Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Scot McKnight's "What Is the Emerging Church?" 1

I've discussed before my gratitude to Scot McKnight for presenting the emerging movement in a way that is comprehensible to those who are just discovering and learning about it. On October 26, 2006, Scot spoke at Westminster Theological Seminary on the topic, "What is the Emerging Church?" The full text of Scot's talk is available at the Sacred Journey blog in PDF format for easy download and printing. I really recommend anyone interested in the emerging movement to check it out: it is highly readable, written with humor and grace, and appears to get to the heart of the component aspects of the emerging movement in a way that both makes sense and is very challenging.

I'm going to do Dr. McKnight an injustice now and summarize his summary, which I'm sure he already considered shorter and less nuanced than he would have liked. My hope is not to replace his work with a condensed version, but to give people a taste in hopes that they will check out the whole thing.

Scot makes a plea to allow people from within the emerging movement define themselves, rather than be defined by outsiders. This is a reasonable request, although my experience has been that most people from within that movement have a strong resistance to defining themselves, leaving the rest of us to our own devices in trying to get a handle on them. There's a bit of a private lingo going on (similar, I'd say, to the churchspeak that many emerging types find so exclusive among traditional evangelicals), and a sense that, "If you don't get it, you're simply not one of the 'in' crowd." Hence my gratitude to Dr. McKnight, once again, for being willing to bridge the gap and communicate to those of us who really want to know.

McKnight's Response to Carson's Response to Emerging

Scot's plea for the movement to be allowed to describe itself is proffered in response to D. A. Carson's Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, the best-known critique of the movement. Scot argues that Carson boils the emerging movement largely down to Brian McLaren and postmodern epistemology. Although Carson recognizes the nuances that distinguish "hard" and "soft" postmodernism, he doesn't apply these nuances to the differing currents within the emerging movement. Essentially, Carson equates emerging with postmodern epistemology, postmodern epistemology with a denial of truth, and then discusses at length what the Bible has to say about truth--which of course amounts to a categorical rejection of emerging. By contrast, Scot argues that in two years of close conversations with and prodding questions of leaders in the emerging movement, he has "never once heard any of them deny the truthfulness of the gospel or deny that there is truth in a hard postmodernist way" (the above-referenced pdf document, page 3; hereafter, "McKnight 3").

Far from being a theological movement based on a denial of truth, Dr. McKnight argues that emerging is an ecclesiological movement--an attempt to think about and "do" church in a different way. He recommends the book, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures by Gibbs and Bolger, as an introduction and analysis of the movement from within, and which defines the emerging movement in this way:
Emerging churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures. This definition encompasses the nine practices. Emerging churches (1) identify with the life of Jesus, (2) transform the secular realm, and (3) live highly communal lives. Because of these three activities, they (4) welcome the stranger, (5) serve with generosity, (6) participate as producers, (7) create as created beings, (8) lead as a body, and (9) take part in spiritual activities. (Quoted in McKnight 7; italics in original.)

So emerging tends to look at itself based on what it is doing, as opposed to defining itself based on a particular theological position. It's also important to note that the emerging movement is broader and more diverse than Emergent, which properly refers to Emergent Village, a website and clearinghouse for a subset of emerging leaders who officially associate themselves with it.

Lake Emerging

In the heart of his address, Scot describes the emerging movement as "Lake Emerging," into which are flowing four rivers: postmodern, praxis, postevangelical, and politics. Various emerging types favor one or more of these rivers more than others; some are just dipping a toe into one or two, while others are paddling about in the middle of the lake itself. So even a description of these four won't completely describe every emerging person, but it will at least give a description of the various aspects of the movement.

River Postmodern may be the most controversial of the four, as well as the most difficult to pin down. While the flat denial of truth embraced by the harder postmodern philosophers is simply incompatable with Christianity, some aspects of postmodern thought are proving congenial to some Christians. In essence, the postmodern perspective simply recognizes that all individuals exist within a place, time, and culture, that to some extent defines what appears reasonable to them; getting outside the cultural circumstances of one's existence is impossible, so a body of objective, universal knowledge (e.g., a definitive systematic theology) is impossible to construct.

Scot distinguishes between three different types of "postmoderns" represented by the emerging movement. There are those who minister to postmoderns--i.e., viewing postmodernity as a part of the contemporary human condition that Christians need to reach into in order to rescue others from it. There are those who minister with postmoderns--i.e., they accept postmodernity as an inevitable fact of life in contemporary society, and so therefore that is the "world" in which we now are called to live out the Gospel. This would, in a sense, be a "seeker sensitive" model: adapting to the world in order to reach it. Most emerging Christians and churches, according to Dr. McKnight, fit into these two categories. The third kind are those who minister as postmoderns. What this means is not that they categorically deny truth, but they will say that only God Himself is Absolute Truth, and that truth can be experienced and lived out, but not known as a logical chain of propositions. Trying to pin God down in language and claiming that that language is the truth is called by some "linguistic idolotry" (LeRon Shults, quoted in McKnight 14).

Next up: the Praxis, Postevangelical, and Politics rivers

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