June 7, 2020

SBC Conservatism Vs Emergent Pragmatism: Round One

bmclar.jpgHow dangerous is this man? Apparently he’s dangerous enough that Kentucky Baptists don’t want to take the chance of hearing what he has to say about evangelism and church growth. He doesn’t have anything to say on homosexuality that wouldn’t hurt someone (his words) and he’s not sure that those of other religions who become Jesus-followers need to abandon their familiar cultural context.

Brian McLaren’s exit from a Kentucky Baptist Evangelism conference underlines the temporary battle among SBC evangelicals halting between the theology of the conservative resurgence and the assured results of church growth pragmatism. I predict the winner, but I’m really laughing at the ironies.

I’m trying not to laugh.

Let’s start with a Paul McCain post where he points out the not-so-comic comedy of pastors saying they don’t want to be theologians. Theology, as we all know (*wink-wink*) is dead, dry, and devoid of love. It makes preaching boring and divides churches. Christians want the pastor to be entertaining, vulnerable and a motivator. But a theologian? Not high on the list of most evangelicals.

And so many young pastors have bought this. The “aw-shucks, I’m just another Joe” minister is everywhere today. His expertise is in church growth, relationships, fund raising, promotion, reading the culture, being creative….but not theology. Theology is what got us into this denominational mess anyway, right?

So I can’t help but laugh at the recent flap involving The Kentucky Baptist Convention’s annual Evangelism Conference and Emergent Church guru Brian McLaren. The Louisville Courier-Journal covered the story here, and the Kentucky Baptist Western Recorder has their version of events here.

McLaren is popular in church growth circles these days. He is the messenger of the much talked-of “emergent church” to the regular church types who want to know how they can get in on the action. McLaren has written books that skillfully point out the changes in culture that spell bad times ahead for the traditional church. He’s frequently involved in debates about post-modernism and its impact on ministry.

I like McLaren. He seems to be a sharp, honest and compassionate writer. He was included in Time Magazine’s list of 25 influential evangelicals, and had a couple of network television spots as a result, including an evening of torture on a Larry King Show dominated by the LaHayes. Though I admire him, he clearly is in over his head when serious theology is the focus. McLaren represents much of the emergent critique, but he is a popularizer, and not the person to go toe-to-toe with the conservatives who will find his view of Christianity milquetoast and water. (BTW, McLaren’s letter exchange with Chuck Colson is worth reading to get a sense of McLaren at his best. Note McLaren’s analysis of the seven ways evangelicals use the word “truth.”)

As hip and in-step with the culture as Brian McLaren may be, he also appears to be a bit of a theological loose cannon. His recent book, A Generous Orthodoxy, earned a large fisking from a frowning Al Mohler, who has become the theological clearing house for much of evangelicalism.

(UPDATE: Here is Craig Blomberg’s more positive review of Generous Orthodoxy. Here’s his assessment:

But overall, I am far more enthusiastic about this volume than worried over it. What worries me are the growing numbers of people who are worried about it. What does this portend if not an ungenerous orthodoxy that draws ever-narrowing boundaries around what counts as authentic Christianity, thereby alienating even more onlookers from the very faith they already see as too judgmental and divisive? I recommend McLaren’s work highly to anyone who cares about evangelizing postmoderns and about developing the kind of community in the church of Jesus Christ that our Lord himself seems to have desired.)

McLaren admits in Generous Orthodoxy that he is still working on the relationship of Christ to other religions, and he doesn’t really have a sure word for anyone on homosexuality. In McLaren’s defense, I think a fair reading will reveal that he is plenty orthodox, but like yours truly, he voices his struggles and questions, and sees little virtue in a feigned certainty over issues that he, personally, is still considering. McLaren doesn’t plan to join either of the sides shouting at each other over the various culture war issues that dominate evangelicalism. He is trying to build something in the middle, and we all know what you usually find in the middle of a two lane highway.

So after booking McLaren to come and tell Kentucky Baptist pastors how to remove barriers and reach out to unbelievers, some of McLaren’s less-than-predictably-orthodox statements found their way into Mohler’s column and, before you could say, “systematic theology,” McLaren was invited to find something else to do while the KBC evangelism conference was meeting.

Yes, theology is a lot of trouble. Especially when you have a bunch of church growth pragmatists who haven’t read anything stouter than Purpose Driven Life in the last five years, and believe all the press releases and promo interviews of everyone with a church growth story to tell. It’s so embarrassing to have to be told in public that your church growth expert has…..”theology problems.” “Pardon me….your sloppy theology is showing.”

Had anyone at the KBC actually read McLaren’s book? Did McLaren’s “Generous Orthodoxy” ever seem out of synch with the concerns of traditional SBCers in Kentucky? Or….did the evangelism/church growth guys read it- but that theology stuff just didn’t matter? That’s my answer…It didn’t matter.

Theology matters less and less these days, as church growth pragmatists continue to tell us- authoritatively- what worked for them. McLaren has some important- and Biblical- things to say, but he hasn’t arrived at the place he is ready to sign up for theological conservatism, and that theological conservatism is still the door in- and out- of Baptist life these days.

Anyone else confused? Theology does or doesn’t matter. Depending on what direction you are coming from. Baptists are now happily picturing themselves as conservative in all that matters and pragmatic in all the ways to grow a church. Which brings me to my final irony.

The same Western Recorder contained a front page story on Baptist churches reconsidering the usefulness of the public invitation. After a bit of musing that aisle walking might discourage some seekers from joining the church, the paper ran a strong defense of the invitation as Biblical, because Jesus taught it, and those great Baptists, D.L. Moody and Charles Finney endorsed it. (!!!!!!!!!)

This is the same paper that castigated Calvinists who questioned the Biblical appropriateness of an “altar call” as anti-missionary and anti-evangelism, but now that some church growth pragmatist has discovered it might make people uncomfortable, we can suddenly question it. Briefly.

How about taking a look at what the Bible really says? How about a “Bible and theology” discussion of the invitation, rather than just a pragmatic discussion?

I’ll predict that despite the current influence of conservative theology in the SBC, the church growth pragmatists will win the day. It’s what works that matters most to these evangelicals, and what works will become what God approves, endorses, expects and even requires. Theology is a dimming light in evangelicalism, and while Kentucky Baptist conservatives took Mohler over McLaren, evangelicals as a whole will take McLaren over Mohler any day, and Baptists will too, eventually. Even as they nod at conservative theology, their approach to church will increasingly be “what works.”

Now when will Mohler review Warren? I’m waiting for that column.

(You can listen to McLaren here and decide for yourself how scary he is.)


  1. Brilliant!

  2. Perhaps the issue isn’t really between theology and pragmatism (and I agree that theology is losing ground there) but between theology that engages culture and theology that does not.

    There should be a theological pragmatism – God does speak to our current circumstances.

    The church should serve people in their context.

    I observe a tendency of some who love theology to speak in forms and do ministry in ways that would have been meaningful to the Puritans but have little resonance today.

    I’m not sure McLaren has it all right, but at least he’s trying.

  3. I think that it would be great if we had a theologically driven pragmatism. And perhaps we do in some cases. But at least among Baptists as I have experienced them, it’s the theology that gets rewritten based on what works. It’s pragmatic driven theology. Whatever puts butts in the seats will eventually be the truth from God.

  4. I’ve read McLaren’s first book (*New Kind of Christian*) and I will continue on to *New Kind’s* sequels as time permits. I sympathize with a lot of what he says (although I wish he were more “theologically correct” in the margins).

    The reactions of the KBC reminds me of the reactions in a lot of the orthodox “mainline” churches I’m familiar with (PCUSA, ELCA, ECUSA). People there tend to be “knee-jerk” conservatives – if you disguise your pragmatism or unorthodoxy in evangelistic language and pieties, you get a pass. But if you hit one of the remaining “third-rails” (homosexuality, exclusivism in salvation) you get a shock. They know they ought to react to these things, but they may have little foundation for *why* they do. It’s (literaly) a “knee-jerk” – instinctual, with no conscious understanding.

    That’s why Mike is right, IMHO, about the eventual triumph of the pragmatists. They’ve got the foundations, and it’s just a matter of time until the instincts catch up (or in this case, down) with them.

  5. I just checked out the “Western Recorder”. One of the lead articles was entitled “Author: False gospel leading churches to create nominal Christians”. “Great!”, thinks I.

    The article was pretty much without theological substance at all. What really caught me was what the “author” (Dallas Willard) said about Christians who are not really discipled:

    “I think there will be a lot of people who will be in heaven who believe that (Jesus died only for their sins),” Willard said. “I think they will have a lot of catching up to do because they are not all that different from those in the other place.”

    I found that statement mystifying. Where is the biblical backup for this assertion? God’s people in heaven who are “not at all that different” from those in hell? Anyone care to defend Dallas Willard for this?

  6. Willard is a teacher on Spiritual Disciplines. His work is fairly highly regarded by most of the evangelicals I respect, but his stance on salvation as related to discipleship gets a bit murky for me.


  7. Wow, how disappointing is that Mohler review? Have u come across Blomberg’s review? I can’t think where I found it but I was really impressed by the tone of it.

    Incidentally, I think it’s inaccurate to put Mclaren on the side of the pragmatists or church growth movement, and I’d strongly question this statement:

    “McLaren is popular in church growth circles these days.”

    I think that, actually, church growth folks and emerging guys aren’t really best buddies at all.

  8. That is a question that is still to be answered, and I know what you are saying, but I am going – for now- to disagree on the following basis.

    I think both the Church Growth pragmatists and the Emergents are mounting generational challenges to the mainline denominational evangelicalism of the past century.

    Can you show me where a Hybels/Warren type is taking on a McLaren/Driscoll type?

    I agree there are real differences- mainly generational- but I think both are pragmatic in that they are asking “what works with _____________ culture?”

  9. I don’t know of where any church growth guys take on the emerging church, but Mclaren took quite a different position on The Passion hype than… was it Hybels or Warren?

    I know very few people involved in emerging things who speak favourably of the CGM. And their reasons for advocating change are quite different.

    But you are right, perhaps more time is needed to discern how deep the differences really are.

  10. Emergent and CGM are entirely different movements. Of the two the Emergent people are by far the most dangerous. There is really nothing new about Emergent. Its the same liberal Christianity you find in mainstream churches, but thinly disguised as post-modern evangelicalism. If you want to know where Emergent will lead evangelical churches, take a look at the dying mainstream churches whos congregations have been gutted by liberalism.

    And for all the talk about a “third way” politically, the truth is that Emergent people like Mclaren come out on the side of the anti-American far left on almost every issue.

  11. One of the questions I want to answer is how predictably liberal is the emergent movement. If I just listened to McLaren talk, I might see it your way. But go to http://www.marshillchurch.org and listen to Mark Driscoll. Read his Radical Reformission. Liberal? Lefty? Not at all. And Driscoll is a major player in the Emergent movement. You may be painting a diverse movement with too broad a brush.

  12. On the issue of liberalism I agree that Emergent is a diverse movement to some degree, and that there are various different manifestations of it, not all of which are simply liberal. However, any approach to Christian truth strongly based on postmodernism is flawed from the start, and even though some examples of emergent could not yet be described as liberal, the question is, for how much longer before the rot sets in?

    However, I stand by what I said with regards to the left wing issue. On specifics like economics, poverty and national defense, the Emergent movement is almost exclusively left wing in its assumptions and critiques. I have yet to see one example proving otherwise. And I dont mean the soft focus leftism of the Democratic party, I mean the hardcore far left. Some of the most virulently anti-American statements I have seen since Sept.11 have come not from the liberal churches, but from Emergent groups like http://www.kingdomnow.org.

    Reading through the KN site the thing that kept coming to mind is that I could not tell the difference between KN’s ideology with regards to the US and militant Islam’s, with the exception that KN supposedly espouses pacifism. Exactly what is the difference between calling the US a “Golden Calf” and the “Great Satan”?

    And KN is not an isolated example. I have spent much of the past 3 years reading Emergent web sites and blogs and I have yet to find one example of an Emergent blogger or author who takes a conservative or libertarian approach to political issues.

    My criticism comes in part out of a sense of dissapointment. When Emergent first come on the scene I had a lot of hopes that it could transform evangelicalism in positive ways. And I agree with some of what the movement seems to be trying. Talking to people in a postmodern culture DOES entail learning a new language. Compassion and genuine friendship IS better than shouting “Repent or else burn in hell!”. And as a high church Protestant, I’m pleased that increasing numbers in Emergent are looking at things like liturgical worship and the Daily Office.

    But my hope is fading as Emergent increasingly sounds like the left wing echo chamber of the mainline Churches, or worse.

  13. The difference between Mars Hill Church and Kingdom Now is huge. KN is primarily a political group. I have debated them often and I sense very little “church” about them. Their agenda is basically anti-Bush and anti-patriotism. There is a Christian critique of anything, but the church isn’t defined by politics. KN seems very much like the left wing of the DNC. All they need is Howard Dean as chaplain.

  14. Having just started the process of working through the various statements and sermons at Mars Hill I agree, and I stand corrected that there is at least one example of Emergent that does not fit either the liberal or left ideology. Mars Hill seems to have adopted the sensible approach of engaging the culture and learning to speak to the postmodern world without actually adopting postmodernism as a basis for Christianity, which others like Mclaren seem to have done. Iv’e known about Mars Hill for a couple of years but never bothered to really check them out. My bad. And thanks for the heads up.

    The KN people, seem to be associated with an Emergent Vineyard church, which is slightly alarming given that I also attend a Vineyard church.

    I engaged with them myself for a while when I first came acrosss the site. Not because I wanted them to agree with my politics, but because I felt that the tone and wording of their 95 theses was dangerously irresponsible after 911. But after a while I realised I was banging my head against a brick wall.

    Unfortunately as I said, I have come across too many Emergent people who share KN’s views, or some version of them, such as Mclaren, and it makes me very wary of the movement as a whole.

  15. What is McLaren’s theological training?

  16. bookdragon says

    OSO wrote: “I think there will be a lot of people who will be in heaven who believe that (Jesus died only for their sins),” Willard said. “I think they will have a lot of catching up to do because they are not all that different from those in the other place.”

    I found that statement mystifying. Where is the biblical backup for this assertion? God’s people in heaven who are “not at all that different” from those in hell? Anyone care to defend Dallas Willard for this?

    Okay. I ‘ll try. But I frankly don’t see why this mystifies you, so I hope I’m actually addressing your question.

    If the big dividing line between who is in heaven vs. who is in hell is believing Jesus died for you (and I’m certainly not disputing that), then there are a lot of people on the believing side who are in every other way hardly distinguishable from those who don’t believe. Worse yet, they might even have some catching up to do to even get to level of some of the unbelievers. For instance, on the yardstick defined by Jesus Himself (Did you feed the hungry? Care for the sick? Clothe the naked? etc.) my non-Christian neighbors would way out score any number of smugly complacent ‘born again’ Christians at the mega-church down the road. There are lots of folks who have stopped short at “I believe” without putting forth any of the effort to grow into “the fullness and stature of Christ”. All too many of them because their churches have failed to teach that there is anything to following Jesus beyond just making a statement of belief. Accepting Jesus as Savior is a HUGE IMPORTANT step, but it is still just the first step on a long race.

  17. I had never heard of KN until now, and just looked over their “95 Theses”. (On an editorial note, I would have cleaned them up and condensed them rather than going for the historical parallel to Luther’s, but I digress). On the one hand, I see the point others have made here about their focusing solely on American faults. (Especially blaming America for war deaths of Christians in Vietnam and Germany – as if the Nazis and Communists would have left the Christians alone in our absence, or if they could have been stopped *without* war or the credible threat of it).

    On the other hand, having endured a “worship service” at a church I no longer attend, where the National Anthem was used as a hymn on the Fourth of July service, how can I deny that there are large sections of evangelicalism that do idolize the US?

  18. McLaren is trained in English, not in theology.

  19. I don’t know too much about the emergent “conversation” (anybody who’s actually read McLaren will admit that he doesn’t actually like calling it a “movement,” so to be fair you really shouldn’t call it that), but I would also disagree with lumping McLaren and what is described as “emergent” with the church growth peeps. It seems that just about every emergent-type I know is reading Stanley Hauerwas, and he stands in pretty direct opposition to church growth stuff.

    Also, saying that all Kingdom Now needs is Howard Dean as their leader is an oddly partisan and dishonest statement to make. I have never seen that website until today, but any group that links heavily to Dorothy Day, Jacques Ellul, and Martin Luther King, Jr., et. al. would highly distance themselves from any American political party. Anybody that links to the JesusRadicals.com library, thus reading works from John Howard Yoder, Jacques Ellul, William Cavanaugh, Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank, and I’ll even add Alysdair MacIntyre myself, et. al. are not the other side of the same coin of American politics. It’s something rather completely different; it’s also not a compromising “middle.”

    Hauerwas and MacIntyre are clearly no liberals. They are in fact against the Classical Liberalism of the Enlightenment upon which American politics (right and left) are based, which is one of their main points in much of their writing: it’s not Christian.

    I haven’t read McLaren’s Generous Orthodoxy yet, so I can’t speak to whether he is really in the “middle” or not as you suggest, but it troubles me when people make snark-filled, blanket statements in the comments sections of blogs about things they don’t quite understand, and even going to the extent of creating a false dilemma and using a little guilt-by-association, where none in fact exists (I’m speaking about demonizing Howard Dean and then making a false connection, specifically).

    I’d suggest reading a little Ellul, Hauerwas (perhaps start with Unleashing the Scripture, please), and stop bashing people that try to hold countries accountable to their actions just because one disagrees with them and doesn’t support the nation state as wholeheartedly as one does.

    (much of this is directed towards Shawn)

    I thought we were all Christians here?

  20. Late Clarification: I’m not accusing anybody of not being Christian in the above comment– on the contrary, I’m just concerned that Christians aren’t treating other Christians as if they shared that common story. A whole lot of dangerous “us vs. them”-ism seems to be going on.

  21. Very scary guy he is “the Sponge” of Baptists. The non reformed baptist world is in real trouble with out divine intervention its lack of doctrinal definition and lack of discipline will continue to deconstruct it.

  22. In reply to Eric Lee,

    “when people make snark-filled, blanket statements in the comments sections of blogs about things they don’t quite understand,”

    Can you point to where I have done this?

    In response to the rest of your post, the issue I have with people like Stanley Hauerwas, Kingdom Now, Dorothy Day and so forth is that they advance ideologies that I consider positively dangerous and at times evil. Are you saying that I or anyone else should not speak out against ideas which we may consider to be wrong and harmful? As an ex Roman Catholic pacifist and socialist and ex member of the Catholic Worker movement I think I can claim some insight and understanding of the Christian Left.

    I dont believe that Hauerwas and co and the KN people are tring to “hold their country accountable for its actions”, I think they are advancing political ideas that should not be taken at face value and need to be robustly debated. Are you opposed to political debate?

    I agree that many of the people you mention would not be Democrats, but they ARE left wing. Claiming your not “left or right” and then proposing clearly left wing views is a dishonest rhetorical trick that many on the Christian Left engage in. Jim Wallis is a good example of someone who uses this tactic to deceive. Mr Wallis says he is neither left nor right, but the reality is that he has spent much of his life defending communism, even to the point of supporting the Soviet Union, attacking Vietnamese refugees fleeeing from persecution as capitalist dupes, and making excuses for the Khmer Rouge’s genocide of a million Cambodians.

    The Christian left is using deceit and a highly distorted version of the Biblical witness and Christian history to advance pacifism and socialism thinly disguised as a “third way”. I consider it important to oppose this, and I’m not concerned about offending people in the process.

  23. I’ve seen some questions asking about McLaren’s theology and training … I can only offer that I recall how much I enjoyed the group when it was truly a house church when everyone met at a real house back in 1977 … and how much hair McClaren had back then.

    I recall that soon after they moved into an elementary school cafeteria down the road I stopped going because it lost its personalized charm … growing pains and readjustments as they were all graduating college and beginning to settle down and I was just getting started.

    Actually, that’s not true … I left because at a party that had included/invited several of the house church goers I was concerned that a friend of mine was puffing away though pregnant … hid the cigarettes. Hey, I was 19 and stupid back then and she was 18 and unmarried. Then again I don’t think those topics were ever covered … its all a little blurry.

    Back to my point. The emerging church has its roots in something I believe strongly – the house church. What should have happened is that the burgeoning group should have divided among another home in the Rock Creek / Aspen Hill area … as the whole idea at the time was a reverent antithesis to organized churches. Then again, that may have been fatal to our co-ed, guys have to swing leftie softball team named “the Friends.”

    … as to McClaren’s theological training. While he is indeed versed in English, he also has the benefit of growing up in an area of Montgomery County Maryland at a time when people actually learned things … and learned how to be autodidactic. The area is also notoriously liberal when it comes to politics.

    That said, I have no doubt that Brian is quite capable of picking up a book and hoovering it into his head and applying it … though I’d be curious if he does have any training in Greek &/or Hebrew.

    For example, I recall coming back from a Campus Crusade Christmas seminar all fired-up. Don’t worry, later when I actually tried to go on one of their summer ministries I was quenched because of my non-preppy ways (circa 1979). The group was curious about what I had learned. I told them about a lecture Bill Bright gave on being spirit filled. The group gave me 1/2 hour to make a a** of myself — which I did — reciting the pre-Warren theology-in-a-can to the group like a good little monkey. Oh how I wish someone would have had the theolical depth and business savvy to pull me aside and explain the dangers of pamphletware.

    To me, the emerging church is merely yet another American emerging franchise built around an intelligent and charasmatic leader. Does it have the stuff to last the long term, fund large missionary movements and other fun stuff like that? I don’t know.

    What I do know is that McClaren isn’t dangerous, unless you consider having to use your noodle. Agree or disagree, I recall he was always up for a spirited, respectful debate. I also recall a couple of years ago emailing Brian because quite frankly, I did’t realize who or what the emerging church was – and his impact Nationally. I was a bit disapointed at his terse and impersonal reply.

    Then again, I’m just a guy who back then was lead to Christ in the same public high-school cafeteria we all attended … who was led and left … went to a house church as a babe-in-Christ orphan and got enough sustenance to not fall apostate … or was my Greek Orthodox roots and training partially responsible for that?

    Perhaps both – I’m just saddened I couldn’t approach McClaren as I once could back in the day. I had some questions, needed some closure — now I’ve moved 300 miles away and it’s just written off to experience.

  24. This story only reinforces my growing conviction to leave the SBC and never look back.

  25. Wow, thank you for such a well-thought post. After reading a few posts that either called McLaren a heretic or for him to repent, it is nice to see that someone is critiquing him and yet understanding where he’s coming from as well. Your post had grace and gentleness and we need more of these posts! 🙂

  26. Definitely. No Christian should consider themselves above criticism, or be so arrogant as to suggest that their interpretation of scripture is wholly accurate, and that others are wholly inaccurate. We are human, and we’re imperfect (1 Cor.). I’ve read these posts with interest (being both attached to a Vineyard church, and having received the “Emergent UK” newsletters from a pastor who I know to be a solid fella), but have been a little saddened to see the rifts inbetween Christian factions who – rightly or wrongly in their take on scripture – are brothers in Christ! You’re doing the enemy’s work for him. Humility, love, but a determination to do business with God’s word seriously are pretty much the only way I see through this jumble!

    Much love, Joe.