Home > Ecclesiology > Seven suggestions for redeeming the emergent church

Seven suggestions for redeeming the emergent church

D.W. Congdon over at The Fire and the Rose has recently posted a very thoughtful and insightful critique of the “emergent church” movement.

He offers the following seven helpful suggestions for redeeming the emergent church movement:

1. Jettison the language of postmodernity. There is nothing helpful to be found there, and it only serves to create barriers where no barriers need or should exist.

2. Jettison the language of “incarnational ministry” or the church being the “hands and feet of Jesus.” All such language represents a superficial and erroneous christology, which in turn leads to an erroneous ecclesiology.

3. Reject all notions of relevancy, whether in christology or in ecclesiology or in any other area of Christian thought.

4. Similarly, stand under the judgment of God by standing under the judgment of Holy Scripture. Allow the witness of Scripture and life of Christ determine the proper shape of ecclesial existence. Remember that God is “wholly other” and calls us to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds, so that [we] may discern what is the will of God” (Rom. 12:2).

5. Read and engage with the work of missional theologians such as David Bosch, Lamin Sanneh, Darrell Guder, Andrew Walls, Christopher J. H. Wright, and others. There are important resources here not only for rethinking central doctrines of the faith, but for rethinking how Christ and the church relate to culture.

6. In addition to missional theology, read Barthians and Anabaptists on the church, the former to articulate the relation between Christ and the church and the latter to articulate the relationship between the church and culture.

7. Pray for forgiveness for the way that the church in all times and places has compromised its witness to Jesus, desired to control and manipulate God, and sought to appease one’s cultural context rather than the Holy Spirit.

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Categories: Ecclesiology
  1. roger flyer
    July 21, 2008 at 4:41 pm

    I will read the critique but the seven suggestions don’t seem particularly helpful. Instead, it sounds as if Mr Congdon has formulated his own stream of ‘emergence…’

  2. roger flyer
    July 21, 2008 at 4:48 pm

    I briefed his article. I don’ think you can jettison the meanings of ‘incarnation’ and ‘post-modernity’ so easily as he does in two or three sentences. ‘ Post-modernity is a cypher?…

  3. July 21, 2008 at 10:54 pm


    I have no idea what your point is in saying that I am formulating my own “emergence.” That just seems like a cheap attempt at making my criticism of EC apply to me as well. But there are no grounds for that, as far as I can tell. Am I advocating a new church movement? If I am, you’ll have to enlighten me.

    The language of “incarnational” (not “incarnation” as you put in the comment) just has to go. There is no excuse for it. The incarnation is an event, not an idea.

    As for the question of postmodernism, I will simply quote myself in response to another person who asked me the same question:

    The issue of postmodernity is complex. Several years ago I was infatuated with it. My thoughts changed dramatically when almost every aspect of what I thought characterized the “postmodern condition” was either greatly lessened in its significance or wiped away altogether. What does it really mean to be “post” or “after” modernity? The classic definition of postmodernism as a rejection of metanarratives (i.e., the universal, transcendental norms of Enlightenment rationality) sounds intelligent, but it’s an illusion. We are seeing the rise of new metanarratives all the time in place of the old. The clearest examples are globalization and late capitalism, the latter of which Hardt and Negri identify as the new form of empire in the world today. Empire is often viewed as a mark of modernity, but it’s still with us today. There are other metanarratives as well. The “new atheists” (Dawkins & co.) use evolutionism (to be distinguished from evolution) and other ideologies that claim to have universal explanatory power. The list goes on and on. Certainly, there are shifts in, say, architecture (where the term postmodern was first coined) and certain literary styles. But the differences are slight shifts within an overarching framework of modernism; there is no clear break by any means.

    Moreover, in theology, the continuity with modernity is even more apparent. The central issue raised by modern theologians — Schleiermacher is the highest example, of course — is the doctrine of God. In the late medieval era, it was ecclesiology/sacramentology and soteriology. (We could keep going back in time and identifying the key issues, but that’s not important right now.) In the modern era, the being of God is the question under discussion. What do we see in the era of “postmodernity”? The doctrine of God. And it continues today. See the debates over the impassibility of God, for example, or the debate over open theism in evangelical circles. The point is: the doctrine which characterizes the debates of modernity remains the doctrine characteristic of our present time.

    But if all that remains unconvincing, I think we find the most solid cultural sign of modernism in the fact that our culture has become more scientistic, not less. Scientism is the ideology of the scientific Enlightenment, the notion that modern science will provide the answers to our problems. Postmodern theorists heralded the end of the Enlightenment hegemony. But we see just the opposite. Take, for example, the “new atheists,” like Richard Dawkins. This group of people turn to modern Enlightenment science to reject God; theirs is simply the outworking of the atheistic ideas that began in the scientific revolution. Or take the Intelligent Design camp. Here we have a movement which seeks to claim validity on the basis of Enlightenment standards. They are seeking the legitimacy of modernity. Or take the culture’s almost unlimited hope in science to solve all the world’s problems, from energy to cancer to replacement organs to genetic mutations. Our culture, more than ever, sees the scientist as the hope for humanity. If there was ever a more convincing sign of our culture being solidly modern, it would be the modern religion of scientism.

  4. July 22, 2008 at 11:34 am

    Dad, I’ll let you respond to David, but I’m also unsure as to what you mean by David inventing his own “emergence.” It seems that this is precisely what he is trying to resist.

    As far as jettisoning terms like “incarnational” and “postmodernity” I think he’s probably right. However, I think the ubiquity of such terms in the emergent discourse is more symptomatic of the drive toward cultural relevancy which he rightly critiques.

    What David is trying to protect is the particularity of the Incarnation -which is a singular event in history. I don’t think that dropping the “incarnational” language will change anything all that much, for there are deeper christological problems at stake in the emergent church.

    “Postmodernism” of course really means nothing, that is, it has no stable meaning and so tends to be unhelpful. I think David is correct to note that its rhetorical use is usually more divisive than bridgebuilding.

  5. July 22, 2008 at 2:22 pm

    Sorry, I meant to address Roger, not RO — father, not son!

  6. July 22, 2008 at 7:53 pm

    ‘ll try to respond to David’s post at his bog. David-sorry for the confusion. I take responsibility for what I say…

    I don’t mean to dismiss what you are saying…only to bring attention to some of the words you use to correct the emergent movement…

  7. July 28, 2008 at 9:40 am

    I am total agreement with points 3-7, but not completely with 1 & 2. You mention reading Guder, well here is a short piece from his book “The Incarnation and the Church’s Witness” where he states that there is most certainly a “risk” with incarnation language, but it is worth the risk:

    “By incarnational mission I mean the understanding and practice of Christian witness that is rooted in and shaped by the life, ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The critical question that motivates this study is this: Can and should the unique event of the incarnation of Jesus that constitutes and defines the message and mission of the church have concrete significance for the way in which the church communicates that message and carries out the mission?

    Understanding mission incarnationally . . . could prove to be a remarkably integrative way to approach the church’s missionary vocation. It could counter the typically Western reduction of mission to one of the many programs of the church. It could recast that mission as the definitive calling of the church. It could seek to read the biblical record in its own terms and to address serious problems in Western mission that have surfaced in this century.

    Thus, the language of incarnational mission could be both constructive with regard to the biblical and theological understanding of message, and polemical with regard to the context and history of mission, especially in the Western tradition.

    Just as any theological concept is susceptible to distortion, there are ways of misconstruing the linkage of Christian mission with the incarnation. It is possible to dilute the uniqueness and centrality of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ when his incarnation becomes a model for Christian behavior. A primary ethical or moralistic interpretation of the life of Jesus, such as was characteristic of nineteenth-century liberal theology, often downplays or dilutes the event-character of the gospel.

    But it is that event character, the historical ‘happenedness’ of Jesus’ life, that both enables and defines Christian witness. As we seek to explore the missional significance of the incarnation, we need to resist every temptation to dilute the centrality of the incarnation event. The risk represented by the concept of incarnational mission is worth taking, I think, especially as we are challenged to develop a viable mission theology for the Western world, which by common consent is now a very challenging mission field.”

  8. July 28, 2008 at 10:36 am

    Brad, I appreciate you taking the time to comment on this. You say you are in a agreement with points 3-7 but cannot get behind points 1 and 2. I know David has serious concerns with the term “incarnational ministry” and I’ll let him respond to that or you can comment on his site (linked above). In my view, the problem here is raised under point 3, which is the drive toward relevancy. My problem with the use of terms like “incarnational ministry” and “postmodernism” and the rest of it, is that they are conceptually vacuous. As far as I can tell these terms are used as rhetorical devices. What the hell does it mean to be “incarnational” or “postmodern,” or “missional” or “emerging”? It is just another way of saying, “We’re cool, hip, and relevant.”

  9. July 28, 2008 at 10:49 am

    R.O. I do understand where you are coming from here, but I think that language is still helpful – only if it isn’t just another way of saying “we’re cool, hip, and relevant.” If that is what happens then I am in total agreement with you, however I do not think that has to be the case.

  10. j wiebe
    July 28, 2008 at 10:35 pm

    Quick hello to R.O. – a few thoughts: the question of language is a very important one. What is being meant or conveyed by the terms used? “Cool, hip, relevant,” if this is indeed what is behind some of the terms in question, all seem quite thin and questionable. Being culturally fashionable does not seem to be advocated in the gospels or NT. What the church, the life of Jesus, or the doctrine of God might say to contemporary issues such as poverty, global capitalism and its gross inequalities, violence, empire, etc. – these are important issues. There ought to be some “relevancy” here. Perhaps I betray my hermeneutical biases here, that are in sympathy with many liberation theologians – one does not and can not simply start from scripture or theology to then reflect on experience, but one must start from experience and then reflect on scripture/theology. I mention this, because I think that the lived experience that one finds oneself situated within, demands some type of relevancy. Not in a cheap consumerist type of way to boost sales, increase one’s google ranking or to create a hip image, but to thoughtfully probe what wisdom historical Christian thought would speak to our contemporary realities.

  11. July 29, 2008 at 10:45 am

    Hey Jer – I think you’re right to insist on the importance of the church speaking to these “relevant” issues. But, the church does not do this in the name of being “relevant.” I would hope the church does this out of faithfulness to the gospel.

    In terms of your comment about the role of experience in theology. Surely you are correct that we’re never free of context and experience when reflecting on the gospel. I’ve never quite understood “contextual” theologies -as if there was a theology that wasn’t contextual! It is quite different, however, to make one’s experience (socio-economic, cultural) the driving force of one’s theology. As Rowan Williams insists we must always be open to the “strangeness” of Jesus as he challenges our presuppositions and our experiences. Liberation theology has not always done this so well -I do not mean to say that liberation theology should by any means withold its critique of the powers that be, but perhaps liberationists miss out on the radicality of gospel by not allowing it to surprise them.

    If being faithful means the church must speak out against global capitalism and violence (and I think we should)and if this makes us “hip” we may actually have a problem. This may well mean that even our resistance isn’t free from the logic of capitalism. Again, I do think it is perhaps important that the church, like Jesus, maintain a certain degree of strangeness.

  12. masonmusic
    July 29, 2008 at 7:55 pm

    It seems to me that J Wiebe and R O flyer are using ‘relevant’ in different ways, thus the topic of language.

    Wiebe seems to be speaking of relevancy as a soft term to describe the connection of human life to the ideas of theology.

    Flyer seems to be using the term as a hard term which has within it the dark (and also human) desire for recognition, fame, for legitimacy. This kind of relevance has a pop culture usage which calls to mind all the magazines, the useless news, the plastic people.

    Wiebe seems to be talking about the human desire to speak in a way that one hopes, in all hopeful humility, makes sense.

  13. j wiebe
    July 30, 2008 at 11:52 am

    I like the emphasis on faithfulness … what does faithfulness mean in whatever context one finds oneself, one’s community, one’s local church, one’s nation, one’s enemy …?

    And yes, I don’t see how one can escape “context” even though the attempt to overcome context seems to be a recurring feature of the human and theological experience. Isn’t our context always driving our theological quests? Maybe more than we think. It seems difficult to articulate or even be aware of all the motivations and various contexts that shape our inquiry.

    That said, I very much agree with your sentiments regarding openness to the strangeness (and otherness) of Jesus. We must be open to being surprised and undone, to let the speck that has unfathomably made its way into our own eye be revealed and removed.

    As an aside, I have a great fondness for certain aspects of liberation theology and praxis, it being a source of great challenge and surprise for me. All too often it seems that quick denunciations of liberation theology are pronounced by those who have largely been sheltered from the human misery that gives rise to revolution. I agree that liberation theologies and praxis should not go without critique, to be certain, AND perhaps those of us who have not experienced the great suffering that gives rise to cries of liberation and justice need to allow ourselves to be “surprised” a little more.

  14. July 30, 2008 at 6:04 pm

    We may well be using “relevant” in different ways. My point, and this pertains to the emergent church movement, is that the church’s witness to the world should not be about constantly bending toward what is relevant or what will sort of “speak” to our culture. I’m not interested in getting “kids” or “young people” back into the churches, if this means that we water down the radicality of the gospel’s call to discipleship.

    I’m not saying that EC necessarily always does this, but it does appear to invest a lot in “image” – a sort of branding. And I think this could be problematic.

    I think the emergent church movement has some positive things going for it, to be sure. It is a step forward for the American (and Canadian) evangelical church. For one, it seems to be more aware that the church has a history and that evangelicals are only one part of that history and relatively new to the scene. Secondly, it is more willing to dialogue with other denominations and other religions, however, in this area it too quickly slides into the mistakes of 19th and 20th century liberal Protestantism. This is extremely problematic, primarily because it is too caught in the thralls of capitalist modernity. The EC could benefit from L. Newbigin in this department, I think.

    As far as liberation theology goes, I’m totally with you Jer. When I critique liberation theology I critique it from the “inside” as it were or at least standing in that tradition of theological inquiry. This, of course, is problematic as I am in many important ways somewhat of an “outsider” in that I’m not poor and oppressed. All of this raises a number of important questions as to first world Christians’ involvement in liberation theology.

    I agree though, first world Christians must allow ourselves to be surprised by liberationists!

  15. roger flyer
    July 30, 2008 at 9:55 pm


    Not sure how to respond to your blog or your objection to my quick critique. You are obviously a very erudite and thoughtful scholar and I can’t engage you at the theological and sociological levels you are speaking from.

    i belive ‘incarnational’ and ‘post-modernism’ are helpful words to help people understand what the ‘emergent’ church is about. Most emergent thinkers (in my experience–Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones, Brian McLaren) I would venture to say don’t regard themselves as top shelf theologians but more as explorers, entrepeneurs, journsalists of a new kind of expression of Christianity.

    I think it is profoundly helpful to speak of ‘incarnation (in the way of ‘brad brisco”s post) and ‘post-modernity’ in the common vernacualar of 2008.

  16. July 31, 2008 at 12:21 am

    Dad, one of the reasons why I posted these “seven suggestions” was because I think they raise some important questions about a movement that certainly has some positive elements to it. I, for one, do not intend to reject the EC movement out right, but I do think that these points are worth thinking about and engaging with on a serious level. If you have the time, and if you are willing, I’m interested to know your responses to these questions.

    I’m sorry but your humility, your posing as sort of a rookie thinker, won’t past muster here. I more than anyone know that you have substantial experience in ministry and have done a lot of thinking about these issues. I’d like to hear a more substantial response than what you have given thus far.

  17. roger flyer
    July 31, 2008 at 10:20 am

    What is troubling about many of these posts from doctoral students is the thick ‘theology’ blinders many of these passionate and brilliant people must wear out of necessity to survive the cold wars of the seminary world.

    The endless quoting of ‘serious’ theologians (Barth, Bultmann, Schielemacher, et al, ad nauseum) is just not helpful to anyone.

    The emergent thinkers don’t pretend to be ‘serious’ theologians, but instead–they are thoughtful provokers–and people who are seriously trying to connect their heads with their hearts and put it into their hands to work. And interdisciplinary, I might add. Pagitt, Jones, and McLaren all flavor their insights with anecdotes, songs, stories, clips from live culture (not dead theologians)…sociological, ecclesiological and historical understanding, with generous kudos given to people of differering theological stripes (some unorthodox types, included)…

    OK I know I come off like a beligerent snot. Here it is–the ivory tower of ideas can be very isolating and at the end of the day, it can become much idle speculation and much ado about nothing.

    How can we as followers of Jesus emerge out of the miry pit into something workable, life-giving, real, ‘incarnational, generous–in a culture that is decidedly no longer ‘enlightenment modernisim’–I like what Solomon’s Porch is trying to do, or the Simple Way, or Vineyard Central in Cincinnati.
    (I was bemused that Shane Claiborne was blackballed from an evangelical christian school because he was labelled emergent.)

    I know this platform of bloggers resent posers like me, but someone needs to say: ‘Look, there are many angles to look at this things from and the professional theological is one among many. (Whoops, sounds post-modern…)

  18. roger flyer
    July 31, 2008 at 10:24 am

    I did not add the winking emoticon…don’t know how it got there! How did it sense my emotions while I wrote this little blog?

  19. roger flyer
    July 31, 2008 at 10:26 am

    I’m sorry if my posts stir up some stuff on your site. I posted similar rants on Ben Myers’ blog awhile back on the (de-)merits of songwriter Tom Waits as eminent theolgian. We had a raging dicussion there for a few days…Ben Myers blog–faithandtheology

  20. masonmusic
    July 31, 2008 at 11:16 am


    It is interesting that you find emergent thinkers more down to earth; one of the main criticisms of their movement is that it is too intellectual.

    But I want also to agree with you sentiment about professional theology, it really does seem to circle the wagons, making the conversation a specialized one.
    Stanley Hauerwas, himself a professional theologian, is calling the university to return to its roots as a place which understands that education means sitting under a master and that education means that that master brings all the disciplines together so that biologists don’t get left out of theology and theologians don’t get left out of biology.

    We must ask the question sooner or later in a serious manner, “what walls is our current discipline creating?” The ivory tower is still a helpful image to a perennial problem. Talking about the poor doesn’t bring us there, and that kind of distanced proclamation is problematic. I hear that we will be judged for every word uttered.

    As a final point, I am remembering a conversation with R O in which he mentioned that Pentecostals are now primarily the church of the poor…. what are we missing?

  21. July 31, 2008 at 2:49 pm

    Hi Joel-
    Do you think Brian McLaren or Doug Pagitt would consider themselves intellectuals? What I love about them is their non-defensive stance and open-heartedness to down-to-earth ways to express the ‘gospel’…What is so bad about that?

    Serving the poor where you live…living in community…de-centralizing leadership…making small groups the center of the ‘church’…professing monastic vows of one sort or another. These are all significant, counter-cultural, Jesus tribe things.

    Pentecostalism began as the church of the poor.

  22. masonmusic
    July 31, 2008 at 8:31 pm


    I am sure they must consider themselves intellectual. That they perhaps do not is not a signal that they aren’t but rather a sign that they are ghetto-ized.

    Solomon’s porch is a wonderful community as far as I can tell. They are mostly white people. They are mostly educated people who, through their education, have become hungry for a spirituality which takes into account the nuances of faith; this is a good thing.
    That this has left people out is obvious. That they speak so fluently the language of my generation is a reason why they are heard by a certain demographic.
    What I and other people are scared of is a gospel which tells us to meet the other as a brother. This scares me because I intuitively sense that this re-orientation will mean not simply learning a new intellectual language which says things like “other” “stranger” “incarnational” etc… It will mean being surprised by the stranger that is Jesus and the boring infuriating local church of which Jesus is the head. It could mean being nameless, never quoted in books, it could mean only being famous to God.

    Now I don’t agree with thoughts like, “stop using the word ‘incarnation'” From one intellectual movement to another, this means little to me. What I still want to know is: why can the poor feel comfortable in the pentecostal church? Why would they slip out the back door if many of our favorite theologians or thinkers were speaking?

    Who is their Lord?

    Who is ours?

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