The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier
By Tony Jones
Jossey-Bass, March 2008
288 pp., $22.95
Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists
By: Collin Hansen
Crossway, March 2008
160 pp., $14.99
A new movement is attracting a younger generation of Christians, shaking up institutions, denominations, and churches along the way. Not everyone in the movement is attracted to it for the same reasons, but they gather at conferences and online to share thoughts, debate, and learn from the elder statesmen of the group. Now a new book attempts to explain, sympathetically, what’s really going on.
Actually, it’s two books, and two movements.
Collin Hansen’s Young, Restless, Reformed started as a September 2006 Christianity Today article. Now editor-at-large for Christianity Today, Hansen has examined why many young Christians are drawn to Calvinism, whom these new Calvinists are listening to, and what they’re passionate about.
Hansen’s book begins with a note comparing the relative obscurity of the new Calvinism and the prominence of the emerging church. Among his interviewees was Tony Jones, national coordinator of Emergent Village, and author of the new book The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier.
Jones is the author of several previous books, but The New Christians is more journalistic in its approach, describing the origins of the emerging church, why it’s growing, and how it’s changing.
The books and movements share a number of themes: reaction against entertainment-driven church life, desire for transcendence, rediscovery of tradition, and a need to answer common misconceptions about the movements. Christianity Today invited Hansen and Jones to read each other’s books and discuss how the rise of one movement might illuminate aspects of the rise of the other. Are both movements scratching the same itch? Are there internal tensions in one movement that also appear in the other?
The conversation will continue over several days.
I appreciate how The New Christians recounts the history of Emergent, told through compelling stories and an explanation of its distinctive beliefs. Your analysis of the two emerging camps was helpful. One camp advocates an unchanging gospel message paired with new ministry methods. Siding with the other camp, you write, “To try to freeze one particular articulation of the gospel, to make it timeless and universally applicable, actually does an injustice to the gospel.” I don’t see Jesus or the biblical authors granting us the warrant to change their gospel message. But to a certain extent, I agree that when we alter the methods of gospel ministry, we inevitably change the gospel message itself. This point is too often missed when we evaluate the “seeker sensitive” methods of many evangelical megachurches.
I felt a certain kinship while reading your book. For one thing, we both grew up in the Midwest attending mainline Protestant churches. Then we left home to attend private colleges, where we became involved with Campus Crusade for Christ. Our experiences with Crusade were quite different, and your story helped me appreciate this ministry’s strengths as well as some of its weaknesses. I recently spoke with Crusade leaders who advocate more theology training for staff, and this development has already led to significant changes.
I found in your book a fundamental appreciation for the importance of theology. Now, our conversation will make it clear that we reach very different conclusions about that theology. But the young evangelicals I wrote about share your surprise and dismay with the message you heard from Leadership Network: “Theology just causes people to argue. We don’t do theology.” In both our books, there is a recurring theme of faith evidenced by works. Theology that only makes you argue is a theology not worth arguing. Doing theology means putting it into practice.
I too found it interesting about our commonalities in upbringing. That is, right up until we got involved in Campus Crusade. That was an important time for each of us, and it probably started us on the trajectories that you mention led to “very different conclusions” about theology. Honestly, I don’t know how different they are, though, since I am committed to God’s sovereignty, to the inspiration and authority of Scripture, and to the atoning work of Jesus. And, I was pleasantly surprised how your book highlights the cross-pollination that’s taking place in your circles between Baptists, Presbyterians, and charismatics. That’s some ecumenism that I wasn’t expecting (and another aspect of ministry that we agree on)!
Where we probably differ is not so much on theology, but on epistemology. That is, it seems the difference between the people you profile in Young, Restless, Reformed seem pretty darn sure that they’ve got the gospel right, whereas the Emergents that I hang out with are less sure of their right-ness. In fact, they’re less sure that we, as finite human beings, can get anything all that right.
Here’s another way I’d explain the differences. An American Christian today is beset by globalization, pluralism, and postmodernism (three terms that I use interchangeably). In other words, the world is a confusing mess. I think that conservative, evangelical, Reformed theology offers sure answers spoken in tones of certainty by authority figures. Emergent Christianity, for better and worse, offers more ambiguous answers (and even more questions!) in tones of less certainty — but, hopefully, at least with what Lesslie Newbigin called “proper confidence.”
I wonder, do you think that some people are just more inclined to look for sure answers, and others are more comfortable with ambiguity?
There may be some truth to the dichotomy you asked me about, but I suspect the situation is more ambiguous. The young Reformed evangelicals I interviewed would gladly stand with Emergents on your dispatch 14: “Emergents embrace paradox, especially those that are core components of the Christian story.” The Bible affirms both divine sovereignty and human responsibility. But who knows how these twin truths always correspond? I love what J. I. Packer writes in Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God: “The desire to oversimplify the Bible by cutting out the mysteries is natural to our perverse minds, and it is not surprising that even good men should fall victim to it.”
In the spirit of your chapter called “The Theology, Stupid,” I would like to discuss a central concern of the evangelicals I profiled. You wrote a section on Atonement that followed your story about meeting a pastor who “sits atop a pyramid of Reformed Christians.” You contrast his view of substitutionary Atonement with Emergent Christians’ views, which more commonly attribute the sins of the world “not to the distance between human beings and God but to the broken relationships that clutter our lives and our world.” Can you help me understand how Emergent Christians tend to view the atoning work of Jesus?
Then, after recapping your discussion with this Reformed pastor, you say that emphasizing correct doctrine owes much to the Enlightenment’s trust in reason and intellect. But it seems like the apostle Paul considered sound doctrine a core component of pastoral care (1 Tim. 6:3, Titus 1:9; 2:1, Gal. 1:6-9). The early church hosted ecumenical councils to hash out the Trinity and Christ’s two natures, the paradoxical doctrines you cited in the chapter “After Objectivity: Beautiful Truth.” How do we practice this biblical mandate to promote sound doctrine in a postmodern era?
I was encouraged to read that you are committed to the inspiration and authority of Scripture. I was also surprised, because in The New Christians you write that evangelicals are “destined to a life of establishing the veracity of the Bible in the face of contravening evidence and opinion.” You then deconstruct a conservative argument for the veracity of the Bible as an example of “infinite regression,” the futile exercise of foundationalism. How do you evade foundationalism and still affirm the inspiration and authority of Scripture?
As you can see, your book inspired from me a very Emergent response — lots of questions!
I’ll try to answer at least one of those. There have been five or six major theological theories to explain the atoning work of Jesus on the cross over the last two millennia. Each of them, you might say, shines a spotlight on the cross from a different angle. Emergents want all those spotlights, figuring that the more light we can shed on the cross, the better we can understand it. One spotlight is fine. Six is better.
This talk about the Atonement brings up an aspect of both movements that I think is really interesting. For all of the Christian “celebrities” mentioned in both of our books (Piper, McLaren, Keller, Pagitt, etc.), very much of each movement (and the debates about the Atonement) has been driven by bloggers, often in their 20s, and often youth pastors or seminarians. I find the egalitarianizing effect of the “new media” to be salutary in so many ways. Sure, there are the crazy haters out there in the Reformed camp, but I’ve been overwhelmed by both the grace and the erudition of so many young, Reformed bloggers.
And we all read each other’s stuff, and I think that is so good for all of us. Most people in the Emergent blogosphere know exactly what “HT: JT” means. (For the uninitiated, it means “Hat Tip: Justin Taylor.”) Justin, of course, is a Reformed blogger, but you’re likely to see him linked to once or twice a week on the Emergent Village blog.
And I’ve had the pleasure of breaking bread with you, Justin, John Piper, Abraham Piper, Darrin Patrick, Tim Keller, and others. There are those on the Reformed side who won’t return my e-mails, but that’s the exception. The rule seems to be an openness to conversation and even friendship.
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Your note reminds me of a question John Piper fielded at the 2007 Passion conference. One student stood up in a Q+A forum and asked, “How do you stay so humble?” Piper immediately responded, “How do you know I’m humble?” This is clearly something he fights, as do all Christians. Humility is not something that comes naturally to the celebrity-crazed evangelical world. It’s especially unhelpful when we treat our leaders as if they are inerrant and ask them to sign our Bibles. We should pray for our leaders and consider what we do that tempts them to pride.
I think if anyone has rubbed off on the older Reformed guys, it’s one of the older guys himself: C. J. Mahaney. Check out the endorsements from some of his friends for his book Humility: True Greatness. In this book Mahaney, the founding pastor of Covenant Life Church in Maryland, helpfully defines humility this way: “Humility is honestly assessing ourselves in light of God’s holiness and our sinfulness.”
The Bible does address epistemological humility, as in the oft-quoted 1 Corinthians 13:12 passage. But I think it’s crucial to see that verse in light of that chapter’s focus on love. Humility is often measured by how we love one another, our willingness to serve our neighbors. We can’t help but think of the most humble act of human history, Jesus humbling “himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8).
This emphasis on loving one another in community is something I appreciate about the Emergent churches you describe. This was one of my favorite lines you wrote: “The church should be a place where individuals who struggle with self-centeredness get reminded that our calling is to be God-centered and other-centered.” That sounds like the reasons I heard for why young evangelicals join Reformed churches.
Maybe that line is why I was surprised by your dispatch 17: “Emergents start new churches to save their own faith, not necessarily as an outreach strategy.” In fact, I didn’t see much in your book about any outreach strategies. Is that because of how you counsel your friend, to trust more in the Holy Spirit than in marketing (page 201)? If so, you have a lot of Reformed friends who don’t love Charles Finney’s lingering influence on the American church. How do Emergent churches practice evangelism?
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I appreciated reading about Mahaney in your book. I knew nothing about him before, but he seems like my kind of guy — a real straight shooter. And I appreciate that the young Reformed folks consider their older leaders to be humble, but that doesn’t always come across in the clips I see and the books I read. They may be humble in the face of the sovereign God, but they don’t seem to preach with much epistemic humility. That’s why I was wondering if the grace of the younger generation is trickling up.
Yours is a good question about dispatch 17. In writing that, I was simply trying to be honest. While some churches — both church plants and existing churches — have used emergent-type elements in their worship and marketing in an attempt to attract young adults, the churches that I have studied and visited do not think of their patterns of life together as an outreach strategy. Instead, the Emergent ethos grows out of (1) a dissatisfaction with church-as-usual, and (2) a desire to create something new and beautiful.
The obvious and valid criticism of this is that it’s yet another example of American consumerism run amok in the church: if you don’t like what you see, then just go start another church. But I submit that the church, both in style and in substance, has always been a reflection of the culture around it. In the Middle Ages, vestments and ceremony spoke volumes about the church’s celestial power to an illiterate laity. In Calvin’s Geneva, academic gowns and erudite sermons reflected an educated and cosmopolitan city at the brink of the Enlightenment.
And, in a Wikipedia world, the church will increasingly reflect the highly participatory culture in which we live. You’ve seen it in the Reformed movement, as more and more laypersons are reading serious theology and not simply leaving that to their pastors. We see it in Emergent churches with the dismantling of the wall between clergy and laity and the sharing of the teaching duties across the congregation.
One more question for you: I’ve been reading some of the young, Reformed bloggers write about our conversation, and one sentiment has stood out. Several have written that my affirmation of God’s sovereignty, the inspiration of Scripture, and the Atonement is not good enough. “What does he really mean?” they ask. “I don’t think he really means what I mean!” So, I ask you, do you think that any affirmation of the historic, creedal beliefs of Christianity by an Emergent will be good enough for the young, restless Reformeds?
Tony Jones is the national coordinator of Emergent Village and author of The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier. Collin Hansen is editor-at-large of Christianity Today and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists. Both books take a sympathetic journalistic approach to a young but growing movement in American Christianity, examining why it’s growing and how it’s changing the larger church.
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I sense frustration with your last question. It’s a hard one to address. Creeds are great for distilling the overarching themes and doctrines of Scripture. But they can unwittingly make Christians think faith can be reduced to checking the right boxes. As evangelicals have learned since the fundamentalist-modernist debates of the early 20th century, there are at least two problems with this mentality. First, two people may sign the same statement but choose to interpret it quite differently, rendering useless the pretended unity. The other problem surfaces when someone checks all the boxes but immediately undermines the doctrine by saying it doesn’t really matter. My purpose in asking what you believe about the Atonement, sound doctrine, and biblical authority was to reconcile what you wrote to me with what you wrote in your book.
I was really intrigued when you wrote about Emergent churches “open-sourcing” their biblical and theological content. “Some people will worry, What about heresy? It’ll just become a mad free-for-all without any baseline of sound doctrine!” I loved your next line: “To the contrary, nothing roots out heresy better than a group.” I don’t agree with open-sourcing doctrine, but you make a great point about community. The apostles modeled this approach. So did the bishops who met for the ecumenical councils. Today, this is one of the reasons why I believe pastors should serve their churches on councils of fellow elders.
Maybe, if necessary, even blog communities can root out heresy. I thought Scot McKnight ably and charitably called out Spencer Burke for denying the personhood of God. This situation confused some observers of Emergent, since Burke had affirmed the “historic Trinitarian Christian faith and the ancient creeds” in “A Response to Our Critics” (also Appendix B of your book).
Overall, Tony, your book greatly helped me learn about Emergent. You also confirmed for me that evangelicals face a culture crisis. We have imbibed too much of the surrounding American values of consumerism and individualism. Yet even though we intimately know this culture, we don’t understand it. I’m thankful for Emergents who seek to discern the culture. As I wrote in my first message, we may not agree on the best way to engage this culture with the gospel of Jesus Christ. But we share a concern for the church to grow past the sins that so easily entangle us.
I guess my only retort to your concern about the open-sourcing of doctrine is this: I don’t think you have much of a choice! As the bloggers who’ve weighed in on our conversation attest, we live in a highly participatory culture in which all opinions are vetted in the public square. We may wish that the church fathers had the final word on this doctrine or that, but in the era of the Internet and publishing-on-demand, all contravening ideas will be readily available, even if they don’t jibe with traditionus receptus.
What I think emergents are up to, in part, is fashioning a church that is reflective of these trends. In all honesty, most Christian publishing houses are, too. Just last week, someone wrote me a letter, which I posted, in which he surveyed the books by Christian publishers on multiple views of doctrines, and he came up with 119 views on 29 topics. That’s some serious diversity.
Actually, I’m not disheartened by these trends. I think that a new consensus is possible. I think that Protestantism as we know it is ending, and a new orthodoxy is building. It won’t be quite like the conciliar period, but the Internet will facilitate something similar. Back then, it was bishops from Africa, Europe, and the Near East overcoming their geographical differences to build the church. Today it will be Wesleyans, Reformeds, and Anabaptists, etc. overcoming archaic and crumbling walls.
I hope this dialogue might be a small part in that movement of the Spirit. Your book, Collin, was thoughtful and evenhanded. I appreciate it, and I’m glad to call you a friend.
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