7 Loving Challenges for Emergent

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : October 2, 2007

Every day, the message of Emergent becomes increasingly controversial.  It didn’t seem that long ago that it was only the profoundly fundamentalist that were taking stabs at Emergent.  Next, it was “mainstream” thinkers like D.A. Carson and John MacArthur.  The next think you know, Mark Driscoll calls Emergent leaders heretics and all hell breaks loose.

The emerging church blogosphere is ablaze with talks about heresy and yoga.  And every few months a new book is cranked out and the heresy grows.  I’m sure things will kick up a notch when Brian McLaren’s new book comes out (it seems that he writes a new book every 6 months). 

And so, since it only looks like the controversy is going to get worse, I want to take a moment to shout into the wind before it turns into a hurricane.

As I’ve watched this ecclesial ping pong match between various would-be defenders and various would-be provocateurs, I’m finding myself increasingly disheartened.  Not with the defenders (after all, their actions are wholly predictable), but with the provocateurs.  I would like to offer some rebukes.  I offer them generally, with full recognition that not all rebukes apply to everyone.  But if any of them apply to you, please take them to heart.  And, I must add, I have been guilty of them all. 

  1. We should be careful not to draw lines in the sand–even if “they” drew it first.  We should always be VERY careful when we use us versus them language–especially within the Body of Christ. Within the emerging church, I’ve found many folks who, while still technically evangelicals, have decided to use the word “evangelical” as a bad word.  That really is a snotty thing to do.  And I’ve done it lots.  This is like the Vice President who begins to distance himself from the administration after he plans to run for president.
  2. I sometimes wonder if we folks of Emergent enjoy the controversy too much.  Scandal is exciting.  But do there REALLY need to be so many darned blog posts about Christians and yoga? Controversy is what makes Emergent grow.  It sells books.  Where would Emergent be without controversy?  And where would we be if we didn’t love it?
  3. We have too many conferences. And too many of them cost too much money.  More learning happens from road trips and visits with friends, so why all the emphasis on “learning parties” and the like?  I’m not against going to conferences, but it seems like there are too many.  Speaking on behalf of all emerging ministers who can’t afford to travel that much, I say: let’s show some restraint, keep costs down, and figure out better ways of collaboration. 
  4. We need to diversify our public voices.  If you DO decide to have a conference, please don’t rely upon the handful of well-known Emergent gurus.  I remember the first time I griped to Tony Jones about the “emergentsia.” He told me that they try to share speaking opportunities with folks and include others in things. I believe he is correct.  I don’t blame him at all for the existence of an emergentsia.  I blame us.  We keep asking the same 6 people to speak at events.  Let’s drop the razzle-dazzle and find some new voices so that our movement doesn’t become inbred or developmentally retarded.
  5. Speaking of diversifying public voices, why don’t we invite liberationists from Guatemala to speak at our next conference? Or Pentecostals from Liberia? Or some of the people involved in the Catholic/Mennonite conversation in Columbia? Or an Eastern Orthodox Priest from Palestine? 
  6. We ought to be mature enough by now to avoid the “pendulum swing.” We are no longer pissed-off adolescents.  Pissed off adolescents do things simply to be contrary.  Like becoming democrats because we hate the religious right.  Like getting drunk because we grew up Baptist.  You know what I’m talking about.  Let’s start thinking a bit about why we do what we do.  A religious left is as bad as a religious right.  Being a libertine is as bad as being a Pharisee. 
  7. Let’s avoid the trap of the “enlightened bourgeoisie.”  These are the folks who meet at the bar and grill and drop 25 bucks per person on drinks while they talk about issues of justice.  These are the people who only have other bourgeoisie friends but believe that they are on the side of migrant and the working class.  Yes, yes, you can have money and follow Jesus.  But you can’t have money, be disconnected from the “least of these,” and follow Jesus.

I love the friends I’ve made in Emergent Village.  And I hope to make more.  They are a great group of people who are willing to ask the hard questions.  They are generous and gracious friends who are willing to discuss anything.  And they love Jesus.  But we have room for growth.  I offer these eight loving rebukes in the hopes that they will help us grow.  I offer them, not in judgement, but in hope. 

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33 Responses to “7 Loving Challenges for Emergent”

  1. Vince Miller on October 2nd, 2007 11:33 am

    Good thoughts Mark. Peace is needed here even though the controversy does go on… I think a good loving challenge would be complemented by living out more orthopraxy than orthotalksy. I know emergent leaders have the capacity to do this, and I feel they possess the momentum to change a culture for Christ seekers like myself. I think all the talking gets old to people like me who support the conversation and would like to see a little more practice in hopes of quieting the “opposing” crowd. We have this capacity perhaps it is time to charge after it?

  2. j evans on October 2nd, 2007 11:40 am

    I seriously hope people listen to you.

  3. forrest curo on October 2nd, 2007 6:19 pm

    So is there supposed to be a problem with Christians doing yoga? I hope this sounds as crazy to you as it does to me. Do I need to explain why?

    I’ve read some illuminating material on recent Jewish movements from people like Rodger Kaminsky (_Stalking Elijah_) and Alan Lew (_One God Clapping_) and found similarities with what I’ve been observing among Quakers– which may well parallel your movement’s difficulties.

    I think this comes from many people having become spiritually “dry,” having lost touch with God, feeling that loss–but not knowing what’s wrong or what to do about it.

    Among the Quakers, I even find people bragging about their dispair, calling disbelief “being realistic,” even “being scientific.” Since we don’t impose “creeds” on people, Quakers see this sort of thing expressed openly, but it’s probably at least as widespread among other Americans.

    The more superficially “religious” response (but likewise misdirected) has been to try to return to traditional customs. Some of those old customs were useful in their time, and might still serve some useful function, but as you know, the Quaker tradition didn’t come from people following any tradition. We were on the radical, scarey edge of the Puritan movement of 17th Century England, one of many groups trying to return to “Primitive Christianity (as it had been before ‘the Apostasy’)”. Although Fox studied the Bible diligently, the characteristic Quaker emphasis was our reliance on God’s Spirit to show us its meaning, to put us into “the same spirit in which it was written.”

    My mother said she once told me, “You can do that when you’re bigger.” So I stood up on tiptoes and asked, “Am I big enough now?”

    I am entirely for the study of the Bible–as a source of much truth, but not as a handy blunt object. I see the human fingerprints on it quite clearly–and I also see these as part of God’s design. We need to know this book because it’s our past, because it’s about the same kinds of people making the same kinds of mistakes people still make–Wanting to know God better but wanting it possible without having to get bigger first. Hoping to get by just stretching up on our tippytoes…

    I notice many Quakers have been drawn to the Emergent movement, partly from having found kinship with Christians from more conventional church traditions, partly from hopes of finding that old 17th Century fire in the same old fireplace. But you know, we didn’t forget God because of problems with our worship ceremonies… Those ceremonies stopped expressing worship because the worshippers got caught up in worldly cares & relied on worldly ways and worldly powers for “fixing” them.

    Trying to correct this by tinkering with the externals… no harm in it, but the essential element is prayer & trust in God. (Something likewise found among Hindus…)

  4. Steve K. on October 4th, 2007 12:13 pm

    Thanks, Mark. Good words all around.

  5. Jonathan Brink on October 8th, 2007 11:17 am


    I like your idea of bringing in people who understand liberation. The mission of Jesus was about bringing people out of oppression and into restoration. We could learn a lot from these people.

    The only problem is that we’ve learned that conferences are about distilling books and p.o.v.’s from authors. Liberationists would be a hard sell unfortunately.

  6. Jeff on October 10th, 2007 10:30 pm

    Good stuff. Your rebukes will be taken more seriously now that you are one of the emerging emergentsia. :)

  7. Daniel on October 12th, 2007 3:29 pm

    I’m quite intrigued with the post. I just stumbled upon your site today, and was pleased to encounter this post.

    This is such a challenge to all of us who are attempting to seek God in renewed ways. It seems like it is easiest to be inclusive of voices we don’t have a history with, and to marginalize those who remain in the places from which we have come.

    I’ve noticed that there seems to be a problem in a lot of language that we use. We are concerned about not “othering” those many western Christians have traditionally ostracized, but we sometimes embrace these people at the cost of pushing away other Christians.

    If we really are about the way of Christ, then the peace and reconciliation we bring will have to be for everyone.

    I know that I struggle giving grace to myself, having grown up in a somewhat graceless Christian context. Sadly, I think that I extend that lack of grace to those who are still in the context of my heritage.

    I think about the story of the lost sons. The focus is on reconciliation, repentance, and celebration of all God’s children.

    Thanks for giving us all a lot to think about.

    Grace and Peace.

  8. Mike Clawson on October 14th, 2007 11:11 pm

    Hey Mark, thanks for the friendly challenges! I just wanted to respond with a few thoughts on each:

    1. This is good advice. However, let’s be honest, there is an element of critique in the emerging conversation. There are some things that we are actually trying to emerge “out of” and “away from”. It’s hard to talk about things that we honestly think need to be improved in the church without using some kind of labels and being somewhat critical.

    Also, some of us honestly are not “evangelicals” anymore (except maybe in a highly technical and overly broad sense) and don’t want to be labeled as such. This is not being snotty. It’s just truth in advertising.

    2. There’s probably some truth to this. Though again, let’s be honest with ourselves, the emerging church is partially a critique. Controversy is therefore inevitable. But you’re right, we shouldn’t revel in it.

    3. I’m with you there… but hey, we did put on a low-cost regional gathering this summer in Chicago and you didn’t come. ;)
    4. Speaking for the conference we put on this summer, we invited some of the “emergentsia” primarily just to draw the crowd that wouldn’t have come otherwise (it’s an unfortunate reality, but you do need to have some recognizable names if you want people to come). However, we were deliberate about putting them on first (so they weren’t the “main event”), and at the same time, and spent the rest of the time highlighting lesser-known speakers (primarily women and minorities). The big name guys were really just the hook to get people in the door, and we told them this up-front.

    And don’t forget, we did invite you, and you couldn’t make it. Of course, you’re probably one of the “emergentsia” now too. ;)
    5. Why don’t we invite speakers from Guatemala, Liberia, Colombia or Palestine? Because none of us have the cash for it. We could barely afford to fly folks in from Grand Rapids and Minneapolis, much less internationally. But hey, I’m all for taking your suggestions next time around if you can figure out how to pay for it. :)
    6. Maybe you’re seeing different things than I’m seeing, but I’m really not feelin’ you on this one. This whole “reactionary” accusation seems more like the kind of things I’d hear from those critics of the EC who don’t really know many people inside of it. Just speaking personally, most emergents I know are highly thoughtful about their beliefs and are not simply choosing their positions just because they’re pissed off. But hey, maybe you know different people than I do.

    7. That’s a very good reminder. Though to be fair, I don’t think we’ve ever dropped more than 7 bucks per person on drinks when we get together to talk about justice. ;)
    BTW, what’s your eighth loving rebuke? I only see seven.

  9. Makeesha Fisher on October 15th, 2007 9:41 am

    I think it’s good to self critique so I take your words thoughtfully Mark.

    I’ve gotta say though, I’m with Mike on these points. Especially point 6

  10. Mark Van Steenwyk on October 15th, 2007 10:18 am

    These are all broad strokes, and as such, don’t always apply. They are just trends I’ve noticed among some folks before. If they don’t apply to your experience, I’m glad.


    1) It is ok to emerge “out of.” But sometimes I see a lot of emerging against. As a popular conservative talk show host says: “Clarity is better than agreement.” I know that gracious discussion is a value for us. But sometimes it is easy to play into the divisiveness. I think we always need to be vigilant with this.

    Evangelical is a broad term that has gotten narrowed. Those of us who have an evangelical background should be slow to cast of the term…especially if–even broadly–we still “qualify.” Is there any good reason to, except to distance ourselves from some things we’ve grown to dislike about our theological family of origin? They are still our family. If I changed my last name do distance myself from my birth family, that would make me a prick.

    3. I think localized and regional events is a good way to go. Sorry I couldn’t make it.

    4. I recognize that there is a tension here. I think we need to give some serious thought to how we can gain ground on this.

    5. Mike…I understand that cost is an issue. I guess I was talking more about the more grandiose conferences that happen (Soularize and the like). But sure, if you want help next time around bringing in some marginal voices, I’ll do my best.

    6. Well, it is all in who you know, I guess. I see this one a lot. I’ve known a lot of evangelicals who go to bed Republican and then wake up Democrat. There is often a lot of pain and anger in this transformation. Minneapolis has a lot of emerging folks. And I know many that are emerging in their early 20s that have gone through this process.

    Thanks for engaging my thoughts.

  11. David on October 15th, 2007 10:35 am

    Good stuff!
    One fo the first impressions I got from “The Gathering” was your humble heart and gracious attitude. It made me re-think my own motives and I must admit, I had to repent a bit.
    Thank you for oozing the life of God. As flawed as we all are, what I saw from you and the others was a desire to move forward and above the line…not cross the line.

    We’re also ’stealing’ the name ‘Seven’ for our current project - of taking the next seven months and focusing on being the soul of the city here involving ourselves in things like the food bank, AIDs patients, immigrants, etc….
    We’ll how God knits our hearts to what, but were excited to see where it take us.

    Pray Naked
    David Fisher

  12. Makeesha Fisher on October 15th, 2007 12:40 pm

    David, I think you’re thinking of Mark Scandrette. :)

  13. Makeesha Fisher on October 15th, 2007 12:45 pm

    could it be mark that you’re experiencing a general maturation process of individualization than you are an emerging phenomenon. In other words, most emerging types in a local context are under 35 in my experience - these folks are changing and maturing at a rapid rate anyway and emerging might just be giving them the voice and freedom they need to make these important individualization choices.

  14. David on October 15th, 2007 12:58 pm

    I’m such a dork!
    But no matter. The opinion still applies!
    Thanks Mark (whichever one you are) for this post. They be great words to live by!

    Going to sheephishly run away now. hehe

  15. Mark Van Steenwyk on October 15th, 2007 12:59 pm

    David…yeah, I think you are indeed thinking of Mark Scandrette. He is one of my favorite people. I wish I could have been at the Gathering. I couldn’t make it work (with my schedule or my wallet); I’m hoping to plan ahead to make sure I can make the next one.

    Makeesha. You’re probably right. But I think the playing field is a little different for those of us who are coming of age in an emerging world than it was for our parents. I’m 31. In the past 10 years, I’ve emerged as an adult, a church leader, and a thinker in a climate where I had the conceptual freedom to imagine a different church and do theology in context. That means that all of my coming-of-age angst poured into what I created. The same can be said for many of us in this conversation.

    In the past, angsty youngsters didn’t have much freedom to create a third way. It was largely a choice of embrace the Church or leave the Church. Of course, I’m generalizing here…but I think there is a nugget of truth here.

    What does this mean? It means that our coming of age has projected itself into a theological/ecclesial/political/philosophical movement in a way that is somewhat unique. Postmodernity has softened the playing field enough for us to reshape it with our own struggles. This is an amazing–yet somewhat dangerous–thing. We need to be careful what world we create.

    Every world that has been passed onto children was shaped by their parents. And yet…I wonder if we’ve been given a disproportionate role in shaping the world for our children. We need to be careful that we don’t destroy all of the best parts of the world we inherited. Nor do we want to create a world where others don’t have a place.

  16. Makeesha Fisher on October 15th, 2007 1:02 pm

    I also think you might be experiencing people who are finally free to be who they really are instead of towing the party line. I personally was a hard core conservative republican but when freed from that world, found that I actually didn’t believe a lot of that stuff - I just didn’t know there was any other way. I’m now registered democrat but I certainly don’t think tat dems or repubs are “God’s Party”. I’m registered with a party so I can vote in the primaries . Perhaps some of what you’re observing isn’t as it seems at face value.

    Be that as it may, your points are valid and good reminders.

  17. Makeesha Fisher on October 15th, 2007 1:06 pm

    Every world that has been passed onto children was shaped by their parents. And yet…I wonder if we’ve been given a disproportionate role in shaping the world for our children. We need to be careful that we don’t destroy all of the best parts of the world we inherited. Nor do we want to create a world where others don’t have a place.

    I agree with this. It’s a wise caution. I guess I just don’t see your concern manifesting much in my actual encounters with emerging leaders and I guess I feel a little defensive about that - but that’s my problem not yours hehe.

  18. Shawn on October 15th, 2007 2:23 pm

    I like the summary– makes me want to read the book for sure. Love the pendulum swinging comment too! Funny….

  19. Mark Van Steenwyk on October 15th, 2007 2:51 pm

    I should be clear…my critique isn’t just for the leaders of the movement.

    Thanks Shawn.

  20. Makeesha Fisher on October 15th, 2007 3:41 pm

    I understood that Mark :)
    I have a question about your comment about conferences. Soulerize isn’t Emergent Village neither is Off the Map - those are 2 biggies I’ve seen advertised around the same time as the Gathering. As far as I know, Emergent only has 1 annual national Gathering that is dirt cheap and has no speakers and then a couple of regional conferences that headed up by the cohorts. What would the end result look like for you to cut back?

  21. Mike Clawson on October 15th, 2007 3:45 pm

    #1 - If we wake up and find ourselves not Republicans anymore, it’s not necessarily because we’re just pissed off and swinging to the other side of the pendulum out of spite. Like Mak said, some of us are just realizing that we don’t really agree with the Republicans like we were told we had to, and just never had the freedom to admit this before. And for many of us it’s been a long and arduous process of weighing and wrestling and thinking through all of our opinions to get where we are now. If we seem more “liberal” than we were before, let’s not assume that this long and difficult process was merely reactionary. It might just be that we actually happen to agree with more liberal positions.

    #2 - Despite Scot McKnight’s opinion, I don’t actually encounter very many Democrats in the emerging church. I encounter many social progressives, even “liberals”, but that’s not quite the same thing. Most emergents I know would probably still say that they don’t put their hope in any one particular party, and would probably agree more with those Sojo bumper stickers that read “God is not a Democrat or a Republican”. Personally I tend to say that the Democrats aren’t liberal enough for me.

  22. Makeesha Fisher on October 15th, 2007 3:47 pm

    I also wanted to comment on your “evangelical” statement. Many people aren’t trying to be snotty, they actually are intentionally distancing themselves from evangelicalism because they no longer identify as such. I’m not sure it’s fair to say they’re being snotty or that anyone is a prick because they don’t like the label anymore. Should we hold on to the term? I guess. I actually never really thought of myself as an evangelical because I never knew what the term meant in the first place. I take issue with your “family” comparison because I think it’s better for us to identify as followers of Christ even when other followers of Christ are acting like jack asses. “evangelical” is a label created by man and I don’t really hold it up as holy

  23. Mike Clawson on October 15th, 2007 3:49 pm

    Not to mention that Soularize really isn’t that “grandiose”. Last I heard they’re probably not going to have any more people there than we had at our Midwest Gathering… and their reason for doing it in the Bahamas was to make it more accessible to internationals - i.e. the whole diversity thing you were just talking about.

  24. Mark Van Steenwyk on October 15th, 2007 3:53 pm

    Makeesha…I’ve fallen prey to the sort of thinking that makes me grumpy. I’ve confused Emergent as a formal organization with the emerging church. I should have been more clear. Part of my confusion stems from the blurry lines there. I think the Gathering is exactly what it should be.

    The reason I addressed this post to Emergent is because the broader emerging church conversation is impossible to define and I wanted to focus the beam of my critique to those people who I know best from the blogosphere and in real life. I apologize.

    Mike…points taken. Keep in mind that I’m a Christian Anarchist. Sometimes that muddies the waters. I’m simply convinced that a religious Left is about as misguided as a religious Right. And I can’t help but feel that the mistakes of the religious right have pushed many farther to the left than they otherwise would have gone. Of course many have made honest pilgrimages from right to left (and vice versa I suppose).

  25. Mike Clawson on October 15th, 2007 3:54 pm

    I also kind of think the term “evangelical” has been spoiled for us by Bush and the extreme Religious Right. In the mind of the average post-Christian person these days “evangelical” is synonymous with these kind of politics. Even if I still personally agreed with evangelical theology I wouldn’t want to own the label because of these connotations it has taken on in the broader culture.

  26. Mark Van Steenwyk on October 15th, 2007 3:55 pm

    FYI…I think this post captures my skepticism about Sojo nicely.

  27. Mike Clawson on October 15th, 2007 3:57 pm

    Anyhow, sorry for nit-picking Mark. I still appreciate your critiques even if I have my issues with a few of them. :)

  28. Mark Van Steenwyk on October 15th, 2007 3:59 pm

    Makes sense. The word “evangelical” is certainly messy. I’ve gone back and forth on whether or not to use it. By they way…not to be overly philosophical, but every word is man made. I understand that distancing from “evangelical” is a valid thing to do. I guess my point is that we should always be loving as we do the distancing. My in laws are evangelicals. I love them and ever want to say anything that would be condescending towards them. Of course, I have been condescending a lot in my life. It is a tendency I want to avoid in the future.

  29. Makeesha Fisher on October 15th, 2007 4:28 pm

    I absolutely think you’re spot on with a lot of your overarching critiques Mark. Of course, I think a lot of what you’re saying is important to keep in mind as Christians, even as decent human beings, not just emerging ones. We are as prone to behaving as flawed humans as anyone and we would be wise to encourage one another to rise above to a higher calling - the call of Christ to be loving and generous and gracious with all we come in contact with…especially our “enemies” (real or perceived)

    There is certainly a tendency in these situations to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, and in so doing manifest condescension and patronization…and that’s certainly something we need to be aware of.

    I’m really just trying to engage you in your critique because as a leader, the nitty gritty of these issues is very relevant to me and just like I can’t blindly accept a movement, I also can’t just blindly accept the critiques of said movement, even when they are from “within”

  30. Mark Van Steenwyk on October 15th, 2007 4:41 pm

    I wouldn’t have it any other way. :)

  31. Michael W. Kruse on October 15th, 2007 6:48 pm

    I just discovered this post of yours. Not sure how I missed it but two weeks late I wanted to say thanks. You capture much of my frustration trying to interact with Emergent and I think you’ve offered some very sound correctives.

  32. Jake T on October 19th, 2007 2:14 am

    Well said. All around.

  33. Tim Atwater on October 24th, 2007 2:07 pm

    hi Mark and all,
    This is late but i am just getting to read old Emergent Village emails that i’ve meant to read. I like your mix of clicks from home page, and maybe you were/are part of the Jesus Radicals page, where i downloaded several Ellul books. if so, thanks very much!

    Overall, I think this is one of the most on-target and sympathetic critiques–fairly caveated–probably none of this applies fully to anyone, probably some of it applies to all or nearly all of us. I too have done all these things myself in some form. And if we don’t do good self-critiquing, it will be harder to hear and sort out the more scattershot critiques…

    On the price end of the emergent- economics–
    the Emergent Village type budget gatherings seem very appropriate. The high end ones seem to counter the message of this being authentically Jesus-following and merit comment, even if we aren’t involved, if it’s looking like emergent to some, we should probably be partly responsible? no or yes? if this is an experiment in shared leadership and decision making, i think so….
    I would put Brian McLaren’s latest tour (advertized at something like $80/person) in this category of too expensive and sending the wrong message for a movement purporting to be an alternative to market force free market evangelistic business as usual.
    I would also include the (to my mind, sometimes obsessive) focus on high tech communications in general — all those websites with downloadable videos and mp3 and streaming stuff is inaccessible to those of us on dial-up… and surely escalates the already huge dollar-based-digital-divide. (I worked for Jubilee USA and we’ve spent a lot of time trying to right relationships with our Global South colleagues who (i believe very properly) felt dissed by the Jubilee 2000 (UK) adventure, — which by their own admission, left those without easy email access behind in the dialogue and without much voice or vote in decision making.

    I posted on this once or twice at the Emergent Village site and got no feedback, and more recently i’ve posted probably too timidly along these lines at Jesus Creed… Anyway — I am glad someone else is also calling the movement on this.

    And thanks all, for the good discussion, with good vibes.


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