Like so many others, I have been following the discussion about the emerging church. “Emerging church” is one of my google alerts which points me in the direction of blogs of prolonged pontification of the praises of the emerging church as well as vitriolic vituperations condemning emerging church advocates to eternity in the kiln of the devil’s destiny. I have been reading and observing with rapt attention to the church’s response to a transition in culture and worldview (I’ll let you, the reader, sort out the difference between culture and worldview).
In the midst of the rising tide of blogs, books, and babble I occasionally come across something refreshing. That was the case this morning when I read John Hammett’s “An Ecclesiological Assessment of the Emerging Church Movement.” The spirit with which he wrote and considered the theological issues of the emerging church was respectful and amicable. Hammett articulated some weaknesses of the emerging church movement as if he was trying to lovingly persuade the emerging church to consider the weaknesses, not trying to start World War III. My biggest complaint about the article was its brevity. I would have liked to have seen Hammett proffer a lengthier assessment. With respect to Dr. Hammett, there are a couple of points on which I differ. This is a response to his response to the Emergent response to D.A. Carson’s critique of the emerging church.
Hammett challenges the notion that the church should be about responding to postmodernism. Hammett quoted Ed Stetzer as saying that some places are not experiencing the shift towards postmodernism, and thus the church in those places does not need to respond. He also states that the traditional church still appeals to a large number of people seeking out a traditional church. My response to this goes back to our understanding of postmodernism in general. How does one gauge the postmodometer in any given place? We too easily fall into the habit of gauging worldview with a few outward signs. San Francisco and Seattle are easily considered postmodern because of globalization protests, grassroots activism, subversive artistic expressiveness, and a higher proportion of observable Goths, body art, and vegans. In some ways, these outward signs demonstrate postmodernism’s free roam in those places. I contend, however, that a study of suburban and small town America would reveal that the traditional modernist worldview is, at best, under review. I have spoken with good, church-going, soccer moms whose theology is more influenced by Oprah than the Bible. It is hard to know how much MTV, movies, and reality tv inform one’s worldview. I saw churches in the South (not responding to postmodernism) send their youth off to college with a simplistic, don’t question, modernist view of Christianity. The plurality of worldviews and ideologies in a college environment completely decimate the young Christian’s faith. This is because churches are not responding to postmodernism.
Something else in Hammett’s response is also related to the macro-understanding of postmodernism. Much of the emerging church response to the traditional church critique of postmodernism is due to the fact that it is often portrayed as a one issue worldview. Relativism is certainly one common characteristic of postmodernism. But it is one of many. Whether or not one accepts that postmodern epistemology is at the core of understanding postmodernism, relativism is not the only characteristic. Much of the evangelical critique of postmodernism has reduced everything down to relativism, which is then understood to mean anti-truth. (I am thankful that Hammett did not simplify postmodernism in this way.) Most people perceived to be postmodern did not decide truth was the enemy and must be annihilated at all costs. In the sudden exposure to a plurality of worldviews and perspectives, people faced confusion about truth. The response from many in the truth was just to yell their view of the truth louder than everyone else, which did not really help people understand truth. I believe there is absolute truth, and that truth is embodied in Jesus Christ as revealed in the Scriptures. But I also believe that my understanding of the truth is obscured by my culture, experiences, tradition, and ultimately sin. It is not truth that is vulnerable, but my firm grasp of it. Going back to the main point of understanding postmodernism, it cannot so easily be reduced to a concise definition and it will not produce one worldview. Modernism was a slow-developing thing with its roots in different movements, cultures, and sociopolitical contexts. Some of what we call modernism had its roots in the humanism of Erasmus, the priesthood of the believer espoused by Luther, the emergence of the nation-state, etc. The Enlightenment came along and propelled modernism further. Multiple worldviews have been profoundly influenced by modernism as diverse as Marxism, psychology, secular humanism, and many expressions of Christianity (I recognize that these worldviews are somewhat intertwined). In the same way, postmodernism can trace its roots to a multiplicity of locations spanning a century of time. Deconstructionism, pragmatism, and anarchism are very different but each postmodern in its own way. The emerging church ought to be about contextualizing to these emerging worldviews. That is, critical contextualization is needed, not haphazard adoption of anything and everything postmodern. There is a lot of talk about “hypermodernism” or “post-postmodernism”. It is my view that we have not arrived at postmodernism yet. We are in a transition period between modernism and postmodernism. Thus expressions of hypermodernism are evident everywhere, as are examples of fully developed postmodernism. We are currently in the turbulent transition time between the two.
Hammett makes the comment that “emerging churches” are still a minority of the churches out there. I suspect, however, that there are a lot of pastors that are reading many of the same books the emerging folks are reading (and writing). There are a lot of traditional church members that are asking questions about the worldview transition going on. There are a huge number of churches that are connecting with the postmodern worldview without ever being labeled “emerging” or “postmodern”, it is just who they are.
Hammett makes a strong point in that we need to approach postmodernism critically, as we do any new culture. But I think what so many from the emerging perspective are saying is that postmodernism is no worse than modernism. Each has devastating snares and wonderful opportunities for the church. Thus both modernism and postmodernism need to be understood critically.