Thursday, November 16, 2006

Scot McKnight's "What Is the Emerging Church?" 2

This is the second part of a series summarizing and reflecting on Scot McKnight's "What is the Emerging Church?", a talk given at Westminster Theological Seminary on October 26, 2006. The first part is available here.

At this point of the talk, Dr. McKnight is using Lake Emerging as a metaphor for discussing the emerging movement, with four rivers flowing into it: Postmodernism, Praxis, Postevangelicalism, and Politics.

The second river Dr. McKnight discusses as flowing into Lake Emerging is that of praxis. Emerging types are more interested in what believers do than the minutia of what they believe. Orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy (living right as opposed to believing right) is what is focused on, largely because no two theologians have perfectly agreed on every point of doctrine, and Jesus didn't call us to a doctrinal position but to a way of life. The emerging movement is focused on "living the way of Jesus." Scot makes clear at this point that emerging leaders don't think that our relationship to God is established by what we do, or that it doesn't matter what we believe; they simply see how we live as being more important, on balance, than has been regarded previously.

Another current in the praxis river involves worship. Those in the emerging movement are interested in exploring different ways of worship, and recognizing that aesthetics matters in how one experiences God. They regard praxis as influencing theology, as well as the reverse, and wonder if the very layout of the places in which we worship influences the content of that worship and what we believe about God and His people. A third current is that of social justice. The emerging movement places great emphasis on justice, defined largely as eradication (or at least ameleoration) of poverty, racism, and social inequality. The main issue is engagement and involvement with the world: Christians are not to remove themselves from the world and hope for the return of Christ, but rather work for justice in the here and now.

What Scot regards as the heart of the praxis river is the missional element. This might best be described as being involved in God's redemptive work in the world. Whereas Evangelicalism was concerned with reaching people in the world and drawing them out of it and into the church, the emerging movement is concerned with the church itself moving into the world and participating in God's redemption of it. This involves more than just the spiritual aspect of people getting saved; it involves the whole person--physical, emotional, social, as well as spiritual.

The Post-evangelical River

The emerging conversation is also something of a protest movemet against evangelicalism--not to say that it rejects evangelicalism in toto, but that it views itself as rejecting what it sees as some of evangelicalism's flaws and limitations and going beyond evangelicalism. The emerging movement regards evangelicalism as reflecting a "Bible study piety," concerned more with doctrinal precision and condemning those who disagree than it is with living out the command to love. The goal of the Christian life is not to master the Gospel, but to be mastered by it and to exhibit it by living it out.

For something of the same reason, the emerging movement is rather suspicious of systematic theology, at least in terms of trying to formulate a definitive statement of the Gospel. The definitive statement of the gospel should be the lives of its adherents, not a linguistic formulation. The emerging movement is also suspicious of the "in vs. out" mentality of Evangelicalism--they're less sure that we can know with any confidence who is truly in the family of God and who isn't. For this reason, they prefer to view everyone as in or moving into the family of God, and trust that showing God's love to them will continue to draw them in. Scot offers a warning at this point: the good news is not just to be lived out, but also to be proclaimed, and our efforts at "living missionally" still need to have as their goal the redemption of everyone possible through Christ.

The Political River

The final river flowing into Lake Emerging is political (this aspect is largely on the American scene). Although emerging leaders sometimes talk about a bipartisan or non-partisan political involvement, they are largely on the political left. This comes from the social justice element of the praxis river: emerging believers tend to believe that part of working toward social justice in the world is prodding the government to do the same. Essentially, the emerging movement rejects the dichotomy between evangelism (how conservative Evangelicals relate to the world) and the social gospel (how the mainline churches relate to the world), drawing both together in its missional emphasis.

It appears to me that this "political river" is really little more than an outgrowth of the social justice aspect of the praxis river; perhaps not best described as a "river" in its own right at all. Scot's division may be valuable, however, because I think a number of people who consider themselves emerging in the US are basically Evangelicals with liberal political sympathies.

This short blog series has been less concise than I would have hoped (it was intended as one post) , and also more of a simple synopsis as opposed to a synopsis and reflection. I would welcome two things: if any of my readers haven't read Scot's paper for themselves by this time, please do download and read it. And I would appreciate any responses you might have to these ideas--either corrections to my understanding of what Scot has presented, or your impressions on any aspect of the subject matter itself.


  1. Keith,

    Thank you for your briefing on McKnight's Emerging Church paper. I must confess, all of this is absolutely new to me and, consequently, hard to process.

    Moreover, I have the disadvantage of having read much of Carson's book, a sort of poisoning of the spring, I'd say. At any rate, I will download McKnight's paper and attempt to process it.

    Have a great weekend. With that, I am...


  2. Hi Peter--

    I'm not so sure that having read Carson's book is such a bad thing. I have great respect for Dr. Carson (looooove his "Exegetical Fallacies" and "Matthew" in The Expositor's Bible Commentary. So his perspective is valuable, even if Dr. McKnight points out that it is limited. Sometimes triangulation is the best way to understand an unfamiliar idea. ;-)