Emerging Churches believe the modern church’s evangelistic success is declining

Over a decade ago, a new kind of church began appearing that was, in many respects, very different than other churches on the landscape. As a catch-all term, I will use the word ’emerging’ to describe them, since they often identified with that term for several years.

Emerging churches observe that the church in the modern era, while it accomplished many wonderful things, has gradually become less and less effective at drawing people in our changing culture to life-changing experiences with Jesus.

Postmodern Christians realize that the cultural matrix that modern churches developed in – has changed dramatically.They believe that, in order to communicate the gospel effectively to a culture that no longer knows it by heart, we need to apply the insights learned by missionaries in other cultures about contextualization. They also believe that failure to do so is one of the chief reasons behind why the modern church’s evangelistic success has been waning.

Dan Kimball says it like this in his excellent book The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations “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 was once a Christian nation with a Judeo-Christian worldview is quickly becoming a post-Christian, unchurched, unreached nation…. the fifth largest mission field in the world.” (The Emerging Church, 13-14).

A member of a super-modern church said to me “People who visit church already know what we’re about and what we believe.” I contend nothing could be further from accurate.  Emerging churches realize that the people in our culture do not already know the Bible’s characters nor themes. Doubt it? Remember The Tonight Show’s clips on the streets of New York asking basic bible questions like “Who was bigger, David or Goliath” or “Name one of the 12 disciples”. Or, consider the much-told story of the two young women at a jewelry counter. Do you know that story? They are looking at cross necklaces. One girl says to the other “Are you going to get a cross with the little man on it, or one without the little man?” The other girl responds “What’s with the little man? Why would someone want a little man on their cross?” Emerging churches understand that postmodern people may think ‘Trinity’ refers to Neo’s girlfriend in The Matrix. 

Kimball has said “We start in the middle of a story that they don’t know or that they know very little about mainly through negative experiences. We offer them escape from a peril they don’t know they face, and we use words that either aren’t part of their vocabulary or that they don’t correctly understand.” (Kimball, The Emerging Church, 172).

I start with this point, because it informs so much of what has created the raison d’etre    for emerging churches. Members of emerging churches want the message of Jesus effectively getting to our culture. I stand squarely in the middle of historic and evangelical Christianity in affirming them in this desire.

So, modern church, what’s all that mean? It means this: It’s time we apply missionary science 101 in postmodern culture.

What’s good about this? What’s wonderful about knowing the church is not doing so great in evangelism? Simply this: waking up and smelling the reality is essential to dealing with reality. The first step in addressing an issue, is knowing there is one. Remember the men of the tribe of Issachar:  “…who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.”   (1 Chronicles 12: 32).

 

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How I would characterize the Emergents

Plenty of fine books written by young emergent Christians have explained their perspectives. These books don’t get read much by their detractors, especially the ones just passing along what they heard someone else say. In fact, most Christians I know who are bad-mouthing the emergents have never read any book by an emergent author, and are simply passing along information they’ve gleaned from websites or books antagonistic to the movement. This even includes pastor friends of mine!

When I wrote about the ‘Mesa’ group’s ten commitments, someone asked if I’d say it was just the New Age movement re-packaged? (Part of my response was: “Mesa, as far as I know, are practicing Christians and understand their entire reason to exist as Gospel-driven and Kingdom-purposed. God’s will being done on earth, loving enemies, serving the poor, justice, care in how Scripture is used, churches, Christlike people, the common good, racial harmony, being good stewards of Creation, peacemaking and our relationship with God – all sound like Bible to me!”)

But the question got me thinking, how would I characterize the Emergents? Anytime you try to paint a picture of a large, diverse group, you step into a minefield of mis-characterization. However, I will simply do this:

I will describe the most common ‘type’ (using the word in the way ethnographers do) of Emergent Christian that I have personally known and talked to. So here it is:

Primarily young. Grew up in evangelical church. Believes Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of the world. Thinks the evangelical church sold out to upper middle class Republican values. Thinks the evangelical church confuses being Republican so badly with following Jesus that they can’t see the forest for the trees. Feels that the evangelical church functions largely as a religious grocery store servicing its members while ignoring the pressing needs of the world’s poor and injustices and needs a healthy dose of Matthew 25. Longs for a sense of Christian community they didn’t find in the church they grew up attending. Wants to follow Jesus and do the things he said to do in the Gospels. Isn’t nearly as taken with Paul’s theological explication of Jesus as they are with Jesus himself.  Thinks their parents’ churches are often long on doctrines about Jesus and short on actually following him in the sense of doing what he said. Wants to actually live among the poor and minister to them. Values all kinds of expressions of Christianity across the spectrum of denominations more than just settling into one.  Are often antagonistic toward 5 point Calvinism (though not all of them). Values community more than individuality. Yes, they are democrat. Yes, they are often politically liberal. Yes, like most of their generation, many of them see homosexuality as just how people are born. Their most over-powering goal in life is to live out the Gospel as Kingdom of God followers of Jesus.

These are the characteristics of most Emergent Christians I know.