October 17, 2005
Why James MacDonald Is Not Emerging (Part 1)
(James MacDonald is pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, and its several satellite campuses. His preaching is featured on the radio program Walk in the Word. His is another perspective in the postmodern, emergent church dialogue.)
Let me begin with a word of personal appreciation for the current leaders of the emerging church movement. I am deeply grateful for your courage in standing against the many shortcomings of the modern Western church. Thanks for insisting that authenticity in relationship is the foundation of genuine Christian community. Thanks for standing against the formulaic/instant Gospel which fills our churches with tares and insulates the human heart from a genuine transformational encounter with the living Christ. Thanks also for daring to believe that failure is not final and that Christ yet longs for His bride to function with the health and wholeness He created it to enjoy.
In case you are wondering why my gratitude for the leaders of the emerging church does not translate into enthusiasm for their current emphasis and direction let me take a few words to explain why I am not emerging.
1. Because observing the bad is not a credential for guiding us to the good.
Even if every placard-carrying protestor across from the White House has a legitimate complaint they will not soon be invited to cross the street and participate in governing our nation. The hippies of the late sixties told us that the choice to "make love, not war" would go a long way toward solving society's ills. We now know however that free love is a fast track to rampant perversion and escalating victimization of the innocent among us. History is replete with proof that those most articulate about our shortcomings are often least able to bring balanced, objective solutions.
I resonate deeply with much of the criticism flowing from the emerging church against current Western Christianity, but I am deeply grieved to see the emergent remedies accepted so uncritically by those who feel gratified by the accuracy of their critiques. Knowing the soup is bad does not make one a chef. If successful diagnosis was a license to treat the patient every lab technician would be a surgeon . . . scary.
2. Because God is looking for obedience to revealed truth, not just sincerity.
I have had numerous interactions with and time to personally observe several of the key emerging leaders such as Chris Seay, Carol Childress, Dave Travis, Leonard Sweet, Brian McLaren, and Rob Bell. Some I have only spoken with, others I consider to be dear friends, but each that I have been exposed to gives strong evidence that they are sincere and genuinely committed to Jesus Christ. If all that Christ asked of us was a gracious, kind demeanor they would be exemplary indeed; however the Lord is asking for much more.
In John 14:21 Jesus taught "he who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me." We are expected to obey our Master and to accept His Word without equivocation. Cavalier questioning of the explicit statements of Scripture regarding the necessity of the new birth, the priority of biblical proclamation or the binding authority and sufficiency of Scripture cannot build a stronger, more Christ-honoring church no matter how sincere the messengers. Critiquing the church is good; disregarding or diminishing the revealed truth of our Founder is not good, no matter how ?nice' the people are who do it.
3. Because Christ's is a kingdom of substance, not style.
Candles and bells, paintings and sculpture, incense and chanting--great! Let's bring back the best of all those offerings of worship, but let's not confuse style and substance. According to Jesus it's still truth that sets you free, not artistic expression. Wearing suits and ties is certainly not necessary and it can be contrived and unnatural, but wearing jeans and sandals is not a means to the revealed presence of Christ. John 14:21 teaches that obedience to the substance of Christ's teaching brings His "manifest presence," not forms--old or new. In most of these discussions we are simply inserting an ancient-dead form in place of a modern-dead one. The former feels new because it's so ancient, as in "wow, we lit candles and sat in circles at church--that was so powerful." Or wait, was it the form that was powerful or just the broken routine that allowed my heart to worship with fresh sincerity? The renewed, ancient forms of worship are powerful if they are offered in spirit and truth and will become just as worthless as they become routine.
The power of Christ is not experienced in style, but in heart-felt substance and to miss that point is to set the stage for Emerging Church II when our kids get sick of the currently cool. Style is fun and fresh methods can promote sincerity, but the manifest presence of Christ which is the life of the church comes in response to biblical substance from the heart, not surface adjustments which can quickly become an end in themselves.
Coming: Part 2