Emerging from Emergent Church Evangelicalism
Thursday, February 18, 2010, 2:48 PM
Rev. Paul T. McCain
I came across a very perceptive and fascinating comment from a young man who has come out of the house church/Emergent church movement into Lutheranism. No, this is not a shamless plug for Lutheranism, but rather, for the purpose of this blog site, it is a fascinating look into what a growing number of younger people are thinking/feeling about much that has been popular, and still is, in American Protestantism. And so you know, Lutheranism is by no means immune to these trends: these things are Tsunamai like waves washing over all of American Christianity, but there are more and more people growing tired of it all and taking another look at the historical roots of Reformational churches.
This is how I came across these remarks. Dr. Gene Edward Veith’s very popular book The Spirituality of the Cross: The Way of the First Evangelicals has been released in a new revised and expanded edition. A comment was posted after Dr. Veith mentioned the book, by a man who identifies himself as Dan. Here is what he had to say:
“There are a few prevalent ideas that are very popular in the house church crowd, and I have fallen prey to them for quite some time. In many ways I am still coming out of all this. I’m going to answer your question about Veith’s book in a very round-a-bout way, stay with me.
“It is extremely couth to question authority and to doubt and challenge tradition in my generation. This comes as no surprise to most of you, but it is somehow embedded in my genes. In my personal observation (which may be very limited), it seems that most folks in my parents’ generation take the pastor’s word for it because they trust his authority. My generation doesn’t do that. You need to prove why I should trust you.
“After reading Frank Viola’s “Pagan Christianity,” I had a lot of questions and plenty of ammo. I went to several local pastors (a few of them LCMS) and none of them could give me an intelligible response to the book. One pastor had read the book and was questioning his own tradition as a result – we were practically in the same boat. The book really set me on a path of rejecting the institutional church for a couple of years, and it caused me to really study church history and how our Christian practices came to be. Unfortunately, it set me on the wrong path, but my studies in church history set me straight (largely due to the fact that my wife is earning an M.A. in Theology, so good church history books are abundant in our house). While Viola and Barna make profound points about some church practices, their church history leaves a lot to be desired. Their “analysis” is a mishmash of outdated secondary sources, out-of-context quotations, unsupported hypotheses, and personal prejudices. Even worse, on those occasions where legitimate experts on the field are cited (i.e., Dom Gregory Dix, Paul F. Bradshaw, Alexander Schmeman) their views are taken so out of context as to have them seemingly ally with the authors when in fact their views are quite the opposite. But no pastors were able to tell me that. I had to do my own research. Sadly, I don’t think most folks who read this book will do the same, nor do many know how.
“Despite having sorted through some of the faulty church history in “Pagan Christianity,” a lot of the ideology still stuck. Especially since it has been continually reinforced by books like “unChristian,” “Reimagining Church,” “Blue Like Jazz,” “Revolution,” “The Untold Story of the New Testament,” etc. In many ways, “Blue Like Jazz” got me started on this whole kick back when I attended Concordia Seward (prior to dropping out and leaving the church altogether). The book is still extremely popular in young adult circles, including in the LCMS.
“Only within the last year or so have I begun to deconstruct the deconstruction, so to speak. I began by reading “Why We’re Not Emergent” and “Why We Love the Church,” both by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck. Those books helped me realize that “so much that passes for spirituality these days is nothing more than middle class, 20-something coffee culture. If you like jazz, soul patches, earth tone furniture, and lattes, that’s cool. But this culture is no holier than the McNugget, Hi-C, Value City, football culture that most people live in. Why does incarnational ministry usually mean hanging out at Starbucks instead of McDonalds?” (Kevin DeYoung, http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2009/01/29/jesus-came-to-save-grimace-and).
“But these books and all my research thus far still only brought me to a point where I essentially could respect the institutional church as a valid form of ministry, but I still thought it was the least effective approach and continued to hold most of my Viola/Barna-inspired prejudices.
“The two prevailing areas of cognitive dissonance that I still retained at that point were:
1. The clergy/laity distinction
2. The sacred/secular dichotomy
“These two areas are widely attacked by house church folks, and they make some pretty good arguments. Let me begin with the clergy/laity distinction. I blog frequently at prayeramedic.com, and you can actually watch my progression of thought on this issue. When first confronted with the idea that there is no hierarchy whatsoever in church leadership, and that church leaders have no authority over church members, I knew it was wrong. It went against Scripture. I immediately pointed this out: http://prayeramedic.com/2008/10/biblical-leadership/
“You’ll see that I used Scripture to demonstrate that church leaders had genuine authority and that this was God-given. But then I read Viola’s book and continued to listen to the house church crowd. I then wrote this post: http://prayeramedic.com/2008/10/secular-job/
“That’s a huge shift in a VERY short period of time. The subtle deception that I didn’t recognize at the time is co-mingling the two issues I listed above into being one and the same. In fact, I probably need to take down this blog post – but I’ll leave it up for now.
“In many ways, I was right. The things I have been griping about in the church are extremely prevalent in mainstream evangelical churches. The pastor is more of a CEO than a spiritual leader and so much of what is being passed off as spirituality is empty emotions, false hope, deception, manipulation, etc. It didn’t help that my wife and I were extremely jaded by the church. I was serving as a young adult minister in a Pentecostal church where things got out of hand and my wife was asked to leave (but I was not). To make a long story short, we left then got mixed up in a United Pentecostal cult (denies Trinity, requires baptism in Jesus’ name only), we left there and got into some wacky charismaniac groups, then we found “mainstream” churches that might as well have called their sermons “motivational speaking” or “lessons in morality.” It was all so shallow and insincere, and so fake. It’s no wonder that the house church message was so appealing.
“The postmodern mantra seems to be “authenticity,” “community,” “experiential,” “participatory,” etc. and that appeals to someone who has only seen fake, inauthentic expressions of faith that have more to do with making people feel good about themselves. I also was struggling with some major sin issues and so were many other folks I knew, but the church was not a place we felt free to confess these things. Nor was it a place where we felt welcome to be ourselves. To most folks Church is just a cultural thing, something they do, not something they are. The house church mantra cries out that the church is an organism, not an organization. This still appeals to me in many ways.
“And we can learn a lot from house church folks. But their fatal flaw is dismissing the institutional church, altogether. Both are valid ministry models that can coexist – and each has its unique strengths and weaknesses.
“Enter Veith’s book. I started looking for books on spirituality, and I found “Grace Upon Grace” by Kleinig. I started reading it and enjoyed it, but I found his writing style difficult to stick with for lengthy periods of time, kind of like reading Kierkegaard or ancient church literature. I then found “Spirituality of the Cross.” Remember that my main two issues were clergy/laity and sacred/secular.
“Veith’s writing style was so easy to read and approachable that I read the book in only a few sittings (similar to Viola/Barna books). Veith really threw me off guard by building a comprehensive model of spirituality and avoiding intellectual quibbles. The answer to the sacred/secular problem is the doctrine of the two kingdoms, and the answer to clergy/laity is the doctrine of the vocation. People had told me this before, but only in theological terms. Veith explained these doctrines in an authentic way, explaining them in a way that actually made me consider how I should live in light of these truths – not just how I should think.
“He immediately tore down the false approaches to God from Koberle: moral, intellectual and mystical. Even though I had heard Koberle’s ideas before, the way Veith explained it made me go “aha!” I got it. His talk about the presence and hiddenness of God was profound as well. I always viewed the Lutheran view of the Sacraments as being only slightly removed from Catholicism. I basically figured that Catholicism was so ingrained in Luther that he didn’t want to stray far in the means of grace doctrines. But Veith clearly explained the mystery and beauty of these means in a practical way.
“I was so confused after all of my experience with charismatic churches and the general teachings of the prosperity gospel and positive confession that are so prevalent in American Christianity. Veith really helped draw the big picture for me, what spirituality really looks like. It isn’t so much about “doing big things for God,” as it is about yielding to God in the small things and recognizing how many big things God IS DOING that we neglect, like what He accomplishes through His means of grace and regular worship.
“I felt as though I had been lied to and deceived by Christianity, as though I had fallen prey to a “bait and switch” tactic. But God had been working all along, I had simply been taught to seek Him according to my own will, not His.
“Also Veith, citing C.S. Lewis, helped me realize that by spending all my time in limbo I was missing out on true community. The entire time I thought that the traditions and customs were the culprit, but I came to realize that sin and human depravity was the real issue. I had been imposing impossible ideals on the people of God, looking for a perfect church in many ways. I didn’t think this was the case, I would claim I wanted an authentic church, not a perfect church. Veith showed me that as a child of God, I often don’t even want the right things. What I need most is often not what I desire. There’s far more authenticity in bad coffee, hard pews, and people of all generations who aren’t very cool and often aren’t very intellectual than there is in coffee shops, smartly-dressed people, and haughty lounges with only folks from one generation who think they know everything. When you think about it, the emergent church is really only a white, suburban, 18-35 yr old movement. That is very limited and is not cross-generational and interracial (issues the emergent church often critique mainstream evangelicals for). Jesus died for all people of all nations, races, and languages – not just for a select group of haughty young adults.
“All in all, Veith challenged me to think critically about my presuppositions. He showed me that I was simply chasing after another fad, setting myself up for another disappointment and further disillusionment. All the while I was seeking authenticity, truth, community, experiences with God, and to be used by God. Veith made it clear that I have been misdiagnosing the issue altogether. The problem isn’t a lack of these things, the problem is sin. The answer is the cross. This is the only true spirituality. This is the only true contentment. I must seek Christ, all these other things flow only from that. When we put the cart before the horse we end up with another man-made institution, even if it meets in homes.
“I still have unanswered questions, but these are not as important as the central issues: Jesus Christ, sin and forgiveness, the cross. I had been struggling a lot with daily prayer prior to reading Veith’s book. After reading it I came to see that in many ways, tradition keeps me safe. Tradition is not always bad. I traditionally wash every morning, and that keeps me from smelling like a farm animal. I now use “Treasury of Daily Prayer” to get in the Word and pray daily, and it works for me. Before I would have never done this, claiming it would be “quenching the Spirit” and binding me in traditions. But you know what? For all my complaints, I wasn’t praying. Now I am. The simple format makes it harder for my flesh to get distracted. I’m a lot weaker than I used to think I was. I am far more dependent on Christ than I realized. This is humbling. This is almost humiliating. But I was wrong. I NEED Jesus. I NEED His grace. I NEED structure. I NEED accountability. I NEED fellowship. And the house church movement made me doubt and mistrust the very things that could have brought me freedom. All relationships are guarded and preserved by structure. Try telling your wife after you’ve had an affair, “Come on, I thought our marriage was about the relationship, not all these do’s and don’ts.” I’ve learned to embrace the structure, rather than fight it and “deconstruct” it.
“So I am probably rambling now. The bottom line is that through reading Veith’s book, the Holy Spirit has taught me some important things (and He continues to do so). I have learned that Jesus Christ is the focal point of Christianity, not authenticity, community or anything else. This fact requires that we live differently, not simply pay lip service to this fact intellectually while practically pursuing other things. If Jesus Christ is at the center of our spirituality then a lot of things are different. I still agree with many of my gripes about mainstream churches, but the Lutheran faith offers something more stable than the changing winds of most of these groups (in most cases), it simply points me to Jesus.”