Thursday, April 13, 2006

Where Emergent is Good

Diagnosis of One Particular Form of Evangelicalism

One of the skills of an excellent physician is the ability to quickly and accurately diagnose the illness. EC certainly has some good diagnostic skill (with several qualifications). For if EC is nothing else, it is a reaction to the sham Christianity and false spirituality that abounds in today’s church. The examples of this in McLaren’s writings are numerous and woven throughout. So, he can easily draw attention to artificial and schmaltzy church music; inattentive hearers of the Word that leave their pews to go back to living like the world; inauthentic Christian communities that breed fake and even destructive relationships; the cocooning of Christians into non-evangelistic lumps of selfishness; the false assumption that “Christian” means white-collar, suburb-dwelling Republican; and a revolting contentedness with surface answers to life’s most genuine and difficult questions. He writes:

...unfortunately so much of what we’re currently fighting against (“we” meaning the church in America for starters) isn’t the real enemy, and so much of what we’re fighting for isn’t the real prize. Largely we’re fighting to get something back—a lost status as the civil religion of the West, control (political, too often) over things that are out of our control, a privileged position as the favored religion of the Empire, protection of the middle class from the lower and upper classes, and so on. These are futile fights.

We’re also focused on fighting symptoms like abortion, promiscuity (hetero or homosexual), divorce, and profanity. We might add terrorism to the list. But these are not the disease. These are in many ways the symptoms of the very disease that we inadvertently tend to support, aid and abet, defend, protect, baptize, and fight for—a system sick with consumerism, greed, fear, violence, and misplaced faith (in the power of the Economy and the State and its Weapons).[1]

Phil Johnson goes into more detail about where EC has effectively identified weaknesses in Evangelicalism:

For one thing, they are right to reject the professionalism and big-business approach to ministry that has been popularized by most of the influential megachurches.

They are right to point out that millions of American evangelicals live lives of gross hypocrisy and narcissism, ignoring the needs of the poor while indulging themselves with entertainments and luxuries...

They are right when they complain about the way the evangelical movement has sold its birthright for a mess of Republican Party porridge...

And they are right when they suggest we have not done enough to reach the outcasts and counter-cultural people in our society. I think their approach to reaching those segments of society is all wrong and largely counterproductive, but to adapt a phrase from D. L. Moody: I like the way some of them are trying to reach those people a lot better than I like the way many evangelicals simply ignore the task of evangelism.[2]

Carson agrees, describing what he considers to be the movement’s strengths as “reading the times; pushing for authenticity; recognizing our own social location; evangelizing outsiders; and probing links with the tradition.”[3]

The fact is, most of us would agree with much of EC’s assessment of modern evangelicalism. I am equally turned off by many of the weaknesses EC identifies and agree that we need the Lord to rescue us and our churches from them. But just identifying the problem is only one part of a good diagnosis. The doctor who rightly tells you that the lump on your neck is cancer doesn’t do you a bit of good by instructing you to jump up and down three times a day shouting, “Ookey-tonga!” in order to be cured. That remedy does not match the disease – it’s not even in the same ballpark. Is it possible EC has made a similar error?

[1] Orthodoxy, 185.

[3] For a full description of these terms, see D. A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005), especially chapter 2.