Sundoulos - Summer 2006

Dean's Column

Church Emergent or Divergent?

by Dr. Dennis Dirks

There is something attractive about the new and emerging. We’re drawn to the fresh or newly developing. Like the promise of budding trees in early spring, the loose conglomeration of ideas and practices that has come to call itself the Emergent Church suggests such possibilities.

And there are features to commend. The insights of many Emergent Church leaders pose penetrating questions about contemporary expressions and practices in the church. The movement soundly rejects the kind of individualistic faith that has come to define much of today’s evangelical culture, and instead re-emphasizes community. Commitment solely of the mind is rejected; in its place whole-life faithfulness, or unity of thought / belief, heart, and action, is a value to be treasured and pursued. This is seen as a counter to much of evangelicalism which today appears more and more to reflect culture. Authenticity and genuine humility are prized. The outcome is a critique of current expressions of evangelical Christianity that in many ways is strikingly biblical. The movement is refreshingly zealous to reach postmodern culture with the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s no surprise then that many are drawn to such winsome qualities.

But whatever claims to be new bears judicious examination. When subjected to the careful scrutiny of Scripture, theology, and the history of the church, many solutions offered by the Emergent Church wither like newly planted grass in a scorching wind

The dictionary defines “emergent” as something that is appearing, arising, or developing, especially for the first time. Its antonym is “dying.” Self-definition by leaders in the movement resonates with this description of emergent. Specifically, emergents offer a path to reach this generation that they claim traditional churches fail to provide. To do so, the emerging church reaches back to the early church and morphs ancient practices into something that purportedly reaches the culture of today. Paradoxically, in reaching back to bring forward, the movement is heavily influenced by postmodern thought. Critics suggest the result is abandonment of the gospel: as emergents have increasingly embraced contemporary postmodern culture, truth has been impossibly compromised.

Indeed, there seems to be greater interest in analyzing culture, current and ancient, than careful study of Scripture and learning from insights of centuries of careful, and sometimes not so careful, theological inquiry and reflection. This impression is only enhanced by emergent suggestions that the task of the church today is to deconstruct 2000 years of theology. Has postmodernism received more than a collective group hug by the emergent movement? Is the Emergent Church claim of embracing a new way of doing church actually a new way of tailoring the gospel to embrace culture instead? Can the work of the Holy Spirit in the church for the past 2000 years really be ignored or dismissed?

We must be careful—not all “emergent” ideas should be cavalierly tossed aside; there are facets of the Emergent Church to commend. Its critique of the church requires not merely verbal reaction but response with fitting change. Still, some claims of the emergent movement are such that they must be challenged, corrected, and where appropriate rejected. Discernment is indispensable.

Dr. Dennis Dirks is Dean of Talbot School of Theology and Professor Christian Education. He has been with Talbot for more than 27 years as a faculty member and administrator after serving on the staff of two churches.

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