This morning I was reading a post from Kurt Willems’ blog about John Piper’s comments on the Emerging Church. The post contains a You Tube clip of what Piper said and then critiques what is said within that. Willems explains why he views Pipers comments which are summed up by terms like “shambles” and “heresy” as unfair before going on to raise questions about why so many emergent types do appear to have embraced mainline liberalism. He concludes his main body of argument by making the point that the best expressions of this movement/ conversation will have added “kingdom value” to the church in the West. Finally he poses the question “what do you think of the emerging church conversation? Will it be over in 10 years or will it evolve into something new?”
I’d be interested in responses to this question too but first of all some observations on both Piper’s comments and Willems’ response.
The first relates to who John Piper is. He is a Calvinist Baptist Preacher and theologian in the US who has influenced the thinking and theology of New Frontiers in this country. He is a conservative evangelical who along with Wayne Grudem has been one of the strongest voices theologically in that strand of Calvinist evangelical thought over the last few decades. In terms of what he believes as a Calvinist an article on his website dating back to 1998 sums it up in detail.
The majority of those who would describe themselves as “emerging” are coming from divergent points to Piper on several issues and their theology tends to be more Arminian . In English that means Piper believes that whilst all can come to faith God has pre-decided and “chosen” who will come to faith, Arminians on the other hand believe that all can come to faith and it is down entirely to our free will whether we do or not, God does not pre-decide. Thus, we have the first point of divergence.
The second point of divergence is that Piper believes in what he calls “Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” which argues that there are distinctive gendered roles for men and women with men having headship over women. For a discussion on one aspect of what this means and a critique of it Dave Warnock (42) has a good recent post. The emerging church takes a different view which is based upon the equality of both genders including in leadership.
I could go further but these two points initially give indication of why Piper and the emerging church have theological differences and why Piper is never going to be their biggest fan.
But what of what he says within the You Tube video? Is there truth within it? Well, to think about this we need to identify what we are talking about when we refer to the “emerging church”. The best study of it comes from Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger who did a study of the emerging church based in the US and UK called Emerging Churches. They define emerging churches in the following way, (pp 44&45) “Emerging churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures. This definition encompasses the nine practices. Emerging churches (1) identify with the life of Jesus, (2) transform the secular realm and (3) live highly communal lives. Because of these three activities, they (4) welcome the stranger, (5) serve with generosity, (6) participate as produces, (7) create as created beings, (8) lead as a body, and (9) take part in spiritual activities.”
One thing Piper argues is that they have put the emphasis on being relational at the expense of all else. I would question this. Certainly the relational aspect is important and has become a key part of the language used by the emerging church and other related expressions of late modern faith which I will discuss in a moment, but I am not sure this has been at the exclusion of all else. It is interesting to note how the emerging church has embraced the idea of new monasticism and in recent years has been engaging with tradition through concepts like “ancient future”. The growth of sacramentality within the movement which can be noted on both sides of the Atlantic (see House for All Saints and Sinners in the US and Transcendence in the UK as good examples).
There is an association, as both Willems and Piper point out, with mainstream liberalism (and within this universalism for example). From where Piper is coming from this will be viewed as heresy from where others are coming from it may not. To understand why they have often moved from quite evangelical positions to this place it is important to differentiate between different groups and their journeys. Firstly, in the UK particularly there are those who moved into the emerging church through being post-evangelical (for example Dave Tomlinson). Then there are those who engaged with academic deconstructionism (see Wiki def) and applied it to theology, engaging with what Peter Berger described as the Heretical Imperative Brian McLaren who Piper mentions and slates would come within this category. This Greenbelt talk is free to download and gives some idea of where he’s coming from. Finally there are those within this movement who have come to faith and engaged with the emergent church in order to develop their Christian growth and ministry because traditional “inherited” churches were spaces which didn’t understand their identities (people like Nadia Boltz Webber). Their theology has come from taking reason and experience as seriously scripture and tradition. This has often meant that they have come to positions on moral issues which have favoured inclusiveness and social justice over more conservative theological positions. Additionally, their wrestling with inter-faith issues has often led them to a position of universalism or some variation on. However, the extent to which this is true depends upon each individual and community.
In terms of the timescale if one includes post-evangelical groups such as Holy Joe’s which Tomlinson founded then they could be said to have grown over the last two decades rather than just the last 10 years. As Piper has said they have tended to be a white middle-class movement involving a disproportionate number of graduates (although not exclusively). But have they had their time and are they disappearing?
I want to suggest that whilst academics may seek to argue over exact classifications of groups what we are seeing is not the demise of the emerging church but a shift in terminology related to it. In the UK we have seen a growth in references to “pioneer ministries” and “Fresh Expressions” and most recently the term that appears to be gaining most currency is “missional communities” (see this for an explanation, although there are a couple of slightly different definitions emerging). What all of these ideas are doing are taking key features associated with the emerging church movement on but in many ways leaving the initial label of the movement behind. Some of this is occurring as the emerging church gets incorporated into the mainstream and some of it is more organic I’d argue. There is an argument this is resulting in the loss of something of what was the essence of emerging churches and this may be true but it doesn’t mean they have totally fallen apart.
In terms of whether these things which came within and from beyond the Emerging Church will survive I think this recent reflection from Graham Cray on Fresh Expressions is useful. He makes the point some stuff is seasonal and just for a time and some stuff will survive.
That’s my assessment of it all, what’s yours?