Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications (Book Summary)

Book by D.A. Carson

Editors Note:  This article is part of the Book Summary Project, an initiative designed to provide Christians with summary statements of the main ideas of each chapter of important books.  Inclusion in the Book Summary Project DOES NOT constitute endoresment of a book.  Rather, inclusion in the Book Summary Project indicates that we believe followers of Jesus should we aware of the book and its central ideas.

(Book Summary by Craig Smith)

 Chapter 1  – The Emerging Church Profile

Carson begins the book with an attempt to define the Emerging church movement, or as some of its leaders prefer, the Emerging church conversation.  Recognizing the difficulty in defining such a diverse collection of ideas, people and churches, Carson focuses on those elements which seem to be common across the Emergent landscape: 

At the heart of the “movement”…lies the conviction that changes in the culture signal that a new church is “emerging.”  Christian leaders must therefore adapt to this emerging church.  Those who fail to do so are blind to the cultural accretions that hide the gospel behind forms of thought and modes of expression that no longer communicate with the new generation, the emerging generation.[1]

From this definition, Carson focuses on three elements which seem to characterize most of the Emergent movement:

1.  Protest against traditional evangelicalism – Here Carson describes the Emergent frustration with arrogance, absolutism, hypocrisy, showiness, naively simplistic Christian maxisms, etc.

2.  Protest against modernism – Here Carson describes the epistemology of modernism (i.e. truth can be known absolutely) and of postmodernism (i.e. truth is always subjective and relative to the perspective of the individual), arguing that the Emerging movement is generally in favor of postmodern epistemology.  This need not mean that all Emergent leaders are anti-truth but merely that they are suspicious of claims to have found absolute truth or even of claims to have understood God’s revealed truth rightly.

3.  Protest against the seeker-sensitive church – Here Carson describes the Emergent protest against mega-churches and the perceived inauthentic worship of the seeker-sensitive church movement, arguing that Emergent leaders are calling for churches to be built around an authentic experience of connectedness with God.  Whereas in the modern or seeker-sensitive church the focus is perceived to be on the sermon as explanation, the Emerging church focuses on the whole worship service, making worship, community and sermon-as-example all parts of a holistic experience of God’s presence.

Carson concludes this first chapter with an analysis of three criteria on which he believes the Emerging church ought to be assessed:

1.  First, the Emerging church ought to be assessed with regard to its reading of contemporary culture.

2.  Second [though Carson’s language here is a bit less clear than in the other two points], the Emerging church ought to be assessed with regard to the way it sees and uses Scripture.

3.  Third, the Emerging church ought to be assessed with regard to the biblical fidelity of its proposals for adapting to wide-spread cultural changes.

Chapter 2 – The Emerging Church Strengths in Reading the Times

In this chapter, Carson speaks to both the importance of adapting our communication to contemporary culture (which has clear biblical precedent) and praises the Emerging church for their contributions in this area.  In particular, he applauds their focus on:

1.  Authenticity – Though Carson wonders if “corporate worship is any more ‘authentic’ just because there are candles or centers for journaling”, he acknowledges that it is disturbingly common to be able to go through all the motions of worship, Bible-study and even prayer without ever sensing the presence of the living God.  Moreover, siding here with many Emergent leaders, Carson says that:

The issue is not gimmicks or entertainment, carefully orchestrated to attract a crowd addicted to entertainment, but a profound sense of reality, of authentic knowledge of God, manifested in goodness and transformed living.  When emerging church leaders foster the kind of authenticity that builds a contagious church thoughtful Christians will be grateful for their unease with the superficial and their passion for what is real.[2]

2.  Recognizing Our Own Social Location –   Though Carson warns against adopting a thorough-going postmodern view of epistemology and interpretation, he admits that “there is some insight in the postmodern insistence that the readers themselves are socially located and that this social location plays a contributing role in their interpretations.”[3]

3.  Evangelizing Outsiders – Here Carson applauds the Emerging church’s focus on evangelism, especially with regards to people who are often overlooked by the church.

4. Probing Links with the Tradition – Carson also applauds the Emerging church for re-establishing important links between the modern church and our past, arguing that we have much to remember and learn from God’s people who have gone before us.

Having praised the Emerging church for several important things, Carson concludes this chapter by arguing that, while these contributions are often made by the Emerging church, they are not exclusive to the Emerging church, noting that many of these same concerns are voiced by church leaders who have no desire to be identified with the Emerging movement.

Chapter 3 – Emerging Church Analysis of Culture

In this chapter, Carson assesses the Emerging church’s reading of contemporary culture.  His analysis focuses on two areas[4]:

1.  On the Evaluation of Modernism – Carson argues that the Emerging movement suffers from a simplistic evaluation of modernism, failing to understand that much of what it finds attractive in postmodernism:

…is nothing but the popularization of one strand of modernistic thought, which itself is a reaction against other strands of modernist thought.  In any case, I see the analysis of modernism itself within the emerging church movement so stylized and reductionistic as to represent a major historical distortion.[5]

Because of this simplistic understanding of modernism, Carson believes that “the distortion of modernism extends, in the case of some emerging church thinkers, to a distortion of confessional Christianity under modernism,”[6] arguing that much of what the Emergent movement idealizes can be found within the church of the recent past and in the contemporary, but not Emergent, church of today.

Carson also accuses some Emergent church leadership of condemning the contemporary church on grounds that are theologically shallow and intellectually incoherent.  As an example, he points to the Emergent emphasis on tolerance which has been re-defined in the postmodern world to mean a refusal to think that any opinion is bad, evil or stupid when in fact, the very notion of tolerance requires evaluation and disagreement because “one has to disagree before one tolerates.”[7]

2.  On the Evaluation of Postmodernism – Here, Carson suggests two things by way of a critique of the Emerging church’s embrace of postmodernism:  First, that their understanding of postmodernism is, like their understanding of modernism, overly simplistic; while postmodernism has made some positive contributions, it has also made some contributions that are obviously not compatible with historical Christian faith.  Second, Carson notes that most of the Christian books on postmodernism are being published in America whereas postmodernism has already become passé in Europe.  Thus, as is often the case, American intellectuals are late to the game and what they are now making so much of is already passing away.

Chapter 4 – Personal Reflections on Postmodernism’s Contributions and Challenges

In this chapter Carson perhaps more clearly than anywhere else articulates his struggle with the Emergent movement:

I want to state quite clearly that my quarrel with Emergent is not that it is trying to read the times or that it thinks that postmodernism, properly defined, introduces serious challenges that need to be addressed; rather, its response is not as penetrating and biblically faithful as it needs to be.[8]

As this chapter continues, Carson discusses his assessment of postmodernism, arguing that pre-modern epistemology began with God (understanding our knowledge as a small subset of the divine knowledge), modern epistemology began with “I” (but still assumed that knowledge could be objective and absolute) and postmodern epistemology begins with “I”, but has rejected the possibility of knowing things as objective or absolute.  This fundamental shift in epistemology has led to what Carson calls “entailments”:[9]

1.  Notions of objective morality are among the first things to be questioned.

2.  Evangelism is often viewed in the broad culture as intrinsically obnoxious because “no matter how gently it is done, it cannot avoid giving the impression that Christians think they have something superior.”[10]

3.  People are likely to be helped into adopting a new position by something other than, or at least more than, careful argument.

4.  Postmodern people are likely to be happy with personal narratives (the story of an individual and how he or she thinks about the world), but suspicious of metanarratives (a big story which claims to be able to describe all of life in a meaningful and cohesive way).

Carson acknowledges several strengths of postmodern epistemology (1.  It exposes the weaknesses and pretension of modernism, 2. It grants necessary legitimacy to intuition and imagination, 3. It fosters sensitivity to other cultures, 4. It demands humility and thus mitigates arrogance).  In spite of these strengths, Carson points out several weaknesses of postmodern epistemology:

1.  Postmodernism often depends on manipulative and false antithesis:  either we can know something absolutely, perfectly and exhaustively or we can only claim a small perspective on something without any mechanism for discovering whether our perspective is an important part of the whole, a distorted view of the whole, etc.[11]  In reality, there is a broad landscape between these two extremes and there is no particular reason why we cannot know things accurately in part while still acknowledging that we do not know all things.

2.  Postmodernism ignores the simple fact that, “in spite of the difficulties of knowing things and in communicating things with other human beings, a great deal of knowing and effective communication do take place.”[12]

Carson concludes this chapter with some comments about how to offer a “measured response” to postmodern epistemology and, correspondingly, to those aspects of the Emergent church which depend on it.  Here, Carson speaks of the importance of the intentional “fusion of horizons of understanding,”[13] the “hermeneutical spiral,”[14] along with a few other helpful concepts.

Chapter 5 – Emerging Church Critique of Postmodernism

In this chapter, Carson argues that while the Emerging church movement has thoroughly (though perhaps simplistically) critiqued modernism, it has not been nearly so thoughtful with regards to postmodernism.  Carson illustrates this short-sightedness with an analysis of several Emergent church thinkers, including Brian McLaren and Stanely Grenz, both of whom, Carson maintains, do not handle “the truth claims of Christianity very well”,[15] but instead duck the real questions about absolute truth or falsehood which are required by essential Christian doctrine.

Moreover, Carson argues that the Emerging church often fails to use Scripture as a “norming norm” over and against an eclectic – and therefore subjective – appeal to tradition.  Because of this eclectic approach:

1.  Emergent leaders speak of the importance of “Tradition” yet fail to live in any long-standing tradition, instead creating their own ad-hoc view of church which has neither tradition nor Scripture to offer it legitimacy.

2.  Emergent leaders fail to recognize that some Christian traditions contradict each other on fundamental points and do not turn to Scripture to adjudicate these conflicts.

Carson also addresses here the Emergent call to forgo arguing about the details of historical reliability of the Bible and to, instead, “live in the flow of the biblical narrative.”  Regarding this issue, Carson says that Emergents have again oversimplified their analysis, failing to realize that: 

When liberals began to doubt that it [e.g. the biblical narrative] is true, conservatives replied in similar detail that it is.  Of course, in itself such discussion does not constitute living joyously within the narrative.  But the discussion of Frei, and of Lindbeck and others who followed him, that we must simply return to living within the narrative while refusing to consider, once these doubts have been raised, whether this narrative is telling the truth, is myopic counsel.[16]

In this chapter, Carson also assesses the Emerging church emphasis on “belonging” vs. “becoming” [by which they mean that it is wrong to insist that people become like us in Christian behavior before belonging to our community].  Carson points out that the New Testament teaching on church discipline and even excommunication presupposes that becoming and belonging cannot be completely separated.

Chapter 6 – Emerging Church Weakness Illustrated in Two Significant Books

In this chapter, Carson looks in detail at Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren and The Lost Message of Jesus by Steve Chalke, both important books which have had a profound influence on the development of the Emergent movement.  Carson uses this analysis to give concrete illustrations of the kind of thinking which he has previously critiqued in a more general sense.

Carson’s strongest critique of these authors, and of those factions of the Emergent movement which are indebted to them, comes in this chapter when he writes:  “I have to say, as kindly but as forcefully as I can, that to my mind, if words mean anything, both McLaren and Chalke have largely abandoned the gospel.”[17]

Chapter 7 – Some Biblical Passages to Help Us in our Evaluation

In this chapter, Carson provides a rather extensive list of biblical passages (along with the occasional commentary) that bear on the issues discussed throughout the rest of this book.

Chapter 8 – A Biblical Meditation on Truth and Experience

In the concluding chapter, Carson argues that much of the Emergent vs. non-Emergent discussion boils down to a debate between the claims of truth and the claims of experience. He then offers exegetical insights from a brief study of 1 Peter 1:1-21 to demonstrate that faithful adherence to the Bible requires a view of this debate which recognizes that truth, rightly understood, may correct experience, but that it can never be the other way around.  Experience can, and should, cause us to reevaluate whether or not we have rightly understood the truth, but it can never alter truth itself. He acknowledges that both truth and experience, wrongly functioning in our lives can corrupt us.  Over-emphasis on truth alone can lead to arrogance while over-emphasis on experience can lead to idolatry.

[1] D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church:  Understanding a Movement and Its Implications (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2005), 12.

[2] Ibid, 50-51.

[3] Ibid, 51.

[4] Carson has a third area as well, what he calls the emergent church’s attraction to “particular isms”.   Though important observations are made here, I do not feel that this section quite belongs alongside his assessment of the emergent church’s evaluations of modernism and post-modernism.

[5] Ibid, 60

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 69.

[8] Ibid, 87.

[9] Carson lists 5 entailments, but his fifth (“even the hard sciences do not escape postmodern analysis”) seems to me more a statement of the broadness of the  effect of postmodern thinking rather than a distinct entailment.

[10] Ibid, 101.

[11] Ibid, 104.

[12] Ibid, 106.

[13] This occurs when we work to understand the world of an author and his/her readers so that we can see the world in some degree as they saw it and thus improve our chances of rightly understanding what they intended to communicate when they wrote.  This is often accomplished by studying the historical context of an author and his/her texts.

[14] This is the recognition that we are unlikely to ask the right questions of a text on the first go-round, but on each subsequent interaction with the text, we gradually become better able to ask the appropriate questions and thereby “spiral” in to a proper understanding of the author’s intention for it.

[15] Ibid, 130.

[16] Ibid, 144.

[17] Ibid, 186.