Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Can Evangelicals and Emergents Dialogue with One Another?

One of the most widely discussed subjects on many of the blogs I read is the Emergent Church. I had heard of the EC, but it wasn't until I entered the blogosphere earlier this year that I really began to look at it. I must admit that I haven't been able to decide where I stand on the EC. On one hand, I really think they're on to something with their focus on being missional and living out the gospel in every area of our lives. In fact, these are themes that are often discussed in my preaching and teaching. On the other hand, I am bothered by the apparent unwillingness of many in the EC to declare where they stand on a number of theological issues. The statements I have seen tend to use broad, general language which really doesn't say a whole lot. As a Southern Baptist and an evangelical, doctrine is very important to me.

On his blog, Scot McKnight has made an effort to help evangelicals and those in the EC (what he calls "EMers") communicate with and understand each other. He has listed Seven Habits of Successful Emerging Discussions and followed that up with some pointers on How to Talk to an Evangelical (If I May). Both posts contain a number of principles that are intended to facilitate dialogue between evangelicals and EMers (and tone down the rhetoric as well).

Scot's principles are very helpful, but I believe his first point on "How to Talk to an Evangelical (If I May)" touches on the main barrier to dialogue:

First, there are two central issues for an evangelical and they need to be respected: evangelicals believe personal faith is necessary for salvation, and they believe in theological integrity and consistency. Evangelicalism is a theologically-defined movement within the Church rooted in personal faith, and when EMers assert that it prefers a praxis-defined movement, there will have to be lots of sitting around a table to make sense of one another. As there is no such thing as a theology-only movement (though some try), so there is no praxis-only movement (though some try). The two are always involved.

While Scot does a good job of defining this barrier, he really doesn't offer any ideas about how we can overcome it. I can’t see many evangelicals being willing to discuss matters of praxis with someone who appears to be unwilling or unable to affirm certain doctrines, since for many of us praxis is shaped by theology. Since a number of EMers come from evangelical backgrounds, they know the evangelical language (and the importance of doctrine in our faith walk) and should be able to express their doctrinal views in a way that we can understand. It seems to me that the one who has first-hand knowledge of both sides should be the main bridge-builder. I believe this is the greatest thing EMers could do to help facilitate dialogue.

There are also a few things that we as evangelicals can do to help facilitate dialogue:

First, we need to recognize that neither we nor our interpretations of Scripture are infallible. We need to practice the famous quote: “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Personally, I would see no reason to engage in a dialogue about how the church should do ministry with someone who believes that salvation comes by any means apart from faith in Christ, but I would be more than willing to discuss issues of praxis and ministry with someone who had different views about the end times or women in ministry.

Second, we need to understand that praxis is as important as theology (but not more so). It is not enough merely to believe the right doctrines; we must live the Word as well. Lifeless orthodoxy is as deadly to the church as theological heresy. Remember, we’re not called to believe a set of facts. We’re called to follow Jesus.

Third, we also need to keep in mind that praxis is shaped not only by theology but also by context. Just because someone ministers differently than we do does not make them wrong, nor does it mean their theology is flawed. EMers seem to be quite adept at shaping their praxis to fit in their cultural context. I believe that evangelicals could learn a lot from the EM about this if we could get away from the one-size-fits-all approach to ministry.

Do you think my ideas would help facilitate dialogue, or am I off base in my assessment? What are some other things that both evangelicals and EMers can do to communicate better with one another and engage in meaningful dialogue?

8 comments:

Kevin Bussey said...

Tim,

I saw you on Marty's blog. I think you are on target! I have been studying the EC for 4 years. There are many mis-conceptions of what an EC is.

Nick said...

Tim,
I was about to comment and say I was glad to see another KY blogger in the circles of blogs that I read (and I'm still glad to see that), but I find it funny that I see my girlfriend (Ashlee) is linked in the blogs that you read. It's a small world.

nick

Tim Sweatman said...

kdawg,

I certainly agree that there are many misconceptions about the EC (Russ Moore's recent comments come to mind). I really think most of these misconceptions result from the lack of meaningful communication between the EC and evangelicals. I know that as I have discussed issues with those more familiar with or supportive of the EC, some of my own views about the EC have changed.


Nick,

Yeah, it is a small world. I found Ashlee's blog when I was reading about KBC issues on Dr. York's blog. I've only commented on her blog once or twice, but reading some of her posts takes me back to when I was in college.

martyduren said...

Tim-
Nice photo. Glad to see you are sans tie!

If their recent conversations on Jews and Christians working together for the kingdom of God is any indication, I think it's going to become clear quickly where some of them stand on the area of the exclusivity of Christ for salvation.

Kiki Cherry said...

Tim,

I think you are right on in your comments. I appreciate your perspectives. This has been a tough week, and I have been hammered by people telling me that those of us who have not "earned" our stripes in the SBC need to shut up and sit down.

But I care about our denomination, too. If I did not, I would have left long ago like many of my friends have.

Keep posting and blogging. Yours is a refreshing voice of reason, and yet spoken in terms that we laypeople can still understand. : )

Tim Sweatman said...

Marty,

I'm surprised a Georgia guy would have anything nice to say about anyone wearing an orange shirt, but then again y'all have whipped us pretty regularly the last few years.

I'm not sure where I stand on the Jewish/Christian/Kingdom of God thing. I'm not certain if their statements reflect an abandonment of the exclusivity of Christ or if they are simply another example of a poor choice of words.


Kiki,

Anyone who says that you have not "earned" your stripes in the SBC (whatever that's supposed to mean) has lost sight of what has historically defined us as Southern Baptists. Anyone who was literally born on the mission field and has devoted her life to serving in what may be the toughest environment in this country deserves a great deal of respect and certainly has the right to voice her opinions. I know it sounds like a cliche, but it's still so true---when others are critical of what you're doing, remember that there's only One whose opinion really matters. And when you may be tempted to get out of the SBC, remember that everyone else is as screwed up as we are. ;-)

Kiki Cherry said...

Tim,

You're so right! : ) We've been visiting some of those other screwed-up churches lately, in an attempt to find a church home. No kidding!!!!

By the way, I've been following your comments on Jesus Creed from afar. You have great things to say. And I totally agree with your viewpoint. We have to maintain doctrine in our attempt to be relevant.

I would comment if I could do it as eloquently as you do. But I can't, so I'm just "AMEN"-ing at the computer screen.

You've got your head on straight. Keep putting your thoughts out there. You have some good stuff to share.

Tim Sweatman said...

Kiki,

A lot of those folks over at Jesus Creed talk way over MY head! It took a long time for me to get the nerve to say anything. I'm fairly well educated, but I don't have the background in theology, philosophy, or church history that a lot of those folks do. But I felt like I had to say something when I saw people imply that doctrine is not that important.

That's one thing I love about blogging---it allows me to participate in these kinds of discussions. If I were sitting in a room with everyone, I probably wouldn't say three words. But because I can write out my thoughts and edit them (repeatedly), I am more inclined to share my thoughts.