Thursday, February 1, 2007

Book Review: Emerging Churches

I started reading this book with fear and trembling, to be honest. I knew that this book (because of the accolades certain emerging leaders have given it) would shed a great deal of light on the most radical stream of emergent churches. I was afraid that I would find confirmation of my suspicions - that these folk are too far removed from the teachings of the Bible...

Sadly, I was right. But let me first get to some of the good in this book.

1.) Missional thinking - though they often go places I think are outside of the confines of the Text, I must give enormous credit to the emerging movement for focusing attention on missional living.

2.) No Culture-phobia - too many Fundamentalist and Evangelical churches view "culture" as synonymous with "the world" and "worldliness" ... and therefore "sin". Give credit to emerging leaders - they don't have this problem. They are passionate in their belief that the sacred/secular divide is dysfunctional. Like Missional thinking, they go further than I think the Text allows (like viewing culture as largely amoral). But give them credit for avoiding the Christian-subculture view that so many Seeker/Purpose Driven churches foster.

3.) Social concern - generally when I say "social activism" to my Christian friends, they think I've "gone liberal"! Sad. But true. So it's nice to read of Christ-followers that take seriously the needs of the poor and needy in their communities. And it's equally refreshing to read that these folk love and care for the needy simply because it's the right thing to do, not necessarily out of a desire to evangelize them. Here, as elsewhere, they go to far - building bridges toward someday sharing the Gospel (my take on Missional and social concern) is not the same as never even considering sharing the gospel (their take on Missional and social concern).

On to the bad, or at least a very selective list of the many, many things I could pick on:

1.) Ecclesiology based upon the life and ministry of Jesus. In this book you will read over and over again that the "life of Jesus" is their model for church structure (or lack thereof) and function. But here I have a fundamental problem - the Church wasn't even in EXISTENCE during the life of Jesus! Bad - very bad - theology. Recontextualize all you want; you can't avoid the simple truth of the birth of the Church (Pentecost - after Jesus' life on earth). Moreover, this sort of thinking implicitly wants to separate the Bible into good/better/best. In this scheme, the OT is good (as in, it's pretty much never mentioned anywhere in this 300+ page book); the post-Gospels/Acts stuff is better (it's occasionally referenced, though usually in a deficient way); the Gospels and Acts are best (as in, we draw our theology from them, even though they were clearly never meant to be used this way). This sort of pick-and-choose way of looking at Scripture is deficient at best.

2.) Selective hermeneutics - when trying to justify their deficient view of "church" (more on that in a minute), they repeatedly refer to (especially) "the priesthood of all believers" and "neither male nor female" to justify their position without ever dealing with the multitude of NT texts that speak about "elders", "shepherds", "deacons", and other explicit notions of church structure. Again, it's pick-and-choose; you pick the verses of Scripture that sound (without context, not coincidentally) like they support your view and never deal with the others.

3.) A deficient view of leadership - you get the distinct impression that many of these emerging church leaders were burned by a pastor or church body at some point in their past. The first appendix of the book gives short auto-biographies of most of the people interviewed, and they often speak of negative experiences. Anyway, the emerging church folk are largely advocating complete egalitarianism - most have no official pastor, few have any paid staff, and virtually all believe democracy is the highest form of church government. Some even openly advocate for "leaderless church". So what about the roughly sixty-two zillion verses in the Bible that address leadership? What about the constant NT theme of elders who are vested with actual authority? What about the clear system of authority in the Jerusalem church? What about deacons? None of it is dealt with. I am very open to other views of church government, largely because the NT says so little about how churches should be structured. But the Text does say a few things: like, you can't be a church without elders. You can be a group. You can be a community. You can be a circle of friends. But Biblically you can't be a church without elders. I don't care if you call them "pastors" instead of elders, incidentally. But this is one of the few things your Biblical definition of "local church" must include. But there's doesn't. In fact, many openly accuse people like me (with a Biblical view of leadership and authority) of being nothing more than power-hungry - sorry, but the ad hominem attacks bear little weight either.

4.) There's so much more that could be criticized... but I'm tired, and I think you get the point by now...

I'm sorry if this "review" turned into more of a rant. I had - and in many ways still have - high hopes for the emerging movement. Mark Driscoll is credited as referring to the "toilet of emergent theology". This book will definitely support such an assertion. [More on the emerging versus emergent issue later.]

Having said all that, if you're genuinely interested in the movement, I think this is one of those "must read" books. Just understand that your going to find yourself oft-frustrated as you read it.


No comments: