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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  • Sophia kai Arete »

    McKnight on MacDonald
    Scot McKnight takes on Why James MacDonald is Not Emerging Part One and Part Two with a thoughtful and thought-provoking response. What’s your take on MacDonald, McKnight, and the conversation?—–
    […] Scot McKnight discusses James MacDonald’s disagreement with the emerging church movement. Although I think that Scot is correct in that James does seem to be overstepping his bounds in specifying a few particular aspects of the emerging church movement, this is near impossible to stop since the emerging church does not have the consistency of most other groups. […]

  • shelley

    You raise some provocative issues in your response to MacDonald’s critique. Another issue that comes up is specialization. If pastors cannot read and analyze the culture and comment on movements or discussions, who can and should? Sociologists? Not all discussions are worthy of being followed, and there are many opinions and movements out there, but people in the church are not always sure what to think of them and are not generally thinking deeply about them.
    I too am generally frustrated by the infallibility that P-Bics hold in their congregations. But for those in the congregation who are thinking about current trends, it does seem natural to turn to your pastor for guidance. What would you advise MacDonald to do when presented with this type of situation in the future?

  • Trish

    Thank you for your response to MacDonald. I think you also have oversimplified in your interpretation of his critique. One example: In MacDonald’s first point, ‘Observing the bad is not a credential for guiding us to the good,’ what he is saying in his explanation is that a movement with astute cultural critique does not ipso facto have astute biblical solutions. Nothing he says denies the historical reality of problem spotters making great change. His point is that problem spotting itself doesn’t necessarily lead to good and right change. Therefore we shouldn’t uncritically accept their views.

  • Scot, your post and the posts of your guests have really started me thinking again about something that I’ve been struggling through in my own context. And I guess the best chance I have of eleciting a response from you and the “Jesus Creed Community” is to pose a question: As the body of Christ, is it our fundamental task to introduce our neighbors to a Christ-following church (i.e. to a people that resemble Jesus)? Or, is our primary objective to introduce our neighbors to Jesus, even though he may have little to do with our church? There, I asked it! It’s been rolling around in my head and heart for a while now, and I need some input.
    Lately, I’ve been thinking that maybe this is why our evangelism efforts are so sub-par. Maybe we’re doing the wrong thing in our churches, concerned more with the presentation of the gospel than with the incarnation of it. And, of course, I know people have been talking about this stuff for an awfully long time, beginning with Jesus. But I’m woefully underprepared to help churched people resemble Jesus and frighteningly proficient in presentation techniques. It seems that my training was backwards.
    Final confession: As an American pastor, I feel like most of my life is spent converting churched people into Christians. It’s as if the gospel, as you and others have unpacked it, is negated by the quality of our lives. Which has really got me wondering, is this what I’ve been called to do: convince the supposedly already convinced that they’re not yet convinced that Jesus is right about and relevant to everything? I know this sounds like a Monday morning question, which is pastor-speak for a really bad day, but I’m going out on a limb here hoping to find some answers.
    It’s kind of weird how a James McDonald rant on the emerging church could provoke such a series of questions, but his vision of Christianity sounds so much like the vision shared by countless others, including those who call our church “home.” So, go ahead, and recite the Jesus Creed to me and tell me to love. Believe me. I’m trying.

  • Tom,
    Your issue is huge and a good kind of huge. It is a fact that very few Christians are evangelistic; it is also true that plenty of pastors let this be known.
    Why, we need to be asking, are not more Christians evangelistic?
    A come to church approach to the faith is part of the problem, and the emerging folk have clearly pointed this out. A serve your neighbor (completely) approach to the faith would make a big difference here.
    So, we are back to the question: what is the gospel? And what is designed to do? It is designed to transform cracked Eikons into glowing Eikons, and when they glow they are loving, missional folks. So, maybe the issue is the gospel we are preaching.

  • tony

    Scot: Thanks for providing this service. I’ve had numerous emails about his post, but no time to respond.
    In friendship, Tony Jones

  • “…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.”
    I haven’t read Vanhoozer’s book (I’m guessing you have…is it worth picking up?) but my guess it plays off of N.T. Wright’s “Shakespearian Play” analogy from “The New Testament and the People of God”. Anyway, I think you’re right that this theory of Scripture – or of living in harmony with Scripture to be more exact – is what most emergent people identify with. At least from my very limited point of view.
    Most of the reactions to emergent dealings with Scripture seem to be taken from quotes or soundbytes that do not constitute a “theory of Scripture” or anything like that. I’d be interested to hear a reaction to a more comprehensive vision like Wright’s or what Vanhoozer has to say.

  • Mike Bishop,
    Back some time ago I blogged about Vanhoozer’s book: you can catch it, I think, in my Books category. I think it is a very good book which, though dealing with doctrine in response to Lindbeck and McGrath (less so), clearly espouses a theory of Scripture that sees as a script for living that moves beyond an old-fashioned propositional model. In addition, it provides another way of fashioning theology in a narrative mode rather than a systemic mode. Good grief, it now sounds so good I may need to read it again!

  • I have been asked delicately by a friend (and pastor) about the propriety of going public with a response before meeting with another person. This has come up before, but is something I’ve lived with as an author.
    Namely, the principle I follow is the one the academy generally follows and the one pastors generally follow: if someone has made his or her view public either with a book or a blog or CD or a tape or a sermon, then a response at that level is an acceptable form of discourse and response.
    Let me flesh this out: if I write a book and someone responds to me critically, I expect them to do so in print and any other way they choose. This is fair game to me because I made my views public.
    Public communication then invites public response.

  • One of the freshest innovations I’ve seen within the emergent movement is that it doesn’t diagnose problems within church or culture without also envisioning practicable solutions. From my perspective, that’s a huge step forward.

  • The “problem” you cite with MacDonald is that you “don’t think he has studied the movement deeply enough or widely enough to understand it” and his critique “falls flat because it is not penetrating or fair.” A bit later, though, you state that “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.” So what you seem to be saying is that
    1. MacDonald’s critique of the emerging movement is not fair.
    2. The emerging movement is difficult to understand because it is diverse and constantly in motion.
    Here’s my question: If the emerging movement is such that “very few really know what [it] is all about,” then on what basis can you say that MacDonald’s critique is unfair, given that the judgement of whether or not a critique is or isn’t fair presupposes that the thing in question (the emerging movement) is one way and not another? Are you claiming to be one of the “very few [who] really know[s] what [it] is all about”? #2 undercuts your ability to say #1, or so it seems.

  • Timbo,
    Your questions are fair and penetrating. I appreciate them, and it helps the whole conversation. Thanks.
    It bothers me that my own description of the movement is still not in print, but the magazine it is for has not been able to put it in — more important things, like Katrina, got the pages. My own understanding lies behind much of what I am saying. If you care to look, it unfolded in earlier posts and you can find them in the Emerging Movement category on my sidebar.
    There are some good studies out there, but not enough yet at the level for popular consumption. Let me simply say that I think the place to begin is with Emergent-US and to let its words sink in when one attempts to explain the movement. Also read the Wikipedia article.
    Second, #2 doesn’t preclude understanding emerging but it says that it just takes lots more time. I don’t think MacDonald took enough time; his response trades on stereotypes rather than penetrating analysis.
    Yes, I am claiming to know what it is about, but I am not claiming to know it exhaustively or to be the world’s expert, but I have gained some confidence on the part of many of its leaders for understanding the movement.
    It took me months of reading and conversing and listening to figure out what this was about. I began thinking, as many do, it was all about postmodernity and truth; I think that is involved, but it is much broader than this. It involves all kinds of factors, and it is so broad and diverse very little works.
    Sorry for such a long response.

  • “I don’t think he has studied the movement deeply enough or widely enough to understand it. ”
    I don’t know anything about James McDonald or whether this is true or not. BUT… I will suggest that understanding a church or a movement will never come by “studying” it, only experiencing it. Though I do wonder whether the “emerging church” (as an entity) actually exists at all, if it does… I think it’d be nearly impossible to claim understanding of it without being part of such a church.
    It’s like my roommate who last year did a sociology project studying Mennonite women. So she thinks she understands Mennonites. After spending my summer with Reba Place Fellowship (and some other Mennonite communities), I know that her understanding of the culture is far insufficient, at least for making any major judgments.

  • [[Scot McKnight Takes on Emergent Criticism
    I’ve blogged about this back on the 19th. I said that I was frustrated by James MacDonald and his wafer-thin caricature of the Emerging Church on the Leadership Journal Blog.
    Well, Scot McKnight is frustrated too.
    Read his penetrating analysis of MacDonald’s points at Jesus Creed.]]

  • Scot,
    As I mentioned earlier, I commented similarly over at the Out of Ur blog, but I realized that they deleted my comment. I am saddened that dissenting voices are not being aloud there. I was very intentional about not sounding hostile, so I am somewhat saddened.

  • Jamie,
    I commented this morning on that site, but my commented didn’t show up.

  • Addison Road » Scot McKnight and James McDonald

    […] Read the rest here. […]

  • James MacDonald

    Hey Scot:
    Wow, blog world has alot of instensity.
    Never been asked to lunch by a web sight so I’m not really sure what to make of that, seems kind of impersonal??? 🙂 I can say I am thankful for you and your ministry and your knowledge of the emerging movement certainly more in depth and documented I’m sure than my own.
    I was approaced and asked to write the article by Marshall Shelly at Leadership Journal. Your opening about P-Bic’s is insightful. Is that something others make large church pastors into ie (“I consider his stature significant enough to devote an entire lengthy post in response.”) or is that my fault?
    The article does what it attempts to do, explain on a “PERSONAL” level why I have chosen not to be a personal participant in the emergent movement. My decision is based in my interactions and reading and friendships with people who are more directly involved. I love them and believe in much of what they criticize I just don’t find the solutions compelling or even in some instances biblical thus far.
    My article is not thorough, or final, or proven or documented. It’s anecdotal and experiencial and personal. It ended up being more than double the word count I was given by the publisher (I’m sure you have lived with such limits :))
    Thanks for the personal introduction to blogworld. Though I have not spoken to you for more than 17 years, I can tell you that your honesty with the book of Hebrews was one of the best things that happened to me at TEDS, and was with me forcefully just this past year as I taught through the book verse by verse.
    Bound together by Christ,
    james macdonald

  • Great critique. Lovingly done. P-Bic: nice!
    Thinking on that P-Bic style, I’ve become convinced that the leadership issue in the emerging church is something that we all must tackle…. I’ve blogged about it at some length at http://thecomplexchrist.typepad.com/the_complex_christ/2005/10/leadership_and__3.html
    Thought you might be interested.
    The thoughts are bouncing off Griffin’s book ‘The Emergence of Leadership – Linking Self-Organization and Ethics’.

  • max

    It’s interesting how you all agree with each other. Do you think that you movement can be so fluid and deviate from orthodox Christian and go without recieving critique? Do you expect everyone to just love you? This is particularly important as the emergent church is so critical of the rest of the church.

  • Jim,
    Thanks for your graciousness.
    I wrote something earlier, then thought I’d rather go at this from a different angle, and so deleted it.
    First, the P-Bic comment is susceptible of being misunderstood and I want to apologize if you think I’m being accusatory. (Which, of course, partly I am, but I don’t intend to suggest this is a syndrome so much as a constant temptation.)
    Second, The P-Bic issue is this: you are a pastor with a huge audience and impact. Therefore, whatever you say takes on huge significance. That’s the issue for this article.
    Third, while I appreciate your saying that this is your personal experience, the article itself is much less of a reflection of your experience than a statement of what emerging is and isn’t. It contains pretty strong statements and some pretty negative assessment, and I don’t think it is accurate.
    Fourth, therefore, I’d like you not to roll over so easily. I think we disagree actually, and that is fine. I remember you as a student and you remember me as a professor: say it and we can talk it out.
    So, my point is this: you’ve made some pretty strong points here about the emerging movement, and some of those points (I’ve pointed them out) are not accurate for the emerging movement. Because you’ve gone public about them, your audience will trust your judgment.

  • Sorry, Jim, that last statement that says Lukas McKnight is from me (Scot). I’m at his home.
    Max, you’re off base here. There is much criticism of emerging, and some of it is dead-on. Some not. And one that is not is the general criticism that it is not orthodox. You’ll have to offer specific examples of where I deviate from orthodoxy for this to be sustained.
    I’m asking that you make your points clear on this site and not just refer to your site. Thanks.

  • James MacDonald

    If we are going to dialogue you will need to:
    1) call me james it’s what my mother gave me
    2) lose the superior “your a busy pastor what could you possibly know about the emerging church” tonality. I’ve seen it often in the professors I know I like to call them P-Bic’s ie proffessor of big intellect can’t (hear) syndrome. Of course I don’t judge you for that, you’ve just had so many ministry wannabees lined up hanging on your every word for so long hoping their butt kissing will get them a good grade, it’s just easy to forget what it’s really like to account for your ideas outside the enclave of arrogance that is Christian higer education. (I’m saying all this with tongue in cheek, you at least used to be one of the exceptions to that all to common rule)
    3) Interact with my main argument rather than poke holes in a supporting statement. ie; (as one of your readers points out) many reformers have and many have not been effective in providing solutions, my point was only that the one does not AUTOMATICALLY lead to the other, so how about remonstrating that!
    my point that when various authors and speakers on the emerging movement are questioned specifically, their defenders retreat to what “nice guys” they are rather than defend what they actually say. This happens all the time with Brian McLaren for example. He is flat out neo-orthodox and has told me so himself,(along with alot of other good and scary things):) If you want neo-orthodoxy for the church then pursue it, but when I say how wrong I believe it is don’t retreat to “brian is a nice guy,” THAT IS MY POINT

  • Scot, can you address James’ statement that Brian is “neo-orthodox.” That hardly seems to be the point of “A Generous Orthodoxy.”
    Lastly, I totally appreciate James responding on your site and not behind closed doors, or via private email, or alone with you in a Chicagoland diner. How you guys handle the breach in your relationship is something that we can all learn from. This disagreement is now “public domain.” I pray that you and James will model the way for us.

  • Ted Gossard,

    I have met both Scot McKnight and James MacDonald. They are both loving, serving and very gifted guys. Both hearts are in the same place and have something important to share with so many.
    James is a partner of RBC ministries where I work. I have grown to appreciate him from the few times he has been there. And it was a blessing to meet Scot and his wife at Cornerstone University recently. Both remind me of the apostle John’s emphasis on truth and love.

  • James MacDonald

    A buddy of mine just emailed & told me he thought I was too hard on Scott in my last post, maybe he missed the opening paragraph of Scott’s critique, but just so there’s no confusion, I wrote back to him . . .
    I can assure you I am not in the least upset with McKnight, nor do I find anything written in those blogs as painful or difficult. I am used to people disagreeing and I think it’s all fine. I am totally joking with McKnight and just using back to him the same tongue in cheek PBic analogy that he used with me. Hammering all pastors of big churches as either humble or needing “to render judgment on everything and everyone,” is pretty weak and I think I have pointed that out by using similar overstatement in regard to his ministry profession. I think he’ll be able to figure that out. But I’ll make sure he knows it’s all good and I am certainly have great respect for him in spite of our differences.”
    I think my buddy was getting kind of hyper literal, not an emerging characteristic for sure. 🙂

  • James,
    Thanks for the clarification.
    I’ll return to this discussion next week when the blog world is back in full action because I think you have put on the table some issues worth discussing.

  • Subversive Influence » Why Brother Maynard is Emerging

    […] Preamble: I originally wrote this response to James MacDonald’s piece on why he is not emerging (and Part 2), about which Scot McKnight has blogged some thoughts. While I was proofreading it and before posting it, I was browsing elsewhere and discovered it’s quite similar to why John O’Keefe is emerging. […]