Brian MacLaren Reflects on the Past Year of “Emergent”

Orginally published on Wednesday, June 21, 2006 at 7:50 AM
by Todd Rhoades

It's been an interesting year for the 'emergent' church. Many still do not have a good definition for what the emergent church really is. Some of it's leaders are distancing themselves from other leaders. Some say that there's a difference between the 'emergent' church and the 'emerging' church. In fact, Calvary Chapel recently issued a position paper condemning the emergent church; and asking any of their churches who consider themselves emergent to drop the "Calvary Chapel" from their name (which is exacly what found Chuck Smith's son, Chuck Jr. did). To most of us it's just confusing. Read this piece by Brian MacLaren, one of the leaders of 'emergent' on what has taken place over the past year. Brian writes...

Just over a year ago Doug Pagitt predicted that 2005 would be a year of criticism for the emergent community, and looking back, it’s clear that he predicted pretty accurately. Some of that criticism has been constructive and helpful, although a lot of it has been, sadly, less so. But even non-constructive criticism has its benefits: it gives its targets the opportunity to be gracious, forgiving, non-retaliatory, courageous, and persistent. It also can encourage humility and prayer. I trust that all of us who have felt the sting of criticism can feel ourselves, by the grace of God, benefiting from the experience.

It’s always wise to listen and learn from criticism, but it’s even more important to proactively examine ourselves. As Paul said, if we judged ourselves, we wouldn’t be judged (1 Cor. 11:31), and Jesus told us to examine our own eyes for lumber before worrying about the splinters in others’ eyes. So, in that spirit, here’s an exercise in self-examination for the growing global generative friendship that is associated with the name “emergent” in the U.S. and in many places around the world. It’s based on my own observations, and includes proposals for how we respond to the issues I try to describe. (This exercise has already benefited from insightful input from James Mills, and I’m sure many others will be able to add insight as well.)

All of these proposals can be put in terms of finding “above the line” solutions to reactions that tend to polarize people into binary positions “on the line.” (Many people will be familiar with this “above the line” concept from my book A New Kind of Christian.) Instead of mapping out a position at either end of us/them or either/or conflicts, or even choosing some moderate point in between poles, I propose that we seek higher ground in several specific areas.

All this is based on a general observation: in my travels, I frequently see a number of people in various places getting “anti-“ about one thing or another. In every case, they’ve identified something worth being against. But I’ve also noticed that whenever a group reacts and becomes anti-something, two things happen. First, they limit their options. There may be some percentage of good in what they’re rejecting, and by their rejection they cut themselves off from it. (This is a mistake a number of our critics seem to be making too.) Second, when people strongly react against something, they’re in danger of swinging to the other extreme. Evoking (crikey!) Steve Irwin, they back away from the crocodile on one side of the trail and step on a cobra on the other side. Dangers seldom come in ones, and the line between good and evil or wisdom and foolishness usually runs through, not between, alternatives. Seeking above-the-line solutions is an attempt to affirm the good on both extremes while seeking to avoid at least some of the problems. I hope these proposals will be of use to all of us who are seeking to faithfully serve God in the many and diverse churches that are emerging. Please be assured that nothing here is intended as a criticism of anyone – but simply as an attempt to offer helpful reflection on what I’m seeing and hearing, for what it’s worth.


Brian goes on to write about 9 different areas that the emergent church has tackled or needs to tackle.  You can read all his comments here; then come back to MMI and let us know what you think about the direction of the emergent church.

[thanks to Eric Wright for the link]

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 TRACKBACKS: (0) There are 16 Comments:

  • Posted by eric

    This article says it all for me. I feel that we have too often chosen “sides” when we should stand with ideas in tension. We too often like the pendulum swing.

    Even people holding theological and methodological ideas in tension will practice them differently.

    Todd, glad you were able to use the article.

  • Posted by Jonathan

    Thanks for the article link.  I’m encouraged to see McLaren embracing the important differences between “Emergent” and “emerging.”

    One question I would ask him is this:  On the proposed tenth point, are we to disengage from historic Christian apologetics that were elegantly crafted by the early Church fathers and paid for by Christian martyr’s blood? 

    A yes answer reveals a Euro-centric attitude toward orthodox Christianity; a no answer embraces the Majority-world view I have encountered while meeting with Christian leaders overseas.

  • Posted by

    In some ways, I feel that Brian has made a good effort to present the emergent mission, but on the other hand I think he has proven his critics accurate.  I guess it could be seen both ways depending on your practice or your theology, which are really interconnected in an independent sort of way.

    Doug Pagitt predicted that 2005 would be a year of criticism, but then he went and set the stage for most of it himself.  In my (quite a few) attempts to converse with the self-pronunced emergents, I find that they do exactly what MacLaren cautions us all against.... Defining themselves solely by describing what they are not, and standing against whatever it is they are standing against…

    The more experiences I have with this movement, the more I see it behaving as reactionary by telling everyone not to be reactionary.  I have appreciated some of Brian’s writings, and he is a brilliantly deep thinker about systems and theology… I just don’t find anything concrete enough to hold my attention, loyalty or trust for this movement.

  • Posted by Daniel

    Jeff, perhaps some of NT Wright’s work, or perhaps even Andrew Perriman, would interest you for some positive material.  The popular level books (think ‘a new kind of christian’) sketch out broad strokes of what emerging christians might look like.  The more scholarly work by people like Wright, or Walter Brueggemann (see, for example, his brilliant and massive ‘theology of the old testament’) elaborate more clearly on what a rethinking of our theology might look like.  Then of course, these are just examples, and cannot embody all ‘emergent’ thinking.  But as McLaren says, crystal clear clarity (redundant, I know) might be overrated.  Jesus’ Kingdom parables were particularly provocative, not particularly clear.
    My two cents.

  • Posted by Daniel

    Sorry about the smiley faces by the way, they seem to pop up whenever I end a parenthetical comment with an apostrophe.  Like so: hello (this is a ‘greeting’).

  • A helpful resource in the ongoing emergent/emerging church debate is this transcript of a seminar by Phil Johnson on the very subject.  I have some serious theological problems with the movement and Johnson does a good job at putting meat on the bones of my concerns.


  • Posted by Todd Rhoades

    Thanks, Glen… this was a much more proper place to place this link than the other.


  • Posted by Daniel

    Summarized, Glen’s article makes the following three critiques of the emerging church movement (henceforth, ECM):
    - It breeds suspicion of authority
    - It undermines the perspicuity of scripture (that is, denies that it is easily understandable)
    - It sows confusion about the mission of the Church.

    In response, I would say the following:
    - Certainly, some ‘emergents’ take the whole ‘suspicion’ thing a little too far, but a decent amount of suspicion is desirable (remember, the Reformers were suspicious of the religious authorities of their day...), so I don’t see that this is something to be too worried about.
    - Although Protestants (and others!) like to argue that scripture is easy (or at least, pretty easy) to (sufficiently) understand, the fact that so many who make that claim interpret it so differently is enough of a counterbalance to take the claim with a grain of salt.  I’ve met a number of Mormons who think the Bible (and the book of Mormon) are perfectly clear: the rest of the ‘so-called Church’ is actually the Apostacy (everyone uses that one!).  To the best of my knowledge, ECM theologians (NT Wright as the prime example) don’t advocate nihilism or obscurantism, but rather thoughtful engagement in the historical and critical enterprise.  Is that really so dangerous?  I think blind allegiance to a ‘what scripture obviously says’ mentality (where that actually means blind allegiance to what my pastor says scripture obviously says) is MORE dangerous…
    - Well meaning Christians disagree about the mission of the church.  The article says “the true mission of the church is embodied in the gospel message...” yes! but what is the gospel message?  Some would preach a ‘gospel of sin management’ (phrase from Dallas Willard), whereas the ECM movement emphasizes the ‘gospel of the Kingdom’.  And on that, I would claim that there is great clarity in the ECM.

    And as for the criticism that in the ECM, there is “very little stress on the church’s duty to proclaim a message of repentance and faith in Christ that calls men and women to forsake the world,” well, I disagree.  In fact, I think a serious rethinking and reappropriation of what is meant by ‘repentance’ and what is meant by ‘faith’ is at the heart of what most people in the ECM are trying to accomplish.

    That’s enough for today.  Just tryin’ to keep our assessments balanced.  grin

  • Daniel,

    I respectively disagree.

    I think you’ve hung yourself by your own noose in your last sentence.  This is the very problem with the EC movement!!!  It doesn’t want or nor does it see clarity on hardly any issue.  It questions or redefines that which has been understood for years as historic orthodox christian truth..  If a person cannot come up with a reasonably clear understanding of “faith” and “repentance” from the teachings of the Bible.  We are all in big trouble.  Yes, the Bible has tensions that we would best leave alone, but to say that it is not clear on issues related to the gospel is muddy the waters significantly.  As an old youth pastor once told me, “If you don’t stand for something, you will surely fall for anything.”

  • Posted by Daniel

    Glen, thanks for your time and your input. I’ll try to keep this short. 
    First of all, you didn’t respond to my first 2 or 3 points… so I’ll assume those comments were helpful. 
    Second, it seems you’ve defined the ECM in such a way that murkiness is intrinsic to it.  Plenty of people in the ECM would argue (with much clarity!) for a certain understanding of the Gospel (e.g. that it is about God’s Reign/Kingdom vs. a simple get-out-of-hell free card). 
    Third, there is nothing wrong with a little ‘murkiness’ when it comes from a stirring in the water because someone really wants to understand something. 
    Case in point: you said “If a person cannot come up with a reasonably clear understanding of “faith” and “repentance” from the teachings of the Bible.  We are all in big trouble.” Well, any student of theology has heard of the ‘pistis Christou’ debate from the problematic expression in the main Pauline corpus.  Could it mean ‘faith of Christ’ (as in, Jesus’ faithfulness) rather than ‘faith in Christ’ in certain circumstances?  This is an important question, and although it may not cause us to question our faith, there are important issues to be sorted through.  Also, ‘repentance’ has come to mean something (feeling sorry for something) that it never meant in scripture.  When John the Baptizer preaches a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, that meant something specific to people exposed to groups like the Essenes that it doesn’t to those of us who have only been exposed to a certain brand of evangelicalism.  Long story boring, some things are complex, and it’s ok (even good!) to dig into them, with the awareness that it might change much of our worldview (again, I cite NT Wright’s scholarly work as an example of this).  If you call this ‘murkiness’, fine--but again, I don’t think it’s anything to be afraid of.
    Am I making sense?
    All the best,

  • Posted by Bill Samuel

    I’m a bit simple-minded.  To me, Jesus Christ should be the center of the Christian church.  I look at the fundamentalist/conservative evangelical movement, and it doesn’t look to me like Jesus is at the center.  Sure, they say Jesus all the time, but what is central is a rigid, doctrinal view which doesn’t seem to match up at all closely to what the gospels report of what Jesus said and did.  In fact, it seems to represent a mindset far closer to Jesus’ main critics than to Jesus.  When reading and hearing folks from this movement, I keep wondering, “Has he/have they ever actually read the gospels?” Well, of course they’ve read the words many times, but they often seem to me to have missed the main points.

    The mainstream Protestants (and the liberal Quakers, with which I was formally associated for a long time) just seem to want to make Jesus to be a guy who said some good things (they cherry pick different things than the fundies/conservative evangelicals, but are just as adept at cherry picking) but who has no saving power.

    So this is how I wound up associated with Emergent type folks and a member of Cedar Ridge Community Church.  Here I found a group that generally did seem serious about Jesus Christ, and didn’t go down the wrong paths that either the conservatives or the mainstreams Protestants tend to.  Yes, the movement is not perfect or without faults, but by and large it tracks with Jesus Christ closer than much of the institutional church seems to.

  • Posted by

    McLaren said:

    “Many still do not have a good definition for what the emergent church really is.”

    This is possibly because most of those who call themselves “emergent” really don’t know what they believe as to their views of scripture.

  • Posted by Bill Samuel

    Ricky wrote,

    This is possibly because most of those who call themselves “emergent” really don’t know what they believe as to their views of scripture.

    It may be accurate to indicate that most people who identify with the “emergent” movement don’t have a really clear, fixed view of scripture.  For many evangelicals, as well as fundamentalists and many pentecostals, that may seem like a serious problem.  But many of us who do identify as “emergent” see a more open, flexible approach towards scripture is a plus, not a minus.  I think almost everyone in the “emergent” camp does take scripture very seriously.

    I think it comes back to my earlier point.  What is central?  Many Protestants seem to view scripture as central - “sola scriptura” is often a rallying cry.  To my simple mind, it seems like there needs to be one center.  If it is the written word of scripture, than it can not be Jesus Christ.  And it seems to me that scripture does point to Jesus Christ as the center.

    My experience is that the “emergent” approach (not that it is a single, defined approach, but referring to the more open and flexible way scripture is handled) to scripture results in a richer understanding of scripture than does a more Book-centered approach.  It tends to avoid both the pitfalls of the more legalistic approach that almost seems to worship the written word (which would be idolatry), and the pitfalls of the “pick and choose” attitude that questions whether scripture really is that important that one can see in liberal Christianity.

    The Book says that Jesus Christ himself is the Word of God.  While most conservative Christians won’t outright deny this, they are often very uncomfortable with the concept and love to call the Bible the Word of God.  Consider the possibility that no only was John genuinely divinely inspired when he wrote that Jesus is the Word of God, but that this is in fact a key concept.

  • Posted by

    I know this is a late post, but my email is backed up and I’m just getting it - sorry!

    Glen wrote… “I have some serious theological problem with the movement...”

    Thank goodness!  I was beginning to think all Christians were supposed to think the exactly the same thing, and that there wasn’t room for a difference in interpretation when it came to understanding the Bible.  (just being sarcastic - don’t take it personal wink The problem is that many of us have been told what to believe about the Bible, instead of reading it with an open mind for ourselves.  We’re all products of whatever “religious box” or denominational system that we grew up in.  So, if I grew up a Southern Baptist, and belonged to 4 Southern Baptist churches during my lifetime, and learnd from half a dozen Southern Baptist Pastors, my view of the Bible and Christianity is distinctively “Baptist”.  Which is not a problem, until I starting thinking that other Christians (Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, etc) have got certain interpretations of scripture “wrong” because it’s different than what I was taught. 

    If you think this is a stretch, how about an experiment.  Someone earlier was concerned about inconsistencies when it came to doctrinal “hills to die on” like “repentance”.  I’ll give you an easier topic - salvation.  Too bad we couldn’t get Mother Teresa (who most believe lived out the teachings of Christ better than any other public figure, in spite of what many evangelicals would think of her theology), Adrian Rodgers, Charles Wesley, John Calvin, and Carl Barth all in the same room for two hours, and give them the topic of “salvation” to discuss, I’d venture to guess they’d be at each others throats (hopefully not, but it illustrates a point) and calling each other “heretics” before the meeting was over.  My point?  Our “theology” isn’t as black and white as many would claim.  And maybe it’s not as essential to our “getting into heaven” as we may have been taught it is.

    Bill - you have some very keen observations in your responses, and there are many Christian leaders out there who share your view (like me wink Heard this once and it kind of somes it up for me… “The Bible is not the treasure… Jesus is the treasure… the Bible is the treasure map that leads us to the treasure.  When we start worshiping the treasure map instead of the treasure, we’re in trouble!” The problem is, some of us are worshipping the treasure map, kind of like what the pharisees had done in Jesus’ day.

  • Posted by

    I’ve been spending many nights, recently, sitting at my computer digging into what is “called” Emergent Village, Church, etc. I’ve read the many comments, on the various sites, as people stand for, undecided, or against, it. After all the double-minded gobbledy-gook, I have to stand on the side of common sense and truthful reasoning. When people, or organizations, talk out of both sides of their mouths at the same time, clarifying nothing, I find it falls into the catagory of , “If it looks, sound, smells, and tastes, - it is.”

  • Posted by

    Just a question, and if you all can answer this correctly the puzzle will be solved.  When God created Adam and Eve did he put them in the garden to fail?  Be careful how you answer it unlocks the pandora’s box. 
    What was God’s original purpose for Adam if he didn’t sin?  Was it redemption only? Hmnnn

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