January 27, 2021

Suggestions for Critics of the Emerging Church

strawman.jpgUPDATE: TSK posts on the DGM Conference and their take on emerging church Christians. The comments are excellent and include a response from Tim Keller.

And btw, first one to blog “See…you can’t criticize the emerging church” wins a stale donut..

Criticism of the emerging/missional church is growing among traditionalists, fundamentalists and many of the reformed. I don’t like to argue, so I thought I might offer a contribution to the discussion. Critics of the emerging, missional church: a few questions/suggestions for you to contemplate…uh, think about. In your free time.

There’s a lot I would like to say, but let’s keep it to five. (Ex: The definition of postmodernism that drives these criticisms is uniformly rejected by emerging church-sympathetic theologians and philosophers. (See James Smith’s book.) Why do we continue, then, to read page after page explaining that all postmodernism is evil enlightenment philosophy? And then there’s the entire matter of whether the emerging church is routinely confused with the Rick Warren/Boomer style church marketing approach. And on and on and on… Anyways.

1. Would it be possible to hold on to the basic goodness of words like “missional” and “incarnation?” I’d hate for these good words to become casualties of conflict. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for clarification of why Ed Stetzer missionalism is good but Mall church’s missionalism is bad. Better yet, let’s just declare these terms off limits and find better words, or even whole sentences, to describe the problem.

When I read bloggers saying that “missional” is a term that should be avoided, it’s a Twilight Zone moment. And when we are warning about churches that stress the incarnation too much, I want to call John Shelby Spong and ask if he’s watching the same channel I am.

There are substantial criticisms that can be made without taking away words that we need to trust and promote.

2. How about chapter and verse on what it is you are criticizing? By chapter and verse, I mean specific quotations and citations from books and talks.

I can’t speak for everyone, but my head is completely spinning here. Who and what are being criticized? Your criticisms are obviously serious, but they are aimed at a huge, dispersed target that starts to look less real the more I look for it. When Dr. Piper took on the issues of open theism and the new perspective on Paul, he wrote books with specific targets, lots of footnotes, and direct citations and quotations from Boyd and Gundry. That’s missing in much of the current criticism of the emerging church, and it’s getting worse. You’ve gone after Brian Mclaren, but after that it’s very murky. Where are Jones, Kimball, Bell, Bolger, McKnight and company wrong specifically? Exactly? And since we’re all flawed, what is the import of those errors?

For example, in the recent DGM conference, Dr. Carson spoke of those advocating the great commandments in contrast to the cross/resurrection. Who exactly is he talking about? Where? Is this a reference to Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed? (That was my feeling, but Dr. McKnight disagrees, for the record.)

I don’t mean to be disrespectful to men far more knowledgeable than me and to whom I am greatly in debt, but after we’ve done in a few quotes from Brian Mclaren, I’m not hearing many helpful specifics. (I’m not counting the research department at Slice.) Could this be repaired? I think a lot of good men deserve to be distinguished from those truly deserving criticism, and I’d like to have some specifics to blog about in my free time.

3. When you refer to the “emerging church,” it’s very confusing. You seem unaware of any differences in Christians identifying with this conversation. I know that reformed Christians like for distinctions to be made between reformed with various emphases and teachings. The differences among the reformed on sacraments, ecclesiology, worship and relationships with other Christians are substantial. It seems relatively simple to ask that everyone who says “we are trying to reach the postmodern emerging culture,” not be saddled with every fault and criticism of every book/talk by Mclaren. It’s safe to say that anyone who knows the emerging church well is immediately put off by a critic who assumes every emerging church is Rob Bell preaching, David Crowder leading worship and a candlelit midrash on Colossians following a prayer walk through a maze.

Conservative evangelicals would find it immediately revealing of one’s level of understanding if someone showed no apparent knowledge of a substantial difference between J.I. Packer and T.D. Jakes. I’d suggest that what may be under the umbrella of emerging Christianity is a diversity at least as wide. It occurs to me that Calvinists, in particular, know what it’s like to be misrepresented, and ought to be more careful about doing so to others. If I were to wrongly and ignorantly call the SBC Founders or James White “hypers,” I’m going to be justifiably lectured and straightened out. Well….if the shoe fits folks. And it does.

In particular, it’s strange to hear the emerging church spoken of as denying the deity and supremacy of Christ, or of de-emphasizing the cross and resurrection. I am sure there are some emerging church types doing exactly that, but those of us listening to the emerging church- and I am listening to a diverse group of emerging voices without joining any of them- are not necessarily hearing these things. Some of us are hearing a recovery of interest in the incarnation and a recovery of the importance of the Kingdom life, ministry and proclamation of Jesus. This is a good and valuable recovery. Good scholars like N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight and Stan Grenz, however, present a strong emphasis on the supremacy of Jesus and his death/resurrection for our sins and justification.

I am all for criticism that specifically points out the errors you protest, but I do not believe a kind of generalized, pop-level, broad stroke criticism of all emerging churches is fair. Frankly, it appears to be calculated to hang an albatross around the neck of a whole branch of the Christian family. Many- most- emerging churches preach and teach the Bible, believe the creeds and know the Gospel is a message of a crucified God dying for sins. Many emerging churches are presenting this in places and in ways few traditionalists dare. Make fun of churches in bars and coffeeshops if you want, but somehow I think that the safety of the sanctuary of old First Church is a considerably less difficult place to name Christ Jesus as Lord than in the gathering places of the world. If these emerging Christians are going to pubs and talking about beer, then criticize them. If they are having theology discussions and naming Christ as Lord, leave them alone. Better yet, let’s pray for them.

4. It’s possible that you may have opted to criticize the emerging church at a point where its flaws are most obvious and its assets less visible. The prominence of Mclaren as a target, and the silence about the many- and there are many- churches gernuinely reaching the lost in emerging, post-modern culture indicates to me that the consideration of the emerging church is quite possibly on-target, but also too early.

Many of us believe that the questions and critiques of the traditional church in the last 30 years have been well placed, but the response- especially in theology and ecclesiology- is not yet obvious. The higher profile emerging church leaders have been reluctant to speak for one another for this very reason: what the emerging church response to the traditional church will be is an on-going process. It is not the liberalism of some in Emergent Village. It is not an embracing of the liberalism of the mainlines, even though some emerging leaders have gone over that fence. It is quite possible that the eventual result will be very influenced by the reformed resurgence of the past 20-30 years.

If that proves to be true, a declaration of war/heresy by reformed critics will be unfortunate. When I read reformed critics openly ridiculing the appearance, music and worship styles of twenty-somethings, all in the name of criticizing the emerging church, I am saddened. One major reformed critic ran a picture of David Crowder as an object of humor on a post. In fact, Crowder and this critic have very much in common, and the brushing of Crowder into the category of promoting the betrayal of the Gospel because he is popular with the emerging church is a huge mistake.

5. Finally, I want to admonish you to consider if the emerging church is not the true child of the missionary principles and missional theology that have been influential in evangelicalism for more than half a century.
When evangelicals learn the principles of taking the Gospel to other cultures, they begin to see the traditional church through missionary eyes. It is not insignificant that the leaders of the emerging church are missional thinkers, evangelists, missiologists and students of the church in other cultures. They have taken the perspectives course. They have been to OneDay. They know what the 10/40 Window is all about. They are aware of missions like few other generations of western Christians.

The Reformers did much that was right. They also failed at some key points. A fully articulated, cross-cultural missionary theology was one failure. That failure was repaired by later generations, but the idea that the church is to become comfortably allied with the dominant conservative culture remained. Today, thousands of dying churches are memorials to the influence the church once had in culture, but has no longer. Many of those churches have specifically said no, over and over, to making changes that could reach the culture. They are dying rather than embrace missionary principles that could save them.

Emerging churches have sent up the signal that the church is not the expression of a post-war boomer and greatest generation culture. They are ridiculed for “tattoos and piercings” in the congregation, but this is because many critics are invested more in the preservation of a cultural expression of the church than in a missional approach to the Gospel that goes with culture, and goes into sub and counter cultures. It is not a matter of “holiness,” as some blogs strangely assume, but a matter of Christ for all people and all cultures.

To blanketly criticize the emerging church is, honestly, to criticize thousands of missionaries who love and minister to people who will never find their way into the traditional church. It is often to criticize churches and church plants who are growing by true conversion growth rather than by sucking up Christians out of the suburbs into the megachurches. It is to criticize those who do what we commend missionaries for doing.

Outdoor-Christian-Flag.jpgIn fact, many of the critics of the emerging church talk about the supremacy of Christ while their criticisms frequently suggest the supremacy of a kind of church culture. All who deny the supremacy of Christ should be called out and confronted. All those who safeguard the supremacy of established evangelical culture in America should be criticized as well. Everywhere I go I see American flags in church sanctuaries. Yesterday, I saw the American flag displayed over the Christian flag on a flagpole in front of a large fundamentalist church. In that same church I heard emerging churches castigated for their music. Does anyone think the emerging church would have the American flag in a worship center? It’s laughable. Yet where is the criticism for that blatant idolatry? Why the silence? Is that not a denial of the supremacy of Christ?

Many of the criticisms brought to the table and leveled at the emerging church are valid. There is a myriad of flaws with the emerging church movement, and much that must be corrected. There is also a myriad of flaws and concerns with the traditional conservative church. Some emerging critics of the traditional church have been too strident, and their town has been arrogant and unkind. This probably makes criticism of the emerging church easier.

Perhaps both sides should look closer, listen better, pray more and speak with more awareness of what the other party is seeing, feeling and saying. I pray that a time of constructive guidance and partnership will come soon, and that emerging churches will be mentored and encouraged, rather than only being portrayed in exaggerated terms as betraying the heart of the Gospel.


  1. Kipp Wilson says

    Okay, I wholeheartedly agree with what you say. 100%. Amen. Preach it, brother.


    I believe you are guilty of your own criticism in point #2 (and perhaps #3). I know normally in other posts you specify to whom you are referring. But in this particular post, you criticize “critics of the emerging church” for being too general in pinpointing who they are criticizing.


  2. Touche’ Kip. iMonk hypocrisy again.

    I think I’ve gotten pretty specific in this post.

    I am not going to go for the names and the blogs for reasons that are pretty well known. (Hint: One seminary has devoted major space to this on the web. Mp3s. Articles. Upcoming book.) If that makes the post worthless, readers, then send this one to the round file. I just don’t want the same old blogwars to start up. When I say who is mounting this criticism, I am going to be hauled up, sliced, diced, burned, etc for being me. And that’s a waste of all our time.

    So good point.

  3. Point #1 is sure near and dear to my heart. These are great words that have broad definitional acceptance across the theological spectrum. Lets not allow good words that actually help create common ground become casualties.

  4. This is a stellar post iMonk! This is worth the price of the read:

    “In fact, many of the critics of the emerging church talk about the supremacy of Christ while their criticisms suggest the supremacy of a kind of church culture. All who deny the supremacy of Christ should be called out and confronted. All those who safeguard the supremacy of established evangelical culture in America should be criticized as well.”

  5. OKay two things-
    First is there a way to subscribe to the comments also. I find that I get just as much from people’s response as I do from the post (not a criticism).
    Second, in response to your post I have several responses to each of your points, I will try to be brief
    Point #1) As a communication major, Masters in Applied Ling (I work for a Bible translation org) I have always had a hard time with the over aplication of the word missionary (technically I am one so maybe that add to it). I feel like it ends up not meaning anything if it means everything (e.g. hot and cool, “man that song is so hot/cool”). In regards to your actual point, I feel like it is really a debate around who gets to control the Christian “lingo” which doesn’t really matter to me. Only in Christian circles is “feminist” a bad word so what do I care about the words “Christians” use.
    Point #2) I cuncur, though with the caveate that this happens everywhere. Either intellectual laziness or preference for falacious arguments based on atribution I don’t know, but it lowers the overall level of the discussion/debate.
    Point #3) As a huge fan of most of the writer’s emergents cite, and a person who grew up outside of the Church (until 15) and a disciple of MacDonald (also Merton, I appreciated your podcast about him), who was part of a foursquare church, I lived within an evangelical covenant church as an “emergent” before there was this move. I ministered on worship teams, ran sound, lead youth ministry, college, and young adult small groups, all from this unique perspective. Now that people my age (29) are getting to be head pastors or startingtheir own church it is a “movement”. However, lots of us have held positions similar to “emergents” and done it within the church. I hate that now it gets labeled “emergent”.
    Point #4) This is a good point, but probably can be labelled at every group where they vary with one another, right?
    Point #5)As a current missionary I would agree with some of point 5. I think the emergent church is a “child” of missional concepts, and you insight into a ruling Christian culture are apt. Here in Uganda that is very much the socio-religious context. Who wins, Christians or Muslims, Catholic or Church of Uganda or born again? HOwever, Christianity here is very western. Ironically, western Christian missionaries were (and are) very concerned about syncretism. I think the emerging church points out something that I have wished was said to a larger audience, the Western church especially in America is sycrenistic between Mammon and Christ. That becomes very evident when exposed to a foriegn environment like Uganda.
    Thanks for these great ideas. You clearly elucidated several concepts in the discussion around the emerging church and help me to engage more thoughtfull on them.

    PS as a missionary in Uganda I don’t have good internet so the rss comment feature enables me to come out and interact(see point one)

  6. Mike,

    I understand your concern about being pulled into a”blogwar” on point 2, but because many of us don’t know to whom you are referring to it almost makes it pointless. Plus, I fail to understand what is wrong with conflict. If you want to avoid it, that’s fine, but why bring up the issue, especially when it seems that you are trying to persuade the people who have the criticisms in the first place.

  7. Finding the reformed critique of the emerging church isn’t hard. There are books, conferences, blog posts, mp3s.

    If you are a new IM reader, this looks pretty cowardly on my part, but if you’ve been around awhile, I’m sure you understand my reluctance.

    As I said, if your own experience doesn’t bear this out, then trash it and ignore me.

  8. rastassin, You can subscribe to comments with the following feed:


    I do that as well. Each comment shows up in the feed with the title of the post to which it pertains, so it’s pretty easy to keep track of and follow conversations.

    Alternatively, you can subscribe to comments for one individual post. Michael’s template has a note right above where the comments start on each post that gives you the link (where it says “You can follow responses…”). For this post, it would be:


  9. oooops. Sorry for the very long link, Michael!!

  10. patrickstahl says

    I have two questions.

    1) I know this is a simplification, but is the Emergent church just a traditional church with a preacher without socks and a building without stained glass windows? If I understand correctly, what separates the Emergent from the traditional is the composition of the congregation. An Emergent church in the middle of North Dakota would probably look more like a traditional church than the Emergent Church described in the Podcast 25 – there are less Mohawk hair cuts in ND (too cold in winter).

    2) Is the criticism against postmodern culture a straw man argument? Is anyone actually postmodern (my definition of postmodern = no objective truth), or have people simply not taken the time to think about what they actually believe. A lot of those characterized as postmodern have no real understanding of Christianity nor do they really understand what they believe themselves. There is a difference between postmodern thought and being simply ignorant

  11. I have had numerous eh-hem “discussions” only to discover that we hadn’t defined the terms in the same way. Like you said, I have had experience with friends who think that “emerging” means “seeker.” To be honest, I’d like to throw out the term “emerging.” What does it mean? House church? Liturgy? Crowder? Yes, yes, and yes. Sometimes ubercontemporary, sometimes blast from they way past.
    But, as much as I hate to admit it, these discussions are good for me. I learn, I refine, and somewhere along the line, God attempts to humble me.

  12. Wow. Nice take on the flags. I almost threw up when I returned to my boyhood church (near Portland, OR of all places) a few weeks ago and there were two framed pictures of the American flag *on the communion table*. Uh…civil religion, anyone?

    Well, as for criticism of the emergent church in particular, I’m not that concerned about it. As you point out, it’s hardly the emerging church movement that coined any of the abused terms you refer to, and anyone who reads a small amount of theology will know that. If fundamentalists get worried that it’s not conservative enough, all their clamour will hardly penetrate to the community that the emerging church is reaching out to. If anything it will drive them to get an early seat for the pub discussion.

  13. Steve thanks,
    you have rocked my comment world 🙂

  14. dpaultaylor57 says

    “…the research department at Slice.” I’m not quite sure what to make of this, but the instant reaction was for the milk on my cornflakes to go through my nose. (If it won’t work, you owe me a new keyboard.)

    The only thing I would add to this common-sense suggestion of asking for specifics is that critics take a deep breath first and put specific quotes, passages, evidence, etc. in a meaningful context. You can be accurate in recording someone’s exact words and yet miss their significance entirely, in effect straining at gnats and swallowing camels.

    As for Slice’s research, when it comes to examples, illustrations, and evidence, it’s like the Drudge Report. It emphasizes the outrageous, the egregious and the salacious, the kind of thing that gets people growling and baring their fangs. It is more visceral than reasonable, and it has little to do with “the wisdom that comes from heaven” described in James 3:17-18.

  15. geoffrobinson says

    I understand that any movement has a variety of viewpoints, etc. My exposure to McLaren and internet people who gravitate towards Emergent Church has led me to this: is there anything to critique? Honestly, where would you point me? And please don’t say “ongoing conversation”.

    Negative critiques of evangelicism aren’t anything new. So what are the beliefs, practices, and attitudes of the emerging movement?

    Frankly, I’m trying to figure out if this is another fad which will quickly wash away or if there is actually some substance to critique.

  16. I second all of the comment expressing unease with the term “emerging/emergent”. I still have not heard a good explanation of what is emerging from what or from where in this movement. All of the concerns I have heard expressed have been around in the church before, albeit described with different vocabulary.

    I believe the church emerged after Pentecost. Surely part of the motivation for criticism of this movement is the fact that their being designated thus implies to some that what we have had so far was somehow less “church”, was somehow deficient. That provokes a defensive reaction which easily turns into offensive opposition. As such it is more emotional than objective which accounts for some of the problems Michael enumerates with it.

    As with the ruckus over Driscoll’s “incarnation” comment it can all be brought back to the use of words without due consideration of their full meaning and connotations — a phenomenon I observe on both sides of this debate.

  17. geoffrobinson says

    One thing that bothers me. When people either in the Emergent Movement or not say we can’t be certain about things in the Bible. The authors of the books of the Bible never write like that. The apostles don’t talk like that. The prophets don’t talk like that. Nor does Jesus.

  18. geoff, fire away!

    I’ve been not been a regular at mainstream church for about twelve years, (although I was at a meeting of Christians upstairs in a pub last week where piercings and tattoos were very much in evidence). So anything you want clearing up from this side of the “great divide”(!)

    Great post, by the way.

  19. “I believe the church emerged after Pentecost. Surely part of the motivation for criticism of this movement is the fact that their being designated thus implies to some that what we have had so far was somehow less “church”, was somehow deficient.”

    The point about the church is that we are on a journey. Pentecost was the start. The destination is seen in Ephesians 4:13:

    “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

    I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling pretty deficient already…

  20. What baffles many engaged with the emerging church in the UK is why if the criticisms are so ill-informed why so many American emerging people find it necessary to “defend” what is in the eyes of the critics the indefensible – why does it matter what they think?

  21. Bob Sacamento says

    I would highly recommend a book, “Why We’re Not Emergent (by Two Guys Who Should Be)” Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck. Speaking as someone who has read alot of Brian McLaren and a good bit of Rob Bell, I find it an exceptionally fair-minded critique of the emergent movement by two guys who are doing pretty much exactly what you are urging in your five points here. Alot of the criticism of the emerging church movement *is* knee jerk and hamfisted. That doesn’t really do anything to make the emergent movement better, nor does it place it out of the bounds of fair criticism. (After all, alot of the emergent criticism of evangelicalism is also knee jerk and hamfisted. By the way, you can donate the donut to charity in my name or something. My waist line doesn’t need it.) We just need to be careful who we listen to. I hightly recommend listening to this pair of fair, thoughtful, informed writers.

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