My post, Seven Habits of Successful Emerging Discussions, generated enough suggestions that I thought it would be good to post today on how Emerging Movement folk (EMers) might better converse with evangelicals. Just as I don’t assume to speak for all EMers, neither do I speak for all evangelicals. I apologize for the length, but I deemed it important enough to warrant what I say. And, as always, I’m happy to hear what you say.
But I think the following would help each of us:
Here is a summary of my points; read on for explanation.
1. Evangelicals are theologically-defined; EMers are praxis-defined. Think about this.
2. Avoid unnecessary verbal offensiveness.
3. Don’t act surprised when EMers say things that are contrary to established lines.
4. Involve yourself in discussion about unconventional ideas.
5. Avoid reductionism when describing evangelicals.
6. Don’t be dismissive with simplistic philosophical terms.
7. Don’t be divisive.
8. Avoid simplistic dichotomies.
9. Don’t be afraid to disagree.
10. Admit evangelicals get things right.
11. Make big proposals do-able.
Now, for fleshing it out:
First, there are two central issues for an evangelical and they need to be respected: evangelicals believe personal faith is necessary for salvation, and they believe in theological integrity and consistency. Evangelicalism is a theologically-defined movement within the Church rooted in personal faith, and when EMers assert that it prefers a praxis-defined movement, there will have to be lots of sitting around a table to make sense of one another. As there is no such thing as a theology-only movement (though some try), so there is no praxis-only movement (though some try). The two are always involved.
Second, since most of us EMers are still evangelical in theological orientation or post-evangelical, don’t scandalize or offend our evangelical sisters and brothers intentionally. Most EMers know what evangelicals think and offense is usually intentional. This is a matter of grace, not taste.
Third, EMers shouldn’t pretend to be surprised when EMers say things that they well know are contrary to the established lines of thinking and behaving of evangelicals. This borders on pretense.
Fourth, when EMers suggest an idea or a practice that is either not orthodox (and I’ve heard some of this) or unconventional, be prepared for a serious discussion about “why” such an idea is adhered to or a behavior is now practiced. And we should expect such challenges to come and we should expect to be asked how we established such an idea or a practice. Those who refuse to engage in that discussion are not “playing by the rules” of Christian theology or praxis.
Fifth, don’t engage evangelicalism by reducing evangelical theology to some stereotyped, narrow-minded fundamentalist idea that we know full well is dismissed by many thinking evangelicals. Let’s not suggest that all evangelicals pastors and churches are control freaks or that their churches are business shops, let’s not suggest that dispensationalism is typical for evangelicalism, let’s not suggest that all evangelicals are politically uneducated or politically Ludite or any other such stereotyped category — in other words, treat evangelicals the way we expect to be treated (for many of us are in both camps). (This, after all, is good praxis.)
Sixth, don’t be dismissive with those who disagree with us by suggesting that someone is “naively modernist” or “hopelessly propositional” or any other such simplistic set of labels. Evangelicals are on a spectrum as much as are EMers. They are not all Cartesian foundationalists.
Seventh, the point of the EM conversation is not to divide the Church but to find unities within the Church, so establish conversations that seek commonalities and are rooted in commonalities and that seek out commonalities. Shame on you if you end up meeting with only acrimony. Pray together; break bread together; discuss together; disagree clearly but with love and in the spirit of finding genuine gospel.
Eighth, do your best to avoid simplistic and false dichotomies. I have posted on the via negativa before: to state something by denying its opposite. I think there is a rhetorical place for using the via negativa, but if everything is done this way it quickly leads to false dichotomies. Thus, if we say, “We don’t believe in theology, we believe in praxis,” well, we’ve got a problem. That is a false dichotomy, unless we make it clear that we are ranking “praxis” above “theology” or putting theology into a praxis circle or praxis into a theological circle. Admit it, the via negativa is a fun procedure, but it often harms communication while it provokes consternation and disagreement. Some of us have gained a hearing by saying silly things, and we need to be more circumspect.
Ninth, engage with evangelicalism in genuine dialogue but don’t be afraid to disagree: evangelicalism is not the one and only pure form of the Christian faith. These are our brothers and sisters, but they are not the favored children of the Lord. Having said that, pretending that we are always saying the same thing in some big circle of love is sillliness: sometimes we differ with one another, and differences need to be stated and clarified and worked at. Sometimes there will be no resolution, sometimes there will be.
Tenth, please don’t be afraid to admit that evangelicals can get some things right sometimes. I’m hearing things that make me think evangelicals always get it wrong; this is poppycock — if we are genuinely dialogical and conversational, we are so because we don’t think anyone has it right all the time and because we are committed to the communion of the saints as a form of doing theology and articulating the gospel in our age.
Eleventh, (and now I’ve transgressed a decent length) big ideas deserve to be fleshed out so when making huge proposals (“we need to redefine what it means to be the church”), both make it concrete into reality and live it out.
I appeal to you as a Christian to a Christian to listen to your brothers and sisters long enough to understand how these terms are being used. In Alan Jacobs’ absolutely briliant book, A Theology of Reading, the Christian obligation in reading is to listen because listening is the first ingredient in a hermeneutics of love.
And my appeal is this: that I want to live out what I wrote about in The Jesus Creed; I want to love my neighbor as myself and love God with everything I am. And my appeal is a gospel appeal: I believe the gospel of Embracing Grace articulates a gospel in which the goal of God in working in our world through his love and grace is to create a community (in conversation) of faith that is union with God and communion with others.