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two views of the emerging church

by Kevin Hester and Kevin Riggs


Read Conversation With the Emerging Church (Part Two) by Kevin Riggs.


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RECENT YEARS HAVE SEEN explosive growth within one segment of the evangelical church. The segment, often referred to as the Emerging or Emergent Church, originated as a protest to the seeker-sensitive, consumer-oriented churches of the 1980s and 1990s. In light of the phenomenal growth of this movement, the editors of ONE Magazine developed a series of articles that take a closer look at the Emerging Church. The following articles conclude the series. Read a related article by J. Matthew Pinson, titled In Defense of Doctrine.


Read Conversation With the Emerging Church (Part Two) by Kevin Riggs.



By Kevin L. Hester

When I saw the new billboard advertising a local community church I was not sure what to make of it. “Is it possible to make a ‘non-religious journey to God?’ I mused. Isn’t a journey to God religious by definition? Then it dawned on me. The advertisement was not a rejection of religion (after all, it was an advertisement for a church), but was instead a rejection of the traditions the emerging congregation saw as antiquated or hypocritical in today’s evangelical community.

Emerging churches have embraced the worldview of postmodernism in order to communicate the gospel to a generation that has largely given up on finding God the “old fashioned way.” Emerging congregations are convinced that the only way to reach these individuals is to contextualize the gospel in new language and to live a Christ-like life before them. [2] While I have great respect for their zeal and consuming desire to bring others into a relationship of faith in Jesus Christ, I cannot help but wonder if their approach will ultimately prove disastrous. Their criticism of Modernism, although appropriate, has led them to embrace postmodernity too quickly and too naively.

Neither has their dim view of Modernism moved them toward a purer, more biblical, version of Christianity. Instead, they have swapped one secular worldview for another. By watering down the truth, the very strength of the emerging church has proven to be its greatest weakness.



Subjectivity and Objective Truth

The greatest gift of postmodernism is the way it reveals in stark detail the perspective we bring to our claims to truth. No one is capable of blind objectivity without presuppositions. For this reason, the emerging church is openly critical of modern evangelicalism, and rightly so. For centuries, traditional theology and exegesis have been too Western, too male, and so on, clinging to a rigid view of the world as viewed through our own experience. It is true. Unless we are willing to learn a new perspective, we may learn only a small portion of the revelation God meant for us to enjoy.

This does not mean, however, that truth cannot be found and identified. In the emergent church’s attempt to remove the gospel from its 20th century waspishness, they discarded truth and exchanged one pair of glasses for another pair with different-colored lens. [3] Yet their view of the world is still tainted by their own perspective.

Yes, Christians should listen attentively to the criticism of the emerging church and work harder to understand God’s truth. But the very concept of God’s revelation of Himself to mankind requires objective truth! The core of Christianity lies upon the truth that God’s Son became human and died for the sins of humanity. If this truth is not objective, the gospel is forfeit. [4]


Missional Service and the Gospel

The emphasis of the emerging church on missional service indicts the failure of traditional evangelicals to proclaim the full gospel of love and salvation. [5] Somewhere along the line, modern evangelicalism forgot that the gospel is more than a set of propositions but is a lifestyle. On this point, emerging churches have spoken truth, and I fear we will be judged if we fail to pay attention.

At the same time, over-emphasis of missional service carries an inherent danger. One reason evangelicals have been slow to “feed the hungry and clothe the naked” is because several mainstream denominations once made the “social gospel” the only gospel. Yes, the gospel must be lived, but only when supported by the previously mentioned foundation of truth. Missional service may alleviate the problems of society, but alone it does little to alleviate the sin problem that is the ultimate root of all social ills.
At all costs, we must avoid a “generous orthodoxy” that is willing to smooth over crucial theological differences or question the basic doctrine of salvation in the name of good works. [6]


Cultural Awareness and the Content of Forms

In its interest to promote Christ in today’s culture, the emerging church emphasizes the need to contextualize the gospel for today. Recognizing that the world has become a great melting pot of ideas, the leaders of the movement reached back in time and across cultures to “baptize” certain practices and adopt them into their own worship. [7] In an attempt to emphasize the transcendence of God, the emerging church borrows architecture, liturgy, incense, and even lectio divina from Roman Catholicism. Others emphasize “new avenues” of spiritual awareness by teaching “Christian yoga” or devising prayer labyrinths for their congregations to use.

While I applaud anyone who communicates the gospel in creative ways to a searching culture, trying to disguise the gospel in cultural creativity is wrong from the outset. Jesus taught that the gospel is in and of itself counter-cultural.[8]

In addition proponents of the emerging church fail to recognize the danger of adopting practices that have dangerous, even sinister associations. While Christianity clearly teaches the importance of exercise, [9] I am not sure that yoga can be separated from its Eastern origins that taught individuals to become one with cosmic energy.


Narrative and Propositional Truth

Teaching the Gospel as narrative is yet another attempt by the emerging church to connect with postmodern culture. [10] Story lines seem real, authentic, and often invested with personal meaning in a way precluded by traditional exegesis. Yes, the Bible is an intimate love story of God’s relationship with humanity. But any claim that Scripture makes no systematic doctrinal statements fails to ring true. Weak doctrine leads to shallow theology, disjointed and amorphous. An overemphasis of the “images” of Scripture produces a significant softening on the part of the emerging church when it comes to moral issues like homosexuality or theological teachings like the satisfaction view of the atonement. [11]

Ultimately, while the tolerant and accommodating nature of the emerging church accounts for quick—even phenomenal—growth, it may also prove to be an Achilles’ heel. At present, most leaders of the movement find their roots in evangelical churches and maintain a largely orthodox theology. Without a foundation of solid doctrine, however, nothing anchors their “communities” to the gospel they celebrate. In time, their “non-religious journey to God” may lead anywhere but… 

Dr. Kevin Hester teaches in the Biblical and Ministry Studies Department at Free Will Baptist Bible College.



1 While the terms “emergent” and “emerging” are often used interchangeably I feel that the term “emerging” is most appropriate because it groups together the greatest number of these likeminded communities without pretense to an organizational or confessional structure as might be understood with the word “emergent” owing to its association with the website

2 I do not wish to sound overly critical here. Personally, I feel that the emerging church’s emphasis on authenticity in living the Christian life is one of its greatest strengths and a powerful corrective to much of the compartmentalization of faith outside life found in modern evangelicalism.

3 I realize that Rev. Dr. Riggs does not believe that most emerging churches have given up on objective truth. In a sense, and in certain veins of the movement I believe he is correct. Unfortunately the philosophical traditions being used by many in these communities has so reinterpreted the concept of “truth” that its discovery is verifiable only through spiritual experience (or conversation as they like to say). Their understanding of the “growth” of truth also belies an epistemology that is neither fixed nor ultimately determinable. For philosophical discussions of these issues by scholars whose works have found wide reading among emergent congregations see Stanley Grenz and John Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context (Louisville, 2001); and Stanley Hauerwas “The Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ Her Lord; Or, In a World Without Foundations: All We Have is the Church.” in Theology Without Foundations: Religious Practice and the Future of Theological Truth, ed. Stanley Hauerwas (Nashville, 1994) I,A.

4 On the necessity of objective truth for communication see Ron Nash, Life’s Ultimate Questions (Grand Rapids, 1999), 197 ff.

5 James reminds us that we demonstrate our faith by our works (James 1:27, 2:26) and Jesus himself demonstrates that the love of our fellow humanity must manifest itself in assistance if our faith is to be judged authentic (Matthew 25:41-46).

6 See Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, 2006).

7 The inclusion of these forms seeks to “renew” evangelicalism by adopting and reinterpreting older Christian and some non-christian forms as a conduit for spiritual expression. This is part of what is referred to by Pastor Dan Kimball in many of his works as “vintage” faith. See Mary Ford, Traditions of the Ancients: Vintage Faith Practicies for the 21st Century (Nashville, 2006). For an interesting article dealing with these trends in a way that attempts not to take sides see Kary Oberbrunner, “Doorways to Deception?” accessed 11/14/2006.

8 Matthew 10:34-39.

9 I Corinthians 6:19-20.

10 See Mark Miller, Experiential Storytelling: (Re) Discovering Narrative to Communicate God’s Message (Grand Rapids, 2004).

11 In all fairness it should be pointed out that these statements are only true of some individuals within the emergent church community and are by no means applicable to all proponents but I do feel that the potential of more movement in these directions is a very real danger. There has been a great deal of debate over Brian McLaren’s understanding of homosexuality. While he has nowhere said the Church has wrongly decided this issue there are many places in his works where this is at least left open if not hinted. For just one example see his A New Kind of Christian (San Francisco, 2001). In the same work McLaren seems to intimate the same denial of the satisfaction view of the atonement that English emerging church leader Steve Chalke expounds more fully in his The Lost Message of Jesus (Grand Rapids, 2004). This is one of the aspects of emerging Christianity that so bothers D. A. Carson in his Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Grand Rapids, 2005), 182-87.


©2007 ONE Magazine, National Association of Free Will Baptists