D. A. Carson on the Emergent Church Movement

The following are brief and a bit systematized excerpts from D.A. Carson’s book, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church. I found the ideas therein quite insightful and relevant to the sermon reviews that I wore on Mavuno Church’s ongoing series, “The Sex Files”. You can locate the first and second parts of the reviews here and here respectively. It is my hope that these excerpts will provide more insights into where I am coming from in writing those reviews.

The Emerging Church

What Are We Talking About?

At the heart of the Emergent Church movement-or as some of its leaders prefer to call it, the “conversation” – lies the conviction that changes in the culture signal that a new church is “emerging.” Christian leaders must therefore adapt to this emerging church. Those who fail to do so are blind to the cultural accretions that hide the gospel behind forms of thought and modes of expression that no longer communicate with the new generation, the emerging generation.

What Characterizes the Movement?

1. Protest.

It is difficult to gain a full appreciation of the distinctives of the movement without listening attentively to the life stories of its leaders. Many of them have come from conservative, traditional, evangelical churches, sometimes with a fundamentalist streak. Thus the reforms that the movement encourages mirror the protests of the lives of many of its leaders.

2. Protest Against Modernism.

Brian McLaren, probably the most articulate speaker in the emerging movement, has emphasized, in both books and lectures, that postmodernism is not antimodernism. The telling point for McLaren and most of the other leaders of the Emergent Church movement is their emphasis on the discontinuity as over against the continuity with modernism. When McLaren speaks through the lips of Neo, the postmodern Christian protagonist of his best-known books (the New Kind of Christian trilogy), he can use “post-” as a universal category to highlight what he does not like: “In the postmodern world, we become postconquest, postmechanistic, postanalytical, postsecular, postobjective, postcritical, postorganizational, postindividualistic, post-Protestant, and postconsumerist.” These books show how much what McLaren thinks “a new kind of Christian” should be like today is determined by all the new things he believes are bound up with postmodernism: hence “a new kind of Christian.”

Much of McLaren’s aim in his writing and lecturing is to explode the certainties that he feels have controlled too much of the thinking of Western Christian people in the past. But there is a danger in constantly exploding the certainties of the past: if we are not careful, we may be left with nothing to hang on to at all. Recognizing the danger, McLaren takes the next step by providing us with two definitions.

The first of his definitions is of philosophical pluralism, the stance that asserts that no single outlook can be the explanatory system or view of reality that accounts for all of life. Even if we Christians think we have it, we must immediately face the diversities among us: are we talking about Baptist views of reality? Presbyterian? Anglican? And which Baptist? Philosophical pluralism denies that any system offers a complete explanation.

The second definition is of relativism. It is the theory that denies absolutism and insists that morality and religion are relative to the people who embrace them. Lest Christians think none of this applies to them, McLaren draws attention to the ethnic cleansing of the Old Testament, to David’s many wives, to injunctions against wearing gold rings.

If both philosophical pluralism and relativism are given free play, McLaren asserts, it is difficult to see how one can be faithful to the Bible. Yet absolutism cannot be allowed to rule: the criticism of absolutism is too devastating, too convincing to permit it to stand. So perhaps a culture plagued by absolutism needs a dose of relativism to correct what is wrong with it-not so much a relativism that utterly displaces what came before, but a relativism that in some sense embraces what came before, yet moves on. If absolutism is the cancer, it needs relativism as the chemotherapy. Even though this chemotherapy is dangerous in itself, it is the necessary solution.

3. Protesting on Three Fronts

The Emergent Church movement is characterized by a fair bit of protest against traditional Evangelicalism and, more broadly, against all that it understands by modernism. But some of its proponents add another front of protest, namely, the Seeker-sensitive church, the megachurch.

What Should We Be Asking?

This does not mean that the Emergent Church movement is wrong. It means, rather, three things.

First, the Emergent Church movement must be evaluated as to its reading of contemporary culture. Most of its pleas for reform are tightly tied to its understandings of postmodernism. The difficulty of the task (granted the plethora of approaches to postmodernism) cannot exempt us from making an attempt.

Second, as readers will have already observed from this short survey, the appeals to Scripture in the Emerging Church literature are generally of two kinds. On the one hand, some Emergent church leaders claim that changing times demand that fresh questions be asked of Scripture, and then fresh answers will be heard. What was an appropriate use of Scripture under modernism is no longer an appropriate use of Scripture under postmodernism. On this gentler reading of Evangelicalism’s history, traditional evangelicals are not accused of being deeply mistaken for their own times, but of being rather out of date now, not least in their handling of the Bible. On the other hand, the Emergent Church’s critique of modernism, and of the Evangelicalism that modernism has produced, is sometimes (not always) so bitter that Evangelicalism’s handling of Scripture can be mocked in stinging terms. This is not meant to imply that this is true of all emerging pastors.

Third, granted that the Emergent Church movement is driven by its perception of widespread cultural changes, its own proposals for the way ahead must be assessed for their biblical fidelity. In other words, we must not only try to evaluate the accuracy of the Emergent Church’s cultural analysis, but also the extent to which its proposals spring from, or can at least be squared with, the Scriptures. To put the matter differently: Is there at least some danger that what is being advocated is not so much a new kind of Christian in a new Emergent Church, but a church that is so submerging itself in the culture that it risks hopeless compromise?


Even to ask the question will strike some as impertinence at best, or a tired appeal to the old-fashioned at worst. I mean it to be neither. Most movements have both good and bad in them, and in the book from which this article is taken I highlight some of the things I find encouraging and helpful in the Emergent Church movement. I find that I am more critical of the movement because my “take” on contemporary culture is a bit removed from theirs, partly because the solutions I think are required are somewhat different from theirs, partly because I worry about (unwitting) drift from Scripture, and partly because this movement feels like an exercise in pendulum swinging, where the law of unintended consequences can do a lot of damage before the pendulum comes to rest.

[D.A. Carson]

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