I have been asked maybe fifty times in the last month this question: “What is driving the Emergent movement?” “Who am I,” I come back at ’em, “to answer that question?” But then like a truck in wet sand, I can’t avoid sinking into an answer. Here’s what I say, or something like it. And I’d like feedback so I can answer this question better.
First, Emergent is a reaction to what the Church has to offer and what the Church is today, and what it has to offer is not enough, not good enough, not biblical enough, not spiritual enough, not radical enough, not relevant enough, not in touch with a new generation of young adults who simply will not let the “same old, same old” be what they will tolerate for the Church (which is theirs too). I teach college students; anyone who denies that this new generation is new is missing something. (My I suggest, too, that one reason they are different is that they been reared to be different? Is it any wonder they want something different?)
Second, and because what we experience in England or Australia or Canada or the USA differs we need to be careful in generalizing, but still here it is: second, what they see in current Evangelical churches is too much Bible study without changed lives and churches, too much money spent on church buildings and not enough in missional work, too much apologetical articulation and not enough apologetical embodiment, too much old music and not enough edgy music, too much superficiality and not enough honest-to-goodness radical confession and admission of where we really are, too much “get me to heaven” gospel and not enough “Shalom is for the world too” gospel, and too much hierarchy and not enough spreading the gifts to the people. I could go on. For me, the irony of it is that many see too much “modern worldliness” in the current Evangelical Church and not enough “postmodern worldliness.” I wish I understood that statement better.
Third, the rhetoric of the Emergent folk who agree with these sorts of things tends toward the dichotomous (either/or language) because reactionaries like to strike their boundaries with flames. What these flames show, in my judgment, is not just difference but heated difference. Heated because these difference really do matter to the Emergent folk. Time mellows the heat, but flames make differences clear.
Fourth, if there is something wrong with the “state of things” then the “system is to blame.” Which means, there is a need to re-do the system, from ground up. In other words, one of the most significant features of the Emergent movement is “systemic analysis.” I’m not always convinced those who are doing the analysis are getting it right, but the issue is clear: the system is what led us to this “state” and there is a need to re-work the whole thing.
Fifth, so it seems to me, this is why there is nervousness with doctrinal statements — because it is those statements that express the system that got the church into this state. Again, bring in the flames and make it clear. Time will mellow the heat, but flames make the differences clear. Part of the systemic analysis is the postmodernist label, and what is stated is that the “system” is modern and we live in our “postmodern” world, and we need a “postmodernist system” — which is a little oxymoronic but, as I read and listen and talk on the phone — and I’ve had some good conversations of late — the postmodernity of many of the Emergent folk is chastened. More needs to be said, and this is where DA Carson dug in his heels.
Sixth, because the Emergent folk believe in the Church and, in particular, the local church as an embodiment of the gospel, they also believe the best way to revise the system is to live as radically as possible what they believe the gospel is. And they tend to think (again, not all) that what comes up on the other side of living just might be a new “system.”
I sense I’m sticking my neck out here but I do so to understand.