Monday, April 24, 2006

Where Emergent Goes Bad (6) - Should Belonging Precede Believing?

Some have argued that EC is fundamentally an off-shoot of the seeker-sensitive movement so popular in the last decade.[1] This is no where more clear than in the EC desire to allow people “in” before they “believe.” In other words, this is taking the seeker model of “making church inviting to unbelievers” to a new level (its logical conclusion?). Now the goal is not conversion, but belonging. And that belonging, in some cases, becomes the Gospel. This is why events like S3K[2] make so much sense to EC and so little sense to people like me. McLaren is very big on this point and promotes the idea in nearly every chapter of A Generous Orthodoxy and the Secret Message of Jesus:

No wonder this third way seems paradoxical: to be truly inclusive, the kingdom must exclude exclusive people; to be truly reconciling, the kingdom must not reconcile with those who refuse reconciliation, to achieve its purpose of gathering people, it must not gather those who scatter. The kingdom of God has a purpose, and that purpose isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

Martin Luther King Jr. learned what happens when you preach an inclusive message of reconciliation... On the one hand, if you start expanding the borders and working for a God-centered inclusive and reconciling network of relationships, you will quickly find that there are plenty of people willing to insult you, imprison you, torture you, and kill you. They prefer the rigid boundaries and impermeable walls of their narrow domains and constricted turf, not God’s purposefully inclusive kingdom that calls the least “the greatest” and welcomes the outcast.

On the other hand, if you try to include those people who oppose your inclusive purpose, then your kingdom is divided against itself, and it will be ruined. So what do you do? If you’re Jesus, you take whatever space you are given and let God’s kingdom be made visible and real there.[3]

[1] “I think its [sic] a mistake to see the emerging subculture as nothing more than the next generation's version of the ‘seeker sensitive’ church. It is that, but only in a certain sense. In some ways, the ‘emerging church’ is a reaction against and a departure from the shallow, mass-movement professional showmanship of the slick megachurches like Willow Creek and Saddleback. Emergent types tend to value authenticity over professionalism. Many of their churches—perhaps a majority of their churches—are home churches or otherwise small-group gatherings that are informal and unorganized almost to an extreme.” Phil Johnson’s thoughts on the matter from

[2] S3K refers to Synagogue 3000. For more information on this and the participation of Emergent/US in this event, see Appendix One: Does Emergent Embrace Practicing Jews as Fellow Believers in God? [TO BE POSTED SOON]

[3] Secret Message, 169.


David said...

Very clever. Invoke MLK and your point is a slam-dunk. So excluding unbelievers from church membership is eqivalent to Jim Crow racism?

Anonymous said...

Who said anything about membership????

We're talking about community


1. Not an offshoot. Definitely not. Talk to some actual EC people, particularly those of us who have planted churches in this stream. Please...
Not an offshoot- a direct reaction against, for pete's sake.

2. You make a big, huge, impossible leap from "making church inviting to unbelievers" (which I would agree with, only with certain stipulations) to "Now, the goal is not conversion, but belonging."
How did you get from A to B?
Do I need to tell you how many people we baptize?
Our goal is to see people come into relationship with Jesus. We think that happens best in the context of relationship with people who are already following Jesus.

3. The S3K thing was controversial to a number of people, including many within the Emerging Church movement... You should probably acknowledge that.

Are you aware that the phrase "a place to belong before they believe" comes from a book that McLaren wrote on evangelism? More Ready Than You Realize- one of my favorite books on the subject... imagine! A book on evangelism written by a universalist! :)
Make sure you check it out as part of your research...

Anonymous said...

dang it... the previous post sounded confrontational... shoot. sorry.

Paul said...

No worries...
1. I acknowledged your position in the footnote (#1). It is just that in my many conversations with ec folks, and my reading of ec literature I have come to a different conclusion.
2. I do not think the leap is huge at all. I do not think there is leap to begin with! This is probably more evident in the realm of praxis than teaching. I will try to demonstrate this if I can in the next few weeks.
3. I am curious what was controversial to you about S3K and why?

ScottB said...

Paul - I'm not clear on how the McLaren quote here is all that controversial. It seems a fairly straightforward reading of the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees - I don't see much to argue with here.

On the question of belonging and conversion and all that, the early church's practice was most certainly far from what we've become accustomed to in the evangelical world. The process of moving from catechumen to baptism took three years according to Hippolytus, who was writing in the early third century. There's ample precedent for welcoming folks into the community and walking with them through a conversion process. I guess I just don't get why this is even controversial.

Anonymous said...

Should churches be inclusive or exclusive? Is “conversion” the appropriate ticket to inclusion? Or is inclusion and inclusiveness the ticket to conversion? What is conversion, anyway? Is it the result of saying a prayer and “asking Jesus into your heart”? Does it occur after a public confession and during a dunk in a hot tub? Or is it something more?

I've unfortunately known or known about, more than a few Christians who did and said things that were hateful, spiteful, damaging and deceitful. Some have TV Shows or run publishing companies. The most atrocious offenders were leaders and their close supporters. Through two church splits, I've watched formerly respectable people lose their religion, frequently over months and years. Those we expect to be most “converted” are sometimes the least. Power corrupts.

But I've not done much better myself. Even when I'm seeking and struggling to be different, I still do what I want not to do, and fail to do what I want.

And, of course, there's the apostle Paul who said as much in Romans 7.

So, this “conversion” thingy seems a bit hard to nail down. It is either a simple, magical switch that gets flipped, in the blink of an eye, with no apparent change on the outside. Or, it blooms and takes root over time.

Part of the difficulty in nailing this thing down, I'm convinced, is that Evangelicalism has simplified, compressed, mass marketed and mass produced this thing over the past century or so, until it's little more than a propositional truth to argue about. I've seen a number of evangelism tools that attempt to skillfully move the candidate down through a logical flow chart until they're forced to make a decision to join or be condemned. High pressure sales is what it is. Can we consider the result of these pressure tactics to be a “conversion?”

How do you know which of the seekers in the plush, theater style seats of a mega church is currently in the process of converting? How about those who carry their Bibles with them to every event organized by their local congregation to which they tithe, answer all the denomination's doctrinal queries correctly, live monogamous, heterosexual lives, support the local leadership and generally stay out of trouble—are they converted or converting? And what about the pierced and painted young urbanites who are struggling to kick bad habits and infrequently attend an alternative worship service where they anguish over their backsliding? Are they converting or candidates for it—whatever it is?

The answer may well be: all of the above. But who am I to include or exclude them from the party? There are a few parables in which Jesus specifically teaches that God includes the excluded.

So, include until otherwise indicated, seems the most exclusive position supportable by scripture.

Linda said...

the EC desire to allow people “in” before they “believe.”

I would suggest that it isn't our responsibility to determine who is "in." Heaven forbid we believe that we know for certain the condition of someone else's heart.

How would you define allowing people "in"? Do you mean church attendance, membership, fellowship, friendship, or other association?

One of the things I appreciate most about the emerging church is the understanding that it isn't our role to decide who is in or out, but rather, we are to love and serve, especially if there's a possibility that someone is "out."

I believe if we get busy with our part (loving and serving), we can trust the Holy Spirit to work in the hearts of others and do what He does best.

Anonymous said...