An outsider’s history of the emerging church

I’m currently near the end of grading papers for the summer intensive class of systematic theology 502 here at Fuller. This is a class that covers mostly Christology as well as pneumatology and aspects of sanctification. I’m just the TA, but the professor involves his TAs a lot in the class, so I’ve gotten pretty good experience with grading and teaching.

Generally, I’ve found, there’s always one or two students who will write on the emerging church. Often, I’ve found, these are theological treatise’s against the emerging church which generally make use of D.A. Carson’s book, then go about cherry picking quotes in order to “suggest” that the emerging church is “reminiscent” of gnosticism, or some other major heresy. Now, having written a lot on the emerging church over the years, I’m pretty good with that category, and generally find that the criticisms are really awkward and shallow. Which is a shame. One reason these works really frustrate me is that the emerging church really needs criticism, but it needs real criticism based on what it is and what it does rather than on categories that others are trying to place on it from the outside in order to dismiss its oftentimes helpful reforms.

The trouble now is that there is a defensive stance that tends to brace itself against the invalid criticisms and which, then, ignores a needed critique. This is trouble because if there is not a consistent critique of the emerging/missional churches then these churches will again and again run into the same sorts of difficulties that so many small communities have already encountered.

I have been, admittedly, a bit of a cheerleader for the emerging/missional church. I’ve had the defensive stance as I hear and respond to the more misguided criticisms. I’ve even written on the emerging church in ways that idealizes a lot of the core principles without getting into the common problems. Mostly this is because outside the narrow circles of the initiated, there’s just not a lot of understanding of what the emerging/missional church is about, what the priorities are, or what the Biblical/Theological basis is. Instead, those with rather… inflammatory criticisms often have big audiences of one type or another and use their influence to push some pretty strong misunderstandings and, I think, bear false witness against many men and women who are seeking Christ. So, as I have studied more deeply I’ve become more curious about sharing why I think the emerging/missional churches are approaching what might be a more thoroughly Scriptural perspective on church than far too many churches throughout history.

But, as my last post suggests, a lot of my present blockage has to do with my own church experiences, and a lot of those experiences have intersected with emerging and missional churches. I must admit, I’ve never been a pastor or an obvious leader in any of these. My position has generally been what I call the educated outsider–part of the congregation, among the people, but with a theological and ministry education that often surpasses the paid staff. I certainly don’t see my education as giving me some kind of superiority over vocational ministers–and I certainly don’t think I know it all or have understood it all or can fix it all. One might even charge me as talking without any experience. But, even as I’ve not a great deal of experience as a vocational minister, my life history reveals having experienced a great deal of trauma–including living with poverty and sickness, disappointment and rejection, and all sorts of other things that give someone insight into the need for deep spiritual awareness and insight into spiritual counseling. So, I can’t show my resume here and point to all the ribbons or trophies of my pastoral insights, but I think I’ve lived enough life with people who have encountered darkness in life that I am not writing from an isolated academic position. My frustration with emerging churches comes from two directions: my education and training, and my experiences in life. The former places me as an insider in any church discussion, the latter has almost always placed me among the outsiders–who really need a church to be a church.

This is my introduction then to something I’m going to work on, both for myself and my renewed interest in writing recovery, and maybe as a helpful critique that might spur others to focus better on what are more actual problems and dangers in the emerging church–problems that are often carried over from other traditions and which continue to be a cancer in the communities.

So, with this as my preface, I’m going to write about my experiences and insights and whatever else comes to mind as I think back on my experiences and exposure to proto- and active emerging/missional churches.

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