James Macdonald and Emergent

James Macdonald and Emergent October 26, 2005

Pastors have a nearly impossible task. Especially pastors of mega-churches. Because they are asked to do so many things, speak at so many other functions, and render judgment on nearly everything that comes along, pastors can develop one of two orientations: humility about the task or what I call “P-Bics”: Pastors of Big Churches Syndrome.
The P-Bic Syndrome is the need to render judgment on everything and everyone. The problem, as I see it, is that the fully capacious qualities of many pastors of mega-churches, and I know a number, can easily be transferred from what they are genuinely called to do (pastor, lead, preach) to what they are asked to do and are not qualified for (analysis of current trends).

First, let me defend pastors. I have often wondered how it would be possible for professors, especially young professors, to be pastors for a short while. Especially when they are working on their doctorates. And the reason I wonder this is because they need to see what lay persons are interested in and they need to learn to answer the questions that lay persons ask and they need to learn how to communicate with lay persons about lay person issues. Because I believe this is so important, I sympathize entirely with pastors having to render judgment about most everything that comes along. I cannot tell you the incredible questions I have been asked after speaking in local churches; and the same applies sometimes to college students. (Seminary students, probably for fear of being shamed by a dumb question, are not so prone to ask this sort of question.) Pastors are asked to respond to much of what is going on and I appreciate their sincere efforts to do so with integrity.
So, when I turn now to remonstrate with James Macdonald, I do so as one who sympathizes with his task and his calling, not as an ivory towered professor who rarely finds time for such things as the local parish ministry.

Here’s my problem with James Macdonald’s recent examination of emerging and then his second part: I don’t think he has studied the movement deeply enough or widely enough to understand it. Therefore, his five point critique falls flat for me and it falls flat because it is not penetrating or fair.
In general, I consider myself a part of the emerging movement but I think I agree with the substance of what Macdonald says here. The fact is this: very few really know what this emerging movement is all about because it is extremely diverse, all over the map theologically, and constantly in motion. To criticize it is much harder than to to try to describe central elements. I think Macdonald has sketched a stereotype and responded to that. I’m asking Jim to meet with me sometime to discuss the emerging movement. We live close enough to one another to pull it off, and he was at one time a student of mine at TEDS.
The problem with the P-Bic Syndrome here is that his authority, which is considerable in his church and with others around him, has been transferred to expertise about the emerging movement, and I think he is doing all of us a disservice because he is not taking on the core of the movement (which can be found on Emergent-US website), which is the fundamental importance of praxis as the genuine expression of our orthodoxy, but instead exaggerations that are not centrally accurate.

First, his introductory paragraph is nice and he returns to much the same at the end of the second article. But, I’d like to see some of what he appreciates come into play in his critique. It is his article, not mine, so I’ll simply respond to his five major points. I consider his stature significant enough to devote an entire lengthy post in response.
Here are his big points:
1. Because observing the bad is not a credential for guiding us to the good.
[Added later in light of Trish’s comment: I do not mean to suggest seeing problems means having solutions. And I think MacDonald’s comments here are fair enough in that there is no reason to think criticism implies resolution. My problem is that I don’t think he’s got history on his side and I don’t think it is fair to suggest the emerging movement is problem-pointing and not resolution-suggesting, nor that their resolutions are shallow. My point is that seeing problems is a gateway to finding creative solutions. This, I think, is what the emerging movement is exploring.]
“History is replete with proof that those most articulate about our shortcomings are often least able to bring balanced, objective solutions.”
Just down the road from Macdonald’s church is Willow Creek, and that pastor, Bill Hybels, would offer a serious warning to Macdonald about this statement: holy discontent with the way things are is the necessary condition for change. I don’t know how Macdonald can make this statement: those most articulate about problems are often the ones who are remembered for leading to change. Let’s start with Augustine and move to Luther and Calvin and Zwingli (and not forget the many medieval male and female saints) and Whitfield and Wesley and then into our modern times with Martin Luther King, Jr., and the origins of TEDS (where he went to seminary and where he was one my students).

The emerging movement is seriously discontented about the way things are, and that discontent is the hotbed for change.
I do agree, however, with him when he says that emergent remedies are too easily accepted by some. But, I’m not sure what he is thinking of. And I’m not so sure, after reading his article, that he knows enough about the emerging movement to say that he “deeply resonates with much of the criticism flowing from the emerging church against Western Christianity.”
2. Because God is looking for obedience to revealed truth, not just sincerity.
In general, I don’t like this point because I don’t think the issue is “truth” vs. “sincerity” but a re-evaluation by some (not all) of how to articulate that truth.
In this section, Macdonald mentions names (Chris Seay, Carol Childress, Dave Travis, Leonard Sweet, Brian McLaren, and Rob Bell) and it must be these that he is making this statement about: they are sincere but they question the truthfulness of Scripture.
This is a tricky one, because I’ve not read any statements by these folks where they deny something in Scripture, so let me make two or three observations. First, while the emerging folk don’t like to operate by way of “doctrine then practice,” I do see a need for emerging leaders to articulate something like an emerging view of Scripture. Second, what is often taken as denial of Scripture by some is actually a reinterpretation of Scripture, and (I’ll be honest here) I have heard statements and read statements by some that I think are inconsistent with other things in Scripture. (One of them pointed out to me that Job is inconsistent with Deuteronomy 28, and that they see their dialogue with Scripture to be family tension rather than overt denial. We’ll see as time goes along. But, let’s hear them out before we render judgment.) Third, the closest thing I have seen to a view of Scripture at work among the emerging crowd (and it is a variety if ever there was one) is The Drama of Doctrine by Kevin Vanhoozer. That book articulates a theory of Scripture that sees it as God’s script for the Church to perform on the stage God has created. That is about what I see in the emerging movement. If I am right here, Macdonald has overreacted. I’d have to see the specifics to which he is pointing.

Macdonald makes it clear that he doesn’t want to give precise examples because it will lead to people defending a favorite teacher, and I agree with him. Stick with the big issues, and see if it applies to the movement as a whole. He mentions here also the new birth, and I can’t say that I’ve seen anything along this line. I’ll have to keep my eyes open.
On this second point, I’m not sure if Macdonald gets it right. In some settings, I think I’d agree with him. In the main, though, I think the emerging folks love the Bible and live by it and live it out.
3. Because Christ’s is a kingdom of substance, not style.
I’ve heard this statement so many times it is annoying. It is annoying because it is not true. I’ve seen plenty of experimentation with style. But, the point is being missed: style and substance are not two different things. Standing high on a platform, standing behind a huge pulpit, having one’s picture broadcast all over the building is not just “style” but says something: about the authority of the preacher and about the authority of preaching. I like the latter, I’m nervous at times about the former.
The point is this: substance is communicated through style.

By the way, James, I tend to agree with you on the chic approach to everything (I’m 51 years old, after all). But, I also tend to agree with others that a business man’s suit is also an issue. This needs to be thought through more carefully.
4. Because the answer is Jesus, not cultural analysis.
Again, the issue is the same as #3. Cultural analysis is not something “in addition” to the gospel but the gospel is presented in a cultural form everytime it is presented.
Again, the issue is not “Jesus” vs. “cultural analysis.” It is both.
I like this statement of Macdonald’s, and it is thoroughly emerging: “How about a more compassionate extension of our own life in Christ and please . . . a lot less perpetual babbling about culture, which even when rightly observed is not the answer, duh – Jesus is!”
Here’s where Macdonald misses a great chance to engage the cultural analysis of the emerging movement, which is sometimes penetrating and sometimes shallow (what cultural analysis isn’t?). What is it about their cultural analysis that he doesn’t like? He admits in the opening paragraph to appreciating this about them: now what about it does he like? (In that opening paragraph the things he does like are what emerge from their cultural analysis.)

5. Because Jesus is the purpose for the party, not the surprise hiding in the closet of respectability.
This one wounds because I think it is cheap. I’m not so sure that many in the emerging movement are into “respectability” and certainly not over against Jesus himself. In this section I think Jim gets a little cheeky and sarcastic.
I agree that sometimes the emerging folk are so embarrassed by institutional evangelicalism that they want to “show” Jesus rather than “shout” Jesus. Maybe this is what Macdonald is talking about.
On the other hand, I would remonstrate myself with those in the emerging movement who are afraid of evangelism as bold proclamation of Jesus. I think the issue for the emerging movement, on the whole, is “how” to proclaim not “if” it is to proclaim. And, to make this clear, I don’t think the emerging movement on the whole is afraid of “what” it proclaims either. It simply believes that proclamation and performance are to be wedded.
Well, Jim, how about lunch? I’ll pay. And I suspect we’ll both need pen and paper.

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