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La-Z-Boy Religion: Assessing the Emerging Church

Gregory E. Reynolds

The title of this article is not meant to suggest that anyone in the emerging church is unwilling to work. Rather I use the furniture metaphor to denote the posture of the new movement: comfort is king. It may also refer to the lack of effort given to "homework," which tends to characterize the reclining position.

Emergent or emerging,[1] the flavor of this movement is familiar to all of us who drank deeply of the sixties counterculture. When I think of the emerging church I picture the photograph of an emerging church meeting from a past issue of Christianity Today in which a group of people are lounging in easy chairs, dressed predictably in blue jeans, no doubt sipping lattes and spring water—informality with a vengeance—listening to someone sharing from the Bible.

A recent PBS special on the influence of the new media on young people described a traditional classroom as a wasteland in the eyes of young people. This reminded me of the tremendous power of propaganda in a world saturated by mass media. In this editorial my goal is not an exhaustive assessment of the emergent church, but rather a broad, presuppositional evaluation in terms of mass media and propaganda. I will then suggest how these assumptions play out in the two areas of history and truth. Finally, I will suggest how we ought to consider approaching Christians in the emerging church.

Cultural Engagement or Cultural Absorption?

To understand what is going on in this movement we need to account for what Peter Berger calls the "sociology of knowledge."[2] Technological culture, and especially electronic mass media, create and cultivate an epistemology hostile to the very idea of truth.

The sociologist Peter Berger has made some helpful distinctions in seeking to defend the place of religion in sociology. In A Rumor of Angels he describes the church in the context of secularization as a "cognitive minority." Such a minority experiences "cognitive dissonance" as it encounters a general culture which does not share its assumptions about reality. The church either adjusts to the cognitive majority by revising its ideas or it defends itself against the general assumptions. The sociology of knowledge, which became familiar to the English speaking world as a discipline through the writing of Karl Mannheim in Germany in the 1920s, seeks to identify "plausibility structures" in terms of the "social networks and conversational fabrics" which reinforce ideas of what is credible and thereby legitimize them.[3]

It is my contention that, despite some awareness among the luminaries of the emerging church of the liabilities of mass media and the culture it is creating,[4] they have underestimated the degree to which their own theology and practice is being formed not by Scripture but by the plausibility structures of modernity. In rejecting the rationalism of Enlightenment modernity, they have mistakenly assumed that postmodern assumptions are immune to the overwhelming power of technological society. The influence of the electronic culture on the emerging church cannot be overestimated. I say "culture" rather than just "media" because those media have altered the cultural terrain so dramatically.

[French sociologist] Jacques Ellul "believes that throughout the West the secular religions are insinuating themselves into the Christian churches, or else they are absorbing Christianity into themselves."[5] In his treatise on propaganda Ellul asserts: "The psychological structures built by propaganda are not propitious to Christian beliefs." This faces the church with a dilemma: to ignore or make propaganda. If the church chooses not to use it, the mass media label the church as irrelevant. If the church uses propaganda it discovers that "people manipulated by propaganda become increasingly impervious to spiritual realities." Christianity becomes one among many myths, fitting into one of the categories created by propaganda, and "reduced to nothing more than an ideology. ... from the moment the church uses propaganda and uses it successfully, it becomes, unremittingly, a purely sociological organization," submitting "to the laws of efficiency in order to become a power in the world. ... At that moment it has chosen power above truth." Propaganda "is one of the most powerful factors of de-Christianization in the world through the psychological modifications that it effects, through the ideological morass with which it has flooded the consciousness of the masses, through the reduction of Christianity to the level of an ideology, through the never-ending temptation held out to the church—all this is the creation of a mental universe foreign to Christianity. And this de-Christianization through the effects of one instrument—propaganda—is much greater than through all the anti-Christian doctrines."[6] The church which fails to understand that the electronic media are doctrines with their own inherent messages and presuppositions, may be very successful in gathering large numbers, but will no longer be what it set out to be.[7]

This epistemic weakness shows up in the emerging philosophy of history, its use of history, and its understanding of truth in formulating its own views of theology, the church, worship, and the Christian life. I want, therefore, to look at two foundational problems with the emerging church.

The Problem of History

A major methodological problem for the emerging church is that its leaders are "post" everything, wishing studiously to take no cue from the past, or at least from an accurate understanding of the past. Everyone is behind them. They are cutting a path unencumbered by the thinking of the elders. Perhaps in the baby boom generation there are few elders worth following. But the hubris of this project of reframing everything and asserting the historical novelty of one's position is breathtaking. In his recent book Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope,[8] after appearing to be arguing for pacifism, Brian McLaren asserts:

The last sentences of the previous chapter were not setting you up for a call to ideological pacifism. I agree with the New Vision group: we need to move to a new dialogue beyond the old just-war and pacifist positions. So I would rather sidestep these polarizations entirely and instead call the adherents of both positions to a joint consideration of the addictive nature of war, an addiction we may already have but may be in denial about.[9]

We are not addicted to war so much as we are addicted to novelty—novelty that never seems to settle on a position, wanting always to mute historical distinctions. This is after all the nature of novelty—ever on the cutting edge of history. The "emergent conversation" majors on questions and conversation. "They like to say it's not about finding answers, it's about asking questions." [10]

However, what is emerging is not something brand spanking new at all. The impulse to get back to the purer form of things is ancient. While often giving the appearance of humility its fragrance is of the kind of historical conceit noted by C. S. Lewis when he referred to "chronological snobbery." Only this emerging sort has an added seasoning: using the perceived primitive forms as a rationale for discarding more recent wisdom.

As I have pointed out elsewhere, the line between modernism and postmodernism is not only blurred, but, when distinguished clearly, they have one fundamental premise in common: human autonomy.

If the essence of modernity is the quest for human autonomy then postmodernism is that in spades. Emerging church leaders act as if all definition and boundaries are the essence of modernity and its scientific rationalism. This conveniently avoids the fact that confessional orthodoxy has its roots in premodernity and not the Enlightenment. To confuse confessional orthodoxy's intellectual rigor (and its resultant impulse to systematize in rational categories based on revelation) with the rationalist assumption that reason is sufficient and rules as a final arbiter, is a dangerous gambit, sacrificing not a pawn, but a bishop.

Unlike the Enlightenment, Protestant orthodoxy never assigned reason a magisterial position in the theological enterprise. This mistaken identity between orthodoxy and the Enlightenment misses the essence of the Enlightenment project: human autonomy. As Cornelius Van Til has shown, rationalism and irrationalism are each manifestations of this fallen human tendency. Despite professing an interest in church history, the weakness of that endeavor thus far betrays a serious lack of engagement with the primary sources of Reformation and post-Reformation theology. The newer historical approach of Heiko Oberman, David Steinmetz, and Richard Muller provides a healthy correction to the pejorative take on Protestant orthodoxy so common in much of the twentieth century.[11] Emerging church theologians and historians are thus guilty of an ironic anachronism. While seeking to be on the cutting edge spiritually, they are behind the times historically. However, it is clear that the negative assessment of Protestant orthodoxy suits the purposes of a purportedly more authentic agenda. Sadly, such a posture undermines the authenticity of the enterprise itself and at a most foundational level.

If a conversation is to be fruitful, then all major relevant conversation partners of the past and present should be summoned. By not inviting Protestant orthodoxy to the table, the emerging church is in essence talking about its future without including its parents in the discussion. Perhaps in the case of evangelicalism it is the grandparents whom the children never met who are not being consulted, having died before the children were born. The legacy of the Reformation has been forgotten.

The Problem of Truth

We should love a generous orthodoxy. Sadly, however, what Bruce McLaren offers under that title—as generous as it may be—does not deliver orthodoxy. Generosity smothers orthodoxy like too much seasoning in a gourmet recipe.

The trendy lingo is sometimes very annoying, but more importantly it indicates an addiction to novelty. Cooler than thou, and too hip by half, the approach to truth reminds me of the Greek god Proteus, defined by the dictionary as "a minor sea god who had the power of prophecy but who would assume different shapes to avoid answering questions."[12]

One of the cool catchwords used repeatedly by the emerging savants is "conversation." This is an ordinarily healthy concept, especially when talking about intellectual and spiritual discovery. But the emerging concept of conversation suggests, in light of other tendencies of the movement, a hesitation to come to any certainties—perhaps the polar opposite of the fundamentalist mentality that eschews conversation. While Fundamentalism seems intimidated by conversation and discovery, the emerging church seems intimidated by coming to many conclusions. I suppose that the understandable reaction to being too certain is being uncomfortable with all certainty. As G. K. Chesterton once quipped (something like), "It's nice to have an open mind as long as one eventually finds something to close it on." But on important ethical and theological issues, the emerging leaders seem incapable of decisive assertions. Brian McLaren exemplifies this when he says,

Frankly, many of us don't know what we should think about homosexuality. We've heard all sides, but no position has yet won our confidence so that we can say "it seems good to the Holy Spirit and us." That alienates us from both the liberals and conservatives who seem to know exactly what we should think. Even if we are convinced that all homosexual behavior is always sinful, we still want to treat gay and lesbian people with more dignity, gentleness, and respect than our colleagues do. If we think that there may actually be a legitimate context for some homosexual relationships, we know that the biblical arguments are nuanced and multilayered, and the pastoral ramifications are staggeringly complex. We aren't sure if or where lines are to be drawn, nor do we know how to enforce with fairness whatever lines are drawn. … Being "right" isn't enough. We also need to be wise. And loving. And patient.[13]

Theologically "McLaren is saying the focus of Jesus, the focus of the Bible is on life in the world as we live it here and now rather than heaven, whereas the evangelical gospel has often been, 'Jesus came to earth to die for my sins so I can go to heaven.' "[14]

Sounding painfully like the Liberalism against which Machen fought, the emergents have in principle jettisoned the very cautionary tales they need to hear. "They are worried about how many lines of creeds we have to affirm because they believe that genuine Christian spirituality is action and life and community and performance and embodiment rather than simply the affirmation of certain doctrines."[15] MacLaren's recent book Everything Must Change signals a this-worldly agenda that is not at all new. Trying to clean up the world is as old as Adam's fig leaves. "Christianity is a life not a doctrine." This was one of the shibboleths of the Protestant liberalism of the early twentieth century. Emerging theologians "frequently express nervousness about propositional truth."[16] Scot McKnight quotes Bethel Theological Seminary professor LeRon Shults: "the struggle to capture God in our finite propositional structures is nothing short of linguistic idolatry."[17] Suspicion of systematic theology does not come as a surprise in this epistemological milieu.[18] McLaren's appreciation of Walter Rauschenbusch and his social gospel is also telling in this regard. Rauschenbusch is supposedly the hero who united personal faith with social concern.[19] While not seeking the relevance in the same way as the megachurch, this emerging mentality makes the same fundamental mistake by choosing to emphasize immanence of God working in his church at the expense of the vertical heavenly reality which is the focus of biblical faith.

Instead of mining the whole Bible, "the emergent conversation says we begin with Jesus, and everything else is secondary to what Jesus says in his vision for the kingdom."[20] Is this red-letter naïveté or a redemptive-historical hermeneutic rooted in the Emmaus road?

By diminishing its own doctrine of scriptural authority, the emerging movement would seem to be falling into the same tendency as that of Enlightenment autonomy. For example, in their Christianity Today interview, Rob and Kristen Bell reflect a change in their view of the Bible:

The Bells started questioning their assumptions about the Bible itself—"discovering the Bible as a human product," as Rob puts it, rather than the product of divine fiat. "The Bible is still in the center for us," Rob says, "but it's a different kind of center. We want to embrace mystery, rather than conquer it."

"I grew up thinking that we've figured out the Bible," Kristen says, "that we knew what it means. Now I have no idea what most of it means. And yet I feel like life is big again—like life used to be black and white, and now it's in color."[21]

Truth is muffled by the electronic environment. It appears to be a casualty in the emerging church's quest for authenticity. How are we to respond?

We Had Better Understand What Is Emerging

Appreciate Legitimate Concerns

Jeffrey Jue points out three major areas in which the emerging church has legitimate concerns to which the Reformed tradition has substantial biblical responses. Drawing from emerging thinker Spencer Burke, Jue identifies three such concerns under the heading "The Reformation Meets Postmodernity": 1) "Spiritual McCarthyism." This is the anti-intellectual authoritarianism characterized by Fundamentalism. 2) "Spiritual isolationism." This is the cultural separatism that emphasizes individual salvation as the sum of the Christian life. 3) "Spiritual Darwinism." Here he has in mind the marketing approach of the Church Growth movement.[22] In each of these areas the Reformed tradition shares the concerns and has substantial biblical responses.

This reminds us that the perceived problems are more an emerging church assessment of the mixed bag of broad evangelicalism—their parents—than the Reformed church at its best—the grandparents they never knew. The Wheaton-Fuller educated Bells are a case in point. I was converted during the era—not ancient history mind you—of the Jesus People. For all the weakness—and in many cases waywardness—of our alternatives, at least some of our critique was trenchant. The kind of liberation the emergent church seems to be eagerly seeking is from a very similar kind of Christianity that the Jesus People of my generation found uncomfortable. But the answers to some of these concerns—and I do not mean just simple answers to simple questions—may be found in the fullness of a truly catholic (with a lowercase "c") orthodoxy, to which I suspect few emerging church people have been seriously exposed.

In reading several editorials by Brian McLaren in Leadership[23] it is clear that many of his concerns for things like nuanced thinking instead of pat answers, pastoral gentleness instead of wanting to be right, and an appreciation of the world God created as well as the culture in which we live—all of these concerns are familiar to the Reformed tradition. Thinking outside the box may be important, but those who have already done that thinking should at least be consulted. For example, the Reformed doctrine of common grace encourages enthusiastic appreciation of, and wise engagement in, God's world, including the culture over which he is sovereign. I should think that this doctrine would be liberating to McLaren.

Point Them Humbly to a Better Way

Inasmuch as those who are part of the emerging church are our brothers and sisters in Christ, we should not condescendingly condemn, but rather compassionately call them to a better way. We should appreciate the emerging sense that community is needed; a sense of mystery is healthy; facile answers and evangelical jargon should be avoided; and open conversation about the Lord, his church, and his Word should be encouraged. Emerging Christians are genuinely troubled about some of the enslaving tendencies of modernity. We share this unease with them, and should ourselves be exploring ways in which we can counter the worst aspects of our culture.

Look for yourself. Resist the tendency to be a second hand critic. The Ooze ("conversation for the journey") is a great place to sample the emerging sensibility.[24]

Two Antidotes


Sadly, the very institution which offers the most powerful means of withstanding modernity has so often capitulated both wittingly and unwittingly to some of the worst excesses of the whelming tide of modernity. The need for confessionalism is a way of asserting the need for an ecclesiastical counter-environment. This functions as a kind of spiritual antidote to the toxins of modernity.

The emerging church, with its Anabaptist affinities, is in many ways the polar opposite of the confessional churches of the Reformed tradition. Perhaps the Protean nature of the movement will cultivate a hunger for definition. However, Scot McKnight notes that "a trademark feature of the emerging movement is that we believe all theology will remain a conversation about the Truth who is God in Christ through the Spirit, and about God's story of redemption at work in the church."[25] The emerging church does not seem to have much tolerance for "cognitive dissonance," or being the "cognitive minority." So confessional orthodoxy, accentuating that dissonance as it does, will be a hard sell. In any case we must cultivate confessional consciousness as a central ingredient in our own biblical antidote to modernity.

Reverential Worship

In our tradition this means regulative-principle worship. Recently a visitor to our worship revealed that she had come from her contemporary-worshipping church to deal with the grief of recently losing a loved one. She said, "I need stained glass and structure." Pop culture is indisposed to even face, much less bring comfort in, grief. Although she probably never heard of the regulative principle of worship, she found comfort in the reverential structure and commensurate content of God-centered worship.[26]


Like the Jesus Movement, the emerging church as a phenomenon will pass. Andy Crouch observes that "the Jesus Movement, largely composed of converts, was generally unconcerned with theology. Emergent, whose leaders are evangelicalism's own sons and daughters, may yet contribute something more profound than one more fleeting form of cultural relevance."[27] This remains to be seen. From my view, the culture that the emergent church is imitating (consciously and subconsciously) will swallow it up unless its leaders are willing to recognize the toxic ingredients in some of their fundamental assumptions about Christianity; and challenge some of the fundamental assumptions—plausibility structures—of modern culture.


[1] "To prevent confusion a distinction needs to be made between 'emerging' and 'Emergent.' Emerging is the wider, informal, global, ecclesial (church-centered) focus of the movement, while Emergent is an official organization in the U.S. and the U.K. Emergent Village, the organization, is directed by Tony Jones, a Ph.D. student at Princeton Theological Seminary and a world traveler on behalf of all things Emergent and emerging. Other names connected with Emergent Village include Doug Pagitt, Chris Seay, Tim Keel, Karen Ward, Ivy Beckwith, Brian McLaren, and Mark Oestreicher. Emergent U.K is directed by Jason Clark. While Emergent is the intellectual and philosophical network of the emerging movement, it is a mistake to narrow all of the emerging to the Emergent Village." Scot McKnight, "Five Streams of the Emerging Church," Christianity Today (February 2007), 35–39.

[2] Peter L. Berger, A Rumor of Angels (Garden City, NY: Doubleday-Anchor, 1969).

[3] Gregory Edward Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 52.

[4] Some emerging thinkers like Shane Hipps and Brian McLaren show an articulate awareness of the culture-forming power of the electronic media. See Brian McLaren, "Virtual Virtue and Real Presence," Leadership Vol. 28, No.3 (Summer 2007), 110. Shane Hipps, The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, the Gospel, and Church, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005).

[5] Jacques Ellul, The New Demons, translated by C. Edward Hopkin (New York: Seabury Press, 1975), 209, noted in Herbert Schlossberg, Idols For Destruction: Christian Faith and Its Confrontation With American Society (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983), 258.

[6] Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes, translated by Konrad Kellen and Jean Lerner (New York: Vintage Books, 1965), 228-232.

[7] Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures, 297-298.

[8] Brian D. McLaren, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007).

[9] John Wilson, "Everything Hasn't Changed," a review of Brian McLaren's Everything Must Change in Christianity Today (January 2008), 59-60.

[10] Interview with Scot McKnight, religious studies professor at North Park University in Chicago. Religion and Ethics (July 15, 2005), © 2006 Educational Broadcasting Corporation.

[11] "What McLaren and other Emergent leaders and scholars have failed to do is carefully examine the historical sources as well as the writings of other historians who have contested the neo-orthodox historiography." Jeffrey Jue, "What's Emerging in the Church?" Reformation 21 (2006).

[12] Apple Dictionary 1.0.2 Copyright © 2005 Apple Computer, Inc.

[13] Brian McClaren, "More Important than Being Right?" Leadership Vol. 27, No. 1 (Winter 2006), 128.

[14] McLaren interview with Scot McKnight.

[15] McLaren interview with Scot McKnight.

[16] McKnight, "Five Streams of the Emerging Church," 37.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 38.

[19] David Evans, "Conversation about Walter Rauschenbusch," posted by Brian McLaren.

[20] McLaren interview with Scot McKnight.

[21] Andy Crouch, "The Emergent Mystique,"

[22] Jue, "What's Emerging in the Church?"

[23] E.g. "Practicing Faith, or Faithing Our Practices?" Leadership Vol. 27, No.3 (Summer 2006), 118.

[24] Spencer Burke is the luminary behind this site.

[25] McKnight, "Five Streams of the Emerging Church," 38.

[26] Cf. Reynolds, "The Compromise of the Church," in The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures, 300-305.

[27] Crouch, "The Emergent Mystique."

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