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Baptist scholar sounds a warning to ‘emerging church’

VALLEY FORGE, Pa. (BP)–A leading Southern Baptist scholar is urging caution when assessing the theology and practice of some leaders among the “emerging church,” a small but growing movement among evangelicals seeking to go beyond the approach of many modern mega-churches.

This movement, said John Hammett, professor of theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., should be praised for thinking seriously about reaching young, culturally literate people with the Gospel. At the same time, he said, some leaders within the emerging church movement must take care that they are not shaped by a culture that has often forsaken truth and God.

Hammett, author of “Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches,” spoke at the 57th annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, the world’s largest gathering of evangelical thinkers and professors. This year’s meeting was held Nov. 16-18 in Valley Forge, Pa.

Hammett said that while many emerging churches are characterized by an emphasis on interacting with unbelievers’ questions about faith in an authentic way — and a particular emphasis on a feeling of community within a local church — thinkers within the movement share a distaste for the way traditional churches have engaged a postmodern culture.

“The virtually unanimous consensus in the emerging church is that the new generation to whom they desire to speak must be spoken to in language that is at least cognizant of postmodern sensibilities and sensitivities,” he said.

One of the hallmarks of postmodernism is the denial of absolute truth.

Many scholars have criticized the most popular voice among emerging church proponents, pastor and theologian Brian McLaren, as being theologically imprecise and doctrinally unsound. In his book “A Generous Orthodoxy,” McLaren does, in fact, charge that the clearly defined, Reformation-grounded doctrinal norms that define evangelicalism in America are inadequate for engaging a culture that has largely forsaken the concept of absolute truth.

The leaders of many “emerging” churches echo McLaren’s claim, saying that traditional churches must change or die. Hammett, however, charges that this type of approach is overly simplistic. Many so-called “traditional” churches, he said, are reaching people by simply teaching the word of God and sharing the Gospel, he said.

“While traditional churches may have some lessons to learn from emerging churches, a particular response to the postmodern culture does not seem prerequisite for reaching young people,” Hammett said.

Hammett also criticized emerging church leaders for letting cultural concerns over postmodernism drive their agendas, rather than being driven solely by Scripture.

“Key leaders of the emerging church affirm that they love, have confidence in, seek to obey, and strive accurately to teach the sacred Scriptures,” he said. “I see no reason to doubt the sincerity of these leaders, nor the reality of their commitment to Scripture. But in reading their material in books, websites and articles, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the concern to respond to postmodernism is what is really driving the movement.

“It seems that the central problem with the emerging church … is that in its zeal to respond to postmodern culture in a way that is evangelistically effective and personally and ecclesiologically refreshing, they have not yet carefully critiqued postmodernism,” Hammett continued. “Without such critique, there is a real danger that the movement will appropriate elements of postmodern thought that cannot be integrated into a genuinely evangelical Christian worldview.”

McLaren, Hammett said, shies away from speaking in terms of absolute truth, an approach that does not jive with the biblical Gospel.

Hammett noted that the emerging church movement is still quite small; one study found less than 200 true “emerging” churches nationwide. Also, it is nowhere close to monolithic, and Hammett noted that many leaders within the movement disagree with each other.

While the emerging church’s desire to engage a lost culture is admirable, Hammett said, they should do so with caution and a willingness to learn from traditional churches, not with a willingness to uncritically accept postmodernism.

“The more desirable alternative is for all churches to engage the culture, with a zeal to understand its questions and to speak its language, but also with a resolute willingness to take the posture of Christ against culture where biblical fidelity requires it,” he said. “This challenge of thoughtful engagement with contemporary culture lies before the emerging church and all branches of evangelicalism.”

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  • Jason Hall