Kristen Scharold has written a well-articulated piece in First Things, "The Emerging Church and its Critics." She tenders a review of the much discussed Why We're Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck and uses that as a departure point to reflect on her own critique of the emergent church. She does a good job of communicating her critiques without name-calling or heresy-hunting. Her primary charge (as I understood it) was that the emergent church lacked conviction. This lack of conviction has propelled an overreliance clever writing, attractive events and artsy worship. She echoes DeYoung and Kluck in stating that the emergent folks are doing with postmodernism what the mainline churches did with modernism.
She makes some good points in this regard. Much of the buzz surrounding the emergent church has been eyebrow-raising book titles, conferences/parties in the Bahamas, and a savvy use of technology. The theological articulations tend to be trying so hard to unbox (or deconstruct) Evangelical theology that it has not actually theologized (if that makes sense). What I am trying to say is that too often the position taken is: don't take a position (of course, there are many exceptions to this). The emergent church is warm and friendly and likeable, but is it positioning itself to introduce the radical transformation of the kingdom in all corners of the earth?
Having said that, I think there is an irritating tendency to hear all things emergent and emerging through the megaphones of only a few voices. This is unfortunate. The range of expression and conviction in the emergent church is stunning. I have been very frustrated by some writers/bloggers/speakers and encouraged and challenged by others. Scharold describes Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian as understanding "that it is important to contextualize doctrine but that you cannot change doctrine." That is true in one sense, but it is superficial understanding of doctrine and culture. The reality of who God is and what he has done and promises still to do is fact, and a fact to be celebrated jubilantly. But our expressions of this fact in a specific language, recited in a certain order, referencing chosen verses all take place in the midst of contexts so thoroughly tainted that what we call doctrine cannot be considered the final product. Western articulations of doctrine are something to be read, studied and cherished, but also critiqued. Doctrinal statements and confessions are incomplete. An example of an area of undeveloped theology in the west is a theological/biblical grasp on the spirit world. Paul Hiebert, Charles Kraft and many others have been attempting to alert the west to these realities seen so easily by followers of Jesus in Asia, Africa, and South America.
Sometimes we think of theology like a candy bar with peanuts and caramel. And all we need to do is change the wrapper it is in. Maybe we change language on the wrapper for the country it is or change the design to suite the culture or the generation. But it turns out that another culture thinks nougat is imperative to the candy bar and that there were too many peanuts in the one from the west. We need to go back to Scripture and soak up all that is stated and work out the articulation of Scripture's contents in our communities. We need to be challenged by other communities that also read the Scriptures and follow Jesus and mutually challenge each other to see our blind spots. There is a tension in all of this. There are some that want to change the wrapper on the candy bar with just peanuts and caramel and there are others that want to say that whatever you want in your candy bar is just fine. The analogy breaks down at this point (as most do) before I start talking about an uber cosmic candy bar. The point is that we must approach our traditional articulations of theology/doctrine humbly recognizing that we need to perpetually return to Scripture, the way of Jesus, and the indwelling of his Spirit.