The Emergent Church: Everyone’s Favorite Whipping Boy

The Emergent Church: Everyone’s Favorite Whipping Boy August 1, 2011

I mosied over to the fellow Patheos blogger, Roger Olson’s blog, and there found a guest post by Brandon Morgan of the Void Collective (which, I must say, I like very much — the Void Collective, that is).  Morgan claims to be sympathetic with the emerging church movement (ECM), though he consistently uses the third person plural (“they”) as opposed to the first person plural (“we”) when describing the movement.

Morgan’s experience at the Wild Goose Festival gives rise to his criticism of the ECM:

Upon returning from the Wild Goose festival, I felt that the festival was, among others things, a blatant attempt to show how well Emergent folks and mainline folks get along (particularly regarding the LGBTQ community) and how they generally have the same enemies (conservative evangelicals).

He goes on to use some anecdotal evidence — what he saw and heard at the festival — to conclude that the ECM doesn’t have anything new to offer the American church.  Well, to be fair, most of his post is phrased in the form of rhetorical questions, which allows him to ask questions of the ECM without really landing the plane.*  But it’s pretty clear that he’s disappointed with the ECM (he’s not the first).

Morgan’s bottom line is that the ECM “looks” no different than liberalism.  If the ECM is just a bunch of liberals, he posits, we should just join the mainline church.

In a subsequent post, Roger Olson piles on,

However, disappointment sets in when we hear emergent church leaders/spokespersons sharing their excitement in “discovering” a new type of theoloogy [sic] that turns out to be thoroughly modern.  For example, not long ago a leading emergent church personality shared his excitement in finding and reading Henry Churchill King’s The Reconstruction of Theology published in 1901.  The problem is, that book is a classic of liberal (Ritschlian) Protestantism!  It’s thoroughly modern!  I don’t understand its appeal to a supposedly postmodern, emergent Christian.

I don’t know who Olson is referencing here — it might be Doug.  Whoever it is, I find it disheartening that a seminary theology professor is taking someone to task for discovering and reading a classic theological text.  Should we not read texts that you have already read and written off, Roger?**

Olson continues,

I think Brandon’s challenge to emergent church types is worthy of very serious consideration and response, but by all means let’s not get bogged down in details of his analysis.

But the problem is that Morgan’s challenge is rooted entirely in his analysis.  Thus, if his analysis is wrong, then his challenge is misplaced.

Most of all, what frustrates me about the latest wave of disappointment in the ECM is that all of the portraits painted of the movement are painted using anecdotal brushstrokes.  But the ECM has been around for over a decade — there’s been plenty of time to collect quantitative and qualitative data.  Whether the beliefs and practices are really no different from mainline, liberal Protestantism is a hypothesis that can actually be tested.  Until you’re willing to do that kind of hard work, you’d better phrase your conjectures in the form of rhetorical questions.***

Nota bene, my next book will be available this week.  It is based on actual research into the ECM.  I hope it helps to sophisticate this conversation.


* For the record, paragraphs full of rhetorical questions are among my most despised form of prose, and are rampant in Christian non-fiction writing.

** See above.

*** Ditto.

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