Written on January 20th, 2007 by Shawn Anthony
Christianity Today recently published an article written by Scot McKnight titled The Five Streams of the Emerging Church: Key Elements of the Most Controversial and Misunderstood Movement in the Church Today. It is actually a pretty good read. It seems to me to be a very solid attempt at ecclesial systematics. It seems as much in spite of the Emerging movement’s claim to be “Post-systematic” in theology and/or practice (ecclesiology - even brand new forms of eccesiology - is still parked under the umbrella of theology, right?). I do think the Emerging Conversation is in dire need of a bit of coherent systemization. McKnight obviously does too, or he wouldn’t be blatantly outlining its different expressions in a fashion which seems to contradict all that the Emerging movement normally represents, or wears, at least in more casual situations.
McKnight claims that there are a number of different streams and expressions inherent to the Emerging movement, and the loudest of these expressions is also the most controversial. True enough. McKnight goes on to mention a few of these streams specifically, and offers a bit of commentary, but I was much more interested in his brief explanation as to how one actually determines what sort of Emerging disciple he/she will be, prior to discerning toward which Emerging stream he/she will ultimately journey and swim.
McKnight writes: “Living as a Christian in a postmodern context means different things to different people. Some - to borrow categories I first heard from Doug Pagitt, pastor at Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis - will minister to postmoderns, others with postmoderns, and still others as postmoderns.”
Pagitt raises three very, very important categorical distinctions. A proper understanding of these three categories is a prerequisite to authentic participation in the Emerging conversation, at least if critical self-awareness still has a place in our Christian life and walk of faith.
1. People living in the “ministry to” sphere understand postmoderns as individuals mired in moral relativism and epistemological bankruptcy out of which they must be pulled (salvation according to the Gospel).
2. The “ministry with” category is populated by people who live in the everyday world with their postmodern neighbors. These people live, work, and dialogue with postmoderns, while simultaneously embracing the postmodern condition as part of our world’s reality. “Such Christians.” according to McKnight, “view postmodernity as a present condition into which we are called to proclaim and live out the gospel.”
3. The ministry “as postmodern” folk embrace the idea that we cannot know absolute truth.
I personally have much energy, time and work invested into the first two spheres. I am dedicated to “ministry to” postmoderns. I believe the philosophical and theological detriment that is moral relativism does ultimately lead to an epistemological bankruptcy which recklessly throws wide open the doors to anything and everything fancied, regardless of value, and in spite of God. I am also missional, to the core. So, the second sphere is very important to me as well. Praxis is very important to me, as is solid Christian belief. Christian doctrine need not be sacrificed in the name of Christian praxis. In fact, if it is foolishly sacrificed, a disciple will awake suddenly to the realization that he/she has no - zero - context for praxis - at all! I live in the world. The everyday is the garden tilled. My neighbors - postmodern as they are - are my heart. Yet, I hold fast to Biblical precepts and solid, historic Christian doctrine. I normally vote moderate-democratic too (I am a social conservative, and an economic liberal). So, why the to-do? Why live in the irrationality of a third sphere? There is no need to do so! The Gospel of Christ is sufficient!
The first two spheres make the third sphere impossible, at least for me. I have tasted liberal religion and its religious relativism. It was and is beyond bitter. This third sphere of the Emerging movement is just another form of religious liberalism, in yet another guise. It is a mere imitation of Christianity and a blatant appropriation of Jesus of Nazareth. It is completely void of context. It is the contemporary soft-sell of secular humanism freshly decorated with familiar Christian vocabulary and imagery. I will have nothing to do with religious liberalism and its inevitable human zoo and relativistic theme park. It all leads nowhere, if it leads one away from the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I can minister to those who have heard and not heard the Gospel of Christ while simultaneously embracing mission and praxis in the world in which I live everyday. I can do it all without succumbing to an irrational and hopeless religious relativism.
So, I would confidently identify with the first two streams of the Emerging Conversation, while happily passing on the third.
The Emerging Church has a lot of potential. It can prove itself to be incredibly edifying, in the long term. It must, however, do all it can do to stay out of the religious gutter of relativism and liberalism. I think this process of discernment can and should be accomplished by deciding which of Pagitt’s categories will be embraced, and why, prior to journeying towards and jumping into any streams.
We Christians must strive to live and work in this world, with all of our zeal and creativity, without actually becoming the world in which we live.