Author; Director of Eternal Ministries, Inc.;
Associate Pastor of Discipleship, Grace Community Church;
Associate Professor of Bible & Theology, Tyndale Theological Seminary
Using the illustration of circulating blood, A. W. Tozer described a healthy soul. He said, “The red corpuscles are like faith—they carry the life giving oxygen to every part of the body. The white cells are like discernment—they pounce upon dead and toxic matter and carry it out to the drain. In the healthy heart there must be provision for keeping dead and poisonous matter out of the life stream.”
Tozer’s illustration stresses three points: 1) dead or dying churches no longer have the ability to discern the spirit of truth from the spirit of error; 2) dead and poisonous matter cannot be removed from the church if it cannot be detected; and 3) failure to use discernment or remove dead and toxic matter will allow the poisonous matter to continue circulating, which will result in confusion among believers and false hope to the unbeliever. The vitality of the church depends upon its members and leaders exercising discernment to “contend earnestly for the faith.” How can one defend and preach the Gospel without discerning what is the biblical Gospel? Again, Tozer wrote,
Among the gifts of the Spirit, scarcely is one of greater practical usefulness than the gift of discernment. This gift should be highly valued and frankly sought as being almost indispensable in these critical times. This gift will enable us to distinguish the chaff from the wheat and to divide the manifestations of the flesh from the operations of the Spirit.
Christian fads and trends will appear and disappear. It is mentally overwhelming to remember the recent crazes of one’s own lifetime. It seems that, in their search to be relevant and to be obedient to the Great Commission, many pastors and church leaders are always seeking new methods to grow the church. The contemporary church is inundated with those seeking new methods and means of church growth. Whatever pragmatic approaches allow one to accomplish church growth, it is accepted. However, time and again in the Bible, it is primarily the preaching of the Word, the enunciation of words, that God
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uses to draw the lost to Himself, in addition to creating and sustaining His church.
Doctrinal Antagonism Today
Is the faithful preaching and teaching of God’s Word, and dependent prayer of the preacher and teacher of God, being considered outdated for obeying the Great Commission? A disturbing trend that is influencing American Christianity is a growing opposition against God’s chosen methods for sanctifying His church and fulfilling the Great Commission. It is crucial for pastors, theologians, seminary and Bible institute professors, teachers and students, Sunday school teachers, and other lovers of God’s Word to diagnose some of the symptoms of these disturbing trends, and more importantly, to search Scripture to determine what response God demands. Defining doctrine down or just outright rejection of theology, use of secular managerial models that promise recently discovered methods for church growth, and even wholesale heresy are sometimes tolerated and desired (sometimes knowingly and unknowingly) by a significant number of church leaders and members.
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Antagonism toward God’s chosen methods for growing and maturing His church, and fulfilling the Great Commission, have resulted in a confused cultural shift.
The most fascinating characteristic of this cultural shift is that a church model is available for every personality viewpoint. For instance, in his book The Church of Irresistible Influence, Dr. Robert Lewis emphasized community service as a model for the church. Lewis actually stated that prayer, biblical preaching, and sound doctrine are inadequate to impact the culture; rather, community service projects are needed to build relationships with our communities. Certainly local missions is not wrong, but only if the name of Jesus Christ is proclaimed as the reason for service and the proclamation of the Gospel is consistent with missions work. However, this is a major problem with “the church of irresistible influence.” Lewis stated that one should not proclaim the Gospel when doing mission work. Indeed, this church model purposely does not proclaim the Gospel, and even embraces the ecumenical agenda of serving with all denominations, including Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, to be most effective in the community. Of course, this explains why they do not proclaim the Gospel because these different denominations do not agree on the essence of the Gospel.
If this model does not fit one’s personality, there is the purpose-driven model of Rick Warren that combines business techniques, psychology, and theology. In this model, “felt needs” are met (of course, borrowing from psychologist Abraham Maslow’s humanistic terminology). It is interesting that the purpose-driven model feels the same way about biblical preaching, sound doctrine, and prayer, as the “church of irresistible influence.” Warren was even quoted by the Lewis in his book as saying, there are some who are wrong for believing that church growth will occur by remaining “doctrinally pure, preach[ing] the Word, pray[ing] more, and be[ing] dedicated.” A frightening statement considering that the early church in the Book of Acts experienced phenomenal growth by praying, preaching, and holding to sound doctrine. Of course, the next Christian leader who is cited to substantiate this point against biblical preaching and teaching is sociologist and research expert George Barna who has written a book encouraging Christians that being a member of a local church is not necessary, and encourages departing from the local church.6
A final example of the drift from biblical doctrine and the local church is the “conversation” primarily led by Brian McLaren. The latest postmodern trend was the Purpose Driven church. Today it is the Emerging Church.
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The Emerging Church
In the introduction to his book, The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations, emergent leader Dan Kimball encouraged his readers to type the words “emerging church” into their favorite search engine. If one heeds such advice, numerous web pages will be found stating that worship should be a holistic and mystical experience through the use of candles, images, stained glass windows, and even darkness to promote spirituality. Emergent leader Leonard Sweet has frequently used the acrostic EPIC to describe the Emerging Church: “E=experiential; P=participatory; I=image-rich; C=connective.”
The emphasis in emerging churches is upon mystical and sensual worship experiences that foster unity, as opposed to doctrinal truth that divides. For example, Brian McLaren has praised those who are seeking unity between Evangelicals and Roman Catholicism. It is no wonder then that McLaren expressed in his book, A New Kind of Christian, that the Bible should not be regarded as authoritative or infallible. The accepted practice in the Emerging Church is an image-driven message as opposed to a Word-driven message. Of course, such practices will only contribute to a great lack of discernment in the church, and acceptance of counterfeit Gospels resulting in unsanctified churches that do not edify and equip the saints for the work of ministry.
The Emerging Church has an apparent contempt for propositional truth (ideas that can be affirmed or denied, such as the sixty-six books of the Bible as propositional truth) and therefore favors teaching in a “story” format. The only theology this movement embraces is Christology (a doctrine of Christ), but this Christ is solely the Savior of one’s life and obedience to His commands is optional. No propositional truth just present Christ is the idea. For example, one should not teach the Word of God, but just share the story of what it means to “follow Jesus.” The Emerging Church believes that the postmodern culture does not want to hear biblical preaching or be taught sound doctrine, so they provide an experience instead. People may not like strong medicine but it makes one physically well when ill. Similarly, people may not like sound doctrine, but it is God’s chosen means for making one spiritually healthy. Of course, this is not to affirm a lifeless orthodoxy but to affirm the relationship between orthodoxy and orthopraxis.
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The relationship between the “church of irresistible influence,” purpose-driven, and Emerging Church models is twofold. First, all “new models” for the church are unbiblical (heretical?) shifts that have origins in earlier church history. The second is the most serious relationship: they all have a contempt for biblical preaching and teaching, followed by a superficial notion of prayer, and give greater emphasis to the demands of the culture as opposed to the commands of God. These church growth models today, which are often presented as the means for church revival, are in complete contrast to the methodology of the Bible and godly men throughout church history.
True Biblical Revival
Apart from the early church, the greatest revival in church history was 489 years ago (31 October 1517 to be exact), Dr. Martin Luther tacked his 95 Theses on the church door of Wittenberg. He protested against the unbiblical teachings and practices that were prevalent in his day and called an obstinate Roman Catholic Church back to the essential truth of the Gospel that man is justified by grace alone, through faith alone, on the Word alone, because of Christ alone, to the glory of God alone! What is needed today is an authentic and genuine reformation to right the wrong, make straight the crooked, and reclaim expository preaching of the absolute truth of God’s holy Word. All things are set straight in Christ. Pragmatics, seeker-friendly techniques, psychology in the church, ecumenism not built upon truth, the partnering with non-Christian entities to further the Gospel may appeal to a sense of “religious jihad,” but it cannot impact the life for eternity.
The last great American revival in church history was the Second Great Awakening, which began during the late 1790s and extended until the early 1830s. During this period, an extraordinary number of the lost were saved and joined the universal church. It is noteworthy that prior to the Awakening many godly men had been laboring for the Lord. Many of the men preached the same messages during the Awakening, as they had many years previous. It was the same men, same message, but extraordinary different results. What was the difference? The only difference was that during this period, the Holy Spirit took the hammer of God’s Word (cf. Jer 23:39) and made it a sledgehammer.
The early church, the Protestant Reformers, and some of the preachers of the Second Great Awakening were in agreement that time and again it is primarily the means of prayer and the preaching and teaching of the Word—the enunciation of words—that God uses to spread the Gospel and these are the means that He requires of His church to be faithful. There is simply no greater means, which the church can employ to experience greater lasting results. One of the revivalists of the period was Samuel Shepherd who said, “The immediate hand of [God] was strikingly exhibited in this work. .. instruction was now no other than it had been.. .. The apostle knew well that what he said when he
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spoke those memorable words, ‘We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power might be of God and not of us.”
Of course, many adherents of the church growth movements would say, “we always accompany our methods with prayer.” However, there is no intrinsic power in prayer itself. Biblical prayer is that the church recognizes and believes that we are utterly powerless and entirely dependent upon God. As an activity, there are no guaranteed results in prayer. The essential dynamic in spiritual transformation is when God the Holy Spirit does His work, by applying the Gospel message with power. This “power” works within the evangelist in addition to the one who is being evangelized. Based upon what can be learned about evangelism in the Book of Acts and the nature of human total depravity, the evangelist receives power from the Holy Spirit to speak clearly and boldly, and the one being evangelized receives power to overcome his resistance to the Gospel and to understand the truth of the message. God’s biblical means of reaching humanity is the proclamation of the propositional truths of Scripture through an attitude of complete dependence as evidenced in prayer that is persuaded by the fact that we are completely unable and completely dependant upon God.
The success of clever human efforts does not mean that God has blessed the church’s activities because of her prayers. It is possible to pray, and depend on one’s own ingenuity and methods. If secular corporations can increase their market share apart from God’s blessing, then it is possible that the church can also increase her market share through the use of the same inventive methods. The problem with casual prayer, that is evident in human dependence, is that the truly born again are not drawn by increased market share, but as Jesus said in John 6, “No one can come to Him, unless the Father who sent Him draws the lost.” God-glorifying church growth only comes through the power of God.
The biblical means of fulfilling the Great Commission is preaching the propositional truths of Scripture, and offering God-dependent prayer.
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Therefore, if modern church movements manifest opposition for these God-ordained means, then how can one dare think that God is increasing the numbers of those saved? It behooves the church to diagnose the symptoms of these movements, but also to address the primary cause for these symptoms: lack of a confidence in the power of God’s Word to accomplish His purposes (cf. 1 Cor 1:17–19; 2:1–5).
If one were to read only John 8:30–32, he may tend to think those believing are truly regenerated. Indeed, it is the truth that will make one free. It is continuing in God’s Word, discipleship, faithfulness, and obedience. There is such a thing as the truth and the lie. There is such a thing as error, and Jesus Himself firmed opposed it. Very soon, Jesus would say to those who came to believe in Him, “you are of your father the devil” (8:43–47). They were willing to believe He was the Messiah, who would deliver them from the Romans, but Jesus was talking about sin that had bound them. They were expecting prosperity, healing of their diseases, receiving what they wanted, but they were not willing to listen to the truth that would correct their lives. Similarly, Paul warned in 2 Thessalonians 2 against those following after signs and wonders (the form [outward appearance] of the power of God), but did not have love of the truth and perished.
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Purpose-Driven or Emergent?
Interestingly, Rick Warren is quite supportive of the Emerging Church. In his forward to emergent leader Dan Kimball’s book, The Emerging Church, he wrote,
This book is a wonderful, detailed example of what a purpose-driven church can look like in a postmodern world. My friend Dan Kimball writes passionately, with a deep desire to reach the emerging generation and culture. While my book The Purpose-Driven Church explained what the church is called to do, Dan’s book explains how to do it with the cultural creatives who think and feel in postmodern terms. You need to pay attention to him because times are changing.
The past decade indeed has seen many fads and trends come and go. Again, Warren wrote in the forward,
As a pastor, I’ve watched churches adopt many contemporary styles in worship, programming, architecture, music, and other elements. That’s okay as long as the biblical message is unchanged. But whatever is in style now will inevitably be out of style soon, and the cycle of change are getting shorter and shorter, aided by technology and the media. New styles, like fashion, are always emerging.
Similarly, Dr. Thomas Hohstadt who is an emergent leader providing “a prophetic compass for the Emerging Church” (and whose ministry is endorsed by Brian McLaren, Leonard Sweet, and Sally Morgenthaler) stated,
Changes in today’s church are happening so frequently, so profoundly, that we can’t tell for certain where we’re going. In fact, if we finally get there, will we even call it “church”?
As response to all the changes, the church needs to consider whether all the styles are based upon sound, biblical doctrine. Essentially, the reason for the plethora of so many styles in the church is that Christians have been vulnerable to “winds of doctrine” that have no biblical basis. According to Timothy, the
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last days would be characterized by “winds of doctrine” that are actually “doctrines of demons” which will influence Christians to apostasy and accept ideas that “tickle their ears” (1 Tim 4:1; 2 Tim 4:3). Warren has not only been supportive of the emerging church, but also he believes that it has come at the opportune time. He believes his purpose-driven church model is the foundation for the Emerging Church in the postmodern world.
In the past twenty years, spiritual seekers have changed a lot. In the first place, there are a whole lot more of them. There are seekers everywhere. I’ve never seen more people so hungry to discover and develop the spiritual dimension of their lives. That is why there is such a big interest in Eastern thought, New Age practices, mysticism and the transcendent.
He explained what is necessary for the Emerging Church to have success.
Today seekers are hungry for symbols and metaphors and experiences and stories that reveal the greatness of God. Because seekers are constantly changing, we must be sensitive to them like Jesus was; we must be willing to meet them on their own turf and speak to them in ways they understand.
What is Warren’s reasoning? The world is hungry for an Eastern thought, New Age practices, mysticism, and spiritual enlightenment. To be consistent with his reasoning, would one not conclude that to meet unbelievers “on their own turf” would require Christianity to become more mystical and New Age? Indeed, this is the principal problem with the Emerging Church. Revealed propositional truth is being considered outdated for edifying and equipping the saints for the work of ministry, and obeying the Great Commission.
What is Emerging?
Rick Warren is not alone in stating that Christians need to give attention to the Emerging Church. Times are changing, and it is believed that the Emerging Church has the answers for this generation. But what will emerge from this movement? Will it be a movement that values experience more than the Word of God?
Dan Kimball, author of The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations, is the founder of Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California. In the introduction of his book, he wrote,
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I believe with all my heart that this discussion about the fast-changing culture and the emerging church must take place. While many of us have been preparing sermons and keeping busy with the internal affairs of our churches, something alarming has been happening on the outside. What once was a Christian nation with a Judeo-Christian worldview is quickly becoming a post Christian, unchurched, unreached nation. New generations are arising all around us without any Christian influence. So we must rethink virtually everything we are doing in our ministries.
Indeed, as Kimball stated, the spirituality in North America has changed drastically over the past decades. Rick Warren, Dan Kimball, and others use the term “post-Christian era” to describe the contemporary generation. To illustrate what is meant, Kimball began his book with a criticism of the modern “seeker-sensitive” movement that he stated was successful in attracting a generation of “baby-boomers” to Jesus with its sterile environment, loss of transcendence, and preacher-as-motivational speaker model. Kimball is correct that this church model creates a sense of consumerism among the congregation. Often when people leave a “seeker” church, the feeling is that they have attended a Broadway play. In other words, they have a program, an opinion about the show, and not much else. There is no genuine encounter with God, just an entertaining way to pass an hour. Kimball argued that the teaching in such churches is near its lowest point as it has been become preaching like a “self-help guru Tony Robbins—like teaching with some Bible verses added.” Those in attendance too often appear self-focused and the evangelism of the church is irrelevant and weak. For this reason, Kimball believes the church needs new pioneering methods to reach the current generation for Christ.
Kimball’s greatest protest against the “seeker” movement is not that there is an antagonism toward biblical teaching or that the preaching is too shallow, but his criticism is that the movement is fundamentally irrelevant to the desires of today’s generation. In other words, those in their 40s may enjoy clever dramas and skits, bright lighting, and singers in color-coordinated outfits, but today’s young people want something different. Today’s young people desire “authenticity.” They want a multi-sensory spiritual experience and to be reminded that Christianity is an ancient faith.
Kimball not only provided criticism of the modern church, but also provided his answers and solutions. The church for the future, he believes, must be more multi-sensory (sensual) and based on experience. This church of the
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future, he calls “Vintage Christianity.” A citation of a few chapters from Kimball’s book will give an idea of what is meant by “Vintage Christianity” and the direction of the Emerging Church. Part two of Kimball’s book is entitled “Reconstructing Vintage Christianity in the Emerging Church;” some of the chapters are “Overcoming the Fear of Multisensory Worship and Teaching,” “Creating a Sacred Space for Vintage Worship,” “Expecting the Spiritual,” “Creating Experiential Multisensory Worship Gatherings,” “Becoming Story Tellers Again,” and “Preaching Without Words.”
It should be obvious that the Emerging Church is based upon experience not grounded in the whole counsel of God’s Word. Furthermore, God’s Word is secondary to the primary emphasis upon sensual and experiential worship in the Emerging Church (just as it is secondary to community service in the “church of irresistible influence” and to “felt needs” in the purpose-drive model). Is the church to base its beliefs and worship on experience or the Word of God? Jesus said, “‘If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’” “‘Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word. ‘You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father.” (John 8:31–32, 43).
If one listens and reads attentively to the statements of the Emerging Church it is apparent that emergent leaders are proposing the notion that truth is primarily paradoxical and relational. It is certainly true that truth of God’s Word is relational. When the Father draws the unbeliever to come to Jesus (cf. John 6), those chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world come to Jesus (cf. Eph 1:3–14), who is Truth (John 14:6). However, coming to Jesus, who is Truth, on the authority of God’s Word does not mean Jesus becomes Truth. Before truth is relational, it must be understood as the objective, historical, and inspired revelation of God. However, the postmodern epistemology of the Emerging Church is against this type of revelation.
The Living Word (cf. John 1:1–18) and the Written Word (2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:20–21) is Truth regardless of whether one experiences it. The error of the Emerging Church is thinking that truth is dependent upon experience and understanding. Indeed, this is the perennial question of Pilate at the arraignment of Jesus, “‘What is truth?’” (John 18:38). Pilate was standing in the presence of incarnate Truth, the Lord Jesus Christ, and yet his question has lingered for almost two thousand years and has infected the twenty-first century culture so that it is best described as post-everything.
Certainly, it is irrelevant to question the sincerity to evangelize the postmodern generation by those in the Emerging Church because Emergents sincerely believe the movement is what God would have them to do. It is pointless to argue with people’s sincerity. What can be done is to examine the
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emphasis and practices of the Emerging Church. It also needs to be admitted that worship is a fundamental of the Christian faith, but such worship must never supersede or be contradictory with God’s Word. An emphasis on extra-biblical experience that deviates from Scripture is certain to bring deception with it.
Emphasis on Experience and Unbiblical Practices
The Emerging Church believes in attracting people through candles, community, and meditation. Kimball, for example, argued that the church needs to provide opportunities for postmodern people to worship in a manner that is accommodating to their inclinations. He believes in a new worship generation for the future based upon experience. In a section subtitled, “Truly Worshipping in a Worship Gathering,” he wrote,
We should be returning to a no-holds-barred approach to worship and teaching so that when we gather, there is no doubt we are in the presence of God. I believe that both believers and unbelievers in our emerging culture are hungry for this. It isn’t about clever apologetics or careful exegetical and expository preaching or great worship bands.. .. Emerging generations are hungry to experience God in worship.
Obviously, this “no-holds-barred approach” will require incorporating some radical changes. How would such changes appear? It is difficult to describe briefly what such a worship gathering would require, but a few forms of the new style of worship include:
• Images of Jesus to keep things focused upon Christ
• Tapestries to provide a “tabernacle feel”
• Candles and incense to provide a “spiritual” feeling
• Crosses (preferably Celtic) scattered throughout the room
• Darkened sanctuaries to provide a sense of spirituality (definitely no lighted or cheery sanctuaries)
• Services must be spiritual-mystical and experiential
• Stained-glass windows and nature scenes should be projected on video screens
• Ancient and mystical forms should be used (technology can be used to project images onto the walls to establish mood)
• The sermon (teaching from God’s Word) is no longer the focal point of gathering, but it should be a holistic experience
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• Tables with sand, vines, and seeds to aid in meditation
• Art and prayer stations should be prominent as a creative outlet during the sermon (sermon must be authentic, and non-monolithic)
• Use of ancient-faith practices
Certainly, it is easy to recognize that visual stimulation is a desired commodity to capture the attention of people. However, one must consider the biblical teaching regarding what is most important. Never does Scripture elevate experience above the Word of God. God is the seeker (cf. Rom 3). He draws unbelievers to Himself through the preaching of His Word, and sanctifies His church through the teaching of His Word. Visual stimulation is never presented as the means for inducing a spiritual atmosphere to bring “seekers” to Christ. The emphasis upon a generation “hungry to experience God” to the exclusion of “apologetics” and “careful exegetical and expository preaching” appears to be yet another trend for defining doctrine down. In contrast to the Word of God, experience is insufficient and incapable of providing answers as to the nature of man, the nature of God, the will of God, and the sovereign movement of history in complete fulfillment of every prophecy of the Bible.
Why is there such an emphasis of the Emerging Church on the mystical? As the following paragraphs indicate, Emergents have a disdain for understanding biblical doctrine and systematic theology, and appear to reject any understanding that application and practice that is divorced from both doctrine and theology will quickly become superficial and deadly for the life of the church.
‘Emergent’ folks are Christians who are impatient with rigid megachurch formulas and noisy doctrinal in-fighting. They want to nurture a “vintage Christianity” that promotes the love of Christ for the emerging (non-churchgoing) generation. They’re hammering out a theology that’s friendly to ancient faith practices (contemplative prayer, labyrinths, hospitality) in a postmodern world of quantum physics, 24/7 media and coffee-house culture.
The assumption is this: The church-growth models that work for baby boomers don’t work for young people today. Boomers who were alienated from traditional church warmed to new worship experiences that avoided churchy details (crosses, stained glass, silence). But many in the emerging generation have no impression of church either way. They weren’t raised with church… So Emergent worship evokes spiritual imagination (using candles, darkness, art work on curtained walls). It is interactive (some churches have couches, not pews). It engages the body (a Minneapolis congregation offers yoga and massage therapy).
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Emergent leaders value Holy Communion and Bible reading. They’re willing to praise liberals (sometimes) for promoting biblical values of justice that conservatives denied for decades.
The Emergent vocabulary includes ritual, liturgy and generosity. Generosity might be the most important at the moment. It’s as if today’s born-again Protestantism has settled its doctrinal battles and become the dominant brand of public Christianity; now it’s time to be generous in victory.
There are two important responses to this description of emerging church beliefs and practices. The first is in response to the statement that “generosity might be the most important at the moment.” Brian McLaren’s book A Generous Orthodoxy is subtitled, “WHY I AM A missional + evangelical + post/protestant + liberal/conservative + anabaptist/Anglican + methodist + catholic + green + incarnational + depressed-yet-hopeful + emergent + unfinished CHRISTIAN.” The intent of the subtitle is to activate the sense of disorientation that postmodernists so deeply desire and value. Postmodernists think that the exposed action of combining contradictory terms while smiling and humming a melody that uses terms “love” and “flowers” results in something deeply spiritual. If one is simply postmodern in orientation then every statement, including clear denials of the unchanging truths of historic Christian doctrine, is considered loving, spiritual, and Christian (i.e. defining doctrine down). However, if such denigration of historic Christian doctrine is offensive, then one is considered hateful, irrelevant, unkind, unloving, and unspiritual (i.e. defining doctrine up). Of course, this is just one aspect of the Emerging Church conversation. Is it any surprise that the Apostle Paul, or any biblical author, is not the favorite writer in the “conversation”?
Secondly, one of the more popular trends in the Emerging Church is contemplative spirituality and mysticism. Most in the Emerging Church believe that such practice allows them to draw closer to God, but there are some very real concerns. The mystical emphasis in the Emerging Church should provoke a haunting vexation of spirit. The following two paragraphs are from pagans describing contemplative spirituality and mysticism.
And it is mysticism that is the common thread to all of the world’s religions and spiritual traditions. On the surface, religions and spiritual practices are quite different, however, at their core they are all very much the same. The world’s mystical traditions vary somewhat in their focus and emphasis—some may highlight
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surrender while others may highlight transformation and purification—but they all follow the same basic progression and formula for reaching complete spiritual maturity—a state known as enlightenment.
The mystical arms of the Islam, Christian, and Jewish traditions, along with western mystery traditions such as Gnosticism, all in large part have shared, developed, or stem from, ideas found in the ancient Zoroastrian religion. Established several thousand years ago, it posits life as essentially a battle between the forces of good and those of evil. Our original home was in a heavenly realm, but due to mishap, we have fallen from our previous, more blessed locale. The meaning of life is to regain this realm. And Zoroastrianism affirms that in the end, the powers of good shall triumph and we shall indeed return to a better realm of existence. The later mystical traditions have all used this as a metaphor to explain the transformation that a serious spiritual practitioner undergoes. Techniques common to all these paths include renunciation, reliance upon a spiritual teacher, devotion, study, prayer, fasting, and contemplation.
Mysticism and contemplative spirituality are dominant in the conversations of Emergents, who believe and practice contemplative spirituality and pay close attention to the writings of “Christian” mystics. Preceding the Emerging Church, the mystics gave more desire to the experience as opposed to understanding the nature and will of God as revealed in Scripture. For example, “contemplative prayer in its simplest form, is prayer in which you still your thoughts. .. this puts you in a better state to be aware of God’s presence, and it makes you better able to hear God’s voice correcting, guiding and directing you.” An even clearer definition described it as follows: “Its practitioners are trained to focus on an inner symbol that quiets the mind.. .. When practitioners become skilled at this method of meditation, they undergo a deep trance state similar to auto-hypnosis.”26
Contemplative prayer was first discovered by monks in the third century upon isolating themselves in monasteries. Today, practitioners and promoters of contemplative prayer are rampant in the Emerging Church. It is staggering to consider how many professing Christians embrace and practice
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contemplative spirituality in light of its description and use by mystics (cf. Col 2:6–8). In reading the “Christian” mystics, there was a common tendency to seek experience rather than the Word of God. Contemplative spirituality was a means of entering into the “dark night of the soul” where God could be met.
Dr. Robert Crane, president of Pillsbury Baptist Bible College (Owatonna, MN), provided several reasons for rejecting contemplative spirituality. First, the contemplatives sought union with God “through a self induced altered state of consciousness” that excluded “the mind’s relationship to physical reality.” Second, the contemplatives sought “to internalize [their] relationship to God” through meditation within the created order as opposed to God’s self-revelation in Scripture. Third, the contemplatives sought the practice of emptying themselves as a means of being filled with God. Fourth, the contemplatives distorted grace as divine enablement and taught that it could be earned through various means of abasement and self-affliction. Fifth, the contemplatives embraced a metaphysical spirituality based on experience as opposed to the historical, objective, propositional, written self-revelation of God in Scripture. Sixth, the contemplatives were fixated upon experiences in the “dark night of the soul” as opposed to “the God whom [they] were supposedly meeting there.” Seventh, the contemplatives “perverted the meaning of the Cross of Jesus Christ, making it an experience rather than a historical event.” Eighth, the contemplatives essentially regarded redemption through experience as opposed to grace through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Not only did Crane provide several reasons for rejecting contemplative spirituality, but also he provided several reasons illustrating that it fails every test of biblical spirituality. First, it receives revelation independent of the Word of God. Second, it accepts Satan’s lie to Eve to distrust the Word of God. Third, it generally assumes an evolutionary “coming of age” for the church to reunite man with God. Fourth, “it is a source of great demonic deception and false
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doctrine.” Fifth, “it is ecumenical, blending Christianity with Eastern religions.” Sixth, it is lacking in power to sanctify the believer ethically or spiritually.
When nearing the end of his undergraduate studies, this author was first exposed to the writings of Dr. Robert “Bob” Webber in a class on foundations of biblical worship. He is director of the Institute for Worship Studies. Webber is one of the foremost promoters of the Emerging Church. His “ancient-future worship” is characterized by rediscovering the act of God through the “sacred signs of bread and wine,” laying on of hands, oil, and water; rediscovering “the central nature of the table of the Lord in the Lord’s Supper, breaking of bread, communion, and Eucharist;” and, rediscovering that celebrating Advent, Christmas, Easter, Epiphany, Holy Week, Lent, and Pentecost produces “congregational spirituality.” One wonders if the Emerging Church will move more in the direction of the late Pope John Paul II’s vision as outlined in his Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia. In the “Decree on Ecumenism,” The Roman Catholic Church clearly delineated the parameters of Roman Catholicism’s agenda. The ecumenical unity that characterized “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” is hauntingly present in the Emerging Church. Although the Emerging Church claims to be evangelizing to reach the postmodern generation, this author wonders whether the Roman Catholic Church is primarily doing the evangelization. While searching for examples of the influence of Webber’s Ancient-Future Faith among the evangelical church, an interesting website was located. Ancient-Future.net explains that the website’s domain name was taken from Webber’s book.
Webber writes about how many Christians today, especially younger ones, are seeking a faith connected to the ancient Church. Thus, postmodern Christians are seeking an ancient and future faith, one that embraces the past for the future, rather than ignoring the past completely. Also, thanks to the reality of relativity (how’s that for an oxymoron!), gone are rational apologetics, and coming back are embodied apologetics (i.e. defending the faith by living as Jesus did). Creeds and Councils are in, as is mysticism and community. Editor David Bennett admits that Webber’s writings helped lead him to the Catholic Church, although much of what Webber says is far too “cafeteria” in approach. Also, Church Tradition is treated more as an evangelical trend as opposed to
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what it is: the Truth. Nonetheless, Webber is a good transitional author.
TheOoze.com is a website of the Emerging Church. When asked the question, “What you look out to the future, what do you think the North American evangelical church is going to look like 25 years from now?” Webber responded,
Christianity will be less national, less culturally formed. It will be smaller pockets of communities in neighborhoods. The church will focus on people, not buildings, on community, not programs, on scripture study, not showy worship. Biblical symbols such as baptismal identity and Eucharistic thanksgiving will take on new meaning. The church will be less concerning about having eschatology and more committed to being an eschatological community. This kind of community will reach out to a broken world to offer healing of broken lives and service to the pour [sic] and needy.
In his book Ancient-Future Evangelism, Webber restated much of the same thinking.
A brief glance at the teaching of the Eucharist from the pre-Nicene period provides insight into the early church’s understanding. The Fathers taught that continual spiritual nourishment was provided to believers at this great feast. First it is clear from the writings of Justin Martyr in the middle of the second century that this is no empty symbol. Christ is really present in the bread and wine. He feeds us in the remembrance of His salvation. He feeds us through His presence which is accomplished through prayer.
The practitioner and promoters of the Emerging Church state they are passionate about evangelism. The Emerging Church wants to communicate in an understandable format to today’s generation, which is certainly a commendable goal. Whereas the “seeker” churches removed crosses and Christian symbols, the Emerging Church wants candles, crosses, liturgy,
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sacraments, and stained-glass returned. In The Lutheran, Julie Sevig explained the purpose for the return of these symbols, in addition to the attraction of classic liturgy and contemplative worship.
Postmoderns prefer to encounter Christ by using all their senses. That’s part of the appeal of classical liturgical or contemplative worship: the incense and candles, making the sign of the cross, the taste and smell of the bread and wine, touching icons and being anointed with oil. In Soul Tsunami: Sink or Swim in New Millennium Culture (Zondervan, 1999), Leonard Sweet says: “Postmoderns want a God they can feel, taste, touch, hear and smell—a full sensory immersion in the divine.
Webber was also quoted in the article.
Attraction to liturgical and contemplative worship is partly a response to society’s ills and advances, which this generation has known firsthand, says Robert Webber, author of Ancient-Future Faith (Baker Books, 1999).
Karen Ward, ELCA associate director for worship, was also consulted.
This return to the traditional—the sacred—crosses denominational lines, Ward says. In fact, an interesting marriage is occurring between evangelicals and the liturgy. “Evangelicals are using traditions from all liturgical churches from Orthodox to Lutheran to Catholic,” she says. “Though they have limited experience using their new-found symbols, rituals and traditions, they’re infusing them with vitality and spirit and life, which is reaching people.”
Certainly, the Emergent practice of contemplative spirituality and disdain for understanding and then applying the Bible demonstrate the inability to edify and equip God’s church and to bring glory and honor to Him. The Emerging Church also appears to be building a bridge to Roman Catholicism. The inspired Word of God is not the emphasis. Dark and mystical churches, candles, crosses, icons, incense, relics, statues of Mary and “saints” are the emphasis. The sensual and mystical are the emphasis, and there is little evidence that the Bible is being taught.
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It cannot be disputed that the church should be relevant. The church should be persevering in making worship clear. However, the primary responsibility of the church is to worship God according to His Word, and to do so regardless of whether the “emerging generation” desires it. The Lord Jesus Christ, the Head of the church, gave the charge to preach the offense of the cross even to a generation that may not value it. Paul did not shrink from preaching a foolish message to a group of pluralistic scoffers at Mars Hill (Acts 17) and neither should the church.
As with any critique of the modern church, there may be some points of agreement. However, the Emerging Church has misdiagnosed the problems in the church. Emergents are critical of a church that, as the result of modernity, they believe largely holds a dead orthodoxy. The Emerging Church also believes that the postmodern culture does not want to hear biblical preaching or be taught sound doctrine, so they want to provide an experience instead. However, a 2002 survey by Barna found that the majority of “Americans are most likely to base truth on feelings” and 53% of “evangelicals” question objective truth. The problem is that the postmodern culture and even the majority within the church are already living an experiential Gospel and form of Christian spirituality, but have no knowledge of doctrine and theology (based upon all the inspired and inerrant propositional truth, and logical implications, of Scripture as the sole epistemological criterion for truth). Spiritual vitality in the life of a Christian and in the local church is always identified by a commitment to sound orthodoxy and orthopraxis. The heteropraxis leaders of the Emerging Church may appear to be providing a higher level of Christian spirituality, but their fleshly quests in the “dark night of the soul” have already compromised biblical preaching and teaching and will eventually disregard the Bible completely as the propositional truth. The heteropraxy will work to deny the authority of Scripture until the Bible is perverted to conform to the heterodoxy of Emergents and the Emerging Churches. An indication of the drift from revealed propositional truth in the Emerging Church is the drift toward postmodern deconstructionism. D. A. Carson defined deconstructionism as
a literary approach, under the hermeneutics of suspicion, that hunts down tensions and inconsistencies in a text (those who deploy deconstruction insist that all texts have them) in order to set them at odds with each other and thus deconstruct the text, to generate new insights that might actually contradict what a text ostensibly says.
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In other words, as Derrida insisted, it is impossible to agree on the correct interpretation of words. The deconstruction emphasis is not on the correct interpretation and meaning of words (and certainly would not affirm the validity of an historical, grammatical method of interpretation), but the experience that the listener or reader has with the words. As a result of rejecting the authority of Scripture and its propositional truth (doctrine), Emergents cannot believe that truth can be proved, therefore, it cannot be known, and all that remains is mystery (paradox). Postmodernist Stanley Fish has stated there is “no objective standard for proving truth.” According to Fish, there is no “independent standard of objectivity” because it is impossible to prove truth definitely to others. Herein is the dilemma of the Emerging Church, the Bible is esteemed for its mystery, not its propositional truth. Therefore, by rejecting the primacy of biblical preaching and teaching for the spiritual vitality of the church, the Emerging Church is left with Christian sensitivity sessions wherein everyone can share their ignorance of the biblical text and what experience the Bible supposedly created. Furthermore, biblical orthopraxis is not derived from Scripture or the Holy Spirit but internal experiences and displays of power through contemplative spirituality and the musings of “Christian” mystics resulting in heteropraxis (which always leads to heterodoxy). The spiritual vitality that Emergents insist they desire is now beyond their reach. Truth is only relational because it is objective. The foundation of biblical (ethical) spirituality is the objective, historical, and inspired revelation of God. Since the postmodern epistemology of the Emerging Church is against this type of revelation, the Emerging Church can only affirm the postmodern emphasis upon experience, and being relational as opposed to speaking the truth in love. As a result of this careless and unbiblical doctrine and practice, the Emerging Church has relinquished the doctrinal and historical objectivity of the Gospel, which is the foundation of all biblical spirituality.
 . Vol. 10: Journal of Dispensational Theology Volume 10. 2006 (31) (18–39). North Richland Hills, TX: Tyndale Theological Seminary.