Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Emerging Church--Strengths & Weaknesses Part 3

Without a doubt the event which kicked the emerging movement into high gear was the founding of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was the first emerging megachurch.

The church was founded by Rob Bell, the son of a federal judge, graduate of Wheaton College & Fuller Theological Seminary and a former Chicago area alt. indie band leader.

After graduating from Fuller with, by his own admission, a less than stellar GPA, Bell took a job with a large Calvary Chapel (5000+) in Grand Rapids. After a few years, Calvary, under the guidance of Dr. Ed Dobson, was forced to turn crowds away from their services. The elders decided to plant a church that would target the ever elusive Gen-Xer's and Gen-Y'ers. The church launched in February 1999 with roughly 1000 people. Nine years later the church boasts roughly 11,000 attendees per week.

Bell had been greatly influenced by New Testament scholar N.T. Wright as well as the narrative theology movement he encountered at Fuller via scholars like Miroslav Volf, James McClendon and Nancy Murphy. Bell's creative preaching steeped in innovative theological trends like the New Perspective on Paul coupled with an alt rock praise band and thousands in attendance gave hope to scores of young seminary students engaged in the emerging movement who hated K-Love, khaki slacks and the purpose driven anything!

Bell and many other young pastors were even more emboldened by a book that hit shelves during my last year of seminary, A New Kind of Christian by Brian McClaren.
McLaren's book is a fictional dialogue between Dan, a burned out evangelical pastor, and NEO a teacher who has embraced a postmodern, postconservative, narrative approach to the faith. NEO announces the death of traditional evangelicalism with its emphasis on right belief and introduces Dan to a gentler, kinder faith which emphasizes humility and social action.

The book became immensely popular especially among seminarians and Bible college students. McLaren, a fairly gifted writer, introduced difficult theological concepts like those set forth by Hans Frei and George Lindbeck in a reader friendly format that captivated young Christians hungry for depth and starved by most program heavy but discipleship light evangelical churches.

The book spawned a trilogy and elevated McLaren to the forefront of the emerging movement.

McLaren's book wasn't the only work that added fuel to the proverbial fire. Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz, a deconstructionist approach to the faith has sold more than 100,000 copies.

The book documents Miller's move away from a college student in a traditional Reformed Southern Baptist church in Houston, Texas to a struggling writer assisting a missional church plant in Portland, Oregon and that church's struggle to reach college students at Reed College, a venue notorious for its hostility to Christianity.

Miller initially distanced himself from the emerging movement because he was much more theologically conservative than Bell or McLaren. For example, Miller listed C.S. Lewis, Ravi Zacharias and Tim Keller as a few of his heroes.

Yet, there is no doubt that Miller's paradoxical embrace of conservative theology and liberal politics captivated the emerging movement.

I personally delighted in all of these occurrences, so why do I now regret them as much as my high school yearbook photos? More later.