Checking Our Brains At The Door: Spiritual Appeasement in the Age of Emergence

Worldview WeekendBy Carl Teichrib (

NOTE: The Emergent church movement is sweeping through modern Christendom. Many articles and a few books have been written critical of this movement, for there are numerous problems associated with it. Conversely, there are valid points attached to the movement that need to be considered – this article does touch on that. However, the primary purpose of this report is to wrestle with the underlying currents that drive the Emergent mood.

Another important point is the language: the words Emergence and Emergent are often used synonymously. There is a difference: Emergence refers to the larger context of global change. Emergent is the new Christian reaction to this world shift.

Finally, there are various degrees attached to this church movement, making it difficult (and dangerous) to use a single brush stroke when dealing with this issue. This does not negate "contending for the faith," it does mean, however, that we must be careful when attaching labels.

With a playful grin the moderator asked the four church panelists to fill in the blank; "Jesus loves me this I know, for the _______ tells me so."

Silence from the stage: The air in the auditorium thickened as more than 200 church leaders and laypeople found themselves squirming: How would this question be answered?

Nervous giggles could be heard. People shifted in their chairs…a few coughed. One of the panel members, an inner-city pastor, made a mock attempt to leave the stage.

Finally, one of the four – an Anglican minister – unapologetically announced; Of course, the Bible tells me so! With the dam now breached, the others found their voices: The Bible plus church traditions, explained the second panelist. "Family…and community," countered the next speaker. The last on the stage summed it up; "All of the above."

So why was this such a ticklish issue? Consider the setting: An auditorium full of Christian leaders who had just been told that Emergent Christianity would be marked by the "end of authority" and the death of Sola Scriptura (the Scriptures alone). And the general feeling was that this should be embraced, not mourned. Indeed, the unofficial theme of this one-day event, titled "The Great Emergence," centered on the question; what is our authority?

Here lies the heart of the matter: Authority. This is important to understand, as it eclipses the various attachments to the movement. Hence, the Emergent church isn't just about worship styles, community or relationship building, social justice, experienced-based spirituality, or the resurgence of monasticism and ancient practices. True, all of these components can be found in the Emergent movement, but in order to understand the real drivers that give it direction, we have to focus on the challenge to authority.

How Time Flies

On the last day of October 2009, my wife and I attended The Great Emergence seminar in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The keynote speaker was Phyllis Tickle, author of The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why.

A feisty woman in her senior years, Tickle is a dynamic communicator who is very knowledgeable regarding key historical changes. Her premise, as presented in her book and explained to the Winnipeg audience, is that Christianity undergoes a major upheaval approximately every 500 years.

For simplicity purposes, Tickle refers to this as a 500-year "rummage sale" – a period where Christendom re-evaluates what is important and "sells off" what is no longer relevant. The last rummage sale, Tickle explained, was the Great Reformation of the 1500s. Before that it was the Great Schism of 1051, with its splitting of Christendom into Western and Eastern lines. Approximately five hundred before that was the Council of Chalcedon, which defined Jesus Christ as "one in person, who is both divine and human." And of course, five centuries previous had witnessed the ministry of Jesus Christ, and the birth of the Early Church as it ruptured from Temple Judaism. Tickle called this the Great Transformation.

According to Tickle, this cycle isn't relegated to the Christian church; but rather, similar 500-year sequences can be observed in other faiths and cultures.[i] In essence, as society experiences major changes so too does Christianity – and likewise, the upheavals in the Christian church have shaped history. The Reformation period is a good case-in-point, with its aftershocks altering every facet of Western life: from literacy to theology, from science to politics, from economics to technology. Incredibly, the events of that time have unquestionably shaped our modern epoch.

In looking back to the Reformation, we see the issue of authority taking center stage. Martin Luther's thesis of 1517 took a critical view of the Roman Catholic teachings of indulgences, and fell as a powerful blow against Papal authority. Luther's thesis wasn't the first act in this drama, as men such as John Wyclif and Jan Hus had gone before in elevating Scripture and denouncing the Papacy. But Luther's thesis acted as a trumpet-call that roused a new period of Roman Church-questioning and Scriptural searching. This "protest" movement also witnessed the birth of other Christian groupings, such as the Anabaptists, who removed themselves further from the Catholic traditions than Luther had.

This questioning and rejecting of Papal authority opened the way to re-discover the standard of Scriptural authority. In so doing, men and women of all ages found themselves standing on an ancient yet solid foundation.

"I will meditate on Your precepts, and contemplate Your ways. I will delight myself in Your statutes; I will not forget Your word." – Psalm 119:15-16

"The entirety of Your word is truth, and every one of Your righteous judgments endures forever." – Psalm 119:160

"And that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work." – 2 Timothy 3:15-17

Now, approximately 500 years after the Reformation – so explained Tickle at her Winnipeg seminar – the Christian community is experiencing another major upheaval. Furthermore, like the Reformation period, this shake-up isn't without it's own cultural undercurrents. Indeed, those of us in the Western world are beginning to taste the fruit of 150 years of social transformation. Hence, in Christian circles, as in secular settings, long-held views are being challenged.

The Challenge of Our Times

"One World" is a reality. Politically this plays out as internationalism: the blurring of sovereignty and the rejection of nationalism. Economically we gravitate towards global socialism. Technology calls into question "reality" as virtual worlds come to life with a keystroke. Global ethics now frames itself around interfaithism, and morality no longer has a foundation. Our world is being rocked, from the halls of government to the family structure.

Historically, our Western institutions were grounding in Judeo-Christian principals. Law, medicine, science, literature, and education in the Western tradition were firmly rooted in the Biblical perspective.[ii] Yet, in the 19th and 20th centuries this position was seriously contested; Darwinism and it's challenge to the Genesis account, psychology and it's challenge to the Biblical view of the human condition, the inroads of Eastern spirituality into both culture and churches, the replacement of Biblical compassion with a Leninist form of "social justice," and the sacrifice of objective truth for "tolerance."

But here's a thought: These "challenges" are not the problem. After all, the battle is over hearts and minds, thus we should expect the challenge. Nor is Scripture the problem. Again, it's no surprise that since God's word has been revealed to humanity, it has seen constant attack. There isn't a time when it hasn't been scrutinized, chastised, or marginalized. This doesn't shake the eternal standard; Psalm 119:89 states, "Forever, O Lord, Your word is settled in heaven."

Simply put, the problem is found in the mirror. It's us as Christians.

How are we handling the philosophical and cultural challenges of our time? Too often, instead of stepping up to the plate, we either conform to the world's standards or we ignore the question and continue to "play church." Generally speaking, North American churches dropped the ball decades ago.

Think about it. Rather than studying to "show yourself approved unto God, a workman that needs not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth,"[iii] we now have shinny object syndrome. Selling a new church-growth strategy? Don't question; just buy. Parroting a hot-button social issue? Don't think; just react. From market-driven to "special-interest" driven, we crave to have someone else tell us how to think. It's like we've checked our brains at the door.

So, instead of grounding ourselves in God's word (authority), we flounder with pathetic excuses for our "ignorance." Instead of digging and getting dirty, actually wrestling with these issues in a tangible fashion, we push them aside in the vain hope they'll go away. Therefore, when individuals – Christians and otherwise – ask hard questions in light of evolution, psychology, other religions, social concerns, and even Scripture, we met their questions with blank stares, ignorant one-liners, and at times unmitigated arrogance.

We are a lazy bunch; all of us, pastors and laypeople alike. We don't study God's word; we just don't study! Sadly, Christians in North America are seldom different from anybody else on the street – we are Biblically illiterate, historically ignorant, culturally naïve, politically blind, economically foolish, and sorely lacking in discernment. So when the historic winds-of-change broadside us, we find ourselves stupefied.

Although we have a firm foundation in God's word, we have so long ignored it in its entirety that we no longer recognize its authority; actually, we're embarrassed by the idea of authoritative truth. So with deep shame in our inability to be "culturally relevant," we place blame upon the intolerant and divisive nature of the Bible. Instead of engaging culture by standing firm on Scripture, tactfully employing the facts and fallacies of history, and actually befriending people and meeting real needs, we rush towards Biblical revisionism and social appeasement.

Then we package this in Christianese language and announce; "God is doing a new thing!"

The Great Emergence and Christendom more: