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A Review of Why We’re Not Emergent, critical book on the Rob Bell, Brian McLaren Movement

Why We’re Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be

Book Description: “The Emergent Church is a strong voice in today’s Christian community. And they’re talking about good things: caring for the poor, peace for all men, loving Jesus. Kevin and Ted are two guys who, demographically, should be all over this movement. But they’re not. And Why We’re Not Emergent gives you the solid reasons why.”

Like the authors of the book, I am sympathetic to the Emergent Church, but cannot be Emergent. That said, I value much of what the Emergent church is talking about and find myself struggling with the traditional and mainline churches. This review is not about me, however, so if anyone wishes to know where I stand they’ll have to ask.I had the opportunity to sit down and meet Pastor Kevin Deyoung and writer Ted Kluck while I was traveling through Michigan on my way back from some presentations I was giving. At the end of this review I have transcribed (and gently edited) some of our conversation for your reading pleasure.

 The Book

WWNE is not just a series of arguments for why the authors prefer traditional churches. It also spends a fair bit of time analyzing the writings of Emergent church proponents. The authors present two different perspectives reacting to the Emergent church. Kevin is a pastor at a church in Lansing, Michigan, while Ted is your normal layman in the pews. Kevin brings to bear many of the theological objections while Ted approaches the Emergent church as an ‘Everyman,’ so to speak.

I like this approach, but I confess I labored to figure out which part was written by which author. In the final edition, the table of contents tells you, but it isn’t fun to flip back and forth as you’re reading.

Kevin and Ted live in East Lansing, which is not far from the Mecca of the Emergent Church, Rob Bell’s “Mars Hill” in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It is easy to see how this close proximity has made the challenges from the Emergent church hard to miss for them.

The book begins (wisely) with a discussion of just what the Emergent Church is (Wiki) and lays out the methodology behind the book. Following this is a survey of the doctrinal positions of the Emergent Church… or more precisely a chapter where the two men practically beg the Emergents to tell all just where they stand on certain historic doctrines of the church. Somewhat autobiographical chapters follow where the authors examine some of the assertions about the Emergent church that the Emergent apologists do seem to agree on. The book doesn’t leave you waiting with how the gentlemen feel about those assertions. The authors give their response on the spot.

Certain areas of contention get worked over pretty good: the ‘virtue’ of tolerance, the doctrines of hell and punishment, the Gospel, Dogma in general, modernism and post-modernism, and differing perspectives on Jesus- who he was and what his goals and chief accomplishments were.

Throughout these chapters, the authors bend over backwards to make it clear that they actually agree with some of the criticisms that the Emergent Church has made. They aim to refrain from what might seem to be personal attacks on certain spokespersons in the movement. Despite the obvious fact that they are writing to criticize the Emergent movement, they still offer plenty of signs that they think there may be something of value in it.

That said, I have to imagine that the leaders in the Emergent Church won’t enjoy reading the book. For that matter, your average person ‘on the street’ who is ‘Emergent’ won’t like it either. The authors perceive that there are massive flaws in the Emergent movement.   Though I did feel like at times it was assumed that the reader would be aware of some of the bones of contention, this book might be helpful to the person who is new to the Emergent church and wants to hear ‘both sides.’ The book allows Emergent church writers some time to present their case in their own words. For those who want to go deeper, there are plenty of citations and most of the big names in the Emergent movement are covered such as Brian McLaren and Rob Bell.

My Reactions

One of the things that draws me to the Emergent church more than anything is its focus on community. I believe that the ‘traditional’ churches have a very low standard for what constitutes community. I think that in general, many people are content with that low standard because, well, it requires nothing of anyone except to maintain the status quo. People who are not content tend to move on. They vote with their feet and movements like the Emergent Church are examples of what comes.

Kevin and Ted very astutely point out that Christians who want to have community at the expense of everything else really risk ceasing to be Christian at all. When virtually every distinctive of the historic church is set aside for the sake of ‘community’ you may have ‘community’ but nothing that you couldn’t get by joining a Masonic lodge or a social networking group (these are my examples, not theirs).  The Emergent movement still seems to think highly of Jesus, there is no question about that.  However, the Emergent movement seems to have different reasons for that affection than the Christian church historically has had.

When I first looked at the book I skimmed the table of contents and saw that the title of one was “Doctrine: The Drama is In the Dogma.” I was very excited. This title is a reference to Dorothy Sayer’s famous essay by a similar name. The point that Sayers was making- long before the founders of the Emergent church emerged- was that there is no story more exciting and compelling then the historic orthodox Christian story. In other words, the Emergents are not out of line to point out the value of Story. I definitely agree with that (see my own ministry for more info), but the point is that the value of Story is not a new discovery of the Emergents.

I wish that the authors had spoken to this more in their book but as their book was meant to be a critique of the Emergent Church and not necessarily a point by point presentation of their own ideas, it is understandable that they did not. Maybe another book?

Like I said, some of the points that Kevin and Ted seek to make won’t be clear unless you have an idea what the Emergent Church is saying. However, one of the points that they wish to make I think comes out clear enough: the more traditional churches are not getting the respect they are due. There are occasional snapshots of these more traditional pastors and their churches churches that reveal that they are doing quite a bit of good. They aren’t flashy or as fashionable as the Emergent churches, perhaps, but they’re quietly doing good work.

This is again my own example, but it would be as though the Emergent Church is like the “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” television show that swoops in and transforms the house of a single family in a blaze of glory. Try to do that on a large scale! In contrast, the broader church might be like “Habitat for Humanity” which with more limited means and no glamor has built hundreds of thousands of houses with little to no fanfare. Yes, the houses are not mansions, but then with so many people you want to house you have to make concessions.

It is easy to ooh and awe at the Emergent Church but in the meantime hordes of pastors and teachers will still be slugging away in the trenches.

These are among the thoughts that came to my mind when reading this book. The book is thought provoking at the very least. While anti-Emergents will be thrilled by the book, it is written with enough gentleness that those who are trying to decide where they themselves stand will hear the ‘other side’ but won’t be put off by tirades (there aren’t any in the book).

I recommend this book without hesitation to anyone concerned about the direction the church is going.

The Interview.

When you see … it means either the speaker paused or there was editing to join thoughts. In some cases I had to summarize or I couldn’t understand a word from the tape so I just did my best.

Me: I know you are writing a critique of the Emergent church but you are sympathetic in some respects for the Emergent Church. Maybe give a clear idea of what ways the church should change or adapt or speak to the good things that the Emergents are saying.

Ted: Yea, they do definitely say some good things. I think the reason why we started reading about it in the first place was because we had people in our own church who were interested, who were wanting to take things in that direction, and a lot of it was attractive initially. Authenticity, social justice, you know a lot of the things the emergent church stands for looked attractive. … I more wanted to paint a picture of the fact that there are a lot of good faithful, small churches out there flying under the radar who were doing this stuff anyway. There are very authentic bodies of Christ out there. Authenticity isn’t candles or sofas or film clips or anything else that you do to create authenticity, it’s just real people in community together… it might not be sexy or anything that you read about in a book but we wanted to shed light on pastors preaching the gospel faithfully, and doing mercy ministries, and care for the poor, and there are a lot of those churches out there. I don’t think the Emergent church invented all these things… my goal was to paint a little bit of that picture.

Kevin: Like you pointed out, the book was mainly a critique. There are some things I’m sympathetic on- I’m sympathetic with some of their diagnoses more than their cures. I say that in the book. So, their critique of some of the mega church seeker sensitive stuff I agree with… you walk into a church and it looks like a mall or an office building, people don’t talk about sin, they pretend that they’re not Christians, I think the Emergent church has been good about saying they want to be an authentic Christian community and that’s what we want people to see. I agree with that. They are critical of reductionist methods of becoming a Christian… you just sign a piece of paper or a card … I agree that Christianity is more than that. It is more than just getting your ticket punched … God keeps us here because he wants to change us he wants to use us for something. All of that I agree with. To some extent I feel like as they react against some stuff in the evangelical and mega church … at least the circles I run in are more confessional reformed orthodoxy [and] have been against that stuff for fifteen years so I appreciate that they are against some of the same things. One of the more legitimate things is the Emergent church is cultural, it’s theological, but it is cultural too, I think they’re helpful in pointing out that the traditional church has a feel that doesn’t fit for a number of young people… [cross talk] it has been helpful for me to realize I have a culture I like, our church feels comfortable for some and not for others…

What would the cure be for that? I think one of the worst things would be for traditional churches to try really hard to be cool. I think our generation has authenticity sensors that are huge. It can pick up on… you guys are trying to be hip but it just isn’t working. … [every church isn’t right for everyone but they should focus on substance].

Me: I confess I recently wrote a somewhat favorable review of Joel Osteen… let me explain why. One of the things I contend in that piece that I think applies to the Emergent church as well is that you won’t find your converted atheist or searching Hindu or nonChristian flocking there, but rather disaffected Christians. There is a sense in which Osteen and the Emergents can’t be blamed for theological shallowness because they are picking up the people basically created by the mainlines. The mainlines created the class of theologically uneducated that some accuse Osteen and the Emergents to be attracting. It seems to me that we could counter act the things we don’t like in Osteen or the Emergent church just by doing a better job teaching theology and accommodating people’s desires that they ultimately find have to be fulfilled elsewhere.

Kevin: You want us to speak to Osteen? [Laughter]

Me: I just used that to illustrate the point … [Laughter]

Ted: … what faithful churches will try to do, and I’m just a guy in the pew, what we would hope to do with our kids is raise them to be able to articulate what they believe and think theologically, live their lives theologically, do it in a way that is exciting, relevant to them culturally…. I’ve never felt hemmed in by the traditional church… these bad evangelical church experiences that people are having… I sympathize with that but it’s hard to relate to…

Kevin: That’s an important point… I can see what the stoic, staid conservative looks like and how that can feel oppressive but that isn’t the church I’ve grown up in or been around. These are not famous churches but ordinary and unremarkable evangelical churches… Kids showed up with their ears pierced and people didn’t freak out… I haven’t been a part of that really hard core fundamentalist streak with precise rules about how long your skirt can be…or if you listen to this music you’re suspect…

Me: You’re sort of drawing a distinction between the reformation way of thinking and the relatively new fundamentalism of the 19th century, although in many denominations you can find Christians with both views standing side by side… but they are still different streams altogether…

About a minute spliced out here.

Kevin: This might the opposite of what you’re saying Anthony … but I just I feel like the church needs to stop chasing relevance, and maybe that’s just because my experience, I haven’t been part of churches … that are hopelessly stifling. The church is not going to be on the cutting edge of culture, it’s not going to be the place that you walk into and it’s just like going to the club on Friday night or the mall… the church needs to work harder on loving people and caring people- not being scared off by the business man or the man with the tattoo… chasing the relevance thing we’re going to end up in the same position some years from now when the next thing shows up.

Me: I saw your chapter called “The Dogma is the Drama” which is one of my favorite essays by Dorothy Sayers and was really excited but when I got to it but Sayers only gets a brief mention. I had the feeling that you wanted to communicate more in that chapter. Would you like to expand on what you didn’t get to talk about in that chapter?

Kevin: … She’s arguing that we make Christianity boring when we go away from the dogma, but it’s just the most exciting, and when you get people who think its about stopping smoking stop drinking give to the poor and ok, there is something there but the story that God became man, died, and lived again, that’s the most exciting thing that’s the thing that makes the church unique. The chapter by that title was directed at many of these emergent practitioners who want nothing to do with doctrine [like Pete Rollins]… that is so far removed from what I see Paul writing… we have the greatest story we may have to find a way to say it in a way that is continuously new and fresh [because people go on automatic pilot] but we have to keep telling the same story.

Me: Thanks a lot for sitting down with me!


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