Are Emergents Just Rockin’ The Rock of Ages, or Are They Presenting Another Gospel? A Teacher Takes a Look

Phyllis Nissila

(NOTE: This entry is the result of several years’ worth of research and experiences with the various manifestations of the so-called Emergent, or Emerging, Church in my area alone. This phenomenon is taking place in nearly every nook, cranny, and denomination of the Body of Christ. I hope you will find the information in here of some use and that you will understand a little more what may have been happening in your own church. Many of the remaining, Bible-believing “remnant” have come out of such churches and are looking for other fellowships not infected with Emergent world views and practices, or they are meeting in small home groups of like mind and spirit).

Two hallmarks of Emergent churches seem to be Hollywood-worthy presentations and hip, “21st century” gospels. As one young Emergent leader explained to me recently, we need the upgrades to keep up with the times, especially for youth. Apparently, teen and twenty-somethings weaned on seven-second sound bites, flashy apps, and pop-think expect the same show on Sunday. Apparently, they are “just not into old -school church.” As a teacher, I have a few concerns about the changes. As a Christian, I have more.

Befitting the Body
The movie Monster-in-Law has a relevant scene. The prospective mother-in-law lobs a not-so-subtle volley at the prospective daughter-in-law about dieting to fit into the wedding dress. The fiancée shoots back, in effect, “I don’t fit the body to the dress. I fit the dress to the body.”

Emergent hipsters are adept at shape-shifting the message around pop culture via the latest marketing gizmos, much like changing the body to fit the dress. Of course, from an educator’s viewpoint, employing effective instructional devices, also a kind of marketing, is basically a good idea. Jesus, Himself, did that. He taught truth via parables, sand etchings, and miracles. He illustrated—became—redemption by whips, thorns, and nails.

Preaching the Gospel, however, is much more than the appearance of same in trendy threads and cultural relevance. No matter the presentation, it is first, last, and always about the true body of the message, even as Jesus Christ, Himself, is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). Sadly, amid the big screens, hip-hop, and flashy power points found in most Emergent church services, the body can be hard to find, if there at all, and, like avoiding certain foods to fit a wedding dress, what spiritual nutrients might be missing? When the dressing becomes more important than serving the milk—and meat—of the Word, what have we done? When one local Emergent pastor was asked when he would be teaching on certain weightier matters of Scripture he quipped, “We don’t have time for that. We just love Jesus. We’re pretty vanilla around here.” Really? Is that all the spiritual food you have?

The Eeeew! Factor
Another aspect of Emergent church services causing concern is the seeker friendly fad. A cousin to political correctness, and based upon the “felt needs” of the local prospective church members populace, seeker friendly-ism attempts to downplay or discard hard truths lest the “Eeeew!” factor freaks some out (in this case, the controversial, bloody, but ultimately triumphant, history of good versus evil). Better not come on too strong or they might roll their eyes and go somewhere else for coffee and communion. But when earnest, God-starved seekers—of any age—step into a house of worship expecting real answers for real pain or comfort for grief and instead get a rock and roll concert sprinkled with glittery bits of Gospel-lite, what will become of them? Do we really minister adequately when we talk only of the love of God, like my pastor friend, and ignore His justice? After all, it’s God’s love for us that visited His justice—our justice—on His Son. And it’s because of the justice meted out on the cross, that we have any hope of true salvation, healing, and deliverance.

In the classroom, I know that my students also need the good, the bad, the beautiful—and the sometimes mind-numbingly dull—elements of whatever subject I teach. All of it. If I put off or don’t detail the consequences of procrastination I don’t help my Effective Learning students pass their classes. If I skip lessons on comma usage and subject/verb agreement I enable poor writing skills.

Believers need the entire scope and sequence, too. How can tempering the Gospel to satisfy the whims of the temperamental (read: all of us) offer any more than a Band Aid for the moral and spiritual malaise that debilitates the race (read: all of us)? Worse, how can adjusting the Good News to corroborate with the latest news shine a steady light? A current addition to Emergent-think, for example, is that hell is a little too harsh a concept these days. Applying critical-think to that notion leads to the only logical conclusion: the pain, humiliation, and shame of what Jesus did on the cross was…hmmm…for what, then? And the light flickers…

Getting Straight
Emergent Church movers and shakers like to parallel their doctrine with the spirit of the new age and, in many circles, the New Age spirit. The spin on hell, for example, as noted above. But that’s just the latest. One hears of all manner of spiritual upgrades for the up-and-coming: gold dust and feathers wafting from rafters, uncontrollable laughing, shaking, and animal sounds as the “spirit” moves, and the superiority of a business model of church growth versus the growth that comes by faith which comes by hearing the Word of God (Romans 10:17). One also hears and reads about a new “unity” with an amalgam of other faiths and philosophies—even ancient rites unearthed for modern “mystics”. Is Jesus no longer the only Way, Truth, and Life? Is the Rock of our Salvation crumbling?

As an instructor, I can labor into the night designing a snazzy new delivery system for the same old subject matter. Just like Emergent church marketing specialists, I can present online videos, bring in 3-D illustrations, or plan field trips for enrichment. And it’s a lot of fun. However, I may not alter the core content of the curriculum. Accredited coursework has been aligned with educational standards previously agreed upon by people whose job it is to make sure our students get the lessons required—and paid for.

The Teacher of Teachers, Preacher of Preachers—the Word Made Flesh—also emphasized alignment with the core content of our faith: the ancient texts and testimonies. Consider Jesus’ post-resurrection instruction to two seekers on a hot, dusty road in Israel somewhere between Jerusalem and Emmaus one day circa 33 A.D. or thereabouts. Apparently, even at the scene the two had a hard time comprehending.
The travelers were discussing recent events when Jesus happened by. Only they did not know it was Him at first. He asked them to explain what had been going on—about Him. At a certain point, He interrupted their narrative: “O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken(,)” He said. “And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24: 25, 27, KJV).

Jesus, too, aligned Himself. Do we shun that now? And where will those who assign themselves the liberty to morph the message take the non-discerning and the un-schooled next?

Big or Better?
Emergents also seem to promote an odd concept for believers: big is better, for such must be the underlying assumption of a gospel linked with other gospels and spread thin to cover as many as possible. As if gain were godliness (see 1Timothy 6:5). As if, somehow, if we look, sound, and smell good, if we put on a snappy show and corral as many of the contemporary world view as we can we will be able to engineer the kingdom down here—in spite of Jesus’ commentary on its actual location (see John 18:36).

Both B.C. and A.D. the Story of Stories usually features a limited cast and crew: an old couple waiting for a promised child, a few hundred versus thousands in a Valley called Jezreel, a band of twelve, two or more gathered together. One, on a cross. History reveals that it usually comes down to a remnant remaining steadfast to the Judeo-Christian God, though other gods find it easy enough to gain power, money, and multitudes. This continues today, but seems intensified. The number of those adhering to the core tenants of the Gospel while resisting the gospels du-jour seems to be dwindling. Yet, this is no reflection on the integrity of the Word or the walk. Even Jesus experienced a sudden decrease of followers when the truth was offensive, unbelievable, or required too much of them (see John 6). But, then, He never promised us the Rose Garden.

Back in the classroom, I can also always expect some students to drop or fail the class in spite of my best efforts. Maybe I remind one student of nasty Aunt Harriet; maybe subject/verb agreement phobia comes to critical mass for another; maybe family, health, or legal issues cause a sudden change of plans for a third. Or maybe some students simply decide to not fulfill their part of the instructional bargain and they fail the class. Whatever is the case, I let them go; wish them well. As much as I care for my students, the focus must be the course content, not the length of the class list. Likewise, how big or small a church is has little to do with the saving content for the people therein. Indeed, we near the precipice if we hold the Gospel hostage to numbers. In fact, the small church group that clings to biblical integrity is to be commended. Even Jesus spoke of the few. In Matthew chapter 7 He notes the path to life is “narrow” and “few there be that find it,” while “broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat” (v.13-14). In God’s story, there have even been times when the number of the righteous came down to the head count of one family.

What He Said
Hip, slick, and cool are not words found in Scripture in reference to the Gospel or the preaching of the Gospel. Words like hate and persecution were more the norm when prophets and preachers held forth in closed rooms or in prisons. The same happens in places around the world today. We all want to be noticed, loved, accepted, and this can happen as we minister, but Jesus didn’t spare words when He prophesied the other possibilities: “If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15: 20); “And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake” (Matthew 10:22). We’ve been given fair warning.

Seekers may or may not be friendly; churches may or may not grow big; life may or may not be prosperous as the world defines prosperity, and appearances in thought, word, and deed can deceive. But we are still entrusted with the task of spreading the authentic Word of God. And to ignore the evil that enters the church that leaves its doctrinal door ajar is to ignore the primal lesson: guard against snakes in sanctuaries.

Emergent churches may be rockin’ the Rock of Ages but are they presenting the real Gospel, the whole Gospel, and nothing but? Discern. As Shakespeare wrote, “all that (glitters) is not gold,” to which I would add, “or God.”

NOTE:The sites below are just examples of the many sites available for the reader who wishes to do more research on this and related topics.

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7 Responses to Are Emergents Just Rockin’ The Rock of Ages, or Are They Presenting Another Gospel? A Teacher Takes a Look

  1. Wow that was a lot of reading!

    The first question that comes to mind after reading your opinion on the so-called emergent church is this: Will Heaven be a quiet, boring, dusty Church with no life? Or will it be the most miraculous, spectacular, 3-D, 4-D, loud, joyous experience ever known?

    According to the little we know of Heaven (from the word’s recorded in the entire holy bible), it is beyond our comprehension to even remotely understand or conceive. The glimpses that were given boggle the mind! When the Apostle Paul was given his vision of Heaven, he was forbid to even write of it; that is if he could have even found the words to describe such beauty and glory.

    Now there is some truth to what you have written, but I do not believe it is exclusive to that of the Emergent Church. How many versions of Christianity have sprouted over the years that play on the Truth of scripture or use tools of our modern age in presentation but do not offer True Gospel?

    Jehovah’s Witnesses for example have quite a sterile environment for worship and study. Attending even one service causes those of us who know Truth to want to run for the hills, or grab a mic and pray out loud for deliverence. They are great people, but their theology and faith have deviated so far from Truth as to have come up with an entirely different interpretaion of The Gospel and Jesus.

    Others include the Mormons, the Catholics (those who profess the worship of Mary and the so-called “saints”), Christian Science, Christadelphianists, Scientologists, Unitarian Universalists.. the list goes on and on.

    I do believe there are churchs out there that are capitalizing on our need as fallen sinners to have an emptiness filled. Just as T.V. can fill that void temporarily, they rely on spectacual presentaions. But this is absolutley a one-sided view if you don’t take into account all of those churches who present the Gospel in Truth that also include these elements.

    If you attend a church that starts it’s service off with a light show, video and an amazing worship band that leads the congregation in a loud presentation of rediculous worship, then what is wrong with that? Did not David himself intentionally become “undignified” before the Lord? If I remember correctly he stripped down to his undergarments and danced through the streets, while singing loudly and playing music. Sure people were offended, but they simply didn’t get it. There were so busy living in their glass houses to notice True Worship.

    We live in a Modern Era. How do you propose we get in touch with the youth of our society in this country (i.e. the USA) without the use of modern tools? If I place myself back in the days of the first century church, and even so far as when Christ walked amongst the people, did he not use radical ways to get peoples attention?

    I’d say walking on water was pretty intense. Converting water into wine is definetly on my bucket list. Raising the dead.. now that one is just out of reach!

    If our light shows and music are truly that offensive to God Almighty, then how offended was He when He created the Sun, the Moon and the Stars?

    We should put on the Armor of God each morning (as Paul describes) and with a spirt of decernment take an account of those whom we worship with and whom teach us scripture. I believe your focusing on the wrong issue. It’s not the lights, the videos, the crisp presentations, the “hollywood-esqness” of it all. Its the Gospel. If it is not being preached then let that Church or those pushing this message (i.e. wealth/health, cults, prosperity gospel, etc.) be God’s to deal with. Talk to the Pastor(s) and question their approach. Do your part as an evangelist but then leave the rest up to God.


    • pnissila says:

      Hi, Kris,

      Thank you for taking the time to read. Perhaps I can clarify my stand a little better.

      As an instructor, as implied, I do attend very carefully to how I present material. I take advantage of the latest that our so-called “smart classrooms” offer, when I am lucky enought to be assigned one of those! Often, I have to teach in classrooms with only white boards and an overhead. Don’t get me wrong, I can have fun in those, too ;). But I prefer the videos, audios, and other snazzy resources because I know all of this can reach more learning styles and provide a much more lively class, at least, keep some from falling asleep and drooling on the desks when we have to conquer the uses and abuses of commas, or some such topic…

      Likewise, I can appreciate, as I hope I have also indicated, an attention-getting presentation of the Gospel. I reference, for example, Jesus’ own use of miracles as well as parables and His own Body on the Cross to teach the tenets of the faith. I have enjoyed many original and creative presentations in modern ministries, as well. I used to write “contemporary Christian music” and perform with a band in the eighties complete with drums, a couple of guitars, and a keyboard. I hope you do understand it’s not the presentations, themselves, that cause concern. It’s the core content. Some of what glitters IS gold–but not all, to put the sentiment I close the commentary with another way.

      Bells and whistles may draw our attention, but if not to core content (as in curricula) or the core tenets of Christianity (as in the one Way, Truth, and Life) then we must discern. And warn.

      If it is possible for you to access some of the excellent resources I’ve included for reference at the end of my post, perhaps there you may find some insight expressed in other ways that may shed more light on these matters for you. And there are many more resources, too.


      • Hello! Thank you for your response! 🙂

        I visited each site referenced and read through much of the data. On a few of the sites I had to skim as there were volumes of links etc., to sift through.

        From the links you provided though I saw a variety of ideas on Christianity; none of which are exclusive to the so-called Emergent Church Movement.

        Included in your link was everything from The Message to The Purpose Driven Life to Church’s that Prophecy and produce Christians who are convinced that their Holy Laughter is from God. These things are and have been an ever present variation of peoples take on Christianity since the first century.

        There are movements within the confines of these groups (listed through your links) that I would say, “Yes I see your point on this New Age attempt to nullify The Way and the Original Purpose. To create a purely emotional response with no regard to hard truths that are already difficult to blend with a modern society.” They are there and in such a great multitude that I see why some have the need to label them.

        But labels are dangerous. I think we are quick to judge and in doing so cause more harm than good. I think we are all guilty of this. I know I am.

        Take for example The Message. I read through the link you provided that contains side-by-side scriptural experts showing certain innaccuracies of this translation. I don’t want to play on a slippery slope with the Word, but I don’t think The Message was every intended, nor should be used, as a Study Bible. It is what it is. A paraphrased translation using a modern approach to English with street talk/slang thrown in. Something the youth of this generation would be far more adept to understanding than say Romans 11:13 in the KJV “For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office”.


        I forced myself to buy a copy of The Message last year and read it. Or most of it. Sure there are scriptures that I have to stop and re-read several times to understand how the editor took Scripture A (in the original manuscripts or widely accepted modern english literal translations such as the NASB) and recreated it to now say this in Scripture B. There are definetly some passages that I feel he took liberties with. Overall though I really love this translation. For what it is it can bring out some things a dryer more literal translation would have a harder time expressing. It itself is NOT a study bible. I would use it within my studies though to see how a widely used modern language thought is being understood.

        Over the last few years I have attended several churchs that are outside of my “norm”. Church’s where people freely speak in tounges, churchs where the Lords Supper is only observed once a year, churchs where trendiness and over-the-top light shows struggle to catch on.

        One thing I have noted is that the core of scripture overall is followed. There are variations in how they approach worship, and there are issues with some of their practices I would most gladly debate; but overall they honor Christ and as a community do their best to understand His Message.

        I don’t want to come across as negative or naive. I am simply saying that before we start labeling individuals as part of the so-called Emergent Church in a negative light, it should be in the interest of The Kingdom to investigate the claim further. In my own approach to this so-called movement I have had to reexamine my understanding of the why’s and how’s of a modern sunday presentation.

        Are these modern Church’s excluding Christ or simply trying to find news ways for those in attendance to meet Him? And if the former and not the latter, then how do I do my part in raising His banner high enough for them to truly see?

        1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12 are amazing examples of inclusive love and expound on what it means to be a Christ follower.

        My point is not to be (political reference aside) incredibly liberal with The Word; nor is my approach to the Emergent Movement and those who profess to be part of it one of pure acceptance and blind faith. As a sinner saved by Grace when presented with someone who is saying, “Christ is HERE”, or “Chris is THERE!” I have to in prayer, suplication and study do my best to understand and determine which Christ they are refering to. If it is not the Messiah of scripture then I will confront it. If it is Christ then I will accept it and in love welcome these strange and different brothers and sisters.


  2. Carl Gordon says:

    I just re-read your thoughts on the Emergent (et al) movement. After 3-5 years of personally finding various “conversations” in and around the city I live in it seems you’ve presented enough detail to be able to recognize how those variations deviate from the original Text on Who the real Jesus is and what He did for mankind. Many thanks! I also greatly appreciate the links for further research.
    All the best,
    Carl Gordon


  3. scott burson says:

    You don’t have any idea what the Emerging Conversation is about. Your article is one-sided, superficial and misleading.


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