I recently finished reading Don Carson’s ‘Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church’ (snappy title again from the Don). My interest in the book stems from
a. My interest in Church Planting, particularly in planting churches that will reach out to ‘dechurched’ and ‘unchurched’ people groups in the UK.
b. My interest in ecclesiology (doctrine of the Church). What does it mean to be the Church? What are the non-negotiables, what is ‘up for grabs’?
These combined mean I have come across Emerging Church ideas over the years, since the movement is, by and large, an attempt to re-think Church in the light of postmodernism. In interacting with ‘Emergent’ and ‘Fresh Expressions’ material I have been both stimulated and alarmed. Both of these ‘movements’ seem to be asking so many of the right questions, yet all the while coming up with some pretty bad answers.
The book is well-written and being taken at least partially from addresses given at various times this helps hold Carson back from using too many big words (except perhaps in chapter 4).
Carson starts by identifying the Emerging Church Movement (Chapter 1) as being characterised by protest against modernism, traditional evangelicalism (in its cultural conservatism), and the seeker-sensitive/megachurch movement, often linking the three under the heading of how the church has woefully capitulated to modernism (p.41). This definition shapes the discussion from there onwards, with Carson asserting that the movement must be assessed on the accuracy of its reading of contemporary culture and the scriptures. He then hints at his conclusion by asking
‘Is there at least some danger that what is being advocated is not so much a new kind of Christian in a new emerging church, but a church that is so submerging itself in the culture that it risks hopeless compromise.’ (p.44)
That the Emerging Church Movement is in exactly such a danger is what Carson goes on to assert in the rest of the book. So, having identified the strengths of the movement and commended them for attempting to engage with modern culture (often with evangelistic concerns) in chapter 2, Carson goes on to argue that emerging church leaders have misread modernism (and Christianity that is influenced by modernist thought) and uncritically looked to postmodernism (which he also argues they have read simplistically) as the antidote (chapter 3). Then in the fourth chapter Carson sets forward his own analysis of postmodernism and its ‘contribution and challenges’. This essentially boils down to a distinction between 'hard' and 'soft' postmodernism; hard postmodernism being the really dangerous one since it says we must either be omniscient and thus knowing all things completely, or ignorant, knowing absolutely (!) nothing (and since we are not omniscient therefore we know nothing, and cannot be absolute or certain about nothing).
In chapter 5 he applies this thinking to the Emergent Church movement arguing that it ‘vehemently denounces modernism, but offers nothing very penetrating when it comes to postmodernism’ (p. 125) and has consequently failed to distinguish between the positive criticisms of modernism that postmodernism makes and the false dichotomy of hard postmodernism. This means the movement is characterised by a dislike of certainties and absolute truth-claims, an avoidance of difficult truth-related questions, and a failure to handle scripture responsibly and let it be the final arbiter in matters of truth and falsehood. As the final stroke in his analysis of the movement in chapter 6, Carson examines two books by prominent emerging church leaders (Brian McLaren’s Generous Orthodoxy and Steve Chalke’s The Lost Message of Jesus) and from them ably illustrates the weaknesses from chapter 5. Both writer’s redefinitions of judgment, repentance, the atonement and sin lead Carson to conclude
‘I have to say, as kindly but as forcefully as I can, that to my mind, if words mean anything, both McLaren and Chalke have largely abandoned the gospel.’ (p.186)
In seeking to correct errors in some evangelical thinking and practice (cultural conservatism, arrogance and sectarianism, failure to listen and engage with the culture etc.), it seems the Emergent movement has ‘swung the pendulum so far the other way’ (p. 187, emphasis mine) as to fall into another set of errors.
In the final two chapters Carson turns to scripture, firstly listing many and briefly commenting on ten passages of scripture that talk of propositional truth and historical facts, then finishing with a brief exposition of 2 Peter 1 as it relates to issues of truth and experience, subjective and objective knowledge, showing how the bible sees the two as inter-related (against the false antithesis found in postmodern thought). Here Carson concludes the book by saying that if emerging church leaders want their movement to be faithful and to bear lasting fruit
‘they need to spend more time in careful study of scripture and theology… to take great pains not to distort history and theology alike…And above all, they need to embrace all the categories of the Scriptures, with the Scriptures’ balance and cohesion – including as we saw in the previous chapter, what the bible says about truth, human knowing, and related matters’ (p.234)
In all this Carson hopes the movement can learn to be both
‘faithful to the bible and effective in evangelizing the rising number of alienated biblical illiterates in our culture’ and thus help ‘brothers and sisters who are more culturally conservative than they are to learn to reconnect with the culture’ (p.234).
This book is well worth the read, even if it means persevering some of the more technical material in the middle. If the book has a weakness it’s that Carson doesn’t give a detailed evangelical alternative to the questions the Emerging Church raises, though perhaps this was outside the scope of this book. As far as I can tell we need an approach to being the church (and planting new churches) that is driven from start to finish by the bible as well as in touch with 21st century western culture(s).