The Adrift Church?

I discussed the dominant trend in evangelical churches today (the Marketing trend) in my last post. But this isn't the only trend, and in fact it's already being fast supplanted by a very different way of doing church: the Emergent movement. Most have at least heard of the trend referred to as "the emerging church." This is a general, umbrella phrase used to describe a wide variety of ideas that can be very different from one another, but nonetheless share some common bases.

Great Questions...
It is interesting that the emerging church movement grew largely from opposition to the Marketing church movement. An increasingly large group of Christians, consisting mostly of younger generations, looked at the Marketing churches that their Baby Boomer evangelical parents have built and concluded that these churches are shallow, superficial, and (one of the hip new terms) "inauthentic." This generation, already characterized by cynicism and saturated with image-is-everything culture, has increasingly concluded that the big personalities, big buildings, and big programs of the Marketing churches are missing something essential to the Christian gospel.

In other words, they have many of the same criticisms I have about Marketing churches. Emergents are asking great questions about things like the nature of biblical community (being authentic), and the impact of the gospel on how we engage with the problems and challenges of our communities (being missional). Anyone who knows me knows that I think these are extremely important and well-timed questions which the church needs to be asking.

...Not-So-Great Answers
So then, would I classify myself as part of this emergent trend? No, not really. And the reason is simply that while the movement began with some well-timed questions, major portions of it have proceeded along the road of some very dubious answers. To understand why, one need go no further than understanding postmodernism, which is the cultural ocean in which emergents are generally swimming. Postmodernism is explained more fully here, but at its heart is the belief that no one can ever really know what's true in any objective sense. We don't have knowledge, all we have is opinion. And in an effort to "do church" in and connect with a postmodern culture, many of the leading voices in the emerging church movement have begun with postmodern assumptions and sought to understand Christianity from that vantage point.

But when Christians begin with the framework of postmodernism the effects on the Christian faith are devastating. This is because at its very core Christianity has always been about objective truth: truth about who and what God is, about mankind's rebellion against him and the eternal consequences of that rebellion, and about the redemptive goal God has for the world which gives meaning to human history. In the Christian worldview these truths have been revealed; that is, God has shown them to us so that we can know them and build our lives around them. What's more, these truths have been entrusted by God to the church, and it's our responsibility to keep this biblical worldview alive in the marketplace of human ideas, as the Bible says in Jude 3.

But what happens when I view all this through the framework of postmodernism, with its denial of knowable truth and its inherent opposition to any over-arching meaning-story? What happens is the whole Christian enterprise as it's existed for centuries crumbles, and gets replaced with a me-centered journey of self-discovery that lacks any grounding in revealed truth. The emphasis shifts from learning to exploring, from the truth outside to the feelings inside, from conforming myself to expressing myself, and from the destination to the journey. Whatever value such an approach may be thought to have, it is not orthodox Biblical Christianity. Such churches are adrift on a sea of postmodern uncertainty, un-anchored to any solid basis from which to make sense of the church's mission.

Oddly enough, despite their great differences, the Marketing movement and the Emergent movement share a couple things in common. First, both are seeking to accommodate the gospel of Jesus to the larger culture: Marketers to the post- WWII consumer culture of the Baby Boomers and Emergents to the more recent postmodern culture of the Gen X-ers. However (despite the fact that both movements contain some outstanding individual churches which are exceptions to this rule) the movements as a whole have capitulated too strongly to the cultures they're trying to reach. It's the classic missionary problem: how do we speak the language of a foreign culture so as to communicate the gospel of Jesus? The trick (which missionaries have understood for centuries) is that one has to be careful not to change the message itself in the process of translation. But this is harder to stay objective about when you're trying to communicate to your own culture. Marketers have granted too many of consumer-culture's basic assumptions about how life works without thinking carefully enough about how those assumptions alter the gospel. Similarly, Emergents have granted too many of postmodern-culture's assumptions, also underestimating how much those assumptions change the very Christian faith they're trying to communicate.

Secondly, both movements tend to make the same mistake: minimizing truth, theology, and doctrine. But they do it for very different reasons. Marketers minimize it because such things are not thought to be wanted by the public. Spiritual seekers aren't "shopping" for doctrine, they're "shopping" for inspiration. So if churches want to "close the sale," they need to box up doctrine and put it in the back room, and place the glitzy programs and inspiring environments in the front window to attract passers-by.

Similarly, Emergents minimize doctrine because it smacks of arrogance. Postmodernism demands "how can anyone know they're right?" Worse yet, such certainty is thought to be the source of conflict and evil in the world -- relics of an uncouth and even barbaric past. Intelligent, sophisticated people have learned to think in "shades of gray" and to admire "nuance" as opposed to crude, unenlightened statements about absolute right and wrong. Definitive statements of doctrinal truth simply stand no chance with such a mindset.

In the end it is theology that suffers, and the church that suffers with it. Because theology has always been the foundation of the Christian faith, and it needs to remain our foundation as we move forward. The answer is not to go back to what the church once was, it is to look forward to what we must become. But, as I'll argue next, that looking forward must always remain anchored in looking back. And for Christian churches, that means looking back first and foremost to Jesus himself and to the apostles, whom he entrusted to establish his church in the first place. If we don't, we run the risk of changing the very nature of the faith itself as we seek to live it out in new contexts. I for one desperately want to avoid having to stand before God one day and explain why I failed to do my part to contend earnestly for the faith that he himself delivered once for all to the saints.


J.N. Partain said...

Just wanted to let you know that there are others who agree with you and thankful for what you are saying on your blog.

Your treatment of postmodernism is on target, clearly hitting the main points of concern with respect to the gospel.


J.N. Partain

Matt Guerino said...


Welcome to the blog! And thank you for your kind words. It's encouraging for me to know these thoughts have been helpful to you and others, even as we work through them here in my own church.



Tim KC6QLV said...

I agree with you %100 Matt! What's Church without the Flock, the congragation? THE REAL message, Jesus Christ communicated to us through the bible. I am inspired by St. Paul's letters, I read the bible on a daily basis, reflect on the sermons at my church and try to apply that message into my everyday living. Christ works through us to reach out to others.
God Bless

Aaron said...

Spiritual seekers aren't "shopping" for doctrine, they're "shopping" for inspiration.

This hit it on the head for me. I know so many people who say a church "doesn't feel good," so they leave and find something that's more inspirational and encouraging. As if church is some kind of gatorade that you drink on a time out from the game. I'd never thought of it as being postmodern, but after reading this I can see that it clearly is. These "shoppers" are basing life on feelings and perspectives, rather than on truth.

I'm not sure if you meant it this way, but it seems like these kinds of churches are the "glitzy" ones...

Matt Guerino said...

Actually, you caught me! In a brilliant stroke of poor writing I started this post with a focus on the Emergent trend, but by the end I was reaching back and comparing it to the Marketing trend from the previous post. I should have saved the comparison for its own post, but hey, I got carried away. :)

All of that to say, the "shopper" phenomenon you've observed is indeed what the "glitzy" Marketing churches are geared toward. Although I think you're right that postmodernism also tends toward the self- and feeling-focused. So in a bizarre sort of way it ends up sharing some similarities with the very consumer culture it's reacting against.

Aaron said...

I guess that's what happens when you rely on self or human perspective to solve the problem - rather than starting with God's perspective revealed in the Bible.

I'm learning something here!

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