What a fascinating question. You are taking a sociology class, your professor says what people fear the most tells you most about them, and you and your friend begin to discuss what fear drives the “Liberal churches, the Evangelical churches, and the Emerging churches.” And you want me to weigh in the greatest fear of each. Great one, and I spent an evening or two thinking about this as Kris and I wandered around the lake. (I’m happy to tell you we’ve now seen some migrating ducks such as Readheads, some Common Goldeneyes, some Buffleheads [my personal favorite], and some Scaups.) Well, to your question. I think this is rather easy, but when I stand in between advocating for some kind of Third Way I know I run the risk of getting each group fired up with my descriptions. So, what do the Liberals most fear? Easy.
One of the cardinal virtues of Liberals is tolerance and that means intolerance is intolerable. If you like deconstruction, it works here — but it shows to me that reckless use of deconstruction is destructive, a game, and it gets us no where. It is reasonable for those who believe most in tolerance to struggle with those whom they think are intolerant. Which all means that Liberals are most fearful of Traditionalists and Evangelicals with upper-case “T” and “E.” Why? Because they fix firm boundaries on how far tolerance can be extended, and at the same time they say “some things are just wrong.” Now it is also clear that we can’t be simplistic here: Liberals think some things are wrong and when conservatives say they are moral relativists I’m willing to bet that conservatives can’t really find a pure relativist. At least not among Liberals — for a Liberal doesn’t relativize freedom. But, they do fear the inflexibility of Tradition.
Evangelicals, on the other hand, are most fearful of change to the core of what is perceived as central to their faith. By nature, Evangelicals are Conservatives — some with an upper-case “C” and some not (that’s a big difference but I’ll not go there now) — and they are Traditionalists. Which means they think their ancestors got things Right and there is no need to change. I’ve lived long enough to see “worship wars.” When I was in high school it was pretty clear that the guitar was headed toward Evangelical churches, and there was not a few of the gray hairs who thought the guitar had to be stopped at the door. It was OK for Singspiration and youth groups, but it was not for worship. Well, look at what we’ve got now. But it was the change that was so hard. When it comes down to it, change is a major, major fear for Evangelicals. But, if you sit down and talk about it reasonably you’ll see that the major difference between Liberals and Evangelicals is how easy (or hard) change is.
We need to insert this: Liberals are more than willing to reconsider what Evangelicals are not willing to consider (until a major charismatic Evangelical leader says so): changing what is central to the faith and what is perceived as central. Liberals have no problem giving up substitutionary atonement; Evangelicals fight for it like a Cairn Terrier. We could list a number of issues.
So, what is the emerging movement afraid of? This might surprise you, but I think I’ve got this one nailed. What will surprise you is that it is not theology — Liberal or Evangelical. The emerging movement, no matter how many times I say this it doesn’t seem to convince many, is not a movement rooted in a set of doctrines. It is theological, but not the way either Liberalism or Evangelicalism are. It’s biggest fear is centralization of power and authority. Look, Emergent Village set off nothing short of a firestorm when it decided to centralize and form a National Coordinator (Tony Jones). Tony worked hard to convince folks they weren’t giving away the whole house when they simply tried to coordinate the efforts of emerging Christians around the globe by forming a clearinghouse. No, what the emerging movement fears is institutions, bureaucracy, control, and centralizing authority in a local pastor, a local presbytery, or a denomination. One of our oddities — and believe me it bugs me at times — is that many of us in the emerging movement draw deeply from some of the most hierarchical, centralized and institutionalized churches in the history of the Church: the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. (Not to mention other denominational structures.)
Well, I’ve put my cards on the table. What do you think these folks most fear?