An Open (Heartfelt) Letter to Those in the “Emergent Movement”

Dear Emergent Friends,

I hope this letter finds you well. I’m writing to you because I’m concerned about a few things within your movement and also to let you know how you come across to us non-emergents. Of course, this letter is written generally as not all emergent believers come across this way. Not all criticisms in here can be levied at all emergent believers. I’m friends with many emergent-minded folk, so obviously not all of this applies. But it is written out of love and out of some concerns I have. Before I launch into some of the problems I see, however, I want to say a few positive things.

Many years ago when I was going through a very rough patch in my life, I turned to a few books that could be called “proto-emergent” or books written in the earlier stages of the emergent movement. Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo’s book Adventures in Missing the Point, Mike Yaconelli’s Messy Spirituality, and Jay Bakker’s Son of a Preacher Man gave me the strength and grace to get through a very hard time in my life.

Obviously I’ve moved away from such spirituality, but I don’t want to simply toss it out entirely as it was very beneficial to me and prevented me from sliding deeper into an abyss. In fact, even as I’ve moved away from more “emergent thinking” I still found common ground with the emergent authors. At the time I was attending a church that I despised, mostly because of the pastor. His absolute disdain towards the poor, homeless, and nonwhites forced me to ultimately leave (that and other problems he had). It was nice to see that there were other Christians out there willing to talk about the flaws in the Christian community rather than cover them up.

I’ve always appreciated the emergent movement’s willingness to expose the flaws of the Christian community, to admit that we’ve been wrong in the past, which is why it perplexes me as to why there seems to be little self-criticism among emergent thinkers today. Perhaps I am just ignorant, but I’ve yet to see a major emergent author come out and speak about how he or the community as a whole were wrong in how they handled something. Even in terms of race relations, most emergent authors seem to think that their movement is “race-friendly,” when it’s not.

For those that think it is helping to bridge the racial gap, ask yourself this very simple question: How many popular emergent authors are nonwhite? That’s not to say nonwhites haven’t written books that could be considered emergent, but how many are best-sellers? Of the nonwhites involved in the movement, how many are lower class, or are they also middle-class to upper-class? To someone like me when I look at the emergent authors, I see a white, bourgeois revolution. The complaints and solutions generally only apply to people wrapped up in a Starbucks culture.

Now, none of this discredits the movement or the teachings at all, but what bothers me is that many in the emergent movement are seemingly oblivious to this problem! And that’s why I’m asking you, pleading with you, to please be self-critical. It was your criticisms – accurate criticisms – of conservative evangelicalism that took you out of the conservative movement of the evangelical church, but don’t stop examining everything. Examine your own beliefs, even your more progressive beliefs, for those could be wrong.

One way to help in the self-criticism is to listen to the criticisms of the outsiders, the non-emergents, specifically the conservative critics. Even when they’re overly harsh and just downright rude and mean spirited, perhaps it’s worth listening to what they have to say. If they criticize your theology or the reasoning behind what you’re saying, perhaps it’s best to look at and contemplate what they’re saying rather than immediately go on the defensive. After all, and perhaps many emergent thinkers miss this, some conservatives are still conservative even after questioning their beliefs and researching alternatives (such as myself). So we’ve been down the path of questioning as well, but came up with a difference answer than you, so don’t we have something of value to say?

And even if someone hasn’t explored their beliefs, shouldn’t they also be listened to? Certainly those who are abusive and rude can just be cast aside, but not everyone who strongly voices their opposition to what you’re teaching is being “abusive” or “rude,” they’re simply engaging you in dialogue. So why shut out their voices? You act as if there’s no way conservatives could possibly be right, which is another way of saying you have no idea how you could possibly be wrong. Isn’t that antithetical to the central idea behind the emergent movement?

Along the same lines as the above, I would ask that you stop mocking conservative Christians. Yes, they do it to you at times (not all, but some do), but does that justify the “eye-for-an-eye” mentality? “Well they do it too!” How is that turning the other cheek or even taking the high road? While there is still an emphasis on the words of Jesus among emergent believers, it seems that some ignore His command to love one’s enemies. While loving one’s enemies doesn’t prohibit strong discourse, it would prohibit mocking evangelicals or comparing them to the Taliban, which is unfair, untrue, and serves no purpose. After all, how are conservatives to be challenged by what you say if you’re simply accusing them of being heinous human beings?

I think it would go a long way with conservatives if emergent Christians began to recognize that conservative evangelicals have actually done a lot of good in this world. They have worked against sex trafficking, racism, poverty, and the list goes on. While some conservative evangelicals have helped to perpetuate these problems, others have worked to end them, indicating that one’s theology isn’t necessarily congruent with one’s actions. But to demonize and alienate all conservative Christians is problematic; it closes down the conversation and leads to intellectual inbreeding where your ideas are only bounced off those who already agree with you.

In short, emergent Christians shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. A major evangelical church downtown decides to raise money for its new sanctuary, but chooses not to help the poor; this doesn’t mean we should eradicate all conservative doctrines. The mistakes of conservative evangelicals shouldn’t necessarily reflect on the doctrines; so while I would agree that “everything must change” on how we act, I’m not so sure that everything should change on what we think. After all, there are certain doctrines that lay a foundation to helping the poor and oppressed, even if believers don’t always follow through on these actions.

Many emergent Christians need to realize that traditionally Christian doctrine has presented an ideal, but Christians have rarely – if ever – reached this ideal. What many emergent Christians have seemingly done is change the ideal to one that is almost obtainable. You’ve adopted “worldly philosophies” that present an ideal that can be obtained in one way or another, but it removes all the supernatural elements from Christianity. Instead, refocus on the ideal. If the ideal is the problem, if it’s a bad ideal, then yes, we ought to change it. But if the ideal is good, if it is right, then we should find better ways of obtaining it rather than simply making a new, obtainable, ideal.

For all of the above to occur, however, you must begin to allow conservatives to take part in your discussions. While it is true that some conservatives will willingly remove themselves, others are more than willing to embrace you in dialogue (such as myself), but are often shut out because we’re critical of the movement and see flaws in the emergent movement. As indicated above, this isn’t helpful to anyone and will (and has) stunt the growth of the emergent movement. Beware the sound of one hand clapping.

In closing this letter, I would make three final suggestions. First, rather than attempting to reinvent Christianity, perhaps it is best to discover what Christianity was meant to be. All attempts to reinvent Christianity in the past 2,000 years have failed for one distinct reason; they aren’t products of the Holy Spirit. While certain branches of Christianity have succeeded, it is because they still held onto the idea of there being some absolutes in the Christian faith. For all the differences between Protestants, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics, all three remain viable and existent because all three still agree and hold onto the core doctrines of the faith (such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, etc). They hold these doctrines as absolute. But all other groups that have attempted to move away from these doctrines simply die out or fade away.

The above leads me to my second suggestion, which is to open yourself to the idea that you might be wrong. Maybe conservatives are right on a few things, maybe they aren’t. But the idea of abandoning absolutes as a “product of the Enlightenment” is one area where you could be (and I believe you are) wrong. However, what good does it do me to explain this if you’re not even open to the idea of being wrong? True bias isn’t thinking you’re right, instead it’s not seeing how you could possibly be wrong. So open yourselves up to the idea that all these new ideas you’ve discovered and adopted could be wrong, and the ideas you’ve left could be right.

My third suggestion ties all of the above together, which is to have humility and to act in grace towards others. Be humble in both your actions and beliefs, because in all honesty the emergent movement comes across as extremely arrogant to those of us who aren’t in it. To be told that we’re not enlightened or that we’re regressive in our thinking doesn’t exactly make us look at you and go, “Wow, such humility!” Nor does it inspire us to join you or to take what you have to say seriously. Humility would go a long way, even if those of us who disagree with you fail to show it. Humility would disarm your critics and make them look like fools. Humility would make it easier to talk with you and discuss these issues with you.

In the end, I hope you take all of this well and take it to heart. Certainly I’m wrong on some of what I perceive and I’m okay with that. But at the same time, perhaps you should ask what caused me to perceive you in this way. In the end, I hope this isn’t simply ascribed to bias or bigotry and subsequently ignored, as this would truly be sad and completely miss the point. Continue standing up for what is right, but also please evaluate yourselves and see if this letter is at least partially true.



One thought on “An Open (Heartfelt) Letter to Those in the “Emergent Movement”

  1. Good to see you back Joel! To tell the truth, I don’t think I know what an emergent church is. Do you have a website example? There’s a popular church in town called Rock Assembly of God. Is this church considered emergent?
    Would Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life be considered emergent? Dan Dennett has a very good talk on video called Response to Rick Warren. It’s a very thoughtful talk that you would probably find very interesting and enjoyable to watch.
    I’m waiting for J. Matthan Brown’s new post!

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