The “Emergent Church” (Part I)
November 17, 2005 11 Comments
My introduction to the “Emergent Church” came through a DVD series of short sermonettes by Rob Bell. Bell is the pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan, the author of the book, “Velvet Elvis,” and the featured speaker in each DVD sermonette available from Nooma.com. The first Nooma video I watched was called “Sunday” (pictured at right).
My initial reaction was quite positive. The message was about rejecting empty tradition and ritual and replacing it with an authentic Christianity that is visible through lives lived for Jesus Christ. “Sunday” is summarized on the Nooma website like this: “God doesn’t want the meaningless rituals. God wants our hearts.”
I was impressed. I liked the message. I liked the method for delivering the message. Nooma DVDs are very well done and engaging. I was ready for more.
I watched “Dust” (pictured at left) next. I started out just as impressed with “Dust” as I had been with “Sunday.” For the first two-thirds of Bell’s monologue I was quite impressed with his understanding of Jewish culture in the first century. Not only did he know the background concerning religious study in Jewish culture but he was able to apply that cultural context to Jesus’ relationship with his disciples and thus draw a firm connection between the way God dealt with His chosen people in the Old Testament (Israel) and the way he incorporated His chosen people into that relationship in the New Testament (the Church).
“Dust” draws a parallel between the enormous commitment one made when following a rabbi in religious training and the enormous commitment God expects of Christians to their Lord Jesus Christ. It is a lordship message that is sorely lacking in far too many 21st century churches. He implies that Christianity is more than just another aspect in the life of a Christian. It is our life. Christianity is who we are and we need to live in a manner so as to increasingly reflect the character of our Lord Jesus.
There were several things I liked about Bell’s message. He was challenging Christians to stop playing church and to live their faith. He was demonstrating the importance of knowing the historical context of Scripture and of church history. He uses innovative methods for delivering the gospel. I was making plans for more Nooma DVDs.
Then Bell made a statement that jolted me like the sound of a gunshot.
He was describing the story in Matthew 14 where Peter left the boat to walk to Jesus on the water. When Peter began to focus on the wind and the waves he began to sink. According to Bell Peter didn’t begin to sink because he had lost faith in Jesus, “Jesus was doing fine.” No, Bell contends, Peter sank because he lost faith in himself.
Is Bell saying that it was Peter’s faith in Peter that allowed him to walk on the water in the first place? And it was only when Peter’s faith in Peter waned that he began to sink?
Bell goes on to say that it is appropriate for us to have faith in God but we need to realize that God has faith in us, too. His implication is clear: We have the ability, in and of ourselves, to “be like our rabbi,” Jesus, and to please God.
His message in “Dust” is dripping with humanism.
I immediately began to reference the classic commentaries on the passage from Matthew 14: 25-31. Here is what I found:
Peter walked upon the water, not for diversion or to boast of it, but to go to Jesus; and in that he was thus wonderfully borne up. Special supports are promised, and are to be expected, but only in spiritual pursuits; nor can we ever come to Jesus, unless we are upheld by his power. Christ bade Peter come, not only that he might walk upon the water, and so know his Lord’s power, but that he might know his own weakness. And the Lord often lets his servants have their choice, to humble and prove them, and to show the greatness of his power and grace. When we look off from Christ, and look at the greatness of opposing difficulties, we shall begin to fall; but when we call to him, he will stretch out his arm, and save us. Christ is the great Saviour; those who would be saved, must come to him, and cry to him, for salvation; we are never brought to this, till we find ourselves sinking: the sense of need drives us to him. He rebuked Peter. Could we but believe more, we should suffer less. The weakness of faith, and the prevailing of our doubts, displease our Lord Jesus, for there is no good reason why Christ’s disciples should be of a doubtful mind. Even in a stormy day he is to them a very present help. None but the world’s Creator could multiply the loaves, none but its Governor could tread upon the waters of the sea: the disciples yield to the evidence, and confess their faith. They were suitably affected, and worshipped Christ.
In my mind this is more than a slight difference of opinion with regard to the text. Bell interprets this passage in light of a post-modern, humanistic worldview. It’s a common mistake. Many of us try to build a biblical worldview on a humanistic foundation. When we read Scripture, we have a tendency to think the stories are about us. But they’re not. They are for us, but they are about God. Bell seems to embrace the idea that Scripture is about us. The Mars Hill Bible Church website says this, “Mars Hill began as just an idea, a desire to open a church where the scripture would be taught in a new way, a way that would reach a changing culture.”
A “new way” indeed.
He seems to have found a message in Scripture that generations of believers have failed to see. Bell seems to think (in fact this is a cornerstone of Emergent Church teaching) that since our culture is now post-modern Christianity should conform to the culture in order to reach it. The problem is when we try to conform Christianity to our culture we often compromise the message to the point where it loses all meaning.
Bell doesn’t seem to be merely teaching Scripture in a “new way” but rather he seems to be teaching something new altogether. Which reminded me of a quote from Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the 19th century Baptist preacher from England. He said, “I cannot agree with those who say that they have ‘new truth’ to teach. The two words seem to me to contradict each other; that which is new is not true. It is the old that is true, for truth is as old as God himself.”
These discoveries prompted me to begin some serious research on Rob Bell and the “Emergent Church” movement of which he is a part.
In Part II I will discuss some of what I found.