Christians may believe that they are participants in a “faith once delivered to the saints,” but the shape of that faith has varied greatly through the centuries. From the stately and ornate forms of Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, to the humble and plain worship of the Amish, Jesus is followed and revered in a myriad of ways. In fact, so great is the diversity of forms within Christianity, it may be more appropriate to refer to them in the plural–Christianities.
Even now a new form of the faith seems to be taking hold within the broad tradition of evangelicalism. Calling themselves “emerging Christians,” or in some instances “the Emergent Church,” a movement of mostly younger believers are reshaping the traditional faith in ways that is creating excitement among some and deep worry among more-established Christian leaders.
This past February, Scot McKnight, a professor at North Park Seminary in Chicago, wrote an article for Christianity Today detailing the significance of this new movement within the traditional faith. McKnight offered is concise summary of the emergent Christian experience.
“Emerging churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures. This definition encompasses nine practices. Emerging churches identify with the life of Jesus, transform the secular realm, live highly communal lives, they welcome the stranger, serve with generosity, participate as producers, create as created beings, lead as a body and take part in spiritual activities.”
On the surface there does not seem to be anything in this list of practices that would alarm a traditional believer. But when some of these practices are discussed in detail, the hand wringing begins.
For instance, one of the central concerns of the emergent Christian movement is the desire for their faith community to be all inclusive–welcome the stranger. The result of this concern has resulted in high tolerance for people of other faiths. Emergent Christians have serious doubts about doctrinal ideas which hold that some are in and some are out–that is in or out with God.
Emergent Christians hear Jesus’ words, “Whoever is not against us is for us,” as a challenge to find ways to include rather than exclude others. This means, of course, that emerging Christians are not very evangelistic–at least in the traditional sense. For the most part we will not find them trying to convert people from one faith to another or from no faith to their faith.
Emergent Christians also tend toward a more liberal social view. They are concerned about the poor and about the environment. The emphasis here for emergent Christians is on serving and being generous. They think it is more important to live and act in faithful ways than obsessing about what we should believe.
This concern for people and the world is not a stance related to any political party. For emerging Christians, caring about people in this world is their mission in life.
Conservative Christian leaders are beginning to view the Emergent Church with great suspicion. They see the movement as resurgence of old mainline liberal theology. But I believe they are mistaken. The social vision of the mainline church was rooted in European liberalism that developed along side the rise of systematic theology and a historical critical reading of the Bible.
The Emergent Church rejects that sort of theological agenda altogether. Instead, this group gets their liberalism from the founder of liberalism–Jesus himself.
May their tribe increase.
James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.