Ugh! I’m confused, so I thought I’d tell you about it.
Ever heard of the emergent church movement? It’s a pretty big deal these days. It’s a growing movement of people and churches that are attempting to figure out how to do ministry in a post-modern (post-Christian) context, which is the type of culture we’re living in. I really don’t want to take the time to explain in detail what the term post-modern implies, but in a nutshell, it implies that we are living in a time dominated by the transmission of massive amounts of information (via the Internet), the absence of absolute truth (relativism), and a pervasive sense of skepticism and cynicism (especially toward traditional Christianity). We are living in a post-modern, post-Christian culture here in America today, and because of this, our methods and strategies for reaching people for Christ must take this reality into consideration.
Well, the emergent church movement is trying to do this. On the surface, they seem to be doing a great job. Some of their thinking, questions, and conclusions are profound and have been very motivating and challenging for me as a Christ-follower and as a pastor attempting to lead others in following Christ. Brian McLaren is the recognized national leader of this movement in America. He is a pastor, author, and well-known speaker. I attended a 12-hour intensive training seminar hosted by him back in the late 90’s on how to do ministry in a post-modern context. His book, More Ready Than You Realize, was instrumental in helping me understand how to share Christ (the Truth) in a culture where truth is not valued or recognized. In light of this book, I had him on my radio show (Parenting Teenagers) back in 2002 to talk to parents about how they could more effectively communicate their faith to their post-modern kids. It was one of my favorite programs…and I did 160 of them! I’ve even quoted McLaren from the pulpit, and on our recent vacation, Michelle and I listened to a couple of his podcasts. I really, really like him. He inspires me, and the compassionate way in which he communicates is very appealing to me.
So, here’s the rub. He is a lightening rod for criticism among many evangelicals today, including some that I highly regard and respect. Some have gone so far as to call McLaren a cult-leader, and recently I heard John MacArthur (a pastor and Bible teacher that I have great respect for) even question whether or not McLaren was a true follower of Christ, suggesting that he is a false teacher that the Bible warns believers about. And it’s not just Brian McLaren that is at the receiving end of such strong criticism. Other notables like Rob Bell (of Nooma video fame of which I’ve shown all his videos at The Foothills) and Mark Oestreicher (the leader of Youth Specialities which Jesse and I have and are still using their material in our youth group) have been named with Brian McLaren as false teachers who are wrong about some pretty major tenants of the Christian faith.
Here is what many mainline evangelical leaders are criticizing the emergent church leaders (namely Brian McLaren) for:
1. Allowing the current cultural climate to have too much influence on how they interpret the Scriptures. In other words, critics of the emergent church say that rather than allowing the Scripture to speak for itself or rather than allowing the traditionally accepted interpretation of certain Scriptural passages to stand, emergent church leaders are allowing the current cultural climate to heavily influence how the Scriptures should be interpreted today. Some call this the deconstruction of Scripture, and it has lead to some pretty nontraditional conclusions.
2. One of these nontraditional conclusions is their view on hell. Emergent leaders like Brian McLaren really struggle with this issue. They find it hard to believe that a God who – through Christ – ushered in a new kingdom (the Kingdom of God) could teach peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation and then at the end of a person’s life practice the opposite of these things and allow a person to go to a hell that He created for them. Therefore, some emergent leaders really shy away from believing in a literal hell (like the one the Bible tells us about), or they believe that people may have a chance to come to Christ after death.
Tony Campolo (a friend of Brian McLaren and another man I think pretty highly of) recently said these very nontraditional words: “I’m not so sure that when this life is over that all possibilities for salvation are over. I read in Ephesians 4:9-10 a passage that can be interpreted to describe a Jesus who descends into “the depths below the earth” to bring captives up to God. I read in 1 Peter 3:19 about a Jesus who goes to preach to those in the prison house of death, and I believe these Scriptures show Jesus doing something for people after they are dead, as we understand death. This reveals Jesus to be the “hound of heaven.” Yes, I believe there will be people in hell eternally, but somehow, I believe from Scripture—note I said from Scripture—that in the end everybody gets a chance to choose.”
3. They also have a different take on what kind of Kingdom Christ established. The traditional view of the Kingdom of God is that Christ came to establish a spiritual (other-world) kingdom where people are added to this Kingdom by making a decision to follow Christ spiritually. The fruition of this Kingdom comes when those who make the decision to be a part of the Kingdom of God while alive die and enter into the His Kingdom in heaven for eternity. The traditional emphasis of the Kingdom then is on the future (heaven).
Emergent leaders like McLaren, however, see it differently. They say that the Kingdom of God is not as much about heaven as it is about earth. They say that Christ came to establish a Kingdom where people love and care for each other while on earth, and our emphasis over the years on just saving souls is off. He says, “Western Christianity has been overly preoccupied with the question of who’s going to heaven or hell after death, and not focused enough on the question of what kind of life is truly pleasing to God here in the land of the living.” While I do think that Christians do need to concern ourselves more with the needs of others here in the “land of the living”, evangelical leaders like John MacArthur revolt against McLaren’s words saying that the Scriptures say that life on earth is like a vapor and what Jesus came to do was NOT make this world necessarily a better place (or he would have done more about issues like hunger, corrupt government, etc.), but Jesus came to seek and save the lost…and save their souls for all eternity.
This ultimately comes down to understanding what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God, and the emergent church leaders see it differently than do more traditional evangelical leaders. Leaders like MacArthur call McLaren’s view on the Kingdom of God a “liberal social gospel” view.
So…the question becomes: Do we throw the baby out with the bath water? Just because we don’t agree with someone, or even if they are off on some pretty major doctrinal issues, do we throw everything they have to say about faith issues out the window? I sure have a hard time with this because I believe that God has used Brian McLaren in a pretty profound way in my life and in the life of our church for that matter.
What do you think? Where do you fall on the issue of the emergent church? What have you read or heard about it, and what do you think? Should we throw the baby out with the bath water? I’m curious to know!