Interacting with Emerging Church Culture
© by David Kowalski
Religious movements are more than doctrinal phenomena; they are behavioral cultures as well. Through various factors any people group tends to develop unique behavioral tendencies and this is particularly true of religious groups. Extreme examples can be found among such cults as People’s Temple and Heaven’s Gate. During the past twenty years of witnessing to different cult members and heretics I have experienced this phenomenon for myself. One can expect different kinds of conduct from representatives of different movements depending upon the representative’s particular alliance. While witnessing to cultists and heretics requires knowledge of their beliefs, knowledge of their particular culture helps one to adjust the approach taken in communicating with them.
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I have spent hundreds of hours over the past several years conversing with “emerging Christians” as I have listened to them and tried to convince them of their need to embrace true, biblical faith and historical orthodoxy. As a result of this experience I have learned that despite the diversity in the emergent movement there is a behavioral culture to the emerging church movement as a whole and I have learned to adapt my communication strategies for most effectively interacting with its participants.
Emergent culture is postmodern and centers on the movement’s eschewal of propositions in favor of religious feelings. An emergent will not try to persuade you to a set of beliefs; they will use whatever means they can for you to have a favorable impression of the movement in their effort to grow their own numbers and extend their influence. Thus, while you may be most concerned to address emergent tendencies to tolerate Christological and Soteriological heresies in their ranks, they will be slow to discuss these issues with you if you are an orthodox Evangelical. They will try to persuade you that these heresies are found only among fringe elements of the group. Catering their dialogue to your orientation, they will most likely point to Scot McKnight as a typical emergent and quote from him while discussing the movement with you.
Ironically, McKnight represents a fringe, conservative element within the movement. While emergents will try to distance themselves from radical liberals such as Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, and Spencer Burke, as they speak to you, a perusal of emergent blogs will reveal that they do not do so as they speak to one another. Emergents have learned to speak out of both sides of their mouths. There is a strong, chameleon-like quality to the emerging church movement 1 which suits them well since they do not seek to proselytize outsiders to a specific belief system but to their movement. The parameters that define their movement cannot be found in anything resembling a statement of faith; these parameters are found in a postmodern tendency to tolerate even extreme differences in doctrine and practice as long as these do not represent dogmatic, conservative Evangelicalism (which they call Fundamentalism).
The two attitudinal qualities I have found most prominently among emergents are that they are proud and emotional. Emergents would loudly protest the accusation that they are proud since they assert that humility is a primary quality of their movement. Conservative Evangelicals should understand, however, that emergents use the term “humble” in a way conservatives do not. To an emergent, pride is typified in conservative claims that what they believe is more true than what others believe and to emergents the most egotistical of behaviors is for one to seek to convert others to their belief system. Thus, they see their conversational approach to interfaith dialog as evidence of their humility.
While Evangelicals cannot claim to be perfectly humble, I find that emergents are at least as proud as we are. They just express their pride in different ways and regarding different issues than Evangelicals do. Emergents seem quite taken with the idea that they represent the cutting edge of Christianity and that they are especially adept at using cutting edge technology to promote their movement. Emergents also tend to express themselves as though they are intellectually superior to backward “Fundamentalists.”
This intellectual posturing is most evident in their use of novel jargon (they even have a dictionary of sorts [A is for Abductive 2] for novices to use in understanding emergent writings) and their frequent citation of scholars who are to some degree sympathetic to the movement (such as Leslie Newbigin). The combination of sophisticated sounding jargon, technological skills, and support from some moderate and liberal scholars, seems to lead emergents to feel they are more sophisticated than outdated “fundies” who are not on the cutting edge as they are. Consequently I have found that emergents are quick to ridicule Evangelicals (“Fundamentalists”) and that they anger most easily when one criticizes their “scholarship” or pokes fun at their jargon. 3
It is not difficult to anger most emergents by these means. Postmodernism (the emerging church movement is postmodern) is a subjective movement and subjectivists tend to wear their emotions on their sleeves. Among the dozens of emergents I have dialogued with, I have found only one or two who have not easily resorted to tantrums and name-calling. Evangelicals must have thick skin indeed if they wish to engage emergents in conversation. You must also be well prepared for the occasion.
Above all you must master the content you intend to discuss. Not only must you know what Scripture says about subject matter such as the blood atonement, the unique deity of Christ, and the sinfulness of homosexuality, you should be well acquainted with emergent teaching on these topics so you can cite precise quotes on these when the emergent you are conversing with claims that the emerging church is too diverse to discuss any doctrinal or moral issues in relation to the movement.
Despite emergent claims to the contrary, the emerging church movement does have an identifiable doctrinal demographic, Many emergents have openly adopted liberal views on doctrinal and moral issues, most are tolerant of such views, and a very few (such as Mark Driscoll) have publicly advocated conservative, scriptural views. Thus, it is fair to speak of the movement’s identifiable panorama of views on vital doctrinal and moral issues. One must be well read in primary source, emergent material from a variety of emergent authors to demonstrate this fairness, however.
It is advisable to use a combination of assertiveness and appeasement in any dialog with an aberrant or heretical group member. There will always be some points upon which you can agree with nearly any cult or spiritual movement. If the conversation begins upon one of these points it will provide you with common ground upon which to make your next point and it will tend to make the emergent see you as a reasonable person whom he or she will listen to more sincerely.
Oddly, however, I have had more success talking to emergents when I begin with a point of contention and eventually shift to points upon which we agree (again, you can always find something you can agree about if you look hard enough). This approach does usually bring out emotional hostility from the emergent at the start but it tends to make the appeasement stage more meaningful, often leading to a moment of warmth and bonding between the emergent and myself. If I have crossed any lines or been rude during the confrontational stage I am careful to sincerely apologize in a self-deprecating manner during this stage. 4 I have often found this appeasement and apology garners genuine respect from emergents. At this point, the good will and kind sentiments engendered makes further confrontational conversational more effective especially if one maintains a kind tone.
Although emergents are frustrating to converse with, it is worth the frustration. I believe this movement is the most serious threat to the Gospel in our day. Not only should we show our concern for the Gospel by defending it, we should show our love to emergents by seeking to rescue them from having to give an account for promoting a movement that is a ravenous wolf in sheep’s clothing. Though it is time consuming and hard on the psyche, it is a commendable task to acquaint oneself with emergent culture.
It is rare for a participant in an aberrant movement to concede that they are wrong as the result of one, brief, conversation with an orthodox Evangelical. Nevertheless, I have seen emergents make concessions and even repent of their association with the movement after engaging in repeated, lengthy discussions with them. They are tough nuts to crack, but by the Holy Spirit, preparation, and perseverance, orthodox Evangelicals can engage in profitable conversations with emerging Christians. Learning how to interact with emergent culture helps.
David Kowalski is an ordained minister with the Assemblies of God. He has authored a number of articles, including two in the “Encyclopedia of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity,” published by Berkshire Publishing.
Other articles by David Kowalski at Apologetics Index:
On the Emerging Church:
- Postmodernism and the Emerging Church Movement
- Surrender is not an Option: An Evaluation of Emergent Epistemology
© Copyright 2008 by David Kowalkski. Posted at Apologetics Index by permission.
- I could give many examples of this. One of the most disheartening stemmed from a discussion with a minister friend who strongly defended Brian McLaren and recommended his ministry when speaking to me, but momentarily and completely changed his stance when speaking to one of his denomination’s leading scholars. Another particularly frustrating example comes from my effort to contribute to an article about McLaren in Wikipedia. A fellow editor had quoted McLaren out of context, making it appear that he took a moderate view on homosexuality. When I added the rest of the quote’s context which showed McLaren clearly refuses to consider this conduct sinful, the other editor exploded in anger and engaged me in an editing war which I finally let him win. ↩
- Leonard Sweet, Brian McLaren, and Jerry Haselmayer. A is for Abductive: The Language of the Emerging Church. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing, 2003). ↩
- See, for example, my satirical Glossary of Emergent Terms at https://apologeticsindex.org/297-emerging-church-glossary ↩
- Unfortunately I have had to do this on several occasions. Confrontations with emergents have sometimes led to heated comments and inappropriate (though accurate) insults on my part. ↩