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Conference examines the emerging church

WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–The emerging church movement has arisen to fill a void created by the ineffectiveness of most conventional churches in spreading the Gospel, researcher-missiologist Ed Stetzer said at a Sept. 21-22 “Convergent” conference at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Stetzer and Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle and president of the Acts 29 Network for church planting, were among the conference’s featured speakers at the Wake Forest, N.C., campus. Driscoll’s church is not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention or any other denomination, and he has been controversial for, among other things, his consumption of alcohol.

Before comparing the orthodoxy of conventional churches and emerging churches, Stetzer challenged the crowd of 500-plus pastors, church planters and seminarians to ask what has prompted the need for alternative churches.

As director of LifeWay Research and missiologist-in-residence at LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, Stetzer said Southern Baptist churches are not evidencing healthy growth. While many churches note increases, very little of that growth comes from evangelistic conversion, he said.

“If we’re not growing through seeing men and women come to faith in Christ, then something’s wrong,” Stetzer said.

From Luke 24 he identified three things churches must recover to stay on mission: the centrality of the cross, the message of repentance for forgiveness of sins, and the importance of the witness.

Stetzer spoke of some pastors who seem to convey, “This is my Bible and I’ll never refer to it again,” lacking confidence in the Gospel’s power to change lives. Without the Gospel front and center, Christians give up on the church, he said, challenging such disengagement by declaring, “I know the bride of Christ is not pretty, but you cannot love Jesus and hate His wife.”

A new class has arisen of the formerly churched, Stetzer continued, calling this young crowd “the pajama ‘jehideen, sleeping ’til noon every day, living in Mom’s basement, attacking anything that will try to reach anyone for Jesus Christ.”

Whether in a Louisville gathering of artists with their black T-shirts, holey jeans and blond spiked hair — all “individuals who don’t want to be squeezed into a mold” –- or an Oklahoma City cowboy church interjecting “yee-haw” between stanzas of “Victory in Jesus,” Stetzer said God is at work in biblically faithful churches transforming lives through repentance and forgiveness.

“If our desire is to create a denomination where everyone looks alike, everyone worships in the same way, everyone does all the cultural, traditional trappings and we call that biblically faithful, we will never reach beyond the narrow, cultural confines that have defined us,” Stetzer warned. “If we are going to reach men and women from every tongue, tribe and nation, it is going to take all kinds of scripturally sound churches to reach all kinds of people.”

Instead of being upset about emerging churches or the influence of “first, second and third John,” referring to three famous Reformed theology preachers named John — Calvin, Piper and MacArthur — Stetzer called on Southern Baptists to affirm their faith statement and share their witness for Christ.

“Whether conventional, traditional, emerging, Calvinist or a little less so, just get on mission and be faithful to the Gospel.”

Driscoll previewed some of the research he compiled on the increasingly liberal views of the left-leaning Emergent Village, to be published first in the Christian Research Journal and subsequently as a book by Crossway.

He said Emergents are rewriting what it means to be a Christian by abandoning substitutionary atonement when they avoid speaking of the cross in reference to sin.

Driscoll said some Emergents like Brian McLaren prefer to “plead the fifth” when asked if the practice of homosexual acts is compatible with the Christian faith. Driscoll said when McClaren was asked about his position on homosexual “marriage,” his answer was, “‘You know what? The thing that breaks my heart is that there is no way I can answer it without hurting someone on either side.’ To which I would respond, ‘Now you have hurt God.’ God is in heaven and He has spoken to this issue with great clarity.”

Driscoll also noted McClaren’s endorsement of the Jesus Seminar, an academic group that denies the historicity of the resurrection. This view diminishes the impact of Jesus’ crucifixion on a sinful society and negates the need for His substitutionary atonement for sin, Driscoll said.

“There is nothing that we have to offer apart from the person of Jesus and His work on the cross,” Driscoll said. “So if the cross is lost, Christianity is lost, and hope is lost and Christ is lost. That means that, ultimately, we are lost. So this issue of the atonement is incredibly important.”

Driscoll said some of those he analyzed also support controversial doctrines such as open theism and process theology; they hold to a “trajectory hermeneutic” that allows doctrine to evolve; they shift from a complementarian to an egalitarian view of male leadership in biblical matters; and some even deny the virgin birth.

“Might I submit to you if you are thirsty for insight on theology you not drink from the toilet even though there is water there,” he told the conference crowd.

Borrowing from Stetzer’s method of categorizing emerging church leaders, Driscoll placed McLaren, Doug Pagitt and Rob Bell within the “revisionist stream” identified with the Emergent Village, while Dan Kimball and “Blue Like Jazz” author Donald Miller are in a milder “cool church crowd” labeled “relevants” who “are not necessarily trying to rewrite theology, but offer innovative methods of ministry.”

A third stream, the “relevant reformed,” are “confessional, contextual, cool Calvinists,” Driscoll said. “That’s my team,” encompassing the Acts 29 Network and such leaders as C.J. Mahaney, Josh Nelson and Matt Chandler who engage in expositional Bible preaching and teaching that is theologically motivated. Driscoll said some are slightly charismatic in that they raise their hands “and sing songs that aren’t on the cutting edge of the 18th century.”

Driscoll said this more orthodox group agrees that old ministry methods aren’t working as the world has shifted from the assumptions of modernity. They are concerned that churches are struggling, he said, and that lost people are not coming to a saving knowledge of Jesus in the numbers they would envision.

Alvin Reid, an evangelism professor at Southeastern Seminary, told the conference that too many Southern Baptists think there is a direct correspondence between “how we look and how we believe” — and both are unchanging.

“If the 1950s come back, a lot of our churches will be ready,” predicted Reid, urging contextualization of the Gospel without compromising doctrine. “One does not have to sacrifice orthodoxy for orthopraxy or vice versa,” he said.

Once a “agile, mobile and hostile” high school linebacker, the 48-year old Reid said he blew out both knees and has an artificial hip, making him “fragile, senile and docile” as well as “in denial.” He has gone from the football field to watching it on TV. Though he remains excited and motivated, yelling as if the players could hear him cheering, Reid said he doesn’t change anything sitting on his couch eating pie while watching the game.

“The conventional church has become like that. We still know the plays, how the game works, but we’d rather watch culture go by than take risks.”

Reid called for the church to develop a greater appreciation of the art of communicating and a less-programmed and -compartmentalized approach to ministry. Instead of expecting people to come to church and act like those who are already there, churches need to go into the community serving as Jesus did, Reid said. “We’ve turned church from a movement we advance to an institution we maintain,” he said.

Reid praised the emerging church movement for recognizing the extent of lostness and engaging the culture but warned of the lack of doctrinal teaching. They often are missional without being intentional in sharing their faith, he said, and they often disrespect the modern church.

He warned against lumping all emerging church leaders into one category to mistakenly equate men like Driscoll (with whom Reid said he agrees on primary issues) and McLaren, whose book “A Generous Orthodoxy” was neither generous nor orthodox, in Reid’s view. “You ought to be wise enough to chew up the watermelon and spit out the seed,” he said.

Reid guided the audience through the marks of a convergent church, as reflected in 1 Thessalonians 1, such as a missional focus to worship that recaptures the wonder of God; theology that brings together the Gospel message, culture and church; ethics that impact the community; evangelism that matches a transformed life; and a lifestyle that attracts converts.

J.D. Greear, pastor of Summit Church in Durham, N.C., encouraged conference participants to follow the Apostle Paul’s approach to ministry in Macedonia as described in Acts 16 to reach people in different contexts. He urged churches to develop a ministry of mercy while keeping the Gospel central, then following Jesus to share that message through cross-cultural contextualization.

Greear told young pastors to draw a line in the sand to challenge traditional congregations to reach the lost. “If they won’t follow you, let them fire you and then just go plant a church,” he cautiously advised. “It’s easier to give birth to babies than raise the dead.”

For churches already in the emerging genre, Greear said some are merely looking for “a culture of people just like you.” Many in that culture are “young, angry white guys with goatees,” he said, encouraging them to become more diverse to embrace a broader age group from many races and cultures.

Southeastern Seminary President Daniel Akin said convergent Christians can serve as royal ambassadors of God in fulfilling His ministry of reconciliation by planting their feet in the Scriptures while keeping a watchful and discerning eye on the culture. He outlined a strategy for making wise decisions based on Paul’s Corinthian principles for believers “in a radically secular, immoral non-Christian context.”

Working his way through 1 Corinthians 6-13, Akin asked the audience to consider whether an action is helpful, potentially enslaving, encourages a fellow believer, helps or hinders a Gospel witness and is consistent with new life in Christ. Other tests examine whether an action violates one’s conscience, follows the pattern of the life of Jesus, shows love to others, honors one’s body as belonging to God and ultimately glorifies God.

Christians can go too far to receive a hearing from “cultural despisers” by adjusting vocabulary and compromising purity and holiness, thus obscuring the Gospel that changes lives, Akin said. Love will both regulate liberty and rein in legalism, he said, encouraging conference attendees to avoid anything that detracts or distracts from the Gospel as they exercise wisdom and offer their witness for Christ.
Tammi Reed Ledbetter is a freelance writer based in Grand Prairie, Texas. Lauren Crane, a writer for Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, contributed to this article. The entire messages by “Convergent” conference speakers are available at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s website via the chapel link at www.sebts.edu.

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter