What Is the Emerging Church Movement?

The emerging church has greatly waned in its influence with the departure of many of its key leaders from orthodox Christianity. But at one time, the movement was one of the most talked about subjects in church planting circles. The emerging church is an attempt to reach postmodernists with the Christian message, but in the process, the message itself changed. Postmodernism is a difficult movement to define, but it is essentially relativism and a hesitancy to embrace absolute universal objective moral truth that is binding on all people at all times. In postmodernism, truth is created by the community rather than coming from God. It is suspicious of metanarratives or any story that proposes a solution to everyone’s problems. It is marked by cynicism and doubt concerning matters of faith and embraces mystery and uncertainty when it comes to truth. The phrase “for me” is commonly heard and reflects the common saying, “true for you, but not for me.” Emerging Christianity is (or was) an attempt to reach these people with the gospel by accommodating the church to postmodern thinking and living. They argue that by incarnating ourselves in a postmodern world, we will be able to speak their language and communicate to them the Christian message in a way that they can understand.

While many critiques can be given concerning the movement related to the authority of Scripture, pragmatism, the dearth of expositional preaching, its amorphous structure, egalitarianism, vulgar language, the embrace of same-sex relationships, the embrace of theological liberalism, the social gospel, deconstructionism, and the embrace of Catholic and New Age spirituality, I want to focus on just one aspect of it – fruit.  Jesus said, “You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matt 7:16). What fruit has the emerging church movement produced? Do its leaders embrace the teachings of all of Scripture? How many people have been brought to a saving relationship with Christ because of the preaching of its leaders? Where do we see people turning from their sin and embracing Christ? Or has the movement accommodated to the sins of our culture rather than calling on people to repent or perish?

From a distance, it may appear that emerging church leaders are just overgrown youth pastors who are trying to be cool and hip to attract a crowd. But when we look at their underlying theology, we see a departure from traditional biblical orthodoxy. As the apologist James White has said, “What you win them with is what you win them to.” The clarity and radical demands of the gospel have been obscured by a mushy, touchy-feely rebellion against “traditional church” which the emerging church feels great antipathy for. There is a bitterness against traditional Christianity which they blame for the modern rejection of Christianity. They say that people love Jesus, but they hate the church. The problem is that these people’s view of Jesus is one created in their own image rather than embracing him as God and Lord of all who will return one day to judge the living and the dead. To hate the church is to hate Christ (Acts 9:4). To love a brother or sister in Christ is to love Jesus (Matt 25:40).

When we look at the leaders of the movement, we do not see Christian orthodoxy and it certainly isn’t generous or tolerant of those who hold to the exclusivity of salvation found only through faith in Jesus Christ. Rob Bell and Brian McLaren, leaders within the movement, have both embraced universalism which is the belief that everyone will be saved and there is no eternal conscious torment of unbelievers. They also favor legalizing same-sex marriage and disregard the Bible as old letters that are not binding on us today. Why would someone want to be part of a movement that has such leaders in it? If I was a member of the emerging church, I would run from it and its leaders as fast as possible in order to be faithful to Scripture. False doctrine must be refuted and its proponents rebuked, not tolerated (Titus 1:9).

Embracing postmodernism to reach postmodernists is as unbiblical as what the liberals did during the early 20th century in embracing modernism to reach modernists. Both the modernist liberals and postmodernist emerging churches make the same fatal error – they fail to recognize the radical transforming power of the Spirit of God to change the beliefs of those trapped in unbiblical worldviews. Any attempt to change the gospel message or accommodate it to modern thinking is doomed to failure because the Holy Spirit only works through the unadulterated gospel of Scripture where Christ alone is proclaimed as the solution to all of man’s problems (Jam 1:18). This is the only gospel that can transform postmodernist sinners into Christ-followers because it is only through it that the Holy Spirit brings about regeneration. The words of Isaiah 8:20 are a fitting rebuke to anyone who would tamper with the message of Scripture: “To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn.” Whether it is postmodernism or modernism, all worldviews except the Christian worldview must be abandoned so that we might be transformed through the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:2).

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