Posts Tagged ‘emergent church’

While we were in Vermont and Massachusetts last week, I saw a large number of Unitarian Universalist congregations, mostly meeting in buildings that were at one time Congregationalist churches.  I did some work on the Puritans a few years back, so I began thinking about the history of these churches—and I started to get a bad feeling.  Here’s the super-zipped history, so you can see why.

Although historically tied to the Presbyterian church, this new movement eventually separated themselves from that denomination. As they pursued their independent study of the Bible, they became convinced that the only true path to reform was to return to the practices of the first century church, including adult conversion and the pattern of congregational autonomy.

This new movement flourished, but with time, because there was no higher authority than the local congregation, the movement splintered into Arminianism (legalism), Deism (social gospel), transcendentalism (spirit-filled), and Unitarianism (liberal)—parentheses are my translation into 21st century labels.

I thought this could have been a description of Restoration Movement history to this point in time. If you feel that way too, then read on to see where the future might lie!

Within two hundred years of its beginnings in America, many of the most influential Congregationalist ministers were Unitarians (a belief in the singleness of God and a rejection of a trinitarian understanding, including a rejection of the exclusive claims of Jesus because He is the Son of God).

During this same historical period, the doctrine of universal salvation was at its zenith in America. Universalism teaches that a loving God would not create humans, then send them to hell or eternal punishment.  It is no surprise that after rejecting the divinity of Jesus and opening the doctrinal door to acceptance of everything under God, Unitarians quite easily moved into universal salvation as well. It would be the natural step following their move to a more syncretic understanding of God.

Today, these beautiful old church buildings in New England are no longer Christian churches; rather, they are filled with the great grandchildren of those early Restorationists.  Unitarian Universalists profess the following in their own words (http://www.uua.org/visitors/6798.shtml ):

There are seven principles which Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Unitarian Universalism (UU) draws from many sources:

  • Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
  • Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
  • Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
  • Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
  • Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.
  • Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

I want to think that my church could never slide down this path, but I do recognize some of these footprints in the road we are traveling.  I do believe that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (G. Santayana).

And if this is not what I want for my grandchildren, what must I do today?

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I suspect that it is people like me that drove the postmoderns to emergence!

As a college student back in the late 1960s, attending a Christian college, I volunteered twelve weeks each summer for four years to work on mission campaigns in the northeast United States.  Our teams went door-to-door, inviting people to study the Bible with us.  We typically had 30-40 Bible studies per week with people of all faiths and no faith. Our single goal was to help each person to be born again—as we understood the process.

We were not mean-spirited, but we often retweeted Paul’s words: “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others.” We did not doubt that what we were teaching was true—for everyone.  We were typically immature. I have certainly learned better what the gospel is and can present it more appropriately now, but we were not at all unusual for those times.

Recently, a college student wrote to me, requesting funds for her mission trip.  She wrote:  “We will be helping in any way that we can at a children’s home by painting, serving food, ministering to churches, and even playing with the children. . . . In this short time we hope to spread the word of God to the homeless children . . .  and help them see that there is hope.”

We will definitely contribute to this Christian girl’s mission, but I found her description of this mission trip a bit disconcerting, and all the more so because I know from our own work with students that she is as mainstream in her time as I was in mine.  She has a heart full of compassion, but is not yet aware that “people do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4).

Great churches know that compassionate service is integral to evangelism. Every church should be known for its compassion; every church should be known in its community—perhaps the world—for loving the unloved, helping the needy, protecting the weak, and serving everyone.  Then their message will be heard in a more receptive context.

Here’s the problem: virtually all of our young people—I’m talking about under 29 years old—understand missions as the Emergents have defined it, i.e., living a life of compassionate service because you are a follower of Jesus. In doing so you are redeeming the creation here and now.  And who can argue with this wonderful description of missions—but incomplete!

Also, they are right that churches/Christians have separated evangelism (missions) and compassionate service (benevolence) by what we today would call silo thinking.  Look at traditional church budgets for proof. I’m glad to be among those called back to a better understanding of our mission.

I do know, however, that a growing aversion to telling the Good News as God’s truth for all creation with words— typical of the Emergents and many of the youth in our churches—is everywhere. Our churches have substituted service projects for proclamation; our youth mission trips are exclusively service projects.  Two young ministers that I have heard recently both have publically preached the need for less emphasis on evangelism and more on Christian service—as if these two were mutually exclusive.

Great churches know that evangelism is integral to compassion. One of the saddest stories I know is about a young woman who was part of our ministry for a couple of years, sharing her faith boldly with people all over the world. She decided to spend an extended time in Germany, where she began sharing the story of Jesus with a Muslim asylum seeker who was very open to the conversation.  After a couple of months of conversation, this young Christian abandoned her faith in Jesus—completely. The reason she gave was that this Muslim person was more charitable and more loving, serving others with greater concern and greater humility than she had ever experienced in herself or the Christians she knew.

Jesus healed and preached. In fact, in every NT passage the order is first preaching, then healing—if that makes any difference.  If He had healed every sick person and raised every dead person, but had not preached the kingdom of God, how would the masses have avoided dying in their sins?  If He had only preached, would anyone have listened?

Since I started with my own confession, let me end with repentance. For thirty years, my wife and I have led the Let’s Start Talking Ministry. The method has been the same for all those years: LST workers offer to help people practice their English (compassionate service) while using the story of Jesus in the Gospels as the text (evangelism). Our experience is that most people become interested in what they are reading and begin to ask questions of the Christian, which leads to a natural conversation about Jesus, which for some, leads to saving faith.

I do believe that ministry and message are married in our method; however, the balance is probably 10% service and 90% evangelism.  In the future, I am committed to introducing more opportunities for our short-term mission teams to be involved in more compassionate service wherever we send them.  My hope is that we will include the local Christians as well as those who are not yet Christians in this service, so that working shoulder to shoulder, doing good, the non-Christians will see that we Christ followers so love the world!

That’s my plan. Yours may need to balance the other direction. I do believe that every ministry of compassion should not just have a vague goal of hopefully someday somebody noticing that we are Christians.  Each should give prayerful thought and planning to how people who are helped will learn about Jesus.

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Did Jesus come to “seek and save the lost” or to practice “pure and undefiled religion” by showing compassion on the helpless and needy?  Are Christians about declaring the Good News or about giving cups of cold water?  Does the word missional mean evangelistic or does it mean benevolent?

These are not new questions to those who are widely read in current religious thinking. You will recognize some of the tension brought to Christianity from what is generally known as the emerging church or emergent church movement of the last decade in the U.S., a movement that tries to exchange what they perceive as the “modern” (read rational) out of Christianity in exchange for a “postmodern” approach, one deemed more relevant for our current context.

Allow me to jump to some of the conclusions about evangelism from this movement without providing their arguments—because this is not an attempt to sort out the entire emerging church movement. Emergents generally believe that

  1. Evangelistic  Christians have focused too much on eternal redemption at the expense of living with compassion in the world.
  2. Conversation is more appropriate than proclamation.
  3. The interpretation of any message, including the biblical text, is a private matter.
  4. Insisting on boundaries that contain the gospel, the church or the saved offends, hindering  the spread of the Christian experience.

Bruce McLaren, a leading spokesperson for the emergent group, tells  me where these premises lead:

I don’t believe making disciples must equal making adherents to the Christian religion. It may be advisable in many (not all!) circumstances to help people become followers of Jesus and remain within their Buddhist, Hindu or Jewish contexts … rather than resolving the paradox via pronouncements on the eternal destiny of people more convinced by or loyal to other religions than ours, we simply move. . . .   (Brian D. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing, 2004) 260, 262, 264. )

As is often the case, the gravest danger in these premises  may not be in their fallacies but from their truthfulness.

  • When Christians do not love the world the way God so loved the world, our message is hollow. Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness” (Matt. 9:35). Preaching without works of compassion is absent of living proof. Compassion without preaching  is absent the Good News!
  • Conversation is often more appropriate than proclamation. The conversations of Jesus far outnumber the public sermons.  My fear, however, is that the Emergents are really not talking about public versus private, but rather about the truth of the content.  Whereas, proclamation speaks “as the oracle of God,” a conversation may be simply an exchange of similar (or dissimilar) opinions of equal value. Christians should know how to “speak the truth in love” whether publically or intimately.
  • One is tempted to equate the emergent argument of private interpretation with the modern American protestant version of sola Scriptura, which is every man with his Bible starting his own church on the street corner, but that would not be accurate. What this argument really reflects is the postmodern rejection of objective truth.  Since Jesus said he is the Truth, I do not believe Christ followers can hold to “private interpretation.  Neither did the Apostle Peter. (2 Peter 1:20).
  • Again, the Emergents are correct. Boundaries offend; exclusivity offends. Jesus offended. The Story offended. The Church offended. The Acts of the Apostles are full of offense by those who believed that Jesus was raised from the dead.  Understandably, it is the gloating and self-righteousness that Emergents see in Christians that pushes them to the opposite wall.

I live and work in a very evangelistic environment—in the traditional sense. The church I attend is also overtly and aggressively evangelistic—and I’m glad.  Yet even among us, it is not rare to hear watered-down versions of the Emergent heresies.  Kool-aid is watered down, but still can be poisonous. I’ll continue these thoughts tomorrow.

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