During the 1980’s and 90’s rogue bands of Christian pastors began asking themselves how they could repackage, bend, hacksaw, and sell Christianity to a postmodern global culture no longer interested in the cranky and judgmental values their parents collectively gave them as a society. An unofficial movement that transcended Christian denominational boundaries slowly began to take shape as brash thought leaders explored new and fresh possibilities for reshaping Christianity into one fabricated for Western culture. These daring Christian spin doctors went into overdrive, and a frenzy of ‘conversations’ began to replace much of the traditional Christian doctrines from various Christian faiths. What morphed from this extravaganza of Christian introspection and juicy embellishment has become known as the Emergent Church. Gone are the anti-gay sentiments, gone is the pro-gun ethic. Everyone is pro-choice. Everyone is Emo.
What if hell didn’t exist? What if Christianity was okay with all other wisdom traditions and treated them with equality? What if the angry Old Testament vengeful God was not accurate somehow? What if the negative and challenging parts to traditional Christian theology just evaporated and went away? What would that kind of Christianity look like in our modern landscape? How would soft-sell, comfy zone, total ‘love currency’ Christianity be viewed then? These and other similar questions were cast about in an effort to come up with something culturally viable to replace the callous vestiges of Catholicism and out-of-date Protestant intellectual tyranny. The Emergent Church had arrived.
Walk into any Emergent-flavored ‘church’ today and you will find yourself in the lavish jungles of circus faith experiences. Prayer labyrinths, chanting, votive candles, and mystical- themed journeys await your every footstep. Worship venues have gone Disney, where nothing is too far-fetched. Sermons and dictated theology have faded into the past in favor of participatory adventures and congregational conversations. All accepted norms of doing Protestant Evangelical religion is targeted, deconstructed, and reconfigured to meet our North American cultural tastes. ‘Experimental’ is the unspoken agenda pulsing throughout Emergent sanctuaries doing faith...here and now.
Emergent church leaders took it upon themselves to question everything in Protestant / Evangelical orthodoxy, including the layout of the common sanctuary in terms of architecture and interior design. Raised stages, podiums, and fixed pews all suggested an overly centralized dictatorial theological establishment that permeated most Christian faiths. How could fresh ideas and fresh experiences within such rigid Christian denominations foster a climate of growth and learning? Emergent thought gurus assumed these Christian brands were tyrannical and reflected the dying relics of empire-building nations and their organizational dogma. Thus Emergents decided it was necessary in their venues to introduce couches, eliminate podiums, and make the inward spaces of churches user-friendly with coffee boutiques and daring seating arrangements!
Not only do Emergent church venues redefine everything, they have also retooled the Protestant/Evangelical concept of attempting to convert the unchurched Gentiles. The emphasis has shifted from being missionary to being ‘missional’. The difference is both subtle and radical all at once. The Emergent movement values local causes, rather than sending resources to far-off countries in Africa, or some polarized political venture that leaves some people group marginalized in the long run. Community-based initiatives, grassroots events, and social justice have replaced the roster of old-fashioned religious objectives.
The crux in missional thinking amongst Emergent adherents stems from the posture that Christianity is not superior to other wisdom traditions ... it is equal. This updated Emergent worldview alters the need to change the secular individual via conversion. If all faiths and philosophies are on the same footing, then the dynamic switches to include, rather than indoctrinate. The missionary man’s services are no longer needed, since marketing Jesus is out. Sharing a common belief or agenda with the unchurched is the new custom of the moment on the Emergent catwalk of love.
At the core of Emergent thought is critical thinking on steroids and skepticism without parameters. Every traditional Christian dogma is questioned and deconstructed. Doubt is the subtle engine driving the movement. How can anyone really say what the theological intent of an ancient Israelite writer was? Doubt is preferred over faith; and constant skepticism and conjecture vs. trusting one’s personal reactions to Scripture.
Another pet Emergent behavior is dismissing two important books in the Bible, Revelation and Daniel. The problem with these ancient authors is that they frame God in terms of spiritual consequences and God’s universal limitation on sin and the Devil. How can we understand God as ultimately loving and forgiving if He displays wrath towards the Devil and punishes evil people with an eternal death? To the Emergent movement this belief has to be incorrect in order for God to be truly honest in His posture of being loving. Spiritual consequences and punishment require God to be a tyrant and a God embellished by colonial Western culture. Therefore Emergent thought leaders write off these two books as misguided or misunderstood. However once we throw out the concept of spiritual consequences, then Christ’s sacrifice and atonement for our sin becomes diminished and minimized. This suits Emergent church leaders in order to put other wisdom traditions on an equal footing. No more need to be exclusive and superior in our theological overview. Again, the purpose is always to remove messy and unpleasant aspects of Christianity. And, once more, if Christ’s sacrifice was not paramount and totally necessary for mankind then conversion becomes a moot issue. Marketing ‘Christianity’ is no longer pertinent. Evangelism is a thing of the past.
Thus we have this pervasive and enticing movement replacing the stale old brands of doing Christianity. Guilt and earning salvation don’t even show up on the radar any more. God is ultimately forgiving. His character has been revamped, updated and packaged to meet the demands of the politically correct and morally inclusive culture. God is cool. He’s laid back and wants mankind to begin fixing its own problems with ‘radical hospitality’ using the new ‘currency of love’. Burning Man meets Beaver Cleaver. Heaven deconstructed and redefined is here and now.
Denise Rougeux-Putt helped edit this article.