My Conversation with the Emergent Church

Imagine jumping in a time machine and going back to 1908  – you find yourself in a revival almost a decade after the turn of the century. It’s a time of change, a time of questioning, and a time of theological challenges. This is what Tony Jones (The New Christians), Doug Pagitt (A Christianity Worth Believing), and Mark Scandrette (Soul Graffiti) attempt to do in The Church Basement Roadshow: A Rollin’ Gospel Revival. Taking on characters of the time period, they do an excellent job of acting the part of turn-of-the-century revivalists. What I want to talk about, however, is the parts where they break character and read and explain portions of their books.

The first one to break character is Doug Pagitt – he sits there and reads from his book, explaining his conversion experience. Not having grown up hearing about Jesus, he is introduced to Jesus through a recently converted friend. Shortly after accepting Christ, he is sat down by two men who are supposed to disciple him and they explain deep, complex methods of theology to this new Christian with no background in Christianity. They then gave him a train illustration about how there are three ‘cars’ to Christianity: facts (driving the train), faith (behind the facts), and feelings…separated from the rest of the train. They told him that no matter what he’s feeling, he needed to trust in facts and faith. Doug went onto say that he has never struggled when it was left up to his feelings and faith; the struggle begins when we are introduced to belief systems.

After some more parodying of early 20th Century revivals, Tony Jones got up to speak. The central message of what Tony was trying to say was, “It’s not our doctrine, it’s our love.” He then began to ask why we so often talk about grace without talking about the sacrifice of Christ. He then talks about how too often people (including his past self) focus too much on doctrine and not enough on Jesus; people don’t care about doctrines, they care about grace. Tony sums up his entire point by saying, “I want a faith that fits my culture.”

To conclude the meeting, Mark Scandrette got up to give his speech. He stated that there is a difference between being a fan of Jesus and being a follower. His central message was that maybe the things Jesus said in the Gospels were supposed to be taken literally (e.g. taking care of the poor, widowed, etc). He then shares the story of how he helped take care of a mentally ill man in San Francisco. The man had declared himself an emperor and would hear nothing of Jesus. Despite this man’s flaws, Mark and his friend helped this man through some pretty disgusting situations. Finally, the man lay in a bed in the hospital and asked why Mark took care of him. Mark simply told the man, “Because we [Mark and his friend] love you.” He concluded by asking if an act of love was important because of the results it brings, or if it’s important in and of itself.

After the meeting I had the chance to interview Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt (Mark was busy talking to a friend of mine). When I spoke with Tony, he seemed a little preoccupied and somewhat uncomfortable that I had labeled myself a “friendly critic” of the Emergent Church. He was still very kind enough to answer my questions and he loosened up toward the end of the conversation. I asked him why people are drawn to the Emergent Conversation and he bluntly said, “They think the church sucks – they think it’s boring, irrelevant to our culture, and hypocritical.” When I asked him if he believed there are essential beliefs, he said that to him the inspiration of Scripture, the hypostatic union, and the Trinity were essentials. When asked about what philosophers and theologians had influenced him, he stated Rudolph Bultmann and Hans-Georg Gadamer. I then decided to ask him if he saw the EC as getting back to what the church once was like, or if it’s just another progressive step forward that will one day need to be reformed. He adamantly stated that it’s not an attempt to get back to what church “once was,” and that we need to be a 21st century church, not a 1st century one. He stated that the Church constantly has to reform itself, sloughing off beliefs of the past while adapting beliefs that apply for our time.

My friend’s discussion with Mark Scandrette was a bit more…interesting. My friend walked up to him and said it was really cool what he did for that man in San Francisco. He then asked Mark if he did anything to confront the man on his sinful lifestyle. I did overhear the reaction, “I’m going to be honest, that sounds judgmental bro.” He then began to lecture my friend on how until we deal with these types of people we can’t really call their lives sinful – we don’t know what caused them to be this way. Even after my friend told Mark that he [my friend] works at a homeless shelter and is befriending a transvestite named “Theresa,” Mark simply didn’t want to hear that we should share the Gospel with people.

I found both the show and the interviews afterward to be interesting – it confirmed a lot of what I have read in Emergent literature. My initial thoughts, however, are that they [the EC] are so close to the truth, yet so far.

In reflecting back on what Tony said – both in the show and the interview – I’m left wondering why everything has to be ‘either/or.’ Why does it have to be either doctrine or love? Why can’t it be both? Why can’t it be that our doctrine about God draws us closer to Him in love?

I would ask a similar question of Doug – why must belief systems challenge our faith? More importantly, are such challenges and struggles necessarily wrong? Francis Schaeffer, in the 1950’s, went through an incredible struggle with Christianity. He worked it out, both intellectually and emotionally, and came out a stronger Christian because of it. There are countless stories of Christians running into belief systems that cause them to struggle intellectually and emotionally with Christ – but why must we view these struggles as a bad thing?

Finally, with Mark I wish I could have asked him if he truly loves anyone. Love does not mean passivity or ignoring someone’s faults. In our modern society that is infected with the desire of personal peace – the desire to mind our own business and be left alone – we think it is taboo or judgmental to point out people’s flaws. What if these flaws are what are hurting people? How loving can it be when we see someone having an internal struggle that has been caused by their sin and we don’t even attempt to offer the one and only solution to that sin? He says that maybe Jesus meant everything He said in the Gospels, but if this is true, shouldn’t it also apply to the Great Commission?

I think all three have their hearts aimed in the right direction, but their minds are in the wrong place. They want to help people, they want unity, they want to see the Church cause actual change in this world – but they’re committing the same mistakes both liberals and conservatives make. They’re creating an “either/or” situation (you either help people or you share the Gospel, not both). The simple truth is, a lot of Christianity is “both/and.” You help people’s physical needs and you help their spiritual needs. You intellectually understand the faith and you culture your emotions within the faith.

What is to be expected though when Bultmann and Gadamer are the influences of these men?  Bultmann taught that we could know Christ apart from the ‘myth’ (history) of the Gospels. The history doesn’t matter according to Bultmann, only the spiritual truths. Gadamer taught that truth and method were in opposition to each other – you experienced truth, there was no method to know it.

The EC is the child of neo-orthodoxy and deconstructive thought elements that trickled down from postmodernism. It relies on loving actions, but abandons the doctrine behind those actions. They currently realize we cannot know God unless we love Him, but I would venture to say our love for God cannot grow unless we know Him (through an intellectual growth). 


4 thoughts on “My Conversation with the Emergent Church

  1. “In reflecting back on what Tony said – both in the show and the interview – I’m left wondering why everything has to be ‘either/or.’ Why does it have to be either doctrine or love? Why can’t it be both? Why can’t it be that our doctrine about God draws us closer to Him in love?”

    Excellent, excellent point. Action flows from thought. Good doctrine without Christ-like love reveals itself to be bad doctrine. Christ-like love without the doctrines about Christ reveals itself to be a love that’s not Christ-like at all.

  2. nice. dude, i’ve got to admit, i probably would have only heard what those guys said and complained some in the car on the way home. Its pretty awesome that you guys went forward and talked to them afterwards.

    what happens when we remove conviction from the gospel? the very essence of the good news is that God made a way through His Son for those of us who were sinful and hopeless to have relationship with Him. If we never approach people about their sinfulness and hopefulness, what will make them realize their need for the gospel?

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