Thursday, August 19, 2010

Have We Arrived at the Post-Emergent era?

Take a trip with me into the past - not the distant past, but the less than distant past. Rewind to five years ago when fellows like Tony Jones, Brian McLaren and Doug Pagitt were the talk of the town, and every twenty-something Bible school student was reading Blue Like Jazz. Those were the days... iPods were 3/4 of an inch thick, MySpace was something people actually used, and people actually thought that you could build a whole Christian system off of questions - even though systems were bad and they never would have called what they were building a "system."

Now lets look at where this movement is today. The Emergent leaders have become a niche in the Christian marketplace, and even worse, some of them have stopped asking questions and started giving us their answers. Kevin DeYoung alluded to this in his "Christianity and McLarenism" where he points out that Brian McLaren has finally arrived at the answers he was seeking, and his answer is essentially classical theological liberalism. As H. Richard Niebuhr put it in describing liberalism, "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of Christ without a cross." And isn't that really where the Emergent crowd was moving in the first place?

Five years out now (it's really been longer), we can look back and see the forest, because the trees are behind us, and what do we see? We see a group of men who built their entire enterprise on being un-label-able, un-pinnable, in-decipherable, and entirely answer-less. We had a series of catch phrases such as "We don't worship a book," or "Christianity is so heavenly minded that it's no earthly good," or "Jesus was not a Republican (or Democrat)." But eventually you've got to affirm something, and McLaren's A New Kind of Christianity, if it showed us anything, showed us that underlying the whole enterprise of questioning the Greco-Roman narrative of post-Constantinian Christianity was traditional liberalism. And if there is one thing which history shows, it is that liberalism does not lead to relevant, fresh, vibrant, and robust Christian zeal.

In the wake of these Emergents who have started to find out who they are, a whole host of their students have jumped ship on the Emergent label, finding out that it was a volatile and dangerous place to stand if you wanted to have anything to do with traditional churches with Orthodox theological traditions. It is this crowd which I am labeling Post-Emergent. They are now leaderless, parasitic, and looking for a home, but their old label has lost its hipness.

It's no longer cool to just ask questions, but it's also not cool to be so arrogant as to think that you have answers. For the time, the Post-Emergent is still recovering from its painful defeat, as conservative Christianity reacted strongly against the inroads that Emergentism attempted to make into the mainline evangelical churches. The Emergent project simply couldn't stand in any permanent way because its edifice was formed from plaster. Or to substantiate the charge of its being "parasitic," it couldn't stand on its own. Emergentism could only live off of a once healthy host, taking advantage of its weaknesses and fixing itself onto the evangelical church like the goiter on Aunt Matilda's neck.

Now, evangelicalism, I believe, has found its antidote to the Emergent spirit, and the solution is nothing new. If one reads Young, Restless, and Reformed, one is struck by the dramatic need within the church for the recovery of the person of God. Not merely a conversation about a possible deity. The church's antidote to questions and lostness is the person of God Himself, as revealed in Jesus Christ and as found in the Bible, which is the Word of God. This is an old answer for an old problem. Whenever people find themselves adrift at sea, the plainest solution of looking for the lighthouse is usually the best one. God committed his truths into the fixed form of a book because the culture's mood does shift from one era to another, while the Scriptures themselves never change. The rising popularity of the New Calvinists are no accident; it is not a movement that is happening in a vacuum. It is a generation of Christians who have seen the futility of answerless Christianity - of having a political or ethical agenda without having a God to get that agenda from. This is nothing fancy or inventive, but then the best answers usually aren't.

In other words, the antidote to questions that deserved answering were found in an old fashioned service where an old man made of dust read out of an old book, helped along in his speech by an old God who has yet to be forgotten, regardless of what the coolness of skepticism about that God appeared to dictate for a short season. Eventually, people need answers - it is implicit in the human condition to ask questions, and those questions necessarily imply answers just as hunger implies quesadillas.

So the Post-Emergents - who are they? They are the generation who have questioned themselves out, who have resigned themselves to living in conservative churches while quietly judging those around them for thinking they have answers. They are the ones who liked McLaren's questions and are justifiably uneasy with the classical liberalism in his answers. That was never what the Emergents wanted. What they really wanted, in my opinion, was for someone to do the hard work for them and answer their theological questions and to stop making them feel bad for not voting Republican.

But remember - you can't define Post-Emergent any more than you could define Emergent. Emergent was a mood, not a movement. Emergent was an attitude, not a system. And so it is with the Post-Emergents. They are still a lost bunch, but the realization that you can't chase your tail forever has forced them into an impasse: They can either affirm that answers exist and get to the work of finding those answers, or they can become the same group who ruined the PCUSA 90 years ago and who are still running the Anglican church today. And I don't think anybody going to argue that those two groups are up to their ears in cultural relevance.


  1. I really enjoyed this. It's very insightful.

    My parents, who were at seminary in the 70s, said this is all very familiar to them. One of the professors used to say, in response to the liberalism, "the message (the gospel) is the method."

    I really pray we are seeing a return to that approach.

  2. Adam,

    Great post! Well thought out and equally well written; thank you. I referenced it on my latest blog post @

  3. Kenneth, you are quickly becoming a strong ally. Many thanks.


Before posting please read our Comment Policy here.

Think hard about this: the world is watching!