The Barnabas Ministry
Book Review

Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church
By D. A. Carson (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI. 2005.)

D. A. Carson offers an insightful discussion of the emerging church movement from a scholarly, evangelical perspective. Though familiar with the relevant distinction between "emerging" vs. "emergent," he doesn't try to dilineate between the two at all. Instead, his purpose is to analyze the practical and epistemological foundations of the movement with a view towards its validity, ramifications and contributions to the universal church.

Carson finds the core of the emerging church generally based upon protest of various things. Some of these include:

  • fundamentalism
  • institutional Christianity
  • tradition
  • isolationism
  • "bigger is better" mentality
  • seeker-sensitive megachurches, particularly those emphasizing humanistic methods (e.g. vision, program-driven approach, business management techniques towards their goals, etc.)
  • modernism in general, especially its focus on right and wrong absolutism

Carson summarizes a portion of his discussion thus:

In short, the whiff of protest in the emerging church movement is everywhere. It can be usefully analyzed along three axes: against what is perceived to be a personally stifling cultural conservatism, against modernism and its incarnation in modern churchmanship, and against modernism's incarnation in seeker-sensitive churches (p. 41).

Carson sees value and strengths in this movement. Some of these pluses he discusses are these:

  • reading the times
  • pushing for authenticity
  • recognizing our own social location
  • evangelizing outsiders (those not reached by the church at this time)
  • probing the links to tradition (addressing protestantism's troubling lack of connectedness with 2000 years of Christian heritage)

However, he also discusses some weaknesses of the movement:

  • overplaying the modern/post-modern distinction
  • being soft on truth
  • negating the cross and the gospel
  • a flawed epistemology
  • eclectic, inconsistent appeals to tradition and fact
On the point of the cross and the gospel, Carson makes the following remark concerning the handling of the gospel by these writers:

For me, the most troubling facet of the emerging church movement is the seeming cavalier manner in which the cross of Christ is handled by the best known and most responsible of the movement's leaders. Were this book to double its size, there would be space merely to survey the sweep of what Scripture says on this subject, virtually none of which seems to be referenced with any seriousness or exegetical competence by the emerging church leaders' published discussions (p. 206).

Though Carson doesn't get into it, this handling of the gospel is one of the keys distinctions between the emerging and emergent branches of this movement.

Carson's analysis and discussion is based upon citing numerous emerging writings. In fact, he devotes a significant amount of time to discussion Brian McLaren's "A Generous Orthodoxy" and Steve Chalke's "The Lost Message of Jesus." Having read "A Generous Orthodoxy," I agree with Carson's pithy evaluation of the book:

In separate chapters McLaren explains (to use the subtitle of the book) "Why I am a missional + evangelical + post/protestant + liberal/conservative + mystical/poetic + biblical + charismatic/contemplative + fundamentalist/calvinist + anabaptist/anglican + methodist + catholic + green + incarnational + depressed-yet-hopeful + emergent + unfinished Christian.  I have read these chapters with considerable care, and I must try to explan a little why this is an attractive + manipulative + funny + sad + informed + ignorant + winsome + outrageous + penetrating + resoundingly false + stimulating + silly book. And I have use each of these words with more precision than McLaren has used with his (p. 162).

This evaluation cleverly encapsulates this "conversation" (as many emerging writers call it). The discussion is necessary, the ideas merit discussion, times have changed in many ways. But Carson is wise to the reactionary nature and over-generalizing present in these type of discussions. He recognizes that many of the proponents of the emerging approach have formerly been in more fundamentalist movements themselves, and he points out that just because these people feel a need to react to that experience doesn't mean that everybody else also needs to make the same reaction. And he exposes the over-generalizing and strawman presentations of some things being reacted against.

Carson spends the last few chapters discussing truth and how much truth we can know, launching into this discussion because of the post-modern notion that absolute truth does not exist or cannot be known. To summarize Carson's argument briefly, just because we can't know everything doesn't mean we can't know some things.

Carson advocates a careful, truth-based approach to the issues raised instead of the pigeon-holing, straw-manning reactionaryism that seems to characterize much of the discussion.

Damn all false antithesis to hell, for they generate false gods, they perpetuate idols, they twist and distort our souls, they launch the church into violent pendulum swings who oscillations succeed only in dividing brothers and sisters in Christ (p. 234).

"Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church" provides a great analysis and discussion of the issues raised by the emerging church and it worth reading by anyone interested in the conversation.

Copyright © 2007 John Engler. All rights reserved.

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