by Phil Johnson
Over the past two years, I have published lots of critiques aimed at various trends made popular by the Emerging Church movement. I've often said that while I think Emerging Christians have correctly identified many problems in the evangelical movement, I'm convinced the solutions Emerging types usually suggest are totally wrongheaded and demonstrably rooted in the same faulty modernist thinking that led to the evangelical meltdown in the first place.
People occasionally ask me if I have any better suggestions for ministry in postmodern times.
As a matter of fact, I think I do. Here, adapted from my seminar on postmodernism at the recent Shepherds' Conference, is a short digest of my top five favorites:
et's acknowledge the scope of the problem the emerging church movement is trying to address. For the past hundred years or more, evangelicalism has been steadily growing more shallow and more worldly. Although the evangelical movement came into the 20th century with a roar, fighting to defend its core beliefs against modernism and liberal theology, by the end of the 20th century, the movement was dominated by people who never even mentioned those fundamental doctrines, certainly did not want to fight about them, and were enthralled instead with entertainment and public relations—and almost completely hostile to biblical preaching and doctrinally-oriented teaching.
Although evangelicalism won every skirmish against modernism in the twentieth century on the battlefields where evangelicals actually engaged the enemy, the movement gradually capitulated to modernist ideology and practice anyway, out of sheer cowardice and apathy. Meanwhile, evangelicals grew comfortable in a culture that was becoming more secular and more ungodly at an incredibly rapid rate. Sometime after 1975 or so, the evangelical movement managed to snatch a spectacular defeat from the jaws of victory in the century-long war against modernist compromise.
The believing remnant that still exists here and there in the mixed multitude of the Thoroughly Modern Evangelical Movement face a serious, two-pronged problem: an untaught church and an increasingly hostile world.
There's no easy way out of the mess. My strategy would begin with five vital steps: We need to—
- Remember why we're not modernists. The church needs to see the postmodern shift in light of our own recent history, and we should take some lessons from our experience with modernism about the best way to respond to postmodernism.
I've suggested many times that when you really analyze postmodernism, it's not actually antithetical to modernism at all. It's just modernism 2.0. So don't buy the lie that if you reject postmodernism, you're in effect giving a nod of approval to modernism.
How about let's forget trying to accommodate the fickle shifts of contemporary culture and worldly thinking altogether? Gimme that old-time religion.
- Recover the role of teaching in the church. The church desperately needs to get back to the Word of God and sound doctrine. Not only are lay people these days untaught; most pastors are grossly ignorant of basic theological principles which earlier generations would have considered essential, foundational truths. The church is filled with teachers who invent their own doctrine on the fly and see nothing wrong with the practice. No wonder the church as a whole today is ill-equipped to fend off even the rankest of heretics.
- Re-emphasize the certainty of revealed truth. The apostle Paul wrote, "If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?" (1 Corinthians 14:8). The postmodern preference for ambiguity and uncertainty is seriously at odds with Scripture. It also runs contrary to every lesson church history teaches.
Study any era of revival or the style of any great preacher and you will discover that boldness and clarity were their hallmarks—never qualities like vagueness, ambivalence, hesitation, wavering, apprehension, a cloudy message, fickle opinions, obsessive self-criticism, or any of the other qualities postmodernism falsely equates with "humility."
It's one thing to understand postmodern sensitivities; it's something completely different to sympathize with postmodernism. I am convinced that the Emerging Church movement has shown entirely too much sympathy for postmodern skepticism.
- Reinstate holiness on our list of priorities. Sanctification is an idea that seems almost completely missing from the Emerging conversation. An almost pathological fear of "legalism" keeps emerging types from ever questioning whether any element of postmodern culture is compatible with Christlikeness or not. Taboos are the only remaining taboo nowadays.
But when (for example) tattoos, cigars, beer, poker, and other stylish emblems of worldly culture are widely regarded as necessary elements for "relevant" men's ministry, I'd say the pendulum has swung too far against the dangers of "legalism." Does no one recall that loving this world and conforming to its tastes (and tasteless preferences) is also a dangerous sin?
- Regain our true missionary emphasis. "Missional living" as portrayed in many Emerging communities is not a legitimate substitute for real evangelism, where the gospel is proclaimed plainly and powerfully. As a matter of fact, our focus as evangelicals ought to be the gospel message itself—not merely a "methodology." You don't win people to Christ by osmosis, and you certainly don't win them to Christ merely by trying your best to fit into their culture.
I'm starting to hate the word missional. Apart from the fact that it's useless jargon, I suspect it is often used to disguise a strategy that is actually anti-evangelistic, where the gospel never even enters the picture at all, much less becomes a focus of ministry. How different that is from Paul's strategy! (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).
If we're really concerned about reaching postmoderns, we need to remember that our one legitimate message—the only story we are commissioned by Christ to take to every tribe and every culture—is the gospel.
And that's not a message about how cool the church is.