Emerging from What?

Jim Bonewald has gone and written up his thoughts about the Emerging Church (“EC” hereafter) after I asked him for them. Thanks, Jim! I appreciate his perspective. I’ve been poking around the edges of the EC and I like some of what I hear, but other bits… I’m not comfortable with. So hearing Jim’s thoughts helps me to see what is attractive about the EC to protestants. The EC and I agree on one thing: there is something very, very wrong with the Evangelical church. From Wikipedia, here’s are three general prescriptions EC makes for the (protestant) church:

  • Christians should go out into the world to serve God rather than isolate themselves into communities of like-minded individuals.
  • Teaching should focus on narrative presentations of faith and the bible rather than systematic theology or biblical reductionism.
  • While not neglecting the study of scripture or the love of the church, Christians should focus their lives on the worship and emulation of the person of Jesus.

These are all good things, and Jim seems to agree with them. In fact he’s the one who first pointed out to me that the EC is a rejection of the cultural ties that have begun to bind evangelicals so tightly. Jim sees it as a possible meeting of liberal protestants and conservative evangelicals. Now, the realistic side of me wishes them well. If they hope to move the behemoth that is the protestant church onto an entirely new track, they’ll need all the help they can get. And, if I’m honest with myself, I’ll admit that their prescription for themselves is more attainable, more realistic than the cure I would propose. Because, in the end, even if EC were a wholesale success, you’d still be left with the product of modernism: the reformation and the 35,000 denominations that we have today. In fact, I don’t see how the EC could attain any measure of success without causing more division within the protestant church. The EC recognize some big problems that do need to be addressed, but some of those things are what other protestants consider core to their identity. That “narrative presentation” that the EC seeks to promote? Many conservative Christians will see it as a liberal, wishy-washy attempt to deny the plain meaning of scripture. They will be rightfully suspicous. Sola Scriptura is a hallmark of protestant thought, of course, so any “narrative” approach to scripture is fraught with danger. Now, anyone who knows me will not be surprised at my perscription for the ailing protestant church. Instead of branching off on yet another ahistorical reinvention of yourself, return to the church of the Apostles! Yes, of course I mean the Orthodox or Catholic traditions. The EC cherry-pick ideas, theological approaches from both, but shy away from embracing them or seeking communion with them. Why? Because they’re still dedicated to the protestant status quo. So, my question is: why not give up on the status quo? I know its not easy for anyone to do, that it must always be an individuals decision, and that the Catholics nor the Orthodox are perfect. On Thursday mornings, my priest leads a study group. The group meets at such a ridiculously early hour that it takes a great effort for most Orthodox to make it. So, until a few weeks ago, my priest was the only Orthodox person in the group. The rest were Mennonite. They’re reading “Mountain of Silence” and, when I managed to start attending they had just finished the chapter on logismoi, or the passions. I listened as these Calvinist-influenced Mennonites discussed the discovery of the Christian idea that we could fight sin, that sin didn’t originate inside our own degenerate souls, and that we could, in fact, live pure lives. At the next gathering, someone brought C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and read a passage where Lewis compares dealing with sin to coming upon rats in the cellar: If there are rats in a cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. … The rats are always there in the cellar… We all noticed how different that idea was (“The rats are always there”) from what we had discussed the previous week. As one person put it: You can starve the rats and they won’t be there any more. Even the EC doesn’t seem to offer a way to starve the rats. I’m wary of any form of Christianity that doesn’t. Of course, its still possible to be a great Christian if you don’t realize that it is possible to starve the rats. But in that case, you’re doing it despite your tradition, not because of it.

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