Why We’re Not Emergent? An Inviation to Kevin & Ted

A few weeks ago, my friend Wayne Jacobsen stayed with us. It was a great time of fellowship and we talked about all sorts of things. Our chats kept circling back, though, to the emerging church conversation, and why it seemed so important to me to express my spiritual journey in ’emerging’ ways. I told him that it wasn’t, not really–that I’ve been on a journey in, through, and toward a Christ-transformed reality before I began naming it in this way, and will likely be if and when this way of articulating things ceases to be helpful. But right now, that I do find it helpful. This was fine to Wayne–he really wasn’t trying to nit-pick–but there was still some dissonance I think, between what I mean by ’emergent’ and by what he means as ‘relational Christianity‘ (which is itself a label, but I digress…) He’s not the only bright person I esteem asking questions of emergent Christianity.

This weekend (amidst relocating closer to our house church community) I’ve been reading Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be), a lively-but-respectful critique of emergent faith expressions written by two Reformed guys. As I’ve mentioned before, I was Reformed once, a PCA assistant worship and ‘small group’ leader. But it was always a less-than-comfortable fit; I never fit into the conservative Calvinist mold, was rarely excited by the things that excited them. Don’t get me wrong–finding joy and delight in God as the center for living was (and is!) right up my alley–it just felt like their desire was continually thwarted by their reductionistic methodologies; at the end of the day, I found more spiritual nourishment and guidance from the Catholic contemplative writers.

In intervening years, being ‘Young, Restless, & Reformed‘ has become all the more in vogue among passionate semi-intellectual Christian 20-somethings–looks like I really missed the bandwagon! What I like about Why We’re Not Emergent is that the authors – one a pastor, one a sportswriter, barely out of their 20s themselves – seem to be aware of the fact that ridiculous groupie-ism isn’t only present among some emergent leaders, but amidst Reformed demigods as well. So far (I’m about 80 pages in), they kind of smirk at the John Piper, DA Carson, CJ Mahaney, RC Sproul, Mark Driscoll, etc., groupies, and some of the “Reformed cool” that’s developed. This helps me take in the even-handedness of their critique.

What I’ve enjoyed most about the book so far is its rexamination of the journey/pilgrimage motif, one that’s been around at least since ancient Catholic pilgrims and popularized in recent years by we ’emergent’ types, but perhaps best known (in the Protestant world at least) from the Calvinist pen of John Bunyan in his Pilgrim’s Progress. Now PP is not my fave–sorry–but I get it. And I get what Kevin and Ted are saying – it’s not only that the journey itself matters, but the destination itself has gotta matter too. Pilgrim (the protagonist) was indeed making progress toward life in God, and we can too. I still think Kevin and Ted need to listen to emerging/postmodern voices that exalt the value of the journeying itself–it very much resonates with Jesus’ injunctions to live in the present moment, consider lilies, and all that jazz–that the journey itself is important is biblically-rooted, thank you very much. But it’s okay to have some sort of end in mind too–like the apostle Paul, finishing that race of his.

Some of the book makes me exhausted reading it, quite frankly–during one point, I felt physically nauseous while turning its pages. And this comes right in the midst of what I like. Namely, their absolute certainty that because there the emergent conversation might be ill in places, their tradition (in this case Reformed, but it could be written by virtually anyone in virtually any tradition) held the cure lock, stock & barrel. It started with David Well’s introduction, which I found to be supremely arrogant (he even admitted that this was a possibility)–likening Calvinist doctrinal revelation to several-centuries-old buildings in Hungary that outlasted the 20th-century Communist-built buildings, Wells articulated the idea of a changeless foundationalism that is the Gospel itself, which will outlast the vain ideas of men–Communism and, apparently, the emerging church.

But back to Ted and Kevin. They really want us to see that The Journey has a Point to it, and that God’s self-disclosure in Jesus really does count as intelligible communication, therefore we should approach the postmodern skepticism of the efficacy of language with skepticism. They’re mad at what they see as a “just give me Jesus” mentality within emergent circles preferring “Jesus alone” over “beliefs about Jesus” (something I see far more of in house church and charismatic circles than in emergent ones per se, by the way), and they want us to esteem Scripture’s inspiration in the way that they do. And they don’t like the agnosticism-is-chic trend they feel is developing where not believing is cooler than believing.

Okay…points well taken. Really. I’ll think about all of this, brothers. But seriously, you can’t expect me to buy contemporary American conservative Calvinism as the answer. Been there, bought that. Got a refund. F’r instance, y’all’s critique of an aimless journey got me thinking and praying and wondering…but not in Reformed terms. Specifically, I’m wanting to put Dallas Willard and Richard Foster in conversation with James Fowler and Ken Wilber – to see what stages contemporary apprenticeship to Jesus would look like. I don’t know if anyone would be pleased with this (you, my Reformed friends, might cry heresy, and my more pomo peeps might find generating conceptual development maps as too dang modern), but I for one would be fascinated…and would be willing to give a couple years of my life to following this out in practice.

At another point, in seeking to reassert an absolutist view of Scripture (after quite rightly acknowledging that Christians everywhere love and esteem the Bible, regardless of the confessional language they adorn it with–or don’t), they attempt to call us back to a point of clarity, asserting “The Bible settles our disputes.”

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I’m sorry, brothers, if you feel like I’m about to be a postmodern (or worse yet, lib-er-al) cliche by stating that the Bible as such as never settled any disputes, and in fact often functions (as our Quaker brethren have stated) like a “paper Pope” upon which we hang our most passionate beliefs and ugliest prejudices. I treasure Holy Writ, but the only way I feel safe with it is amidst conversation with caring friends (aka by some as ‘the faith community’) where the guidance of Holy Spirit is sought and acknowledged in our midst. To me this is the only sane approach to some very volatile writings. For a pointy-headed explication of this very same idea, I’d check out fellow Reformer Kevin J. Vanhoozer‘s The Drama of Doctrine.

I hope it comes across loud and clear: While it’s not for me, I don’t wish to silence the Reformed voice. (I enjoy Tim Keller and Steve Brown and Shayne Wheeler and am looking forward to good things from Reformergent–may their tribe increase!) In fact, Ted and Kevin, I’d say your published foray makes you official participants in (dahn-dahn-dahn) the conversation. So congrats…for taking a respectful (and not shrill) tone, you’re now in this, whether you’d like to be or not. 🙂 And as an editor with The Ooze, I officially invite you to submit an article or two, and commit a little time to monitoring our discussion boards for a couple of weeks to share and converse. We’ll give you face time side-by-side with the infamous (tee-hee) Spencer Burke, ’cause he may be heretical, but at least he’s hospitable. Whaddaya say, brothers?

Related: Two interactions from Dan Kimball and Daryl Dash and Andrew Jones

Update: Official website

14 Responses to Why We’re Not Emergent? An Inviation to Kevin & Ted

  1. Brittian Bullock March 31, 2008 at 7:18 pm #

    Mike. That’s great stuff. I’m glad the (perhaps) these young critics have a more kind and gentle approach to the conversation. This weekend one of my friends defined his own personal emergence in terms of “dialogue rather than debate” or “discussion and understanding as opposed to judgment and argument”…I think that is an important shift to make…and hopefully many many many people can make this transition…
    It seems like a good place to be.

    Thanks for sharing broski!
    Brittian Bullock

  2. andrew jones March 31, 2008 at 8:05 pm #

    nice review, mike.

  3. Brother Johnny April 1, 2008 at 11:43 am #

    I dunno man. “Emergent” seems like just another denomination to me.
    As a group, they have their own “common” (more so than not)way at talking about and looking at things…just like everyone else.
    …and like any denomintaion, they fall into the same traps that they make for themselves.
    (Just like individuals who place too much importance on why they are different)

  4. zoecarnate April 1, 2008 at 1:52 pm #

    Thanks for the comments, brethren! That’s great, Brittian, ‘personal emergence.’ It does mean different things for different ones of us. Though I hope it also means things for our churches and communities collectively as well.

    Andrew, always nice to have your imprimatuer. 😉

    Johnny, your response warrants a new post–so look for it!

  5. Wayne April 1, 2008 at 4:28 pm #


    I think you missed my point in the questions I posed to you. There’s a difference, in my mind, between expressing your journey in ’emerging ways’ and isolating that conversation as ‘Emergent.’ This term has moved way past describing emerging thinking on church life and has taken an identity as an organized group of people, identified spokespeople, and specific doctrine and agendas. Emergent is now a label that carries certain connotations and certainly some unfair accusations.

    I don’t think you guys on the inside see that as clearly as folks do on the outside of it. It may not be what you wanted when you started this conversation, but what denomination ever began by a group of people trying to start one? I don’t think that’s evil, but unwittingly it creates an inside/outside environment and limits the conversation with others.

    My concern is with labels themselves. And you’re right, relational Christianity can just become another label, too, which is why I avoid using it when it takes on a life of its own. I just want my focus to be on Jesus, my fellowship to be broad among this incredibly diverse family, and to not help create or sustain movements that will over time just become another marginalized denomination to add to all the others.

    My hope is that some day we’ll just be a family, without needing to find any identity in labels. And we’ll get to have a deeper, richer conversation among the manifold expressions of church life that God gives breath to. My concern is only that labels limit that conversation rather than foster it. If you don’t believe me, just see how willing the ’emergent folks’ would be to give up the term…

    Blessings, Bro! Always love your stuff and the freedom to crash hearts and heads without risking the friendship.

    With love,


  6. Peter April 2, 2008 at 5:18 am #

    Amen to all that Wayne says here.

    And Mike–I would love to dive into the conceptual developmental models you mention, spending a year or two on them–I love that aspect of Fowler and Wilber; for a very long time it has resonated with my inner sense of how things actually work…but I have to add that I strongly doubt that Kevin and Ted would show any desire at all to go there!

    Maybe we just have to do this work without their help.

    Looking forward to more “working together,”

  7. Carl McColman April 21, 2008 at 11:15 am #

    Thanks, Mike, I’ve been pondering whether this book would be worth a look-see. Your commentary on pilgrimage is interesting: the contemplative tradition has long understood the mystical life to be a pilgrimage into the heart of God. Just the titles of great mystical classics give it away: The Way of a PilgrimThe Ascent of Mount CarmelThe Cherubinic WandererThe Mind’s Journey into God. All of these pre-emergent, pre-Calvinist, pre-modernist types always understood that God is at the beginning, middle, and end of the itinerary.

    Happy wandering!

  8. andrew jones April 23, 2008 at 12:16 pm #

    i should invite them to some of my events, esp. the ones outside usa

  9. Jason May 27, 2008 at 6:42 pm #

    I actual just bought this book then realized where I had heard of it. From none other than Mike M! From what I’ve read I think they have valid points. what bothers me is that one of the fellows I could care less which one, talks about how unspiritual, lazy, boring, and lame his church is. Oh how he loves it! That’s pretty dumb to me. I come from the school that says if your church is dead you’ve got a problem and may need some moderate navel gazing. Introspection can be narcissism but it can also be Gos pricking the conscience. I’m a believe in the absolute I just don’t think that stale worship and worldy leadership that cares more about clean carpet than spiritual vitality is the truth I’m looking for. In this sense they are guilty of the same false idea s that consume the emerging church. The acceptance of all human experience as spiritual.

  10. dgschof May 29, 2008 at 1:33 pm #

    Thanks for the post Mike

    I really like the tone and the intent and i hope you get a response. I also hope we (those doing this great global/local conversation) don’t forget to make time and space for praxis instead of succumbing to the paralysis of analysis. (sorry high fromage factor on that last sentence). However that DW,RF,JF,KW things would be a great weekend in the woods!

    As an ex up and coming reformed radical rabble rouser I am thriving on the exploration allowed by the ‘conversation’ but I also want to balance my ‘buts’ with ‘ands’ ‘Ands’ that speak out humbly but confidently not just with tepid cutesy neoagnostic wobbly hand stuff but with grace where lines are blurred or hard to come by – as grace tends to mean – but also with passion and clarity.

    Here’s a post from our little UK based community blog on just that


    Keep up the great work brother-we shall add you to our blogroll



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