—meaning they’ve got a latte-soaked copy of Derrida in their smoke- and beer-stained backpacks.” — Scot McKnight

According to a recent “topics” post in Christianity Today online, the “emergent movement” that was the source of so much evangelical buzz in the late ’90s and early 2000s “has seemingly dropped off the map as of late.” CT assigns some of the blame to “the difficulty in defining just what the Emergent Movement is.”  Led by authors and pastors like Brian McLaren (A New Kind of Christian) and Tony Jones (The Church is Flat, 2011), emergent churches “sought to reshape how to ‘do church’ in the postmodern culture, often challenging traditional Christian understandings of faith and practice” (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/topics/e/emergent-movement/)

CT first took note of the movement in a 2004 article by Andy Crouch, “The Emergent Mystique” (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2004/november/12.36.html?order=&start=1).  Crouch wrote, “not since the Jesus Movement of the early 1970s has a Christian phenomenon been so closely entangled with the self-conscious cutting edge of U.S. culture.”  He described the movements at “frequently urban, disproportionately young, overwhelmingly white, and very new,” noting that few of the churches that identify with the movement “have been in existence for more than five years.”  Crouch’s article focused particularly on the Mars Hill church (established in 1999), pastored by Rob Bell, and Brian McLaren, whose book A New Kind of Christian provided inspiration to Bell.

At the time McLaren was hesitant to to call the “emerging church” a movement (the term “Emergent” is usually used to describe the loose network of churches that identify as “emerging” as a new way to “do church” in postmodern culture).  He considered it more of a mindset–a mindset that grew from conversations about what a “post-evangelical” church would look like.  Crouch describes McLaren sketching “a big circle labeled ‘self,’ a smaller circle next to it labeled ‘church,’ and a tiny circle off to the side labeled ‘world.'”

“This has been evangelicalism’s model, [McLaren] says. Fundamentally it’s about getting yourself ‘saved’—in old-style evangelicalism—or improving your life in the new style. Either way, the Christian life is really about you and your needs. Once your needs are met, then we think about how you can serve the church. And then, if there’s anything left over, we ask how the church might serve the world.”

He starts drawing again. “But what if it went the other way? This big circle is the world—the world God loved so much that he sent his Son. Inside that circle is another one, the church, God’s people chosen to demonstrate his love to the world. And inside that is a small circle, which is your self. It’s not about the church meeting your needs, it’s about you joining the mission of God’s people to meet the world’s needs.”

The video below comes from a report done by a local PBS station in 2009.  The quality isn’t the best, but it does a good job of looking at the “emerging” phenomenon from all angles.  You’ll see Brian McLaren interviewed, as well as Scot McKnight (quoted above).  We’ll come back to McKnight (now at Northern Baptist Seminary), who will tell us more about “Five Streams of the Emerging Church.”

Emerging churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures. This definition encompasses nine practices. Emerging churches (1) identify with the life of Jesus, (2) transform the secular realm, and (3) live highly communal lives. Because of these three activities, they (4) welcome the stranger, (5) serve with generosity, (6) participate as producers, (7) create as created beings, (8) lead as a body, and (9) take part in spiritual activities. — Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Baker Academic, 2005)

Scot McKnight cites the definition quoted above in his 2007 CT article, “Five Streams of the Emerging Church” (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/february/11.35.html?start=1).  McKnight’s piece presents “five themes” in the emerging church which he describes as “streams flowing into the emerging lake. No one says the emerging movement is the only group of Christians doing these things, but together they crystallize into the emerging movement.”  Here are the key points of his “five themes” (his elaborations on each are worth reading if you are interested!):

  • Prophetic (or at least provocative):  One of the streams flowing into the emerging lake is prophetic rhetoric. The emerging movement is consciously and deliberately provocative. Emerging Christians believe the church needs to change, and they are beginning to live as if that change had already occurred.
  • Postmodern:  When the evangelical world prohibited postmodernity, as if it were fruit from the forbidden tree, [some of us] chose to eat it to see what it might taste like. We found that it tasted good, even if at times we found ourselves spitting out hard chunks of nonsense.  Postmodernity cannot be reduced to the denial of truth. Instead, it is the collapse of inherited metanarratives (overarching explanations of life) . . . because of the impossibility of getting outside their assumptions.
  • Praxis-oriented:  The emerging movement’s connection to postmodernity may grab attention and garner criticism, but what most characterizes emerging is the stream best called praxis—how the faith is lived out.  [he lists some specific sub-categories:  worship, mission, and orthopraxy (right living).  “The contention is that how a person lives is more important than what he or she believes.”
  • Post-evangelical:  The emerging movement is a protest against much of evangelicalism as currently practiced. It is post-evangelical in the way that neo-evangelicalism (in the 1950s) was post-fundamentalist. [he offers a particular emphasis here on “post-systematic theology”]
  • Political:  Put directly, they are Democrats. And that spells “post” for conservative-evangelical-politics-as-usual.

McKnight’s conclusion:  “If I were a prophet, I’d say that it will influence most of evangelicalism in its chastened epistemology (if it hasn’t already), its emphasis on praxis, and its missional orientation. I see the emerging movement much like the Jesus and charismatic movements of the 1960s, which undoubtedly have found a place in the quilt called evangelicalism.”

My wife is a quilter, so I know something of how the process unfolds from having watched her work over the years.  The finished product we call a “quilt” it is comprised of myriad sections of colorful cloths, sewn together in beautiful patterns, then laid over a sturdier piece of single fabric that acts as a foundation.  In between is sandwiched the “batting,” which makes the whole finished piece much more comfortable.  The three parts are then “quilted” together into what we call a quilt, the delicate stitching being what holds it all together.

If modern evangelicalism is indeed a “quilt,” then perhaps what’s most important is not just the variety of colorful contemporary expressions by themselves; nor simply the plain, sturdy backing of historic Christian orthodoxy; nor even the fluffy batting of cultural relevance that makes everything comfortable.  What is most important is the thread of faith that holds everything together:  one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.

About Rick D. Williams

Teaching and writing have been my life’s work for over two decades as a journalist and educator. My degrees in History were earned at Illinois State University, and I’ve done additional graduate work at Lincoln Christian Seminary and Urbana Theological Seminary. Over the years I’ve led conference workshops and authored articles and book chapters on topics ranging from religious education and international student ministry to state and local history.

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2 Responses to New Kinds of Christians? (pt. 3)

  1. Joy (Johnson) Block says:

    Your comparison to quilting really struck me, as I’ve tried my hand at it of late. The part that I find fun is piecing the top – sewing together all the different shaped & colored pieces – which I had always assumed was the definition of quilting. But actually, the term quilting refers to sewing the three layers together; without that, you don’t have a quilt.
    Now that I teach and study Asian American history, embracing the differences in our society is something I do every day. And going to JCS and Asbury College for school taught me appreciation for all of the beautiful, interdenominational diversity of the Church as well. But as fun as diversity can be, it is a pile of rags on life’s sewing table without the thread of God himself that turns it into a usable quilt. Thanks for that reminder, Mr. Williams.
    Also, excellent study of the emerging church. I attended a church like this part time for a few years in Lexington in the early ’00s – started by seminary students who wanted to form a church downtown with the homeless. It turned out to be pretty formative for my understanding of Christ’s body, even though it wasn’t my cup of tea long term.

    • Rick D. Williams says:

      I really appreciate your observations, Joy! I don’t imagine that quilt image would have struck me so vividly if it hadn’t been for all the evenings I’ve spent watching my wife work. This was the first time I used this material in Worldviews. It’s funny when I look back over the years, the thing that changes most in the class is the last month or so, as I try to deal with the “latest” trends impacting faith and culture. (of course, usually by the time I get to it, that trend is already fading!). Thanks for the comments!

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