The Baby and the Bathwater

I admit it — I’m having a hard time coming to terms with the emergent movement. Maybe it’s because I’ve almost always been in churches that have their acts together, that are active both in ministering to the Body and in reaching out to the community, but I honestly don’t see where it helps to trash the structure of the traditional church simply because some churches are _not_ doing what they are called to do. To me, that’s like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I appreciate “Grace’s”: openness and honesty as she struggles and “searches”: to find an answer to something that has been a source of great heartache for her.

There are some philosophical fundamentals of the emerging church that I tend to agree with and that I understand. I recognize that there is a deep dissatisfaction among many Christians with the traditional church. There are, I believe, many reasons for this. For instance, it is difficult to come to church Sunday after Sunday and watch people who are little more than pew-warmers — content to take their habitual seat, keeping it warm for an hour or two, and then leave, having never been changed or affected by the worship, by the prayer, by the fellowship of the Body, by the power of the Holy Spirit. They come, they sit quietly, and they continue to live their lives as they wish to live them.

Another source of contention that many emergents point out is where the church has a larger building budget than missions budget. The focus is on creating a temple, rather than on reaching souls, touching lives, and meeting needs. For the churches that do this, I have to agree that their priorities are in the wrong place. These are the churches where weekly gatherings are little more than social clubs, where missions and community outreach are rarely mentioned because everyone is too involved planning their next potluck or church event. Not all churches are like this, mind you, but enough of them are that it creates a sense of disquiet and disillusionment for those Christians who want more out of their spiritual walk.

The church has also typically been slow to close the generational gap, though this is, in my opinion, less a problem of the church in particular than of culture in general. The older generation has always had trouble relating to the younger because trends and styles change every year. And with the innovations in technology, culture moves even faster than it did, and hence it tends to change much more quickly. So many churches are either blind to the changes in culture or simply don’t acknowledge a need to address such changes. In either case the generational gap is closed by only a few, not enough to meet the needs of the next generation or answer the questions and issues it faces on a daily basis. Further cause for disillusionment.

One other thing that I view as a major contributor to disillusionment among Christians is a rigid adherence to church beliefs and traditions that are quickly revealed as counter-biblical to any who takes the time to check them. I have watched many believers get hurt by their fellow Christians because of prejudices, attitudes, and behaviors that run completely counter to the teachings of the Bible. Rigid adherence to provable truth is one thing, especially when done in a humble, contrite manner, but rigid adherence to misconceptions and lies is quite another. It is always disappointing to me to watch someone who calls himself Christian demean and destroy another because of flawed beliefs and then refuse to receive correction when a third party attempts to intervene. And what is worse is watching an entire church fall prey to such behaviors and operate in a fashion that I am sure is disappointing to our Savior.

No wonder so many Christians today want to do things differently. I myself have been one to want to distance myself from other Christians, to set out on my own and do things the way I know they should be done, the way the Bible teaches, rather than the way I see so many Christians doing things right now. But always, in such cases, my focus has been on the people, rather than on the Christ, and I find that when I shift my focus back to Him, I recognize anew that the church is, indeed, ordained and meant to be an integral part of the Christian walk.

It is interesting that no description was given as to what the church is to look like, though Paul does give us quite a bit to work from in his letters to the churches. We know that churches need to have a pastor, someone whose focus is on researching the Bible and providing a focus on learning its doctrine, someone to guide and to shepherd, to continually steer his flock toward Christ. The church is to have elders, whose purpose to meet the needs both of the church members and of the members of the community. The church is to look after widows and orphans. It is to meet on a regular basis for the renewing of the saints and the edification of the body. Whether it is to be done in small groups or as one large congregation is never mentioned, though I suspect that, like most things, the form of the gathering and fellowship is dependent upon situation and context. But organized church is definitely something that is a requirement for healthy, vibrant faith.

I believe that the trouble today exists primarily in our lucrative culture. Surrounded by so much wealth, it is easy to lose focus and forget that we are strangers here, that this world is not our home, that what is truly important comes after this life. So, we spend more of our time making sure we have enough, making sure that we are comfortable and happy and content. We forget that so much of our faith lies in having little (or nothing), in discomfort, in pain. We don’t like to think about that and so we convince ourselves that we can have it all and still serve God fully, something which only the rare Christian is actually able to handle.

And so the disillusioned and the hurt move to get away from traditions, to get away from the way the church has done things for so long, seeking instead a new of being Christian, a way that will meet both personal and community needs. My fear is that emerging church is too far on the other extreme. I would love to see both sides come together, recognizing that there are shortcomings in both philosophies and traditions, and make the church into something better than it is now. I hate seeing people throw the baby out, when it is really just the bathwater that needs dumping. The organized church is a good thing, I believe, especially when I see churches like mine that are growing and thriving, adding members faster than we can erect buildings to contain them, spending millions on missions trips and outreach events, and administering programs that touch the needs of our community. When I see churches like this I find it hard to believe that we need to abandon such institutions. Instead, I think we need to bring the goals and desires of the emergents together with established churches, shake people up a little, and blend the Body into an institution that meets everyone’s needs and grows the Kindgom for Christ.

We should have been doing this all along, and in many cases we have been, and we need to make a more concerted effort to continue doing so. Will the church ever be perfect? Not this side of heaven, but there is no reason why we should be allowing hypocrisy and heresy to govern our churches and alienate its members, when the Bible lays out in plain language what we should look like and what we should be doing.

Focus on Christ, and not the people, and tell me how that changes your perspective. It’s made all the difference in my own.

Related links:
“Decompressing Faith: ‘Bit by the Emerging Bug'”:
“The Upward Way Press: Virus”:
“Christianity Today: The Emergent Mystique”:
“opensourcetheology: What is ’emerging church?'”:
“ George Lings ‘What is emerging church?'”:

5 thoughts on “The Baby and the Bathwater”

  1. Pingback: Emerging Grace
  2. Jim,
    Busy day! I’m finally getting some “me” time. Your post gave me lots to think about, and I wanted to engage in some comments.

    Overall, I would have to say that I agree with you that it would be a mistake to throw out everything that we have known as traditional church. I believe that much of the emerging church will grow alongside traditional churches and that God will be present and at work in both if hearts are set on Him and His kingdom.

    I think this will require care and respect from both sides. As the emerging people “deconstruct” and attempt to build something completely different, it doesn’t have to be at the expense of devaluing and trashing everything that has come before.

    And as the traditional churches observe emerging churches doing things in a way that is foreign to them, they could acknowledge that the emerging churches are also valuable in building the kingdom.

    I honestly believe that many of the people who have left traditional churches are following Christ. And their intent is not to abandon the church, but to allow the Lord to develop their expression of church in a way that is authentic for them.

    I also hope and believe that many of the values being discussed in the emerging conversations, such as the three in my post, will make their way into existing congregations.

    I think that existing churches can be more particpatory and can function at a higher level of one-anothering. I also believe that God will stir in the hearts of leaders to shift their focus more missionally. I believe some of this stirring may come as they begin to hear more about the issues being discussed in the emerging conversation.

    A lot will depend on whether their heart are open to what they here. I don’t have my heart set on any particular model of church. My dream is just to be involved in what God is doing and to follow Him.

    His kingdom come, His will be done!

    Thanks for the discussion.

  3. Jim, I have to agree. From my view of the emerging church (and I’m open to discussion if I’m wrong), this is my basic conclusion:

    They are asking a lot of the right questions, and have a lot of valid points.

    However, they don’t seem to know where they are going with them and have no defined endpoint. Maybe they would say this is the point: not to define themselves into a structure like “traditional” church.

    But from what I’ve seen of “emerging church”, it just seems like another churchy fad. Like so many other “modern” things that have come and gone–it may have a lot to offer some people, but unless it can give something new that other movements haven’t managed to come up with, I think it will either die away or become just as encrusted as they have.

    In my mind, we should be striving to look as closely as possible like the NT church: the picture we have of what the church should be. Simple, full of the Holy Spirit and power, and changing the world. What more could we ask for? It’s hard for me to see how simply changing the way we do services can accomplish this. though I agree with the emerging guys that change is needed.

  4. From what I’ve seen of Brian McLaren’s writings and a number of other sites, that is exactly the thing – there is no real focus right now, other than asking questions and working to find answers to those questions. The progress seems to be very slow to me, and I have to wonder if that’s the way it ought to be. I do realize that the Christian walk is a process, and process seems to be what the emergent movement is all about. But the emergent movement also looks to me to be more like treading water or slowly dog-paddling toward an unknown shore (both in direction and distance). I think this may be due to the problem of emergent’s basis in postmodern philosophy. I could be wrong, of course, but that’s my perspective as of right now.

    Agreed – we do need to look more like the NT church, which is essentially the point I have been driving at myself. I don’t necessarily see anything wrong with the church structure as it stands now, except that for a lot churches that structure doesn’t flex enough to meet the culture. Mostly, I think American Christians are asleep due to their relative comfort. I hope we can _all_ work to change this.

Have anything to add to the conversation?