The previous two parts of this series made some observations that should be of great concern to those who consider themselves Bible-believing Christians. Paul warned that there would come a time when “sound doctrine” (2 Timothy:4:3,4) would give way to what “seemeth right unto a man” (Proverbs:14:12) in determining what is true. There will be apostate “teachers” who advance an experiential mode that panders to the lusts of the flesh, promoting self-serving “fables” or myths. Furthermore, these “deceitful workers” and lying “ministers of righteousness” (2 Corinthians:11:13,15) would draw upon the teachings of “seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils” (1 Timothy:4:1). Paul certainly had such teachers in mind as he warned the Ephesian elders that after his departing “grievous wolves” would enter among them and teach “perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20: 29,30). There is no doubt that these verses are being fulfilled in our day.
Although there are far too many examples of apostasy influencing the church today to cite in this brief series of articles, there is one spurious trend that encompasses nearly all of what the above verses address. It’s called the Emerging Church Movement (ECM). The ECM is a development among evangelicals that appears to have some worthwhile goals: 1) It professes to speak to today’s culture about the relevancy of Christianity and the value of the gospel of Jesus Christ; and 2) It desires to keep young evangelicals continuing in the faith. The movement involves a number of churches (mostly non-denominational), some supportive ministries and parachurch organizations, and the support of a number of prominent evangelical leaders and authors.
The ECM has no official organization or leadership, although some of its adherents have “emerged” as recognized leaders and spokesmen. For many of those helping to promote the movement, their motivation to “try something different” grew out of the frustration of their own very limited success in evangelizing and discipling young people. Some of the leaders were in seeker-sensitive and purpose-driven churches, and they saw firsthand that their church-growth marketing schemes were not effective for drawing those in their late teens, 20s, and early 30s. The main fare of most consumer-driven churches features contemporary music with shallow, repetitive choruses, topical 30-minutes-or-less sermons (mostly psychology-based), a host of social programs to attract the lost (and the fleshly nature of Christians), and “Bible studies” that address everything but the Bible (see “Consumer Christianity I & II”, TBC, 2/05 , 3/05 ). For a surprising number of young adults, that was a spiritual turnoff.
In his book The Emerging Church (with contributions and endorsement by Rick Warren), Dan Kimball relates his own breakthrough in overcoming the frustrating experiences in trying to motivate the young people in the evangelical church where he was youth pastor. He tells about watching a concert on the youth-oriented MTV network late one night that was a candlelit, all-acoustic performance. Recognizing that MTV certainly knows its audience and the youth culture, he refashioned his church’s youth room into a subdued, “catacombish,” candlelit environment and had the worship band use acoustic guitars, forgoing their usual flashing light show and loud electric music. He was delighted by the reaction of one usually unresponsive teen who said, “I like this. This was really spiritual.”
That was an epiphany for Kimball. As he expanded the service with what he considered more “authentic Christian” elements and liturgy, it attracted hundreds, young and old alike. He is convinced he’s found what the church of today needs: “As the emerging church returns to a rawer and more vintage form of Christianity, we may see explosive growth much like the early church did.”
On the contrary, the “explosive growth” in the early church came from an approach that is almost nonexistent in the ECM. Peter’s confrontational address to the crowd on Pentecost in Acts chapter 2 is directly at odds with the modus operandi of the emergent leaders. In the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter’s preaching brought conviction of sin, repentance, and belief; 3,000 came to Christ that day. Kimball’s “vintage form of Christianity,” featuring rituals, ceremony, candles, incense, prayer stations, and images to create a spiritually experiential atmosphere for evangelicals is “vintage” only in the sense that it is an imitation of the later unbiblical Eastern Orthodox and medieval Roman Catholic liturgies. The early New Testament church knew nothing of this idolatrous and sense-oriented worship.
Ironically, emergent churches around the world, in their attempt to “reconstruct” the church, are passing each other like ships in the night. Kimball’s efforts at spiritual stimulation by introducing to young evangelicals the liturgical bells and smells of Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, and high-church Episcopal and Presbyterian rituals, stands in contradiction to some European cathedrals and churches going emergent. Europeans are trying to revive their congregations, deadened by centuries of imagery and ritual, by covering their gothic interiors with decorated drapery, exchanging the organ and traditional hymns for electric guitars and contemporary choruses, and adding throw pillows for comfortable seating to create a seeker-friendly environment. These churches are abandoning the very things that are “spiritually” alluring to American emergent evangelicals. Regarding both sensual approaches, Scripture tells us, “the flesh profiteth nothing.”
In reading the works of the ECM leaders, we would agree with many of their criticisms of current Christianity. There is plenty to oppose as apostasy and the abandonment of the Word increases in Christendom. The ECM’s corrections, however, rather than having restorative value for the church, are just as contrary to the Scriptures. Even worse, they go far beyond subtly “weaning evangelicals off the Word” to rendering the Bible and its doctrines as the enemy when it comes to drawing the world in general and, specifically, our postmodern culture, to the love of Jesus.
The Emergent Church Movement claims to desire—above all things—to show the love and life of Christ to a culture that is distrustful of the Christianity it perceives as oppressive and absolutist. We’re assured by ECM writers that “numbers of postmoderns are attracted to Jesus but detest His church” and can therefore be reached by the emerging church approach. It professes to be more amenable to the culture, more viable in its practice of Christianity, and truer to what Jesus had in mind for His church on earth.
Admirable—but let’s see how true it is to the Scriptures. As Isaiah exhorted, “To the law and to the testimony [i.e., God’s Word]: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” Isaiah:8:20).
First of all, one has to wonder what a postmodern—a person characterized chiefly by his or her general disdain for authority and absolutes, particularly those dealing with moral issues and religion—thinks about this “Jesus” to whom he or she is supposedly drawn. The critical question is “Jesus who?” Is it the biblical Jesus they like, the one who declared absolutely, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father but by me” (John:14:6)? What about the authoritarian Jesus, who announced, “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love” (John:15:10)? His words weren’t referring only to the Ten Commandments but rather to every instruction He gave. Is that the Jesus a postmodern desires? What about the Jesus who gave mankind an ultimatum: “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him” (John:3:36)?
The biblical Jesus certainly does not accommodate postmodernism, which is one more example of humanity’s rebellion against its Creator. The good news is that Jesus offers deliverance from the delusion of postmodernism, as well as all the other man-centered isms: “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John:8:31,32). The bad news is that the emerging church approach attempts to accommodate Jesus and the Scriptures (actually “another Jesus” and a corrupted and emasculated Word) to our postmodern culture.
Although some regard the Emerging Church Movement as nothing more than a passing spiritual fad among young evangelicals, its potential for shipwrecking the faith of our next generation (should the Lord not yet return for His saints) is staggering. Here are just a few of the faith-destroying beliefs as espoused in the writings of the emergent leaders. First of all, foundational to the ECM is the subversion of the Bible. It’s akin to Satan’s scheme to destabilize Eve’s trust in what God commanded: “Yea, hath God said...?” (Genesis:3:1). They give lip service to the importance of God’s Word while undermining its inerrancy, authority, and sufficiency.
Rob Bell writes in Velvet Elvis, following 22 pages of weakening the authority of the Bible (making statements such as “It is possible to make the Bible say whatever we want it to, isn’t it?” and “With God being so massive and awe-inspiring and full of truth, why is his book capable of so much confusion?”): “[L]et’s make a group decision to drop once and for all the Bible-as-owner’s-manual metaphor [i.e., God’s specific instructions for mankind]. It’s terrible. It really is....We have to embrace the Bible as the wild, uncensored, passionate account it is of experiencing the living God.”1 No! “Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pt 1:21).
His view, common to most emergent writers, is that the key to the authority of Scripture is one’s interpretation, and that is most authoritative when the interpretation takes place in a community and validated by a “group decision”: “Community, community, community. Together with others, wrestling and searching and engaging the Bible as a group of people hungry to know God in order to follow God.”2
Although we find thousands of times throughout the Bible clear, direct, and absolute commands prefaced by phrases such as “Thus saith the Lord” and “The word of the Lord came to me,” we’re now told that understanding and obedience to what God said are subject to a community’s interpretation. Consequently, ECM churches disdain preaching and authoritative teaching, yet they delight in discussion, causing some to dump the pulpit in favor of a dialogue-led Starbucks environment. As the goals of the community change, we’re told the interpretation may also change.
The claim that the ECM approach has not jettisoned sound doctrine is either a delusion or an outright deception. This becomes clear when one asks for a biblical position on an issue. Kristen Bell acknowledges in a Christianity Today emerging church article, “I grew up thinking that we figured out the Bible...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.”3 Brian McLaren, the most prominent of the emergent leaders, echoes Bell’s “doctrine” of avoidance regarding what the Bible says about homosexuality:
Perhaps we need a five-year moratorium on making [doctrinal] pronouncements. In the meantime, we’ll practice prayerful Christian dialogue, listening respectfully, disagreeing agreeably. When decisions need to be made, they’ll be admittedly provisional. We’ll keep our ears attuned to scholars in biblical studies, theology, ethics, psychology, genetics, sociology, and related fields. Then in five years, if we have clarity, we’ll speak; if not, we’ll set another five years for ongoing reflection.4
TBC has received numerous letters from parents and evangelical pastors who find their young people seeking out emergent churches for the “new” experiences, which they offer in abundance: religious art (primarily impressionistic images of “Jesus”), “biblical” films, rituals based upon Catholic/Orthodox liturgy, community, personal relationships, contemplative spirituality and mysticism (some include yoga), Bible dialogues, ecumenical interaction with “people of faith,” a social gospel, plans to save the planet, restore the kingdom, and so forth.
Regarding the seductive nature of such things, few evangelicals, young or old, have a defense. Too many function as biblical illiterates, meaning they know some things about the Bible and are capable of reading it but simply haven’t made any effort, outside of following along with their pastor’s teaching on Sundays. They are the spiritual con man’s delight.
Satan’s seduction of Eve began subtly, “Yea hath God said?” It was a confusion tactic, setting her up to believe his lie and reject what God had said: “And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die.” That was his punch line to destroy the human race. Eve fell for it; Adam went along.
One finds a strikingly similar approach in the writings of the ECM leaders in regard to destroying faith in the gospel: Brian McLaren leads with doubts about what God had said:
The church latched on to that old doctrine of original sin like a dog to a stick, and before you knew it, the whole gospel got twisted around it. Instead of being God’s big message of saving love for the whole world, the gospel became a little bit of secret information on how to solve the pesky legal problem of original sin.5
He says elsewhere, “I don’t think we’ve got the gospel right yet. What does it mean to be saved?...None of us have arrived at orthodoxy.”
British emergent leader and Zondervan author Steve Chalke delivers the punch line that unabashedly rejects the essential gospel belief that Christ paid the full penalty for the sins of mankind necessary to satisfy divine justice. Incredibly, he condemns that doctrine as a form of “cosmic child abuse” and a “twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith.”6 This is where these emergent pied pipers, wittingly or unwittingly, are seductively leading our youth.
Hopefully, the above will move you to prayer and action regarding the biblical strengthening of your own children and the youth in your fellowship. If you need more motivation (this brief article allowed me to give you only the tip of the “emerging” iceberg), see our TBC Extra page with multiple emergent leaders’ quotes helpfully compiled in Roger Oakland’s latest book Faith Undone:The emerging church...a new reformation or an end-time deception? TBC