Last year, Rick Warren, a founder of the movement called the “Emergent Church,” hosted the first presidential forum between John McCain and Barack Obama. Held at Warren’s Saddleback Church in Southern California, the forum reflected the influence of this movement.
Understanding the movement is tricky. While historical Protestantism tends toward simplification, the “Emergent Church” resists definition.
Dan Kimball, one of the founders of the movement, is pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California. He is also author of the books Emerging Church and Emerging Worship. In an interview with CWR, he left the movement’s definition vague: “It may not be called ‘Emerging’ or ‘Emergent’ much longer as those terms seem to have run their course…. I am guessing in 10 years or less, you won’t hear the terminology like we do now. But again, the heart will definitely continue.”
Also confusing matters is that “Emerging” Christians see themselves as more traditional than those associated with “Emergent” churches. According to Eric Johnson, pastor of Word of Grace Church in Rohnert Park, California, “Emerging (Christianity) has a more orthodox understanding of faith and Scripture. The Emergents have moved away from the Scripture as final authority.”
An example of the Emergents’ looser interpretation of Scripture is Rob Bell’s redefinition of the virgin birth. In his book Sex God, the pastor of the Mars Hill megachurch in Detroit argues that the virgin birth means Mary was pregnant after having relations for the first time with St. Joseph.
Be it “Emergent” or “Emerging,” the movement is contradictory. Emergents scorn what they call “Christianese,” preferring doctrinal free-lancing. Jay Bakker, the son of the 1980s televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye, has vowed to perform same-sex unions at his Revolution Church in Southern California should they become legal.
“Coolness” is another mark of the Emergent movement. At Crosswalk Community Church (formerly First Baptist Church of Napa), the rock star Bono’s video message about AIDS in Africa has been used in place of the traditional sermon. Emergents often borrow from liberation theology, which contradicts their claim that they’re not political like traditional evangelicals. Rob Bell has a sermon series about battling “the Empire.” Pastor Andy Vom- Steeg of New Vintage Church in Santa Rosa says “Americans own 94 percent of the world’s wealth. I’m hitting hard on wealth.”
Casualness is also a mark of the Emergent movement. At New Vintage Church, a coffee shop is in the church lobby. During the beginning of one Sunday service, VomSteeg reminded newcomers they could use the cupholders in their movie theater-style seats. VomSteeg justifies this practice by saying, “Jesus uses hospitality, and makes people feel welcome. He was relaxed with sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes. The religious people were uptight. When people feel acceptance, they are able to change. They listen.”
A frequent refrain among Emergents is that “Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship with Jesus Christ.” They regard institutional authority as a barrier to spiritual intimacy with Jesus Christ.
The contradictions, coolness, and casualness of the Emergents ends, not surprisingly, in crudeness. Rob Bell of Mars Hill in Detroit uses a giant inflatable penis called “Wally the Wiener” for his anti-pornography crusade. Pastor Peter Shaw of Napa’s Crosswalk Community Church has called the Song of Songs “ancient porn.”
They justify crudeness on the grounds of accessibility. Says VomSteeg, “We want to be a church for people who don’t like church.”
Emergents are often called the “new evangelicals” because they portray themselves as more compassionate and environmentally conscious than mainstream evangelicals. But how long will this movement last? Kimball admits that the movement’s nature is ephemeral: “I believe the ‘emerging church’ conversation was critically needed in the evangelical world. Now it is moving beyond the issues that were raised and faults recognized, but now moving inward in a positive way.”
More a sign of confusion than contradiction, the Emergent movement presents itself as “true to the Gospel” even as its pastors say they are unsure of what the Gospel really means. Reacting to the usual critique of evangelicalism as rigid and judgmental, Emergents formulated a new evangelicalism in which language is constantly shifting, doctrine is murky, and the point of evangelism is unclear.
Previous reform movements evolved into denominations and institutions. But since the Emergent movement is postmodern in its attitudes, it is always in flux. For now, the Emergent movement is going strong, with a predominantly youthful following among the unchurched. In the past election, it showed its political muscle. The “new evangelicals” were responsible, in part, for Barack Obama’s presidential victory.
But Emergents are unlikely to last as a potent force. To use media critic Mark Crispin Miller’s phrase, they suffer from a “hipness unto death” that is bound to undo them.
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