Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Emerging Assessments

Last week Dr. Mark Devine, professor of theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, sent me a link to his article on the Emerging Church. It is scheduled for publication in the Midwestern Journal of Theology. Mark is a very insightful theologian and his gifts of analysis are a welcome contribution to the emerging "conversation." I highly recommend the article, "Fast Friends or Future Foes: The Emerging Church and Southern Baptists." It is carefully nuanced and avoids the dismissive caricatures that too often passes for critique when it comes to the emerging churches, such as those that appear in this Baptist Press article that was released yesterday.

Norm Miller, who wrote the BP article sets his parameters with this not-especially-helpful paragraph:
The emerging church movement is diverse and difficult to generalize. However, the mix of influences includes: postmodernism (a focus on sense-making through the various mediums of culture); Calvinism ala John Piper; and for some, Christian liberty, as granted by their scriptural interpretation, to drink alcohol and engage in other cultural activities that many Southern Baptists eschew based on opposing scriptural interpretation.
Difficult or not, Miller shows no hesitation in gratuitously linking postmodernism, Calvinism, alcohol(ism) and worldliness (at least as perceived by "many Southern Baptists") to broadbrush the emerging movement. Actually, this ploy is rather efficient because it allows both Calvinists and emerging folks to be demonized with one stroke.

The controversy swirling around Darrin Patrick, church planter and pastor of The Journey in St. Louis, is highlighted in the BP article. Both the Associated Press and Good Morning America have featured the church and noted its outreach efforts at a local pub. Despite Patrick's repeated declarations that neither he nor his church promotes drinking beverage alcohol, some vocal critics continue to imply--and even charge--that he does just that (Darrin, I feel your pain).

One of the most outspoken critics is Roger Moran, "Missouri Baptist and SBC Executive Committee member." He is quoted in the BP article as saying, "No Southern Baptist entity or personality should be loaning our denominational credibility to such churches or organizations as The Journey and Acts 29. We simply cannot do that for movements that are dripping with error and expect good to come out of it."

Hey, we have been doing it for each new fad churned out by "church growth" experts for the last 30 years. I do not know Mr. Moran, but he and I have mutual friends who speak highly of him. I am glad that he is concerned about "movements that are dripping with error" and the need to identify and distance ourselves from them. But I wonder, does he (or anyone else who shares his concerns) discern the errors that are dripping from the shallow evangelism movement that permeates our convention? Probably not because, as Devine so picturesquely notes, "Wherever the lure of potential numerical growth dangles, numerous Southern Baptist
knees go wobbly" and "numerical growth covers a multitude of sins."

Compare the damage being done to churches by the "emerging movement" to that which has already been done by Bible thumping, alcohol condemning, liberal hating, denominational boasting, Calvinist bashing conservatives. Simply do the math. Look at the membership-to-attendance ratios of the churches that are constantly being paraded as models within the SBC. When twice as many people are on the rolls as attend then "dripping with error" might be an apt description of what is going on.

Don't misunderstand me. I am not at all suggesting that emerging churches or Calvinistic churches or any kind of churches are beyond critique. In fact, the opposite is actually my point. It is time for conservative Southern Baptists to get honest and engage in some long-overdue, honest self-examination. When that happens, then we will inevitably be humbled by what we discover and, if there is any spirituality within us at all, will be compelled to confess our widespread neglect of the Word of God that we love and proclaim with confidence.

One of my hopes is that the rising generation of church leaders like Darrin Patrick will, perhaps unintentionally, provoke this very kind of effort. By taking Scripture more seriously than conventional customs they will force the rest of us to go back to the Bible to engage their beliefs and practices. If that can be done without dismissively treating their concerns and arguments, great benefit could result for the SBC and broader evangelical world.

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