“It’s okay … I’m Emergent. I’m here to help.” Or, deconstructing the helpful deconstruction.

“It’s okay … I’m Emergent. I’m here to help.” Or, deconstructing the helpful deconstruction.

There’s an essential irony in all the talk about the emergent church vs. the old-style church and where they intersect. Or, maybe—to be charitable—there’s an essential paradox. To wit: how is it possible to decry and denounce all the old structures and forms as being irrelevant without falling into the same trap of culturally-bound irrelevance yourself? Didn’t the Jesus People try this experiment? Didn’t the Quakers do this? Hasn’t the patient gone through the same exploratory surgery time and time again?

And yet, the patient still lives, the church and Christ’s ministry continue on, and the revolutionaries represent small pockets of like-minded individuals that have become all but footnotes in church history.

I’m not emergent. I’m not postmodern; but, then, I’m not modern. I’m not fundamentalistic. I’m a mongrel. While there’s much in my Fellowship I can be critical about, there’s much more outside of it that concerns me deeply.

Over at his “Learning to Breathe” blog, Gregory TeSelle describes his experience speaking to a collected group of Assemblies of God ministers at nearby (to me) Lemont, Illinois, “to share with their pastors and staffs about the Emerging Culture.” Actually, he narrows the topic down a bit more: “to compare and contrast the biblical ideas of the emerging culture with the current ideas of the church today.”

Now, in this post, Greg goes on about how it’s necessary to deconstruct ideas before one can construct new ideas. And that’s fine, and probably true to some degree and in some contexts. But notice the way Greg framed his topic:

compare and contrast the

biblical ideas of the emerging culture

with the

current ideas of the church today

See the assumptions there?

I don’t know Greg, and it sounds like he gave a fine talk that I would’ve thoroughly enjoyed listening to. Plus, it sounds like he had a great time fellowshipping with my peers. But this kind of language and thinking is typical of most of the discussions I’ve seen about old church vs. emergent church. The emergent crowd is certain their practices are more biblical and the old church’s styles represent a dead or dying culture. The old-school crowd is threatened by the unstructured and seemingly chaotic approach of the emergent crowd, and they’re not certain that the emergent mystique is any more biblical or effective than the old-school ways.

Again, doesn’t every new church movement claim to be a more honest and true return to the ideals of the early church? Wasn’t that true even of my own A/G Fellowship back in the early 1900s? Wasn’t that true of Methodism? The Baptists? Puritans? Even Anglicans? Postmodernism and the emergent churches are no different—neither is the A/G. In the end both will be swept away by the winds of change and what will be left will still be the Church.

For once, though, I’d like to see what Greg promised he would do: provide an actual comparison and contrast between the essential practices and ideals of the emergent and status-quo churches. Only, I’d like to hear proponents of each side present their case fairly, state what cultural, philosophical, and biblical grounds they have to claim what is considered essential, and I’d like to see some consensus around the board on what is essential (what is at the core of the church doctrine and practice) vs. what is non-essential and not disputed.

While Greg does not provide me a satisfactory comparison or contrast, he does list a fascinating and compelling set of questions that could be used as a starting point to find some of those essentials. I will quote the list here, as they appeared in his blog today:

I challenged their thinking on why and how they go about these church tasks. Here is a brief synopsis of the tasks and my challenges that we discussed.
WORSHIP — why is it always music? why the same songs? why only pretty people on stage? why all the lights? why do people have to audition to worship God? why is there no creativity in your times of worship? do not tell me what to do (raise hands, turn to the person on my left, etc.) why is everyone wearing the same color clothes?

TEACHING — why is it always the same teacher, with the same linear style, for the same length of time, at the same time in the service? can’t we have multiple teachers with multiple styles? and please don’t think the teaching is the most important part of the service. don’t get me “ready” for the message. scripture always noted the message from the Lord came first, then came the response of worship. oh yeah, and please do not give me all the answers. I’d like to do some self discovery and also some discovery with my small community. just put me on a path toward truth.

FELLOWSHIP — do not have sign-ups or organized times to hangout. do not have assigned topics for these times. fellowship will happen naturally — why? because I value it immensely.

EVANGELISM — please do not have organized outreach events. also stop with all your programs to attract the world to come to the church. the church is supposed to go into the world. stop “commissiong” missionaries and parading them across the stage as “special”. we are all special, and are all missionaries. my entire life is evangelism, it’s not an event.

LEARNING — please do not make a “system” for all of us to go through to become “spiritually mature”. don’t make me “run the bases”, or put me in a 101, 201, 301, 401 process. allow me the freedom to learn what I need to learn according to my life’s situations.

CHURCH FACILITIES — why do you spend so much money on your building? I don’t care about the place we meet. It is so unimportant. I’d rather you spend the money on impacting the community, not new carpet, or a building campaign. please do not spend $5 million dollars on dirt (land) that you won’t use for at least 5 years. do you know where I’ll be in 5 years?

CHURCH CULTURE — please get out of the “ghetto” you have created of christian everything. (schools, music, clothes, video games, fortune cookies, etc. — it is ridiculous — you are addicted to the culture you created) please join society. I am the church all week in my neighborhoods, work, school, etc, then I get together with my community once a week for encouragment.

SERVICES — stop trying to provide something for everyone. it is ridiculous. all you do is provide goods and services to a bunch of people. church shouldn’t be safe, or comfortable. don’t advertise you have coffee and krispy kreme donuts. don’t you see how desperate that looks. take a stand, be bold, and stop people pleasing. it’s sad and sickening.

OTHER STUFF — I’d like depth, community, and creativity in the church. I can’t get that in your “mega church” desires. give me small communities to do life with people. oh yeah, and don’t charge me for truth, hope, and love. (would you charge your mother for your latest sermon series?) let’s share information because we are the same family. stop trying to profit in the name of Jesus.

Some of these are brilliant and useful questions. I really like them.

But if you answered them the way you think an emergent church would, does that make you emergent? Are these questions truly pointing to the essence, the heart, of what it means to be “emergent?”

It’s well worth thinking about. I hope Greg’s questions got some pastors thinking seriously about whether their practices are doctrinally founded, whether they’re temporary modes that need to be changed, and whether their church’s cultural relevance is in jeopardy. I only wish a similar list of questions could’ve been put to Greg for him to ferry to the dis-assembled and deconstructed church he was describing and defending.

So, I thought I’d do that myself.

Here’s a mirror image of Greg’s questions. Note, this is an exercise in reflecting back the assumptions behind Greg’s questions from another perspective. I happen to think many if not most of Greg’s questions deserve to be asked, and should be asked often.

But they shouldn’t be asked uncritically.

Without further ado:

WORSHIP — Is there a compelling biblical or philosophical reason to not use music in worship? Do you think new songs aid worship better than familiar songs? Are you intolerant of pretty people, or are you implying that we must search out the un-pretty and compel them to lead worship? What does lighting have to do with worship, devotion, sacrifice, and service? Does candlelight improve your ability to read the Bible? Do you think the worship team itself is un-spiritual, or do you only object to qualifications for service? Do you think it is unbiblical to seek qualified servants for church positions? Is there an approved list of creative activities suitable for worship, or can I do whatever sparks my creative flare? Can I bring a small block motor to church and worship God creatively with my hands and tools while working on some minor repairs? If not, who gets to narrow the acceptable list of creativity activities down, and who decides when it’s too narrow and therefore too much like old-school church? Does the scripture anywhere instruct you on how to worship or conduct yourself in church (raise hands, greet with kisses/handshakes, etc.)? Does a variety in clothing somehow denote greater spirituality, or is it more conducive to worship?

TEACHING — In what sense are multiple teachers with multiple styles an improvement in communication and teaching? Or is this just another alternative to allay boredom? Can you find evidence the Bible prescribes one over the other? Does a non-linear style consistently communicate more effectively for a greater number of people? Does a random length of time for the service improve your church’s response to worship, teaching, fellowship, or ministry? Who are you or anyone else to say what is “most important” about any given service, anywhere? Isn’t God sovereign, is not the most important thing what he desires from you? Cannot he chose what is most important and useful at any given time? Isn’t it irrelevant whether worship prepares you for teaching or whether teaching prepares you for worship, when study and worship should be present in the Believer’s life at all times anyhow? Does the emergent church philosophy of liturgy somehow produce this result better than old-style worship? Scripture usually doesn’t concern itself with specific liturgical forms and the order of service. If preachers are supposed to only put you on the “path to self-discovery,” does this self-discovery automatically happen? Does a complete sermonic discourse somehow prevent self-discovery?

FELLOWSHIP — Do sign-ups and organized times prevent true fellowship? Does having it any random time improve it? Are people better able to respond when they don’t know when or how long to meet? Do you actively practice moving your small group meetings to different, random nights for random lengths? How do you all show up at the same place at the same time for any kind of small group meeting? Does having an assigned topic for discussion in a small group somehow destroy its authenticity? Do random topics improve the transformational power of the Bible study or the fellowship?

EVANGELISM — Do outreach events damage the presentation of the gospel in some way? Do outreach events diminish the church or always create false conversions? Are all attenders at an emergent church genuine converts? What is the fundamental objection to outreach? What is the essential difference between attracting the world to come to the church vs. the church going into the world? Is it a matter of context? Geography? Location? If the world does come into the church in response to a program, how is this bad? In the “my entire life is evangelism” philosophy, does that naturally involve significant donations so that missionaries can actually fulfill their calling? Is there some process where emergent church practitioners naturally and automatically pledge support for missionary endeavors? Or is missions work another expensive, organized event you despise?

LEARNING — Do you object to systems themselves, or the idea that any system can ever help produce maturity? When you read your scripture devotionally, do you randomly jump to any passage every time you open the text, or do you perhaps have a system in place? Are all systems bad? Are systems, classes and programs necessarily and automatically at odds with each other?.

CHURCH FACILITIES — Has God ever demanded ornate, expensive architecture for his house of worship? Why did God spend so much money on the temple? Why did the early church not object to continuing to meet in the temple or in synagogues where available? Why do you think God is poor? Why do you care about the place you meet? Why do you care about the building you’re not even meeting in that the church is building with money that is not even yours? Or do you suspect that all such buildings are necessarily un-spiritual, sinful, and that God never wanted temples for his people to worship in?

CHURCH CULTURE — Please get out of the “ghetto” you have created of “emergent” or “postmodern” isolation. (It is ridiculous — you are hateful toward the culture which created you.) Please rejoin the church and reform it from within.

SERVICES — Notice how homogeneous your small groups have become. You’re “different like all your other friends.” On the outside there is plenty of variety, but on the inside, there’s cultural homogeneity. When are you going to wake up and realize that different people from different ages, cultures, and backgrounds have different needs? Stop fooling yourself into thinking that asceticism is more spiritual than modernism. If you don’t like the Krispy Kreme donuts, just say no.

OTHER STUFF — I’d like depth, community, and creativity in the church. It doesn’t sound like I can get that in your ad hoc, leaderless, system-less, random, small-group house churches. Give me a community where I can not only find people like me, but lots of others completely unlike me who can disagree with me, rub shoulders with me, and do life together with me. Oh yeah, and I won’t be buying your sermon series, because I know you don’t like series, won’t be spending the money on a recording system to capture it, and won’t be interested in presenting enough teaching for me to really think about because your sermon will only put me on the “path the truth” anyhow. I’d sooner listen to a sermon of substance, and pay for it, because the laborer is worthy of his hire.


Here are some other bloggers who thought Greg’s list was compelling enough to link to. Jeff at rustyhinges is convinced we can’t change because we won’t change. Maybe he’s right. Grace, over at Emerging Grace, takes Greg’s questions for a nice long ride, so far turning it into a thoughtful, four-part series. Richard Passmore at Sunday Papers is asking for a “an authentic theologically grounded redefinition of church.” I’d add “biblically grounded” to that, too. Etanisla at Careless Thought admits that this is why she’s left church for good. Commenter ScottB, an ex-A/G youth pastor over at the less travelled blog, cynically exclaimed in surprise that the conversation even happened at all. Shane, at The High Places takes the time to actually answer and respond to Greg’s questions (good post, if I’d seen it first, I probably wouldn’t have written this). Dave King over at IdeaJoy, inspired by the list, is asking some good questions of his own, like wondering whether the PoMo movement and the old-school churches are both mere distractions and that the real question ought to be: “Why aren’t we loving people?”

Indeed, why? And is the emergent church truly better at this than any existing church structure?

Can the emergent church learn to love the old church?

[tags]BlogRodent, Emergent, Emergent-Church, The-Conversation, postmodern, Assemblies-of-God, Assembly-of-God, Pentecostal, Gregory-TeSelle, Evangelical, critique, Learning-to-Breathe[/tags]

13 thoughts on ““It’s okay … I’m Emergent. I’m here to help.” Or, deconstructing the helpful deconstruction.

  1. Pingback: Careless Thought » Blog Archive » *nods in agreement*

  2. Shane

    Thanks for the kudos… I thought you made a heck of a good stab at it yourself, and think you may have been more comprehensive in answering by turning each point around.

    Keep in mind, I am not against the Emerging Church concept. I think they have some great points. However, I do dislike the lack of respect and absence of interest in what does work in the older denominations and churches. Just because it is “modern” doesn’t mean it is wrong, and just because it is post-modern, doesn’t mean it is right.

  3. Marc V

    Good post.

    “Can I bring a small block motor to church and worship God creatively while working on some minor repairs?”

    Ha ha ha! Gearheads for Christ — don’t mind the airwrenches, Padre, we’re just overhauling a transmission!

    All this emergent, PoMo and “new” stuff is an attempt at looking for new paradigms to reach a lost and dieing world. Should the church change in order to attract people who do not care for the church as it is/was?

    Sometimes church change can be vitally important. Before Azusa street, the Holy Spirit was tied up, gagged and shoved into the church closet. The freedom of the Holy Spirit (scripturally sound concept!) can challenge a priest/pastor, as the regular order of worship becomes much more “fluid”. The question 100 years ago was, and is, do we keep the church the way it is (traditional) or try to change it for the “better”.

    When men are involved in this change, then you will get worldly ideas. God help us to change the church in a way that remains true to scripture, God’s divine word for us.

    Two more quick thoughts:

    Should you spend time worrying about facilities or just spend the money appropriately on a good building and focus on worship?

    The concept of shepherd/flock for the church is very strong in scripture. As God appoints our leaders, so does He appoint our pastor. It’s that person who is going to set the tone and decide how the local church will operate. He’s not going to please everybody, but if you can support him to maximize his time in prayer and study, then he can find out from the Lord what direction the church should go.


  4. Jonathan Garcia

    You’ve certainly presented a lot of valuable information! Very interesting, too. I might be able to use this in a class discussion sometime, so I’ll bookmark this site.

    (Just checking out some of my commenters’ blogs.)

  5. Bethany

    You got me:

    “It is ridiculous — you are hateful toward the culture which created you.”

    Burn. Thanks for the humbling truth. :) After 4 years at Wheaton College, I about OD’d on church culture. And I have counseled friend after friend tired of churchy cliches and holy eccentricities. So I am sympathetic to many of the emergent folks’ concerns (though I do take issue here and there). Anyway, now I’m living back in my pastor father’s home and in the depths of the ghetto, only to remember that I love many people here. Also, I owe them.

    My dad and I got a big kick out of the tent pitching pastor, too. :)

  6. Rich Post author

    Spud, thanks for the commments.

    You wrote, “The question 100 years ago was, and is, do we keep the church the way it is (traditional) or try to change it for the ‘better’.”

    Good question. I think the Church as a whole will change cultural expressions, but I have to question the wisdom of wholesale change for the sake of change itself. What happened in the early 1900s with the burgeoning Pentecostal movement wasn’t a decision to change the church, but a wholesale rejection by the established church due to its allergic response to tongues and etc. Faced with rejection and castigation, practicing Pentecostals had a choice to continue their ministry and faithfulness as homeless nomads, or band together, find a common doctrinal center, and use their group strength to leverage outreach (esp. missions). This wasn’t a bunch of folks dissatisfied with mainline or fundamental church culture, this was a scattering of people who formed community through a sort of diaspora.

    And this is what the emergent church lacks. Sure, there’s a “conversation” going on, but there is no theological center, there is no commonality in practice and ecclesiology, and there is no large-scale community beyond individual house-churches. Where are the emergent church’s missionaries? Where are the emergent church’s ministry preparation centers? Sure, that happens in the house-church. Really? Let’s see that work out over the next twenty years.

    But that’s still beside the point. I’m totally comfortable with the call for change. I’m totally comfortable with the house-church experiment. I think the conversation is worthwile and useful if not necessary.

    I just think there’s far more cynicism, spite, and, yes, hatefulness than is healthy in a church movement, and I think it lacks an identifiable theological and biblical center. You can’t criticize a moving target.

    You asked, “Should you spend time worrying about facilities or just spend the money appropriately on a good building and focus on worship?”

    Good questions, but why second-guess God here? If God has blessed a ministry with a congregation that tithes and if God has led the church board and congregation to move forward on a building project, why must we assume that any expense above and beyond the bare minimum is profligate expense? Why must we assume that God does not want us to spend his money on his structures? I mean, come on, where is the faith? Cannot God provide for our social outreaches as well as the buildings we worship in? God is blessed neither through our penury (emergents?) nor our consumption (word of faith?), to claim one or the other is presumptive.

    Who can truly judge the appropriateness of any given church’s spending except God?

    Note: I’m not arguing for big building budgets. I’m merely asking, why is this an issue? How small is your God? Why does the expense or inexpensiveness of the building impact your worship? A hovel does not make your praise any more authentic than a mansion does.

    Although, I’ll confess, that the ornate crap I see on the set designs for TBN put me off mightily. Especially when you realize it’s bullsh*t and it’s all plastic, cardboard, and cheap paint anyhow. That is for ostentatious showyness, and that is vulgar.


  7. Rich Post author

    Bethany, I know what you’re talking about. I went to an A/G bible college for four years (chapel every day, required 3x-a-week church attendance), then worked at the General Council HQ in Springfield for 7 years (chapel every Monday, required 2x-a-week church attendance). You want to talk oversaturated?


    Yes, I’m sick of church culture when it’s inauthentic. And there’s much to criticize within the A/G and any other Evangelical church. I just think the ingratitude is a stench. I agree, we owe a debt of love to those who raised us–even when we disagree.


  8. Hughes

    Does TeSelle have answers, or only questions?

    Granted, many A/G churches are stuck in the 1950s, others have been seduced by contemporary worship styles that are merely fads. Worse, the larger churches seem to be creating an elite, patterned after Hollywood, which anoints certain persons as celebrities and keeps the masses dependent, even disenfranchised. Adherents are told to sit down, shut up, and be sure to pay their tithes.

    However, it is dangerous to be too full of opinions. I always remind myself of Watchman Nee’s words, that until a would-be spiritual person actually hears from the Lord on a matter, he should keep his mouth shut. The Lord does not necessarily anoint our personal opinions, our tastes, or our traditions. As I have often observed, “Some people think they are spiritual, but they are really just PARTICULAR.”

  9. Rich Post author

    I’ve checked in at TeSelle’s blog a few times, and there really isn’t more evolution on this thread yet. But, given that the emergent church is strongly influenced by postmodernism, I think the question is supposed to trump the answer. In fact, any definitive answers would be negated (to the PMer) by it’s very claim to be an absolute. That seems to be the ideal: question everything.

    That’s fine as far as it goes, but at some point you need to settle on an answer, even if the answer is truly relative to culture, context, and circumstance. Unfortunately, I’m having a hard time finding an immovable center to the critique from the emergent field.

    I don’t care so much how you do church. What matters is your love of God, your love for others (especially within the Body), and your obedience to the revealed will of God.

    Good points Paul, thanks for stopping by!


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  13. R. Duane Gryder


    The best comment you have made in your whole article is:

    “Can you find evidence the Bible prescribes one over the other?”

    It takes us back to the premier place where questions should be answered. I am not an “old style” way of doing church fan, but I do not think going to an unbiblical model is the answer. We need structure because structure is biblical. The key is returning to biblical structure. Where scripture does not speak regarding “how to,” we must discover “what works” with those we are sent to reach. That is as long as “what works” does not contradict biblical principles.

    When it comes to doctrine, I do not understand how anyone can say doctrine is not important. If it is unimportant then we could pull most of Paul’s writings out of scripture. And who knows how much of the Old Testament we could just throw away.

    Here are my questions:

    How could we live our lives within the framework of the church in a more biblical way? How can each of us do the ministry that God has given us in accordance with Scripture? How can we wake up true Christians to the mission that Bible mandates for all of us? How can we get people to stop playing church (be it in an old school church, new style church, or no style church) and instead live the life of a biblically defined disciple?

    Sola Scriptura!

    Blessings, Rich. Keep writing and asking the questions that the church world must hear.

    R. Duane Gryder
    AG US Missions Motorcycle Chaplain

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