The Emerging Church, Part 4: Failing to Unwrap the Gift

(This is part four of a five part series from layman Scott Diekmann. Check out his blog at Stand-Firm.)

Last time, we explored what many in the Emerging Church consider the Gospel, a social gospel mixed with a large dose of liberation theology. This departure from orthodoxy is justified under the pretense of a need to attract postmodern people.

Examining Emerging Church objections to the “institutional” church, many of their objections are based on straw man arguments, yet some of their objections do ring true, especially when compared with Evangelicalism. Many of these objections can and should be answered by placing them squarely into the realm of Lutheranism.

The following quotes illustrate the mindset of Emerging Church authors, followed by contrasting observations provided by orthodox Lutheran theology.

Emerging Church author Rob Bell, in his book Velvet Elvis says

When we choose God’s vision of who we are, we are living as God made us to live. We are living in the flow of how we are going to live forever. This is the life of heaven, here and now. And as we live this life, in harmony with God’s intentions for us, the life of heaven becomes more and more present in our lives. Heaven comes to earth. This is why Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” There is this place, this realm, heaven, where things are as God desires them to be. As we live this way, heaven comes here. To this place, this world, the one we’re living in. (p. 147)

Bringing heaven and the kingdom of God to earth are familiar themes in the Emerging Church, themes in which the “followers of Jesus” are the ones who accomplish the “bringing.” LCMS seminary professor Arthur Just corrects this oft man-centered Emerging Church view with a proper Christ-centered perspective:

We sometimes think of heaven abstractly, as somewhere “up there,” but heaven is wherever Jesus is. Because Jesus is present among us in the gifts of Word and Sacrament, then heaven itself is present among us. It is the world of “angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven.” …Eschatology, therefore, is to speak about the person of Christ, whose presence according to His divine and human natures is ongoing in the Church’s liturgy. It is to speak about Christ’s Body, the Church–God’s eschatological community, where Christ dwells by Word and Spirit. Wherever Christ is, there are the last things, the eschaton, so eschatology is about the Gospel and Sacraments as the means for Christ’s presence. The liturgy is an eschatological moment because the end times are brought forward and made present by Christ’s presence in His gifts of mercy and forgiveness. (Heaven on Earth: The Gifts of Christ in the Divine Service, p. 16, 19)

Everyone in the Emerging Church emphasizes the communal nature of the Church, which is a well placed emphasis…

Unfortunately, we live in a culture that is structured around the autonomous self. Need for community is seen as a weakness. Faith in this culture is most often viewed as a private, individual thing between me and God that has nothing to do with other people. Church is no longer a body of people living out a faith journey together as part of the body of Christ, but is a place people attend to get their spiritual fix for the week. …That is the state of the majority of the western church today. (imago dei community)

…but their idea of community may not revolve around the concept of a group of forgiven sinners receiving God’s gifts through His liturgy. Compare LCMS seminary professor Harold Senkbeil’s view:

The liturgy rescues us from the tyranny of individualism, a particularly American heresy. You and I were never created to live alone, and yet so often the Gospel is presented as a way to become healthy, wealthy, and wise; a path toward self-improvement. We are told how to become better solo practitioners of the faith in our daily life, but we are not taught how to live together in the family of faith as redeemed sinners. Ironically, while we long for community, so much of Christian preaching and teaching drives wedges between us, focused as it often is so narrowly on the individual Christian life. (Dying to Live: The Power of Forgiveness, p. 125)

Virtually every Emerging leader and community embraces some form of narrative theology:

I firmly believe truth is in the narrative; all stories have meaning, function and direction. All story, no matter the style, share with us truth. (Emerging leader John O’Keefe)

Their view of “stories” is often one in which the community rules over the text to discover “truth,” but their discoveries are generally devoid of the gifts Christ brings to us through the power of the Word contained in those stories. Here, Dr. Senkbeil contrasts the two points of view:

It’s no wonder Jesus was always teaching in parables. Ordinary language just wouldn’t do justice to the things He had to say. And so He spoke in story and analogy to describe realities far deeper than human eyes could see. They were the hidden realities of the kingdom of God.

So it is in Christ’s church today. The old “what you see is what you get” approach to reality simply won’t do. If you and I are to grasp the bountiful riches of the gifts of God, ordinary eyesight and intellect won’t work. For His gifts are wrapped in lowly packages: water, word, and meal. Yet behind these sacraments stands Jesus Himself and the power of His Holy Word. And there is life in His Word. The sacraments are tangible wrappings for that life-giving Word. This explains their historic nickname: “the visible word.” For in the sacraments the invisible power of the Word of God lies wrapped in visible outer elements. Thus, in these Sacraments we meet Jesus. Actually, in the sacraments Jesus meets us. (Dying to Live, p. 92)

These three short quotes from Lutheran authors touch on themes often presented by Emerging Church authors, themes such as mystery, bringing God’s future to the present, heaven on earth, community, individualism, the kingdom of God, and story, yet these Lutheran authors do so in a way that is foreign to the majority of Emerging Church literature. They often seek a god of their own making, one found through expectation rather than revelation. God can be found only in the most unlikely of places, in His Word, via words formed on the tongue of the pastor, on the printed page, with ordinary appearing water, and in, with, and under common bread and wine. His kingdom comes only through the forgiveness of sins found in Christ’s blood once shed for all.

The questions the Emerging Church asks are good ones — the answers can only be found in the Word. Lutheran theology supplies orthodox answers to Emerging Church questions and protestations, satisfying postmodern queries in ways they might not expect. But it offers those solutions within the context of a Christocentric, liturgical, and Sacramental structure. Postmodern people can be reached in the same way as people of all generations, through Word and Sacrament, Law and Gospel. As the Emerging Church seeks God where He promises to be found, they may be guided into all the truth. As they ignore God’s gifts, and instead create a culturally derived “Gospel,” their inclusivity will ultimately lead to spiritual death. Which leads us to the last “episode,” The Emerging Church, Part 5: A Generous Orthodoxy?

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