The Emerging Church: Evangelical or Post-Evangelical Pioneer?

Andrew Tooley

The word “evangelicalism” for a variety of reasons, brings on a mild to severe twitch for some participants within the Emerging Church, and has led to the suggestion that their own change in convictions and attitudes can no longer fall under the evangelical umbrella. They are, as some voices express, post-evangelical. This essay is a consideration of whether the defining convictions and attitudes of the Emerging Church can be viewed as falling under the evangelical umbrella.

The Protestant Evangelical Heritage: The Beauty of It All

The origins of the evangelical movement are not widely known. In fact, the movement did not begin in the 20th century. Evangelicalism arose, and gained popularity as a descriptive term, during the 18th-century revivals (Great Awakenings) of Europe and colonial North America. It is an interdenominational and diverse movement that can be characterized by four descriptive qualities that have persisted since the movement’s inception in the eighteenth century: biblicism, a focus on Scripture and its sufficiency in all matters regarding faith and practice; crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross; conversionism, an emphasis on the fact that lives need to be changed; and activism, the belief that the gospel must be expressed in effort.

The first three qualities reflect a great deal of continuity with the Protestant Reformers. The fourth characteristic, however, is uniquely evangelical and brings a new emphasis on mission, understood as preaching the gospel combined with social work, which had not been seen prior to the eighteenth century. This emphasis, for example, can be seen in the lives of the Wesleys, J. Edwards, G. Whitefield, W. Wilberforce, Lord Shaftesbury, C. Finney, C. Spurgeon, and D. Moody, all of whom were driven by a strong missionary zeal. Hundreds of missionary societies have been created by evangelicals, and evangelistic work was intimately associated with social concern throughout the history of Evangelicalism. When walking around London, Wesley would often give money to the poor and provided many with food and clothing. In the 19th century, Lord Shaftesbury led campaigns for the victims of urban/industrial society in Britain, offering free education, food, and clothing to destitute children. Moody likewise tended the poor while promoting holiness and missions throughout Britain and America in the nineteenth century.

Evangelicals also engaged with art and music, even embracing many of the ideals of the Romantic movement in the nineteenth century. Romantics, deeply fascinated with the past, marveled at the intricacies of nature and delighted in the imagination, attempting to escape the Enlightenment’s tight framework of rational thought by asserting the importance of feelings and experience. Members of the Holiness movement in America and participants of the Keswick Convention of 1875 in England, for instance, stressed the necessity of religious experience and employed romantic language in their religious conversations and sermons. Evangelicalism, rising out of the eigh18th-century revivals and persisting to the present day, then, can be seen as a broad, diverse and evolving movement.

The Protestant Evangelical Heritage: The Difficulties

The diversity within Evangelicalism has not been an easy ball to juggle for some within the tradition. Wesley and Whitefield were often at odds over ideas relating to faith and practice. Nineteenth-century New England Calvinists were not fond of Finney’s “inconsistent Calvinism” or the Arminian tendencies present in some Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches. New missionary methods, strategies, and emphases of doctrine, not to mention differing views over race and war, created divisions. Many deeply lamented these divisions, while others stressed their necessity. At the turn of the 20th century an ultra-conservative wing of Evangelicalism arose in opposition to theological liberals, those who favored “modernizing” Christianity by adopting the intellectual currents of the day, which, in many cases, led to a denial of all things supernatural in Scripture, such as the virgin birth and divinity of Christ. Between 1910 and 1915 this wing produced several essays entitled The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth and came to be known as the “fundamentalists” after their adherence to what they believed were the fundamentals of the Christian faith.

In a positive way, theological liberals sought to exhibit a certain generosity to, and charitableness toward, divergent opinions, along with a desire for intellectual liberty. In perhaps a more negative way, they desired to free religion from creedal bondage, to allow humankind’s “natural” reason and morality to express itself. The decades that followed witnessed fierce battles over who would control the denominations and wider culture. The divergent paths of the fundamentalists and liberals can be attributed to their readings of two greatest commandments mentioned in Mark’s Gospel: (1) Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind; and, (2) Love your neighbor as yourself. It is said that the fundamentalists chose the former, while the liberals chose the latter, resulting in a withdrawal from culture by fundamentalists and a withdrawal from orthodoxy by the liberals. The fundamentalists, then, failing in their efforts to influence popular culture, became increasingly separatist. Engaging culture or conversing with Christians who were deemed unorthodox became taboo in fundamentalist circles. The fear of infection by association pervaded fundamentalist thought; to be exposed to a wrong idea, or to engage in dialogue with it, was seen to be as good as embracing it. Those who were believed to be embracing these wrong ideas were therefore vilified. It should be noted that Evangelicalism does not equal Fundamentalism, although fundamentalists do fall under the evangelical umbrella.

In the middle of the 20th century a group of scholars, called the neoevangelicals, sought a way out of religious Fundamentalism, advocating cooperation without compromise. Although remaining conservative in their convictions, the neoevangelicals, chief among them C. Henry, H. Ockenga, C. Fuller and B. Graham, sought to make Evangelicalism intellectually respectable. Their efforts were largely successful, spurring many evangelicals to gain degrees from top universities around the world and managing to penetrate mainstream society through their scholarship and political involvement. Because in subsequent decades many conservative evangelicals, such as J. Falwell and P. Robertson, tended to view the world in OT categories, envisioning America as the Promised Land opposed to Babylon, a battle over culture persisted and provided a rationale for the endurance of fundamentalist attitudes within Evangelicalism. The challenges presented to Evangelicalism over the centuries, especially at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, tended to harden evangelical convictions and attitudes which had formerly been more flexible.

The Emerging Church (in America) and Post-Evangelicalism

The Emerging Church (EC), hoping to amend the fundamentalist tendencies that emerged in conservative Christianity, is attempting to re-inject conservative Christianity with an element of fluidness and a winsome and irenic mood. They desire to remove, as much as possible, social, intellectual, and political barriers in order that the full and intoxicating aroma of Christianity might be free to permeate the air of religious inquiry. Although sometimes referred to as post-conservative, the EC does not equal Liberalism, though it does have much in common with Liberalism’s general attitude toward divergent opinion—a strong dose of generosity and charitability. Nor can it be limited to a generational movement or simply a change of worship style. In general terms, the EC, beginning in the mid-1990s, is comprised of a variety of religious-minded individuals who, as identified by a recent study by E. Gibbs and R. Bolger, possess a strong desire to identify with the life of Jesus, transform secular space, and commit themselves to a communal way of life, in which dialogue is favored over debate and experience over arguments for proof. The initial phase of the EC has been characterized by a sort of frustrated venting, when they have not displayed the charitability which we attributed to them above. They have, though, in recent years, moved increasingly away from this phase.

More specifically, the EC proposes a process of constructive theology whereby doctrinal revision stemming from careful, scripturally centered theological reflection is welcomed rather than looked upon with suspicion. EC members such as B. McLaren, T. Jones, J. Franke, and D. Pagitt have sought to employ the insights and critiques of postmodern theories in order to re-evaluate how Christians interpret the whole of Christian life. The EC believe this re-evaluation is necessary, given, they say, Evangelicalism’s love affair with the philosophical methods of modernity and its captivity to a Western version of the Christian faith, a Western version which appears to find more fulfillment through the consuming of products than it does through a relationship with Christ and his kingdom.

Insights the EC believes can be gained through engaging postmodern theories are: (1) one’s culture (education, learned behavior, social environment, ethnic makeup and age group) deeply colors a person’s interpretation of a text, in this case the Bible; (2) an interest in the margins, that is, an interest in those ideas or people who have been excluded or repressed; (3) a revealing of whose interest a particular theory or practice serves; and (4) a general criticism of the attitude of absolute certainty. These insights, the EC believes, can help Christians identify and purge those specific beliefs and practices that owe more to an accommodation to one’s culture than to the complexity, richness, and multi-faceted nature of Scripture. Rather than looking for one particular answer they wish to hold certain views in tension, believing that engaging a multiplicity of views (present in Scripture and different traditions) will ultimately strengthen one’s faith.

Viewing Christianity as a narrative-shaped experience rather than adherence to strict doctrinal terms is also a significant characteristic of the EC. This view has direct consequences for the EC’s understanding of conversion and evangelism, so that there is an emphasis upon belonging to a community before coming to believe. An individual is thus persuaded by the winsomeness of the gospel expressed through the actions of the community rather than by a rational argument. Whether one is actually converted (officially “in” the community) is something that cannot be absolutely known this side of heaven, they say.

With this brief overview of Evangelicalism and the Emerging Church the question remains, Is there room for the EC under the evangelical umbrella? The answer is no if the convictions and attitudes of Evangelicalism are conceived as being contained within a fixed framework with little room for alteration. The answer is yes if Evangelicalism is conceived as a kaleidoscope, in which the figure of the quadrilateral described above is expressed in various arrangements, patterns, and colors. It would appear, after a brief investigation into Evangelicalism and the EC in which our descriptive quadrilateral and the EC’s own desires are taken into account, that their beliefs and attitudes can be situated within the evangelical kaleidoscope. The EC can be seen, then, when compared with our hallmarks of Evangelicalism, as a fresh expression of Evangelicalism; a new conversation which seeks those influenced by postmodern philosophy as its dialogue partners. Its potential pitfalls, however, are the same faced by expressions of Christianity throughout the history of the faith, that by accepting the biblical imperative to engage in dialogue with the culture in which we are embedded, we allow our theology to become merely or mainly cultural. Like the rest of the church, they must constantly hold their own articulations up to the glowing light of Scripture and develop a thorough understanding of Christian history.

Posted Nov 01, 2007