Common Critiques of Emergent and/or the Emerging Church

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : February 14, 2006

I am hardly in love with Emergent.  And I get really irritated with some of the behaviors and ideas presented by some folks who claim the title "emerging." But what REALLY irritates me is when folks try to put the whole movement into a little box, and then proceed to step on that box.  In other words, I’m fed up with people setting up a straw man and calling it "emerging" or "Emergent."  Let’s be honest and humble here. 

These are the most frustrating criticisms I hear about emerging/Emergent:

The emerging church is just a bunch of white American 20 somethings doing church.

I’m willing to grant that most of the folks that call themselves "emerging" are youngish and white.  I’ve offered a version of this critique myself.  But it is one thing to say: "the movement is still too white and young…let’s try harder." It is quite another to dismiss the movement entirely because "it is just a bunch of white American 20 somethings doing church." Let’s be honest.  Most of the folks who issue that critique belong to denominations or movements that either are, or used to be, predominantly white.  Movements start somewhere.  The thing that makes the emerging church really cool is how it is how much those white 20 somethings value diversity and how they are increasingly succeeding at seeing diversity within their ranks.  Most emerging folks that I know really want to work hard on this issue.  The movement is only a decade old…and good steps have been taken.  The movement is increasingly diverse–ethnically, nationally, economically, generationally. 

Emerging folks are arrogant and/or cocky.

I hear this one quite a bit.  In fact, I overheard a conversation in the bathroom at Bethel Seminary (I was in a stall) that touched on this.  Here’s how it basically went:

Person 1: "Emerging folks aren’t really interested in the critiques and concerns of more traditional evangelicals.  I think that is why John has such a problem with the emerging church.  They assume they already understand the concerns and critiques, so they don’t even listen."
Person 2 (a professor): "Hmm…actually, I wonder if it is the opposite." (good job professor!)
Person 1: "Well, I’m sure John has read the books!"
Person 2: "I don’t want to assume that."

I’ve heard lots of evangelicals issue the charge of arrogance against emerging folks.  I’m sure there is some truth to it. After all, people who willingly go against the grain have to have a little bit of a rebel in them, and often this comes across as arrogance.  And since the movement has a disproportionate number of young adults, it is likely to reflect a sort of youthful confidence.  But most of the folks I know in the movement really care about the concerns and critiques of others.  There is much more willingness to learn and grow than many folks think.  If you offer the critique humbly, I think it will be taken humbly.  In all honesty, I’ve seen more arrogance coming from those who critique the emerging church than I have from within the movement. 

The emerging church is just liberalism infiltrating evangelicalism.

For some emerging folk, this may be the case.  And in some ways, I’m more "liberal" than I used to be.  But most emerging type folk find this criticism really frustrating because they don’t think in categories like "conservative" and "liberal" that much.  Such a distinction assumes a bunch of modernist categories that many in the emerging church no longer think in.  So, instead of just calling the emerging church a bunch of liberals, take the time to find out what folks actually believe and why they believe it instead of reaching for a handy box to put them into, so that you can more easily dismiss them.

The emerging church has compromised the Gospel.

If by "Gospel" you mean the classic reformed articulation of justification by faith, and the belief that the subsitutionary penal atonement is at the heart of the Gospel, then many have compromised the Gospel (including me).  But the Gospel is much more nuanced and multi-faceted than that.  Skim through church history and you’ll realize that while the reformers did indeed offer a valid and helpful critique against the Catholic Church in its day, they sometimes over-reacted and invented categories that minimize and simplify the nature of the Gospel.  Most emerging church folk that I know really love Jesus and are examining the Gospels and epistles with great care as they try to understand just what the Gospel is to Jesus and Paul, and what it should, therefore, be for us.  Such folk (like myself) have come to the sinking suspicion that evangelicalism has radically simplified and caged the Gospel and simply want to set it free…

…then again, maybe I’m just an arrogant white liberal. :)

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8 Responses to “Common Critiques of Emergent and/or the Emerging Church”

  1. snoble on February 15th, 2006 11:31 am

    Good post, Mark. One of the criticisms of the emerging church I hear most often from more traditional evangelicals is that the emerging folks discount the notion of objective truth. Some emerging folks argue that objective truth is a notion of modernity and since we’re now embracing a postmodern mindset, issues like objective truth are not a primary concern–nor even valid anymore. I’d be eager to hear your thoughts.

  2. ryan torma on February 15th, 2006 12:43 pm

    Emerging: Identity and Context

    Fernando Gros, Mark Van Steenwyck and several others I have spoken to this week seem to all be talking about the same question: Is the emerging church is really emerging or just regular church? This is a question I have…

  3. Van S on February 15th, 2006 5:23 pm

    Well, this is a BIG topic of discussion. Here’s my shorthand response: I don’t know if it is possible for me to arrive at objectivity. Everything I observe I observe subjectively. God’s perspective may be objective, but I only know God subjectively. Even if I were to say that Scripture presents objective truth (which I’m not sure it does), I could only know that subjectively.

    Objective Truth isn’t a very important category for me. However, I do follow Jesus as my Lord in a very authoritative sense. This is informed by my subjective reading of Scripture, my subjective undersanding of how the world works and my subjective experience of the Spirit. In the end, this places my relationship with God firmly within a relational understanding of God and how we relate (subjective) not in any external, objective realities.

  4. Dave C on February 15th, 2006 9:22 pm

    I have met a number of emerging types and read a lot of the writers that are defining the “emergent movement”, and they are by far unapologetically leftist. While “post-modern” makes sense to me as in defining yourself based on your community rather than you as an individual, and seeing that your actions effect those around you, I have been turned off because of the politics. You say that many of them don’t recognize “conservative” and “liberal”, but my experience in reading, discussing, and surfing the web, is they know “Republican” and “Democrat”, and Republicans are evil.

    I would like to hear from conservative emergent types. I would like to have a conversation with someone about social justice with out it turning into a Wal Mart hating, Bush bashing, conservatives are stupid kind of arguement.

  5. Van S on February 15th, 2006 11:31 pm

    Dave, I’ll grant your argument. I was referring to theological liberalism and conservativism more than political liberalism and conservativism. I may be a bit of a radical in some ways, but I’m definitely not a democrat (nor a Republican). The way I see it, if God isn’t a Republican or a Democrat, why should I be? I’d rather put my eggs in the “church” basket rather than trying to utilize the democratic system to achieve Kingdom goals. At any rate, I think the emerging church tendency to embrace the political left is: 1) largely a part of being young…young folks tend to be more liberal and 2) a reaction against the beliefs of an earlier generation. It makes sense that if many 20 something emerging church people are frustrated with the status quo of evangelicalism, they’d be likely to explore other political options too–which pushes them into political liberalism.

  6. Dave C on February 16th, 2006 4:16 pm

    The old rebellion factor. I can work with that, having been there myself.

    See, I was involved in a group 10-12 years ago that was ‘on the edge’, very reminisent (sorry, no spell check on comments) of what the “emergent” church today. Unfortunatly, they went down the path that fit the stereotype you discussed above. All of the leadership has left the church, and in some cases, left their wives and families. I still believe in what they (we) where trying to accomplish as far as the type of community they strove for, but am at a loss as to how to bring it about in the small suburban church I belong to.

    Anyway, I see a lot of the same additudes and practices in a lot (not all) of the writers I read and people I keep up with.

    You are the exception. Kudos to you.

  7. Jeff on February 16th, 2006 4:29 pm

    I’d like to add a few things to this discussion. One is that although the emerging church movement started largely with “disgruntled evangelicals” it is currently comprised of evangelicals, post-evangelicals, liberals and post-liberals. To label or critique the movement within evangelicalism just isn’t warranted any more than critiquing the ONE campaign or any other ecumenical movement is. The emerging church neither desires or asks to be confined within evangelicalism.
    Second, I think a lot of the reason you hear “anti-republican” banter within the emerging church movement is simply because they are the ones currently in power and their ideals are quite different than those of many emergent folk. I’m not really sure when having concern for the poor and defenseless became identified with liberalism, but if that’s the label given it then I guess many “emergers” are indeed liberal.
    Lastly, I don’t think that the criticism that emergers are bowing to the culture is valid. Many emergers are much more thoughtful, intentional, spiritual and theological about how they participate in the life of the church than the average Christian. Most emergers aren’t thinking “the world has relative truth so now we should have relative truth too” or something. Most aren’t trying to be more worldy or more popular or the such, but are trying to be more godly, more Christian. They simply think that modernity has short-changed our faith and wish to rediscover a more holistic expression of it. I will concede, however, that you cannot have a culture-less Christianity. All expressions of faith at every point of history have been shaped by the surrounding culture. That’s not a bad thing. It’s only bad when you blindly accept the culture without critique. I think that’s what emergent is trying to do.

  8. gordon on February 16th, 2006 5:23 pm

    Good post - I would probably add made invisible by their pre-occupation with self!

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