November 30, 2020

Review: Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches, Robert Webber, General Editor.

listening_to_beliefs.jpgListening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches: Five Perspectives. General Editor: Robert Webber. Contributors: Mark Driscoll, John Burke, Dan Kimball, Doug Padgitt, Karen Ward. Zondervan, 2007.

What is it about the emerging church that makes it so difficult for Christians to talk about it?

Probably because there is no emerging church. There are a collection of pastors, writers, churches and networks that relate to some aspect of the concept of ministering to an emerging postmodern culture. Because of the broad and diverse array of those sources, no one of them can speak for all of them, and many of the most often cited icons of the emerging movement are increasingly speaking for fewer and fewer Christians who use the term emerging in some meaningful way.

Since this is the case, the challenge is to listen. LISTEN. And once we’ve listened, then fairly and Biblically sort through the emerging church movement to make an evaluation, not a caricature.

Many of the early evaluations of the emerging church conversation were actually reviews of Brian Mclaren’s book, Generous Orthodoxy. I do not believe the majority of recent emerging church critics had ever visited an ordinary emerging church or investigated an emerging ministry setting. The early returns have all focused on the emerging church as if it were running a chain of seminaries and employed an army of professors with the sole purpose of overturning all loyalty to objective truth.

One of the reasons that I have a basic openness to the emerging church movement is that the first things I read and listened to were Mark Driscoll’s books and sermons. What I heard was a church planter willing to build a club for bands, a preacher willing to use some of the dynamics of stand up comedy and a missiologist translating Keller’s vision for the city into his own setting.

If you want to listen to the real emerging conversation in all its frustrating, challenging diversity, then you must put Robert Webber’s Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches on your “must read” list.

Webber is the daddy of all us post-evangelicals, and like me, he is listening to the emerging church to hear if they are clearing out the wells to drink the ancient waters in a postmodern culture, or is the EC inventing new levels of frothy trendiness. This book gives five very diverse emerging church leaders the opportunity to discuss major areas of theology, and then respond to one another in a “round table” forum. Short of visiting the churches yourself, this is your best encounter with the emerging movement in its own words and an awareness of the criticisms that are being leveled.

This book is a wild ride. From Mark Driscoll’s hardcore reformed theology to Karen Ward’s liberal Episcopal/Lutheran/????, each writer has a unique perspective, contribution and response. While there are many similarities, the theological differences on issues relating to scripture are considerable.

In fact, I was immediately impressed that one could remove the emerging veneer, and fairly easily drop these folks into denominational “teams” and styles” that have been around for centuries.

In the responses, particularly, one can see one thing clearly: anyone who says the “emerging” church is united about anything other than a few basic missiological principles is completely discredited by actually listening to what the emerging church is saying. When one reads Doug Pagitt and Mark Driscoll cited as representatives of the same “church,” it’s time to close the book.

In fact, the divisions here are far more interesting than the similarities, because many of these authors have personal relationships and similar, intersecting histories. The divisions in the emerging movement are the same painful divisions that Christians experience in any setting where our reading of the Bible reveals our underlying hermeneutical commitments and confessional loyalties.

Does Webber hear the ancient-modern faith that he is looking for? His introduction and final evaluation essays in the book will speak for themselves, but I do not sense that much of the emerging church values the ancient faith in the same way as Webber, but that some aspects of that faith- particularly the Christian year, confessional awareness and catechizing of new Christians- will appear in some, but not all, emerging churches. Some emerging churches will deconstruct and zero out the ancient faith as quickly as they have modernistic evangelicalism.

Looking for an extremely careful, fair and balanced examination of the emerging church movement? Theology Unplugged is a podcast produced by Renewing the Mind Ministries. They have been in a multi-week examination and discussion of the emerging movement. I’ve been extremely impressed with the research, openness and gracious tone in this critical analysis of the EC. I recommend it enthusiastically.


  1. I’m still reasonably ignorant of the emerging church. I’ve heard some people rail against them and others defend them.

    I think the emerging church is actually similar, in some respect, to the “Jesus Movement” that began in the sixties and early seventies.

    The movement created some interesting groupings, like Calvary Chapel, Chuck Smith and Resurrection band.

    But it also created some rather strange groups, like The Children of God cult, The People’s temple cult, and the cult-like Christian Fellowship Ministries (under Wayman Mitchell).

    You wouldn’t want to compare Calvary Chapel with the Jonestown massacre, but both arose out of that movement. I think I may be pre-empting things here a bit but I think the nature of the Emerging church will lead to some very strongly influential evangelical leaders of the future… as well as some bad cults.