Scot McKnight on the Emerging Church
It seems the blogging world is agog over Scot McKnight’s lecture on the emerging church (available here). And rightly so, for a mighty good address it is. I have been asked by friends what my reaction has been to this movement, and for what it’s worth I place on record a few, passing thoughts.
Allowing for a certain excess in language – Stephen Board once criticized Malcolm Muggeridge for a similar fault, calling it “Mugghorea” – I think Scot is right about many things, not least in saying that the emerging church is “more an Anabaptist movement than anything else.” If so, would it not behoove us to study what the Anabaptists taught and believed and practiced? Scot is also correct, I think, in asking his readers to forego Carson and read Gibbs and Bolger instead (Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures, Baker, 2005). Why? The latter book lets the movement speak for itself. For myself, though not an emergent, I heartily concur with certain emphases in the movement such as every-member ministry, consensus leadership, and “serving others with liberality” (what an ear-delighting phrase!). As Scot notes, some emerging churches are foregoing “worship services.” (Agree. I think you will look in vain for the meeting of the church to be described as a worship service. Worship in the New Testament is 24/7.) They are questioning the need to meet in “sanctuaries.” (They are right: the church is people, not a building.) They ask, “Is it necessary to make a monologue the most important thing on Sunday morning?” Or, “What would happen if we got rid of the pulpit (which stands six feet above contradiction) and did our teaching on the same level as the people?” No wonder the emerging church is considered a threat to traditional evangelical ecclesiology. Anything more likely to raise the hackles of those who tout their inflated membership statistics and their majestic buildings and their oratorical prowess can scarcely be imagined.
One of the best parts of Scot’s talk is this quote, not from Scot himself but from Mark Twain, whom he delights to reference: “Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs one step at a time.” That is right, and wise, and I applaud such Realpolitik. We need God at every hand and in everything, and we cannot push our agenda – any agenda – upon our congregations. I must say that in reading Scot I was struck by his humility. (Confession: Scot and I once publicly debated Markan priority at an annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, but we got along splendidly.) How shrewd are the things he is saying, and how realistic and level-headed. It is not that Scot is not a “Bible-believing evangelical” (my terms, not his). But Scot has moved beyond traditional evangelicalism (the Gospel, he reminds us, is “more than Jesus coming to die for my sins so I can get to heaven” – ouch!) to embrace the centrality of what he calls the “Jesus Creed” – that we are to love God and love others. The goal, as he puts it, is not so much to master the Bible but to be mastered by it – or, as I like to tell my students, the Bible was not given for our information but for our transformation – every word, everywhere (verbal-plenary inspiration). Thus, even as we confess and uphold (and, in my opinion, we should confess and uphold) biblical inspiration as taught in 2 Tim. 3:16, we cannot forget the implications of that great doctrine as expressed in the very next verse: that all of us – not just the “professional class of clergy” (whatever that is) – might be “equipped for every good work.” Personally, I am convinced that conservative theology can and must be wedded to social justice. At any rate, in my mind it is certainly not an either-or issue, as Becky and I are discovering in our twice-yearly ministry trips to Ethiopia. Why, then, should we limp along on one leg when the Lord has given us two?
Shallow (or non-existent) evangelism – is that, then, the Achilles Heel of emerging Christianity? Scot seems to think so; and in view of the fact that evangelism is not the task of ordained ministers alone but the responsibility of us all, I have no doubt that emergers fall short of the ideal. But what group of Christians doesn’t? Evangelism is simply the outworking of the Spirit of God in the heart of the believer and cannot be taught, much less coerced. If you feel that the emerging church is lackadaisical about witnessing, there is, I suppose, just as much justification for pointing an accusing finger at any group of evangelicals. It is when we cannot keep quiet about the Savior, it is when we are so full of the Holy Spirit that when we are bumped into, it is not anger or irritation that spills out but the words of transforming love – it is then that we become true witnesses. The biblical call to lifestyle evangelism is not something I have always obeyed. But I do now, and I hope to go on plumbing its depths in the years ahead.
In short, many attempts have been made to “define” the emerging church, and it seems to me that Scot has summed up his position as well as any. Jesus announced the imminent transformation of the material world into the world of the kingdom of God. He exhorted His followers to seek that perfection that would enable them to enjoy a new existence in the new world. He preached the abandonment of the things of this world even as He penetrated the world with love and good deeds and the forgiveness of sin. To do good was the whole duty of man. His followers were allowed to be indifferent to worldly status, but not to their duty towards others, including the so-called “riff-raff” of society whether they be down-and-outers or up-and-outers. We enter into God’s way as we turn from lives rooted in self to lives rooted in Jesus.
The single most important thing I have learned from the emergers is a reemphasis: that Christian fellowship is a fellowship of ordinary human beings (cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education, notes Scot) working together for something much bigger than any of us, and that the way we ought to live – though none of us can do it perfectly – is to take no thought for anything but what God wants, and that is to love Him by serving others. Today Jesus is calling us to move from the sanctuary to the street. He calls us to be leaders by serving. He challenges some of our most cherished practices and destroys some of our most sacred prejudices. Jesus lived a life of greatness that comes not by grabbing but giving, not by saving but sharing, not by asserting self but denying self. And into that kind of life He is calling all of us, whether we belong to emerging Christianity or not.
Wherever we turn, then, in the debate over the emerging church, we cannot escape our complete and utter dependence upon the power and filling of the Holy Spirit. Without Him we can effect nothing.
November 3, 2006
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.