Cutting John Piper some slack on the emerging church

I was a little harsh on John Piper and his comments on the emerging church and the timing was bad. I posted a response 2 days before he announced his ministry break, and a week before the Desiring God conference. Not cool. He deserves better. My apologies, from one Baptist to another.

And on top of that he gets slammed for inviting Rick Warren to Desiring God. More stuff to deal with.

john piper and rick warren

I know what its like to announce a blog break and then some idiot comes along and challenges you and you feel like you have to say something to clear the air. This time, I am that idiot.

Abraham Piper, John’s son, tells me that his dad is OK with the occasional slam but still, I would like to clear the decks a little before his big event. So here is a more gracious response that acknowledges John Piper’s worthy observations, and one or two more issues that I want to speak into.

“Emerging Church is a fading reality?” It’s true that the ’emerging church’ term is fading, as I have chronicled for the past 5 years, but in reality the movement has matured and is now more integrated with the established church and mission enterprises than it previously was, thus losing some identity but greatly increasing its impact.

“It has seen its best days” Probably true. And “you will not hear the word in ten years” is a good prediction, not because everything is falling apart and Ken Silva is bringing it all down, but because many have already moved on to other more helpful words [missional is one of them] but any term given to the new forms of church will have a short shelf life. This is normal. And remember that the word “emerging” and “emergent” are also widely used these days in biology, economics, etc.

“It wasn’t a phenomenon in the black community. By and large this is true. Yes there are many exceptions, including the many emerging hip-hop churches, which are, in the most part, not very white at all. And they shouldn’t be white – have you seen how stupid we white guys look when we break-dance?? But what Piper says is correct. Even in my own experience in San Francisco, the black Pentecostal church that was letting us use their space on Saturday nights pulled back and kicked us out when they saw the “Christian grafitti” on the walls, despite the fact that it was drawn by young black Christians trying to express themselves with their own art.

Why was the EC NOT a phenomenon in the black community? Some guesses:

– Because the black churches might have been more holistic than the white traditional/seeker churches in the first place and didn’t require as much retooling.

– Because the black churches often depend on a strong charismatic individual to lead worship from a stage which is the opposite of group-led, highly-participatory worship experiences in the EC.

– Because the bulk of missionaries in the USA and sent out of USA are also white middle class, very often “upper-middle-class” esp. when a Seminary degree is required, and it is these very people that find themselves in the urban centers starting new emerging forms of church among the less-reached, un-churched population. Thus the fruit of their labors resembles the leaders who invested in them initially. White or multi-cultural churches from white people.

Another observation – I found the black churches to succeed more in urban areas where drug addiction was a major problem. Emerging churches often lack the necessary discipline and hard-core approach. We often used to send off our drug addicts to black-church-based outreach ministries for the first stage of their discipleship because they were more likely to kick the habit without falling back.

“They prioritize relationships over doctrine/truth” This is a good observation and there is some truth in it. Many groups stay in fellowship with each other despite contrasting opinions regarding doctrinal issues, issues that would probably divide those in the traditional church. But it is the missional impetus that creates many of these new churches, rather than doctrinal distinctions, so the pragmatic bent tends to create a larger playground that includes those committed to the same mission, but differing on secondary doctrinal beliefs. Behind this is also a strong commitment to the unity of the church and the value of that unity for both the wider church and outsiders looking in. But the relationship/truth dichotomy might not be the most helpful way to look at it. Obedience to the commands of God, esp. in regard to his missional purposes, brings a lot of diverse people and groups together in the EC and it is this obedience, and willingness to comply with the demands of Jesus, that divides the men from the boys, and it separate those willing to risk it all to bring the gospel to the margins despite the cost from those who are not willing.

And speaking of relationship and unity around God’s purposes, I agree with Scot McKnight that its great that John Piper invited Rick Warren to Desiring God Conference. I also agree with Tim Challies that its really not a big deal.

But back to EC.

There are “experimental ways of doing church and spirituality.” True. There is a common conception that things are not working as they should, and the harvest is therefore not as plentiful as it should be, combined with a desire to examine the Scriptures for ourselves and reexamine church history for clues on how things have gone wrong, and a entrepreneurial edge in trying new forms of wineskins that will do a better job in keeping and maturing the new wine. OK. Sometimes there is mindless rampant experimentation which is a little stupid, at worst dangerous, but in most cases there is a return to and revamping of a previously successful methodology. And in the case of cyberchurch/social media communities, much of it is very new and precedents are lacking [but they do exist – This will be a theme at this years Cyberchurch Symposium in London.]

However, and I hope I dont undo any goodwill here, one or two things from his video don’t sit right with me and I mention them briefly only to add some perspective and help us all come closer to the truth.

Brian McLaren is not the “biggest guru” but he has said things in his books that have expressed succinctly what many EC practitioners, less eloquent than he is, have been thinking and feeling. He is a great listener [once we sat together for 90 minutes and Brian hardly said a thing] as well as a great writer although not everyone will agree with what he says. I have not read his latest book but the “selling like hotcakes” scenario on Amazon might have more to do with critics than supporters.

“Moving away from the gospel?” For many like myself, it was a closer look at the gospels, in particular the methods of Jesus and his apostles [Luke 10 was inspirational] that caused many of us to rethink our ministry strategy and move closer to the way of Jesus as we understood it in the BIble.

“Leadership in shambles?” Here I have to scratch my head. I am aware of one controversy that is lingering, probably the same one John has heard of, although that one seems more cloudy than clear, but that only relates to one person inside of the groups. And there are hundreds of groups. Despite what John Piper has observed, immorality is not “rampant”. At least it does not appear more rampant than in the traditional church. Name a recent moral lapse related to a high-profile leader and most likely you will not be looking at an emerging church leader. However, there has been a cultural shift in which Victorian values are not automatically given Biblical credence. Culture shifts and our perception on what upsets or pleases God can change with it. Playing cards was once considered sinful, as was going to the movie theatre, or dancing, but not anymore. [Although if you saw me dancing you would probably also want to outlaw it. – really – I dance like my father who was also a white man lacking in rhythm] See my post on obscene language for another example. [Offensive language – I think my mother taught me]

Anyway, thanks to John Piper for his observations and hoping this year will recharge and renew him for the next season. Also hoping the conference this week in Vancouver will totally rock!

Andrew

Andrew Jones has been blogging since 1997. He is based in San Francisco with his two daughters but also travels the globe to find compelling stories of early stage entrepreneurs changing their world. Sometimes he talks in the third person. Sometimes he even talks to himself and has been heard uttering the name "Precious" :-)

9 Comments

  • Well done, Andrew. Let us continue to pray and live within Jesus’ prayer for unity, in John 17.
    Readers can read my thoughts here:
    http://www.nacreouskingdom.com/2010/03/john-piper-steps-back-for-season-to.html
    I encourage everyone to, as the Spirit leads, enfold Piper in prayer, encouragement and uplifting words.
    During this season of Eastertide, let us remember that we pleadge our allegience to neither Paul nor Appollos nor Piper nor McLaren, but to(as Shane Clainborne has so aptly stated): “…The One who rode in on a donkey, not a warhorse…” And may we lay our bickering spirits at the foot of His cross.
    Grace and Peace,
    Tracy

  • Andrew a few reflections …
    I am thinking back to the conversations at Slot 2009 about the effect of the implosion of indigenous churches in the Global South and Asia rising out of post-colonialism and the impact these new (at least to Western eyes) form of church will have on Christendom. I see a whole lot more shakin’ going on here that I seldom hear discussed in US contexts.
    I went to a 1/2 day workshop at Union Theological Seminary recently on Pentecostalism. I was an eye opener being one of the few non-Latinos there. We have much to learn from this segment of the population that’s all too often overlooked in talks about church in the 21st century.
    You are spot on in the assessment of emerging thoughts being adopted into the mainline – I am doing two books more on UK-US emerging Anglicanism for Church Publishing. There is an opening and a receptivity that I didn’t even see in 2007 when “Rising from the Ashes” came out. The term we’re using is “mission shaped,” as that’s what’s being used in the UK.
    IMO, the biggest sex scandal involving religious organizations involved “The Family’s” C Street townhouse. (Jeff Sharlet did some dynamo coverage on this for those who are interested.) I have yet to see anything come out of any new form of church that has close to the global impact that this crapola had.
    Having said that, there is a definite need for accountability. I recommend that those involved in new forms of church who aren’t familiar with the 9 O’clock Service read “The Rise and Fall of the 9 O’Clock Service” to see what can happen when the cult of personality runs roughshod over the gospel and one starts to resemble more a religious rock star than an author/speaker trying to live out the teachings of Christ. Shane Claiborne has set the gold standard when it comes to creating a system around him (e.g., always travels in twos, is not alone with a female fan, stays in homes vs. hotels) that keeps him grounded in this regard.

  • hey becky. great that you came out to our event in poland last year. all these EC events around the world are full of pentecostals and charismatics and colored people and fundies and old skoolers, and even baptists, as you noticed – so it always amuses me to hear of people describe the emerging church in terms of being very separate from or even in protest to these large parts of the traditional church
    even the deep church book by belcher assumes an adversarial role of the ec towards orthodoxy and traditional church which is not always the case at all
    ahhhhhhhhhhhh

  • Andrew – As you well know, adversarial relationships exist because people with a vested interest in establishing themselves as experts (e.g., author/speaker/pastor, social marketer, conference planner) in a given brand feel the need to create this either/or dichotomy in order to generate buzz and revenue. The problem as you point out is when the reality on the ground doesn’t match the rhetoric.

  • You’re always very gracious Andrew and this is another example. It’s a good and helpful post for people genuinely trying to understand the EC.
    I think my issues with Piper’s rant has more to do with the spirit than the letter. Often the statements you point out as “true” are used by Piper to advance what is likely a falsehood: So, for example, when he says the EC is a “fading reality” he doesn’t mean – as you do – that it has been absorbed by the church at large, he means it is dying a well-deserved death.

  • Thanks Jason. I realize that. I also know that parts of the ec are rapidly growing – church through social media being one of the big examples.

  • By and large, the black church in the US so closely identifies with the community, that it often becomes synonymous with the community and loses its distinction as the Body of Christ – a problem not lost on some:
    http://www.amazon.com/Decline-African-American-Theology-Captivity/dp/0830828273/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1270524347&sr=8-1
    Piper’s assessment of EC was negative, but I don’t think the white middle class comments were out of line, nor do I think it necessarily reflects too poorly on the movement. Much of the ideals of the EC were already embraced long ago by the African-American denominations… you might even say they were leading the way, in some respects.

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