Breath of Fresh Air
About three years ago I picked up a copy of Dan Kimball's book The Emerging Church which I found moderately interesting, especially because Dan ministers just over the hill from me in nearby Santa Cruz, California. In the ensuing months I have accumulated about two dozen books under the umbrella of "emerging church" developments in America. The subject is so complex that reputable survey and analysis books are required to get a sound grasp on what is happening. I recommend D.A. Carson's, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, and David Wells' Above all Earthly Pow'rs.
By the way, nowadays "Emerging" does not mean the same thing as "Emergent" so for a brief survey of what this is all about, Wikipedia is a good place to start. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emerging_church).
Succinctly stated, one branch of this new movement seems to be detaching itself from the historic Christian faith and from mainstream doctrine in order to be more culturally relevant and more seeker-friendly. In contrast there is a smaller stream of young and gifted new leaders who strongly adhere to the historic proclamation of the gospel and to conservative theology. Both types of churches tend to "deconstruct" denominational and traditional evangelical/charismatic traditions, and they all take a strong "missional" approach of vigorously engaging the local culture. Many of the leaders in this movement are disillusioned evangelicals, some, I would say, are real apostates, others are theological liberals, yet a good number are well-read and godly reformers--rooted, anchored in the Bible and allowing Jesus Christ to direct all they do. Wikipedia's section on Values and Characteristics in the above article covers lots of ground which I'll skip over. The main point is that (in my opinion) no serious Christians can write off this movement as spurious.
I am always interested in genuine movements of the Holy Spirit in any period of history--especially nowadays, so I have picked only one example from the last class of "emergents" to discuss briefly.
Mars Hill Church in Seattle (http://www.marshillchurch.org/) started about ten years ago with a small home group and after long and painful struggles has been taking off lately with a current membership of over 4000. They are meeting on several different campuses in pagan Seattle (where the density of Christians is only about 7%).
Pastor Mark Driscoll, age 36, has two books out, both of which I heartily recommend, Confessions of a Reformission Rev.: Hard Lessons from an Emerging Missional Church, and The Radical Reformission: Reaching Out without Selling Out.
Even more fun than reading his books are Driscoll's sermons. I decided to listen this summer to 35 sermons by Driscoll (available by Podcast or downloading from their web site). Driscoll generally preaches for a full hour, he is obviously never boring, often hilariously funny, and very radical. Some would call him crass, but he is obviously well-read and has been mentored by sound pastors in the sixteen years of his Christian experience.
In listening to his sermons it is important to keep in mind the audience he is appealing to. He is very outspoken, sometimes blunt, (as in "we are fools for Christ's sake"). His preaching is straight from Scripture with an appropriate spin to make the text relevant and appealing to today's culture. Most all of the members of Mars Hill Seattle are converts who have been nurtured in the church family. So this is a new and leading-edge church with some distinctives I like very much. So far I haven't found any doctrinal issues where we differ--and I a bit of a stickler when it comes to sound doctrine.
Driscoll notes that Fundamental churches stress sound doctrine but have insulated themselves from the culture and have little to do except to bash various and obvious sinful forms of behavior in the surrounding culture--thus not attracting any converts. Liberal churches have watered down their doctrine and hence have little to offer that is life changing and redemptive, but they may draw large crowds. The Biblical model, he says, is faithful preaching of the gospel with lots of content, backed up by vigorously discipled church leaders--who either meet Biblical qualifications or are asked to step down. Non-Christians are warmly welcomed in the services, but membership in the church is for the genuinely converted. The new members are given lots of pastoral care, tracked, mentored and discipled. No matter how deep their struggles may have been with sexuality, drugs, alcohol, divorce--whatever--MHS is committed to the healing and wholeness of each member.
One of the most fascinating of Mark's messages (two hours long) is his talk on church leadership and church discipline. (This message is temporarily also on my web site for your easy access, http://ldolphin.org/audio/discipline.mp3). I found this message extraordinary. Here was a church that insisted on Christian life-styles in all of the members, yet with lots of latitude on the marginal issues, and very high standards for pastors, elders, and deacons--according to the specifics laid down by the Apostles as one finds them in the New Testament.
Driscoll has a burning compassion for the lost which is evident in every sermon. He is transparent, real and credible. Listening to his messages has been, for me, a breath of fresh air.
I suspect many of you will not feel as I do about this man or his church and that's OK. You may not like his style at all and that's OK, too. He is a young preacher just getting started. I'm sure he'd appreciate your prayers. He has a wife and five kids, travels a lot, and so far seems indefatigable. He amazes me frankly!
I don't see how older well-established churches could ever make the changes necessary in leadership and membership standards to "revive" their churches along the lines of Mars Hills Seattle. A great start for many churches would be to restore real Biblical content back into their preaching, that is, if they have strayed from in-depth expository preaching, which I believe is the Biblical norm. (http://www.raystedman.org/expository/).
In answer to the question, "You know this growing church probably as well as any Westerner does. I wonder how you evaluate it?", John Stott said recently, "The answer is 'growth without depth.' None of us wants to dispute the extraordinary growth of the church. But is been largely been numerical and statistical growth. And there has not been sufficient growth in discipleship that is comparable to the growth in numbers." (CT October 2006)
In His personal words of commendation and correction to seven representative churches found in Revelation 2, 3, our Lord addresses the strengths and weaknesses of various types of churches.
For a long time I have felt that by and large "we" American evangelicals have now moved from the Philadelphian era into the Laodicean, so that the real life of many churches is carried by a small believing remnant. In the Old Testament, "true Israel" was but a small remnant within a professing nation. (http://www.ldolphin.org/church.html)
Jesus also warns the church that He can and does remove the "lampstand" of a given church when their performance falls below minimum standards.
Regarding the Lord's evaluation of the Church at Ephesus Ray Stedman has written:
I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height
from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you
do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But
you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I
also hate." (Revelation 2:4-6 RSV)
Now we can see that this is a church in serious trouble. Despite all the commendable things, there is something seriously wrong. Our Lord puts it in one brief phrase, "You have abandoned your first love." That is the problem. So serious is that that he says, "If you do not correct it, I will remove your lampstand." This indicates this is a very serious matter. The removal of the lampstand does not mean that the individual members of the church would be lost or condemned to hell. What it means is the church would lose its ability to shed the light of truth. The light from this church would stop shining. They would become a church with no influence or impact spiritually upon the community around. They would be busy doing religious, but entirely irrelevant, things. They would still be working, still orthodox , but inconsequential, with no light, no impact.
we have to say that there are thousands of churches like this in our country
today. There are churches where congregations are still meeting year after
year, Sunday after Sunday, doing religious things -- singing hymns, reciting
the Apostles' Creed, perhaps doing some good works in the neighborhood -- but
having no spiritual impact, seeing no change in people's lives, no releasing of
them from their sins, no changes in the morals or outlooks of a whole
community. Their light has failed.
What causes that condition? Our Lord says it is because they left their first love. They abandoned it. When we ask, "What is first love?" the answer is almost obvious. It is the love you felt for Jesus when you first came to know him. It is that wonderful sense of discovery that he loved you, and had delivered you, and freed you from your sins. Your heart went out to him in gratitude and thanksgiving; you had eyes for no one but him. Watch a couple who have fallen in love. Note how they have eyes only for each other. How spacey they are! Talk to them, and they do not even hear you. They are only thinking of the wonder of each other…
But gradually there comes an almost imperceptible shift of focus. We get busy, and what we do for Christ begins to loom more and more important to us. Gradually our position, our status, the longing for approval by others, begins to take first place. We go on doing the same things but not from the same drive or motive. We drift into the loss of first love.
There are always symptoms, signs, of this happening. Here are three of them: The first one, visible at first only to the individual, is the loss of the joy and glow of Christian life. It soon becomes humdrum and routine. You begin to feel like you have heard it all already. Even the church service loses its impact. It seems mechanical, routine, dull and drab. That is a sign you are beginning to lose your first love. Second, you lose your ability to love others. One of the great revelations of the Scripture is that the reason we love others is because we have first been loved ourselves. When we lose that consciousness of the wonder of Jesus' love we also lose our awareness of others and find our love for them fading. It is difficult to love. We become critical, censorious, complaining. We begin to choose our friends more closely and only associate with those we like. We lose the compassion that reached out to everyone at first. Then, third, we lose a healthy perspective of ourselves. We become more and more important in our thinking. Instead of what the Lord wants and what will please him we begin to think of what we want and what will please us. Gradually, we become sensitive and touchy, unable to bear criticism. This begins to make divisions and often schisms in a congregation. Individuals in the church are no longer interested in evangelism. They are no longer concerned about those around them without Christ, but are focused on themselves, their own comfort, their own pleasure. Self-centeredness sets in.
Those are the marks of the loss of first love, and this is what was happening at Ephesus. I am fully aware that we have all done this at times. I have. You have. We have all felt the debilitating symptoms of a loss of first love. When a whole congregation begins to reflect that atmosphere it soon loses its influence. Its light goes out. Its lampstand has been removed. (http://www.raystedman.org/revelation/4190.html)
Driscoll notes that many churches today do more harm than good! They really ought to disband he suggests. This remark reminds me of God's words of exasperation at Israel recorded in Malachi at the close of the Old Testament.
"A son honors his father, And a servant his master. If then I am the Father, Where is My honor? And if I am a Master, Where is My reverence?" Says the LORD of hosts, To you priests who despise My name. Yet you say, ‘In what way have we despised Your name?' You offer defiled food on My altar. But say, 'In what way have we defiled You?' By saying, ‘The table of the LORD is contemptible.' And when you offer the blind as a sacrifice, Is it not evil? And when you offer the lame and sick, Is it not evil? Offer it then to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you favorably?" Says the LORD of hosts. But now entreat God’s favor, That He may be gracious to us. While this is being done by your hands, Will He accept you favorably?" Says the LORD of hosts.
Who is there even among you who would shut the doors, So that you would not kindle fire on My altar in vain? I have no pleasure in you, Says the LORD of hosts, Nor will I accept an offering from your hands." (i.e., 'I wish someone would lock the doors of the Temple and stop all this nonsense of fake and phony worship.') "For from the rising of the sun, even to its going down, My name shall be great among the Gentiles; In every place incense shall be offered to My name, And a pure offering; For My name shall be great among the nations,” Says the LORD of hosts. (Malachi 1:6-11)
At Mars Hill Seattle, their Senior Pastor is openly stated to be Jesus! There is no hierarchy in the church as far as I can tell--which is my style for sure. I can not detect any of those non-biblical "clergy/laity" distinctions which characterize many churches--but their leadership is visionary and clear--it is both written down and adhered to. "Leadership" is after all one of the spiritual gifts. "Without a vision the people perish," sort of thing. Preaching without content is anathema to any church and Driscoll delivers a full meal straight from the Word for an hour or more. No one seems bored as far as I can tell.
I am greatly encouraged! It is too soon to see if the current "breath of fresh air" in some parts of the emerging church movement, such as MHS, becomes a "mighty rushing wind," but shall we pray? We certainly desperately need the latter.
Using Google.com and the key words "Mark Driscoll" one can quickly see that this man is nationally very popular and much discussed, almost always favorably. I recommend:
Contacts: I answer my own email every day, and am glad to be able to do so. Working with me on email questions is a splendid team of men and women in the Paraclete Forum, http://paracleteforum.org. You may write us at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Paraclete Forum also addresses questions sent to us from the Ray Stedman and PBC web sites, http://pbc.org and http://raystedman.org/. For excellent help in studying the Bible I always recommend Blue Letter Bible, http://blueletterbible.org/.
October 4, 2006