(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…
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.