Prof: ‘Emerging church’ mixes constructive criticism with errors
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)--The emerging church movement has started a helpful conversation about the need for churches to be relevant to postmodern culture but commits fatal errors in the areas of evangelism and the authority of Scripture, says Chuck Lawless, dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Speaking at a breakout session of the sixth annual “Give Me An Answer” collegiate conference in early February, Lawless told students that the emerging church movement, a growing movement seeking to move beyond the approach of many modern congregations, tends at times wrongly to deemphasize the necessity of a personal relationship with Christ.
“I think the emerging church movement is helpful to us when they talk about transformed lives,” he said. “I think we need to hear that, that authentic Christianity ought to lead us to look like Christ.... They do not help us when they go so far as to suggest or hint at [salvation] happening apart from a personal relationship with Christ.”
Lawless emphasized that the movement is so new that it is difficult to define with precision who it includes or what it believes. But he listed several general characteristics of the emerging church:
-- The movement displays a sense of discontent with the church as it is. Emerging church leaders argue that churches cannot reach lost people who are searching for truth because the churches have lost their own sense of excitement about walking with Jesus, Lawless said.
-- The movement desires to engage culture as it is. It wants to reach a generation that is deeply spiritual but not necessarily Christian, denies absolute truth, embraces pluralism and is disconnected from the church, he said. To do this, the movement tries to identify with postmodern culture, Lawless noted.
-- The movement has a desire to be missional. Because North American culture is increasingly non-Christian, emerging churches see the church as an organization in the midst of a mission field, he said.
“So they write about including together evangelism and social action and trying to speak while also influencing culture and being more inclusive than exclusive, that we might gain a hearing with this world," Lawless said.
-- The movement focuses on relationships. “For the emerging church, the small group is very important because the small group becomes the place in which you develop authentic relationships,” Lawless said.
-- The movement emphasizes transformed lives on earth.
-- The movement understands worship as a gathering rather than a service. Worship at some emerging churches is a combination of what one writer has called “charismatic exuberance at one level and quiet meditation at another,” Lawless said, noting that services in emerging churches frequently include a multi-sensory approach to worship.
-- The movement understands evangelism as more a process than proclamation. “It’s more about dialogue and listening than it is about preaching and telling, he said.
There are several ways in which the emerging church movement errs, but reflecting on its thinking can teach all believers valuable lessons, Lawless said. For example, the church must be relevant -- as the emerging church points out -- but must stand on the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, as some emerging church leaders fail to do.
“What I sense [in the emerging church] is a desire to build relationships and let those relationships become primary, and then if an opportunity comes up, then [they] may speak something,” Lawless said. “I think that’s dangerous for the church. I think what has to happen is that the churches as they are today must learn relevance while also taking an absolute, undeniable, uncompromised stand on the Word of God.”
Churches must also build healthy relationships, which the emerging church advocates, but must build those relationships around biblical accountability -- a tactic that unfortunately is absent from many emerging churches, Lawless said.
“The emerging church helps us to say, ‘We must build relationships,’” he said. “But we’ve got to take that one step farther to say, ‘How do we do that, and how do we build that around accountability?’”
Finally, churches must be missional, as the emerging church suggests, Lawless said, but he added that Christians must be more aggressive about proclaiming the message of Christ than the emerging church movement often teaches.
“We have to build relationships to gain a hearing,” he said. “I’m right there. But New Testament evangelism does not say, ‘I’ll just wait and listen and when you ask, I’ll respond.’ New Testament evangelism is initiatory and it is confrontive.”
Some teachings from the emerging church movement “do not fit Christian orthodoxy,” Lawless warned.
“Read very, very cautiously. Hear the positive. Then pray that God would help us to work on our own churches to take those positives and to become more relational, to become more authentic, to become more vulnerable as needed, but without ever compromising the truth of the Gospel.”