some critical thoughts on emerging church

For my recent paper on liberation and emerging church theology I first tied the two together as reflecting common approaches to theology and two perspectives on a shared theme of thelogy–that of dominated and dominant.

Then I moved on to offer some criticisms. The paper was already 10 pages over the assigned length by this point, so I couldn’t spend too much time on this section as probably properly warranted, but I did add a little bit. Given that my public writings tend to be more cheerleading for emerging/missional stuff it seems fitting to post that wee section here. My own experiences in emerging/missional churches have given me great hope for the possibilities, and great confidence that such possibilities are indeed possible as I’ve seen them work out in other communities. Yet, my own experiences more directly have pointed to problems and dysfunction, which is why I stepped back and tend towards focusing my thoughts on responding to what I see as some inherent problems–that might not show up everywhere, but make emerging churches too dependent on having the exact right mix of particular people in order not break down in predictable ways.

Here’s what I wrote, as a bit of exposure to my somewhat rather more broad, critiques of the movement:

The emerging church has neither the history nor the sophistication of liberation theology. As such, while there are many criticisms these are not always entirely perceptive as to the actual theology of emerging churches. This situation is not helped by the fact emerging church thinkers are apt to be elusive in responding to themes they feel are arising from foundationalist concerns. However, this does not mean there are not substantive criticisms and warnings possible. Two areas come to mind as the emerging church theology continues its development.[1] The first is a weakness that results as a possible over-emphasis on a strength. Emerging churches, and emerging church theology, tends towards a form of Christomonism, or maybe more precisely, “Jesumonism”. Emphasis on the work of Christ, and especially the teachings and model of Jesus during his earthly ministry, are indeed a necessary correction to much of Christian theology. However, over-emphasis on Jesus without a more fully trinitarian and eschatological perspective leads to distortions not only in theology but also in practice. Without, for instance, a more fully developed eschatology social activism loses its grounding and hope in the fulfillment of God’s work. Without a more fully developed pneumatology the boundaries of an open community remain undefined, allowing for either abusive leadership or unfocused anarchy.[2]

Second, the emerging church should be seen as yet unproven in its ability to persist as an influential movement within the church. While it does not deal with the same issues as liberation theology in having to resist a strong hierarchy that can undermine its goals from above, it is susceptible to being undermined from below, by tendencies that have historically undermined similar movements. These tendencies can best be understood as relating to the classic conservative and liberal division found in modernity. Emerging churches have, thus far, been able to participate together along the spectrum of beliefs that Murphy’s model encourages. However, the tension of the traditional arguments over leadership, Scripture, ethics, and other topics create constant pressure to depart from the spectrum and re-embrace a more firm dichotomy. Interestingly, this tension is often a result of the criticisms felt by emerging church thinkers from either liberal or conservative traditions. Those on the liberal side pressure the emerging churches to transform theology, to embrace a more progressive stance than the established Evangelical churches have done.[3] Those on the conservative side press emerging church thinkers for more substantive expressions on the unique contribution of Scripture and other theologically conservative positions.[4] These trends suggest the possibility emerging church thought could be eventually subsumed back within more established movements, no longer expressing any distinctives. In addition, emerging church theology can be accused of at times not living up to its rhetoric, especially in terms of leadership.[5]

[1] My criticisms come out of long participation in emerging churches, participating at NewSong church beginning in 1992 through 2003 as well as involvement with multiple other emerging church settings. See Gibbs and Bolger, 30 and 323ff. for a brief history of NewSong.

[2] Comblin’s book on the Holy Spirit is an excellent model for a holistic pneumatology. See also Patrick Oden, It’s a Dance: Moving with the Holy Spirit (Newberg, Ore.: Barclay Press, 2007). This could also be, to a lesser extent, a charge made against liberation theology. Both liberation theology and the emerging church arise in contexts very influenced by the Pentecostal and charismatic movements. Yet, rather than learning from these there seems to often be a reactionary tendency, letting these movements, in essence, own the topic of the Spirit. The topic of the Spirit is de-emphasized, it seems, because of the perceived over-enthusiasm or wrong emphases Pentecostal traditions exemplify.

[3] See for a expression of this tendency.

[4] See for an expression of this tendency.

[5] In my experiences, emerging churches suffer no less than other evangelical churches the effects of overly dominant leaders shaping communities according to their own particular vision, and creating hierarchies of influence and control based less on gifts and more on intra-church politics. This, in fact, can cause even more damage than in traditionally hierarchical churches as there is no accountability for such leaders and there is an increased vulnerability as participants assume there is more freedom and potential for change than might actually exist.

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