Thursday, January 22, 2009

Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches: Theology

In the book Listening to the Beliefs of the Emerging Churches, five voices of the emerging church engage in a debate over many theological topics in an attempt to boil down this movement into two hundred pages. This is obviously a difficult task. Mark Driscoll, John Burke, Dan Kimball, Doug Pagitt and Karen Ward are the five participants in this conversation. The editor of the book, Robert Webber, attempts to guide them in a discussion about salvation, the trinity, and atonement. This kind of strict topical focus is lost quite quickly. Throughout the book, Driscoll, Burke and, at times, Kimball offer nothing more than a refocusing of Evangelical theology in a modern culture. Pagitt and Ward seek to have the church be informed by the culture in which it exists, while Driscoll, Burke and Kimball want church to inform the culture in which it exists. Each of these viewpoints are reflected in the various theological arguments made in the book.

In John Burke’s chapter about the emerging church and incarnational theology, he writes, “Theology must seek to answer the questions of the culture without conforming to the culture. We must let our culture’s questions help us better conform to truth and God’s revelation.” I can’t help but shake my head in a bit of discomfort over this statement. Pagitt also expresses some discomfort with this statement, but instead offers a different way. Pagitt argues that we are full participants in our culture in everything we do and our theology should act accordingly. He says theology should operate as a cultural reference point in which we engage our faith in relation to other cultures. He uses very relational language in his assessment of theology and the culture in which it represents.

To that end, Karen Ward also brings the point that one of the needs for the emerging church is the current church failing to answer the questions of modern society. She says, “The modern method of contextualizing theology doesn’t connect with this new world; it does no good to answer questions that are no longer asked; Theology… is not meant to be professional. Instead, systems of theology must be temporary; the outcome of theology must impact a hurting world.” Amidst the attack of the semi-colon is a great point. She dislikes the idea of institutional theology of the church because it is not temporary enough for the ever-changing world. Ward keeps bringing up this idea that the church is behind in responding to the culture. This book is functioning as one of her means of helping it catch up.

All in all, this book is a decent book to get a pulse on the personalities that are participating in this movement, but it is not good for getting to the core of the theology. Basically their theology can boil down to relational and temporary. My favorite part about the prospect of reading this book was hearing the responses to chapters by the other participants; however they all pretty much just told stories about each other with offers to grab a pint of Guinness summing up their arguments. That does not exactly qualify as theological discourse. While there are no overarching agreements on theology of the emerging church, the foundation of ideas are there. Pagitt and Ward are definitely worth reading, however Driscoll, Burke, and Kimball left a bad taste in my mouth. I should go grab a Guinness. Who’s with me?

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