Come As You Are, Stay As You Are:

by Rachel Lonas

Editor's note: Most of the ideas discussed in this article come from the book Why We're Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be (Moody Press) by Ted Kluck and Kevin DeYoung, which debuts this month. The authors, one a pastor and the other a journalist, have firsthand experience with recent emergent texts and emergent churches. They believe that the so-called emergent church has helped many people, but they nevertheless have grave concerns about its theology and the effects it is having on the church as a whole.

Christians across American have witnessed the well-documented departure of young adults from traditional evangelical churches. What they may not know, however, is where those who leave are going.

While some, to be sure, have left all appearance of faith, many have turned to a movement that is rapidly growing and gaining acceptance right under our noses-the emergent church.

At first blush, the emergent movement seems like an extension of traditional Christianity, with more emphasis placed on Christ-likeness. A closer look, however, reveals a far more complex and confusing situation. We need to be aware of the trends in this movement and recognize what distinguishes the traditional church from them.

Defining the emergent church, to quote Kevin De Young, co-author of Why We're Not Emergent, is like "trying to nail Jell-O to the wall." The emergent church, by its very nature, is not meant to be put in definable terms; it is a rebellion against religious labels. Hence, there is no "leader" of the emergent movement per se, but some with very recognizable names, such as Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Doug Pagitt, and Donald Miller, organize conferences and author books to promote their thoughts about the way the church handles their faith-issues such as orthodoxy, doctrinal statements, heaven and hell, inerrancy of Scripture, etc.

One of the first points Kluck and DeYoung make is about how the big names in the emergent church do not want to be classified as "authoritative theologians," but rather as "talkers" in the global discussion of church. This should prove troublesome to Christians who recognize how these men are constantly feeding theological musings (whether through books, conferences, or weblogs) to their devoted audience. They shirk the responsibility of proclaiming the Truth in the name of relativistic "conversation." Many of these men do not even claim to endorse one another's writings, though there are strong similarities between them.

The main thrust of the emergent church is an emphasis on a "social gospel," as opposed to the scriptural definition of Christ's mission. Many of them seem to promote a "works-based" theology instead of one grounded in grace. To support this analysis, Why We're Not Emergent shows a comparison between what Brian McClaren (the "would be leader" of the emergent movement) claims are the emergent church's guiding principles with the mission statement of the Unitarian Universalist Association. These are eerily similar in how they esteem accomplishing good deeds and how they do not mention the essentials of receiving salvation and assurance of a life with Jesus.

The reason why the emergent church holds to that kind of a belief system is tied into a game of emphasis and de-emphasis-orthopraxy (right living) over orthodoxy (right beliefs). They believe that in order to carry out Jesus' good works you do not need to be tied to doctrinal statements that compile and articulate the teachings of the Bible. This is partially due to what Kluck and DeYoung describe as the "implied doctrine of unknowability." The emergent authors are saying that because we are finite beings we can never truly know who God is. This begs the question, however: how can we commune with God intimately and distinguish Him from anything else if we cannot know His attributes? According to Arthur W. Pink's The Attributes of God, "an unknown God can neither be trusted, served, nor worshipedsomething more than a theoretical knowledge of God is needed by us."

Another example of this exalting of human effort is that those who author emergent books encourage a journey mentality in which the path becomes more important than the destination. Besides being tinged with ambiguous New Age spirituality, this leads to more self-examination, as opposed to thorough scriptural examination, resulting in rather intense narcissism (i.e. "everyone's got a story to tell").

Books with intentionally provocative titles like Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality and Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith are perfect examples of this point. Both books have sold thousands of copies within a short period of time because of their catchy narrative technique, but when closely examined, their core theology is revealed to be quite hollow. Narrative and ambiguous theology can be quite appealing to inquiring minds, but discussion should never trump the message of truth itself.

That message of truth is also being undermined by the emergent church. According to Kluck and DeYoung, emergent authors are turning religious terminology on its head; "they don't want to use traditional terms-authority, infallibility, inerrancy-they would rather use phrases like deep love of' and respect for'" when talking about Scripture. To them, hell is no longer significant as a real and terrible alternative to heaven for eternity; rather it is a problem on earth that we must eradicate.

Thus, the implied message is that we as Christians should make evangelism less of a priority and make cleaning up the tangible horrors that are going on around us our main concern. But Jesus states in Matthew 10:28: "Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear him who is able to destroy both the soul and body in hell." In other words, while it is important to be concerned about suffering in the world, the truest form of help for those in need is lead them to finding eternal salvation through Christ.

Emergent authors are raising a lot of questions about spirituality but not giving any substantive biblical conclusions. This kind of musing leads to a "come as you are, stay as you are" mindset of its church members; it breeds self-importance and extreme tolerance instead of demanding that its members die to themselves and focus on becoming more holy as God is holy.

Unfortunately, it does the church no good for men like Miller and Bell to be silent or oppositional to core Christian beliefs because those who struggle with sin need definitive answers, not an "if it works, then it's true" response. Nebulous responses allow individuals (believers or non-believers) to stay where they are spiritually because they require no discipline, sacrifice, or change.

Despite the red flags emergent theology raises, the fact remains that the movement is meeting a felt need in society, particularly among younger generations. This should be a wakeup call to the traditional church. Why are students and young adults leaving the Body? What can we do to help keep them faithful?

One of the crucial issues for emergent Christians is authenticity. They are not interested in the "bill of goods" (primarily, the extra-biblical tenets of American Christianity) that everyone has been trying to sell them for so many years. They want real interaction with God, with the Bible, and with other believers. Churches need to check their assumptions about life against Scripture and remove any non-biblical stumbling blocks that could turn people away. We need to make sure that we are not so focused on the eternal that we forget Christ's call to be salt and light in a world that desperately needs the Truth.

Rachel Lonas is a graduate of Bryan College in Dayton, Tenn. She currently
teaches high school English in Chattanooga, Tenn. Her husband, Justin,
is publisher of Pulpit Helps.

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