The Skinny on Emergent Criticism

Emergent Criticism:  7 Years of Spanking
nomopomoEmergent Village has had a long and glorious history of criticism spanning over 7 years to its early days as Young Leaders. Critics have come and gone, but there will always be Kevin Miller of Christianity Today, who I vote as THE BEST Emergent Critic ever.
Read on to get the skinny on other critics and what they said:

The Sharpest.

The Wettest.

The Hardest.

The Oldest.

The Cheekiest.

The Funniest.

The Smartest.

The Latest

This uber-long blog post discusses the last 7 years of criticism, but it does not attempt to respond to it or defend itself against it. There will be plenty of time for that later. There is a fresh wave of criticism coming in our direction – and we are actually looking forward to it.  Stephen Shields has given a good overview of the  Emerging Storm. We hope it will give us some perspective and burn off some more of our rough edges.
But before it comes, it would be prudent to take a look at the past 7 years of criticism towards the American side of emerging church, and in particular, the group called Emergent. I write this as one of the original members of that group and one of the Coordinators of the present group. More importantly, i write as an eyewitness, although i haven’t been able to attend as many recent USA-side conferences as i wanted to.

The early days of criticism towards pre-Emergent (then called Young Leaders) happened before we were all computer literate and not much of it was recorded. But it really started in 1997 at a conference at Mt. Hermon, California. Chris Seay and Mark Driscoll made quite a stir and the criticism began. The 1998 New Edge conference, organized by Doug Pagitt (who was here last week to get an ear piercing) was a successful attempt at answering some of the critics questions. The Young Leaders team picked out some elder-statesman-like leaders and asked them to explain what we were doing in their own words. i asked for Thom Wolf, others picked people like Len Sweet, Tom and Christine Sine, Stanley Grenz, John Franke, Brian McLaren (we would later ask Brian to join us) Rodney Stark, etc.
It was a great conference. About 500 leaders turned up and it set the pace for the next few years.
Criticism after 1997 centered more on the tone of our conversation. It was suggested, and perhaps rightly, that the team was offensive (Chris swore, Mark upset people, even Doug Pagitt said a word that i cant repeat, even though it was in context) and the criticism of snobby elitism (probably me) was added. there was also some banter with Saddleback, and Dobson, and others. The addition of Brian M. to the team seemed to soften the tone and counter the agitation.
The addition of more females (Sally Morgenthaller was the only original female) also helped to dispel the notion that it was a boy’s club. The accusation that emergent is still a middle class, surburban, educated, evangelical group, has an element of truth to it, at least in its American incarnation, but there has been an effort to become more diverse over the past few years. And it is this effort to be diverse that will probably lead to even greater criticism in the future.

The group was actually more diverse than we let on. Rudy Carrasco was leading a residential intentional community in Pasadena called Harambee, which was really a whole new way of doing church. And i was involved in an urban Celtic monastery in San Francisco and  was tinkering with house churches for street kids and postmodern subcultures. But at conferences, we tried to keep the focus on the current conversation, which at that time had more to do with theology and philosophy than it did with ecclesiology.
As the group developed more identity and voice, the criticisms grew.

Here are the highlights, the best and the worst of Emergent Church Criticism.

The Best

Kevin Miller. Hands down. His Christianity Today article "NoMo Pomo: a Postmodern Rant" was original and catchy. We didn’t think it was entirely accurate, and in fact we had quite a bit of discussion with him over it. We asked Chris Seay to respond officially, which he did. But what was really helpful was having so much interaction with Kevin over his article and actually helping him with the following articles.
We became good friends with Kevin (there was talk of making him an honorary member of Emergent) and with Christianity Today. We both learned a lot and agreed that varied definitions of "postmodern" was a hindrance in moving ahead together.
Kevin rocks.
He sets up the benchmark for all who would like to take a shot at critiquing Emergent.
(i am getting quite teary now . . ) .I responded with a big blog post on the article, and a little thought on the second, but it was Next covered the story well and has all the hyperlinks. Start there.

The Oldest

I include my own little criticism here, since it is possibly the earliest published criticism of Emergent, even if it was from within the group.  My "Postmodern Church Time Capsule" (1999), published by Leadership Network’s "Church Next", poked fun of our obsession with postmodern labelling and as such, was a forerunner to the many critiques ("Nomo Pomo") that would come after it.

"Postmodern? Yes, but [it is] mainly in the mind. They have read Johnny B., Mickey F., Jackie D. and other godfathers of the French pomo family (Baudrillard, Focault, Derrida, for those of you too busy getting a life to join the conversation), all of whom can be summed up by the greatest of Paris’s deconstructionists who, to the lion at the zoo, Madeline just said, "Pooh, Pooh!"

The Hardest
Charles Colson, because we like the guy and we wanted him to like us too. Charles implied that we don’t believe in truth. Ouch. That wasn’t true. It also hurt.
Brian M. stepped up to the plate with a response (PDF), and I also gave some thoughts.

Three actually : the Official Response, the Cheesy Response, and the Intuitive Response.

Charles was gracious enough to continue dialoging with us – sending us a long well thought out letter. So we still love him!

The Cheekiest
David Hopkins, who had just joined, called us the "Postmodern Super Friends". How cheeky!! The name stuck.  I responded but it was too late. We were labelled with it. However, it was said in  a good spirit and we have enjoyed friendship with David and Next-Wave ever since.

David’s accusation that some of us were making good money out of Emergent was off target. We were never paid for our meetings. our expenses were covered, but there was no honorarium. Some of the team charge a set fee for speaking now, and others (like myself) speak for free but receive a donation if the groups decides to give us one.

The Funniest
Liquid Thinking posted The Emergent Collector Cards
: the 2003-2004 PoMo Superstar Series, assigning a McLaren rating of 1-10 to each person. Hilarious.
pagitt is shorter than me

The Biggest

Dr. Carson received more web response from his tapes and proposed book than anyone. He implied that the emerging church didn’t believe in truth or moral absolutes. I said that his remarks were not true and that it was wrong to say so. Don Carson’s critique is disappointing for two reasons:

1. He is capable of a better critique than he gave. He is a smart man. His attempt at a critique was therefore either a  broken promise, or the beginning a relationship with us that is just beginning. I am hoping for the latter. In fact, i think once he meets us in person, he will like us, and we will be reconciled. I walk in faith that this restored relationship will be a reality-  "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for" and I therefore treat our relationship as it will exist in the future, Gods preferable future. And in this future, Don Carson finishes what he started, and gives us some necessary counsel.

2. He has so far not permitted any feedback from us, or anyone in the emergent circle, in effect closing the loop of conversation and making the search for  "Truth" impossible. This is frustrating. It is a tantric critique that refuses resolution.
Don is such a nice guy and so well-respected, that we feel we have the freedom to disagree with his critique of us without threatening his reputation. Much has been written online by furious bloggers, most of whom are NOT American (Carson said the Emerging church was an American phenomenon), and we are still awaiting a response from Dr. Carson. So i wont say anymore. But some of us are hoping that the conversation with him has just begun . . . . Don . .   are you out there????

Don’s book is coming out soon. I suggest we buy it and find the best in it, and learn from it as much as we can.
The best response has been that of Dr. Mills  The Emergent Church – Another Perspective: A Critical Response to D.A. Carson’s Staley Lectures (pdf)>/a> and Stephen Shields.

The Latest.
The recent Emergent convention in Nashville has generated a number of articles.
Christianity Today : The Emergent Mystique, by Andy Crouch. Jason Clark (emergent UK) took this one on board his blog and Tony Jones got emotional.
Christian Century published two articles recently, both of which were very good. The Emerging Matrix: A New Kind of Church by Scott Bader-Saye and New Kind of Christian: Brian MacLaren’s Emergent voice. Scott gets the thumbs up from Maggi Dawn (not always an easy task) but gets a harder time with Andii Bowsher of NousLife. Andii’s series called Emerging Church Style Sheets – 1, 2 and 3 provide a good response to some of the article’s shortcomings. I would be happy to add my own, but will save that for another post.
Lets finish this post, shall we????

The Smartest

Reclaiming the Center is a new book targeted at the post-foundationalism of John Franke and Stan Grenz. Brian M. also takes a few hits. I have ordered the book and have read some parts of it that are available for previewing.The conversation on this book has not really begun yet, but when it does, please leave a comment below with a link to the action. It should be a good one, although the book seems to avoid the practitioners of emerging church. JI Packer comes in at the end, but i am guessing we would all agree with what he says, even though it is unfortunately framed against us.

The Wettest

The Critique with the Most Spit: Tony Campolo, who always gives the weather with the news, (i saw students in the front row open umbrellas once) has a new article on emergent church called Growing: Movement is New Form of Evangelism. Campolo’s thoughts are picked up by Cleave , but the article is good enough to let pass without us jumping on it. In fact, we should be so lucky to have critiques on the emergent church as good and as positive as Campolo gives us. He is a nice guy – i picked him and his son (Bart) from the Portland airport back in 1988. They are both really funny guys, and i am sure will remain friends with the emerging church. In fact, Campolo would have an open invitation to spank us, should the need arise.
However, Cleave’s two points of disagreement with Campolo still stand:

1. The Emergent church includes a WHOLE LOT MORE people than just evangelicals and post-evangelicals.

2. The Emergent church is NOT anti-institutional – it seeks and maintains trust relationships with ecclesiastical institutions. We all need each other. The flavor of emerging church, or at least what you see on the surface, will continue to be organic and fluid. and yet at the same time it is supported and celebrated and anchored by elements of necessary institution, both inside its own structures and in conjunction with strategic partnerships.

I have to go, and i have talked too much, but let me say this . .
Much of the criticism has revolved around the word "postmodern". It was a word we brought up in the mid nineties to show that the changes facing ministry in the current age were more than generational, and actually involved a significant worldview shift. The word came back to bite us in the backside, and in some cases we stopped using it. In other cases, we still refer to it, since there is much more to be learned from postmodernism and it may be too early to abandon everything connected to it. Although we simply have to use words that create understanding and not words that erect blockades. The shift in terminology has gone from youth Church to GenX to Postmodern to Emergent, and even the word emergent is getting a spanking amidst talk of "post-emergent". Its a good thing we are not locked into concepts or words, all of which are temporal.

Lets stay locked onto Jesus and keep building His church. If we get spanked for doing a bad job in describing what God is doing through us, then lets learn to listen, loosen our grip on what doesn’t translate, and find something that does.
Loosen our grip, i say, but not abandon in haste.
"It is good to grasp the one, and not let go of the other" Proverbs
Thats it for now. i will continue at another post.
you can go now . .

[Edit; i have deleted a paragraph at the end regarding travel – having received an exhortation from one of my elders.
"I also, am a man under authority"]


Andrew Jones launched his first internet space in 1997 and has been teaching on related issues for the past 20 years. He travels all the time but lives between Wellington, San Francisco and a hobbit home in Prague.


  • Danny says:

    Great post Andrew. Where do you think the emerging movement in Europe is headed right now? You get to travel more than the rest of us… has the “movement” even moved yet?
    Advancing the invisible in Germany,
    [ANDREW] Hi Danny.
    You might want to read a paper i wrote for The Alliance SCP at their Budapest meeting a few months ago called “Emerging Church Issues” which is available here.
    As for Germany, things are coming together for a website soon. I will be speaking there in February, but the event in your country to be at next year will be Freakstock (8000 young people) where one of the leaders (Mark) hopes to have a special emerging church emphasis.
    Mark was at our Global Emerging Church Roundtable this year in UK. photos here.
    and BTW – watch out for a Boiler Room (Millenium 3 Monastery) opening up in Berlin in 2005 . . . oooppppps . . . I have said too much!!!!!

  • Wow, thanks Andrew! I put down a few of my own thoughts on the topic in the latest Next-Wave:$503
    but I think you give a fuller picture!

  • graham says:

    Great post, Andrew!

  • Andrew Jones says:

    Stephen – i did read your post a few days ago, and i just wrote it into this post at the beginning – thanks much for your links and wise counsel.

  • davidt says:

    Great stuff. I remember the gathering in Newport Mesa, CA, others in San Antonio, another at Chuck Smith jr’s church when Young Leader was dismantling and restarting. Great beginnings, nostalgic, innocent. The best is yet to come.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you for giving a voice to the feelings we all have.

  • willzhead says:

    The Tall

    According to Andrew

  • Matt says:

    Great summary! It helps some of us keep up with the discussion to have one of those every once in a while.
    What about Webber’s comments in the Christian Century article?

  • Isaac says:

    Thanks, Andrew.
    I’m an American, and I always have trouble finding emerging church in america. It seems to me that in some ways the American church is getting left behind in the emerging world!

  • theVoiz says:

    History of the Criticism

    Andrew Jones has done a good job giving us a history of the criticism that the emerging church has faced.

  • Bill says:

    I was under the impression that Chuck Colson didn’t ever respond to Brian’s letter. Is his response available. I think the presence of Brian’s “open letter” online gives a false impression that Colson hasn’t deigned to respond.
    [ANDREW] Hi Bill.
    Colson’s reply is posted on Brian’s website right here.

  • rudy says:

    great post, thanks andrew

  • Sivin Kit says:

    Love this post thanks. Heard you were in Singapore. Would have been nice to meet up in KL, Malaysia.

  • Andrew, thanks for reminding us of the journey thus far. I am humbled by God’s movement. I am ashamed of my arrogance. I am hopeful for the future.

  • c. smith, jr. says:

    It is so good, so right, so like Jesus that by engaging with your critics, you (all) have made them friends. That enlarges the conversation, gives it more integrity, provides a tether (or at least a check-and-balance of sorts), and makes the criticism constructive. After my first book was released, I was assigned a radio interview in order to promote it. The host was a sincere and warm Christian who warned me beforehand that he would aggressively challenge my views. Each objection he raised, I would begin to answer with a biblical story or passage and then he would finish my argument. He was actually stating the case for me. Well, of course! A lot of sincere believers are aware of the fact that there are problems with the way we have been “doing church” (and evangelism, and apologetics, and, and, and). At the end of the interview, he was honestly surprised and said, “I guess we are in much greater agreement than what I realized.” Perhaps he didn’t expect my point of view to be biblically formed. You’re a great bridge-builder, Andrew. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God.”

  • Andrew Jones says:

    thanks chucky! Great to hear from you again.
    Your book was groundbreaking (i have said this before) in that it was the first book to tackle the postmodern issue from an emotional and personal angle. It was brave, and warm, and honest, and much appreciated. It sits happily on my bookshelf.

  • djchuang says:

    great retelling of the history! that makes you the de facto historian of this thing sometimes called Emergent.

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