The Emergent Church

Herbert Douglass Part III and IV

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Posted April 11th, 2010 by Herbert Douglass

So, how come the "emerging church/emergents" is so attractive to many Adventist leaders,  pastors,  and members!  We seem to be usually 10-15 years behind the "big story" rolling through other churches. I remember well James Kennedy's "Evangelism Explosion" in the 60's with its remarkably helpful program of organizing laypeople for evangelism. Then the Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), where conferences sent many pastors to "get it" and become efficient soul-winners, a not so remarkably helpful introduction to the art of getting people to make decisions without even knowing it--inside the world of advertising.   Riding in was the newest showcase, Willow Creek with Bill Hybels, featuring the "seeker-friendly" church (then came Saddleback and Rick Warren). Here again, our conferences devoted many tens of thousands of dollars sponsoring hundreds of pastors to sit at the feet of these two gifted men. In fact, our own church paper noted that Adventists were the largest percentage of "students" at one time at Willow Creek in the 1990s!   About the same time, the Celebration Church was the new model in Advent town. Their pastors were invited everywhere to show other pastors "how to do church." Certain kinds of "church plants" became the latest style of "evangelism--which usually meant hiving off of those who wanted gospel-lite and near-rock, music. Where are the Celebration pastors and their experiments today?  Most church plants today are energized by ethnic groups that reach out for those in the neighborhood who have been neglected--now hearing the Adventist message in their own tongue and flavor. 


Now, about fifteen years after the first waves of the emerging/emergents (both terms are used interchangeably), we saw the first waves hitting our church media. Nothing earth-shaking--just "overlapping" words at first. Using words and phrases that have enormous special meaning for the emergents but understood among us, in a way, as conservative Protestants/Adventists have always understood them--such as "meditation," "the silence," "conversation," "dialogue," relationship," "propositional truth vs. spirituality," "contemplative prayer," "spiritual formation," "missional," "ancient-future," "matrix," "vintage," "narrative," "story," etc. Why this introduction? Because, the cry today, whether spoken or not, is for "spirituality." Why in our Bible-believing, End-time-oriented, Adventist Church, of all places! For a number of reasons. For instance, some Adventists are shocked by what they read on the Internet. They cry out, "How come my pastor, my teachers, my parents, have not been telling me the truth about Ellen White?" Etc.  And so they turn to whoever is promising a new way to find "real spirituality." Whoa! So much more interesting than boring sermons and stodgy Sabbath School lessons!  New Spirituality/Emerging Church--just what confused minds are looking for! 


But from the pastor's viewpoint--everybody wants "success." More baptisms, more filled-up churches, etc. In their Seminary classes and at their Workers' Meeting, they have heard for decades well-known "experts" on church growth. These are the "specialists," most of them from Fuller Theological Seminary-McGavran, Wagner, Schaller, Logan (Baptists), etc. Not much is heard about them these days.  Couple that with the tons of money spent on Willow Creek and Saddleback in the attempts to find the secrets to a "real seeker-friendly" church--it is easy to feel sorry for the average, dedicated, hard-working pastor who usually has at least two churches to please. Maybe there is something "fresh" here for our members, is their hope.  


On the other hand, many pastors can't figure out why their youth leaders are talking about labyrinths, mimes, clowns, pulpit bands (with their accents on the second beat), bar ministries, dramatic skits, etc. They see alternatives such as GYC where thousands of Adventist youth gather throughout the year, not sponsored by anybody but their own funds--to sit for hours and days listening to powerful talks/seminars--and not be entertained by the typical youth programs.  But you may ask a more fundamental question: don't we have a clear, winsome, relevant Adventist message? Should there not be some "spirituality" in that? And if we don't, then why not find some "spirituality" where it seems to be so evident! 


The real reason behind this hunt for spirituality, even within many areas of the Adventist Church, lies not in dying churches but in the cause for the malaise that seems to lie behind what some call the "deadness" in many of our Adventist churches. George Knight nailed it when he called the publication of Questions on Doctrine  in 1957--"the most divisive book ever published by Adventists."  Today, we are reaping the whirlwind of fifty years of theological muddle wherein some leaders were enamored with recovering Reformation definitions of "righteousness by faith," etc. Since the denominational drift in theological emphasis since the 60s, conference presidents have told me that it has been difficult for years to have seminary-trained graduates prepared to preach distinctive Adventist sermons, timed for last-day instruction, in the local church. It is no secret that, generally speaking, the reshaping of righteousness by faith and the focus on the Cross that, at the same time, diminished the emphasis on our Lord's equally important High Priestly role, became the doctrinal flavor of choice.  Our eyes were taken off our Living Lord who wanted to be our Intercessor between us and the Evil One, helping His followers to also overcome his fiery darts as He did 2000 years ago. In short, our Lord wants us to enjoy, really enjoy, the full gospel--the peace of pardon and the power of a new life.  


   Bull and Lockhart, two English historians, in their remarkable book, Seeking a Sanctuary (second edition, 2007) summed up the theological fork in the road that our seminary began to take as a consequence of the 1957 drift of Questions on Doctrine: "The focus on the crucifixion encouraged by Questions on Doctrine was taken further by the Adventist theologian Edward Heppenstall. . . . His solution to the difficulty of explaining how the sinner could reach perfection was to argue that perfection was neither necessary nor possible. . . . (that) sinlessness cannot be realized here and now." (86-87).

   Bull and Lockhart went on: "Prior to Heppenstall, no important Adventist writer denied the possibility of perfection. Ellen White had been unequivocal." (87). Bull and Lockhart saw immediately that what one believes regarding "sinlessness" directly involves "justification " and "sanctification": "She (EGW) made no absolute distinction between justification and sanctification and saw both as part of a single process that culminated in perfection prior to translation. Her understanding was eschatological rather than ontological."(91).


Thus they opined: "Edward Heppenstall's emphasis on justification in the 1960s should be understood. . . . It can be understood as a way of compensating for a decline in belief in an imminent Second Coming." (93) Thus, "Justification [as Heppenstall argued] enables believers to be made righteous immediately rather than at the end of the world. It bypasses the actual perfection previously deemed necessary for translation at the end of time because believers, without changing their sinful state, can be declared righteous at any time." 

   Authors continued: "It is significant in this regard that Heppenstall rarely mentioned the prospect of translation and never discussed the character of the last generation. Heppenstall broke the connection between Adventist soteriology and Adventist eschatology, and Ford abandoned the theory of Christ's heavenly ministry because he perceived no need for the blotting out of sins in preparation for an imminent translation." (94)  


Thus we have today the fallout of the shift in theology since 1957:


1. Charges of "legalism" became standard fare, scaring uncertain Adventists into fleeing from doctrine and obedience because they didn't want to be called "legalists!"

2. They now heard their favorite teachers and pastors say that it was "relationship with Jesus" that was important--doctrine is cold and, after all, the theologians can't agree. But not many were told that a "good" relationship depends on knowing a lot about the person we want to relate to.

3. Pastors were set up for their journeys to Saddleback and Willow Creek--after all, they were preaching the same thing and were getting better results.

4. And the present generation of young and old are now set up for finding something that is more personally satisfying than limited gospels proclaimed by Reformation theologians who have a hard time deciding which Reformer to follow. 


Thus, the emerging church movement is the newest, freshest, most exciting kid on the block. For many, they have been set up for it! 



May 2nd, 2010 by Herbert Douglass

Let's make it clear: Anything I write here, or anywhere else, is not a personal attack on anyone, whether within or without the Adventist Church. Many of them are personal friends, or will be.  I refuse to let differences of opinions make anyone be my enemy. 

Emergent leaders are not "bad" guys. Most of them are winsome, pleasing, yes, believable speakers. Obviously, not everything they say is "over the top."  Yet, although I believe them to be honest, I surely have serious concerns about what they are saying.

Frankly, I have sat where they sit and like Ezekiel (3:15) have been "astonished." For whatever reason, I, too, have been bored with Bible classes, sermons and Sabbath School classes.  We have watched some parents, teachers and pastors wander past the "boundaries" that seemed to describe the Adventist lifestyle.  The theological drift of the past 60 years has fogged over careful, long-standing distinctives. In other words, theological precision seems up for grabs for many. But still the gnawing urge to be "spiritual" remains.

Along come new faces, new songs, new ways of living the "spiritual" life without the do's and don'ts--and the appeal is refreshing. The question--"What's wrong with that?"--becomes the default instead of, "What's good about that?"  If anyone tries to define what Emergents or Emerging Church or New Spirituality believes, it is like trying to nail Jello against the wall.  And that seems to be exactly what the various Emergents want.  The lack of a common belief system is intentional; that is precisely why "conversation" is their chosen word for what they do/think.  Their ideas are exploring, and experimenting, but not defining in any way.  I find that refreshing in a way, but surely frustrating.

However, after saying all that, I must recognize that when zillions of books are being sold and most of the "leaders" make a habit of quoting each other, with prefaces and back covers loaded with endorsements of other "leaders," (such as Leonard Sweet, Brian McLaren, Rick Warren, Spencer Burke, Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones, Dan Kimball, Rob Bell, etc.), all that sure sounds like a "Movement."

Yet, the general flood of information now circulating keeps me from making a blanket rejection of what is meant by the Emerging movement.  I too resist, even reject with them, a propositional Bible study that is hardly more than memorizing an encyclopedia. I too think Jesus is a great Example but I see Him as also mankind's Savior.  I want the "words" of Jesus to be circulating through me as the nourishment of the vine feeds its branches, not only a flush of feeling about a great, inspiring man.

I too reject the awful damage that the eternal-hell notion has done to men, women, and children, the world over for hundreds of years since the early church fathers.

I too reject that awful damage that depicts God the Father "punishing" Jesus with the agony of a public crucifixion (the worst the Roman world would do "to get even" with their common criminals) as if God the Father had to be appeased in some way.

I too reject the marketing gimmicks of the so-called "seeker-friendly" churches with their mammoth screens, slappy-happy music, and super-organized, all-day services for all ages throughout the week.

I too reject the "short-cuts" used by the slick evangelist or pastor who, eager for "results," define, for all practical purposes, "coming to Jesus" in terms of a "Jesus prayer" or a card.

I too reject the almost prevailing notion that the Bible is an inerrant document--that is, each word is as God wants it, rather than recognizing that the Bible is God-breathed through the minds of men who then put their God-breathed thoughts into their own words that could be understood by their contemporaries, with all the limitations of being human penmen. 

But I also reject the worrisome emphasis on "experience" as the test of "authenticity" (a word they like). Just think how foolish, as well as its terrible consequences, of testing the "rightness" or "truth" of anything by how one, or how many, "feel" about a smooth lecturer, or a politician's message, or a  man's charm on the prowl for a wife. Or vice versa!

But I also reject their recovery of 20th Century liberal theology that focuses on this earth as the "kingdom of God" rather than on our Lord's emphasis that the real and lasting "clean-up" of this earth will happen when He returns--at the same time, not diminishing our responsibilities as good stewards.

I also reject the remaking of English vocabulary wherein "tolerance" now must be couched in terms of political correctness. Today, to respectfully "disagree" is an intolerant act; thus, Emergents refuse to say that anyone is wrong, one of their core values.

I also reject the notion that one must first "belong" before one can "believe."  Emergents contend people get too concerned or confused with questions of truth. Fellowship and conversation is where the action is.

I also reject the strange notion that a "relationship with Jesus" is primary, even though very little if any attention is paid to what Jesus actually said--how can anyone have an enduring relationship with anyone, such as a wife or husband to be, without really getting to know all about him/her--as far as possible? Facts and research seem imperative.

I also reject the disdain for evidence as I listen to Emergents relying more on what others may think.

I also reject a non-doctrinal "Christianity" wherein everything goes, avoiding the biblical edges of God's holiness, divine judgment, uniqueness of Jesus, sin, etc.

I also reject their use of Paul's example when he met the Athenians on Mar's Hill and catered to their "unknown gods," etc. Yes, the major lesson Paul gave all who fulfill the gospel commission was to work from the known to the unknown; but he declared unto them what most of them rejected (but not all)--the resurrected Galilean who would have the last word regarding sin and the judgment to come. That surely was speaking to their real needs, not to their "felt" needs.

I also reject the primary emphasis on being "missional" when the focus is on social compassion rather than conversion. We must not make all this into an either/or game. Jesus did both but His primary missionary impulse was to lead others to repentance.  Emergents have difficult using the holy "and" when they set forth their priorities.