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FIRST-PERSON: Emergent evangelism: salvation by consensus?

WASHINGTON (BP)–The increasing vexation among many younger Christian leaders who embrace what has come to be known as the “Emerging Church Movement” centers on what they perceive to be the ineffective ministries of older generations. Many young ministers rightly believe that some church programs designed to “build the church” actually do the opposite and stem from theological errors, not simply shifts in methodology.

The “emerging” conversation is more than a generation gap in which the theology of former days (or lack of it) is being challenged by a wave of young ministers with cell phones, PDAs and e-mail via Blackberry. The tension is most evident in the perennial debate among evangelicals about how to “do” church. What should the church look like? How should the church of the 21st century worship and minister in a context of ever-increasing information, but diminishing wisdom? To what extent should tradition be jettisoned in favor of a “whatever works” strategy, and will such strategies reduce Christian evangelism to a mere technique?

There is no doubt that the lack of truly transformed lives among many in the modern church is evidence that something is wrong. It matters little as to what tactic might be employed by churches, scores of “conversions” seemingly bear no long-term fruit. Truly, a closer look is in order.

Various theological camps are competing to sell their wares in the Christian marketplace, and many churches are all too eager to buy their products. Yet if statistics are true, then the latest evangelistic strategies (whether new or old) are not working. This is because true saints are made by God through good and sound conversions as a result of the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit. What transpires at the time of conversion is a matter of theology, and this is where “emerging” conversations usually cease. To believe many current Christian leaders, the seeming simplicity of the Gospel cannot abide the intricacies and ivory tower intellectual gymnastics of the theological academy. But thoughts such as these betray a lack of understanding of true evangelism and the purpose of biblical theology.

Theologian J.I. Packer states, “When theology is not held on course by the demands of evangelistic communication, it grows abstract and speculative, wayward in method, and irresponsible in stance. When evangelism is not fertilized, fed, and controlled by theology, it becomes a stylized performance seeking its effect through manipulative skills rather than the power of vision and the force of truth.” What is needed in modern discussions of evangelism and relevance comes from the counsel of Scottish theologian James Denney: “If evangelists were our theologians or theologians our evangelists, we should be nearer the ideal. The evangelist is in the last resort the judge of theology…. I haven’t the faintest interest in any theology which doesn’t help us evangelize.”

Denney would be shocked were he to return from the grave. Modern methods of “doing” evangelism, while helpful, can often crowd out the rich meaning of what the Christian “evangel” actually is as defined by Scripture. And here is the crux of the matter. Scripture alone must regulate not only what the church does but how the church does it. As popular as it may be to disregard and ignore the early church fathers, the Protestant Reformers and the methods of the forefathers in the faith, their legacy is worth considering.

Never has the need been more critical for the Gospel to be powerfully preached by the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. How that is done is largely settled in Holy Scripture. The public reading of the Bible, the corporate prayer of the church, the singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to one another, the ordinances of Christian baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the offering of confession and thanksgiving to God are all elements of public worship which are explicitly revealed in Scripture. Is it not strange that almost every modern theory of “emerging” churches disregard many of these direct commands in favor of more “evangelistic” and “relevant” methods? No amount of technology or innovation can ever eclipse or manipulate the clear biblical teaching that evangelism is not simply a matter of form, but of substance.

The Gospel is powerfully effective to save to the uttermost those who have faith in Jesus Christ. For the Gospel is not something men made up by consensus. The plan of salvation is not the accumulation and production of man’s thoughts, but the direct revelation of God. As such, it is to be preached, not amended according to demographics, and boldly declared, not adjusted for the sensitivities of modern audiences.

More technology or demographic studies cannot be the answer to this generation’s dilemma. Only a return to Scripture can cure a wandering church in need both of repentance and resolve to accurately and passionately preach to people in great need of the salvation of God.
Douglas Baker is a writer who lives and works in Washington, D.C.

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  • Douglas E. Baker