All Style, No Substance

During my recent convalescence, I spent a day with this book about the beliefs of five pastors of “emerging” churches. For some time, I’ve been interested in the relationship between the Christian faith and things “postmodern,” and that is what the emerging church claims to be working on. What this book clarified for me was that the distinction between beliefs (doctrine) and the way in which beliefs are communicated and practiced (style) is an extremely important distinction, and one which is mostly lost on the practitioners of the emerging church.

With the sole exception of Mark Driscoll, the contributors don’t really want to answer the question, “what do you believe?” Several of them, in fact, criticized Driscoll for being dogmatic. It would seem that they don’t regard any fixed doctrine to be the essential feature of the Christian faith. They would rather envision the faith as a participation in an ongoing personal narrative or conversation that never arrives at any solid conclusions. The result is a variety of expressions of pragmatism. Church is about how we do things more than about what things we hold to be true.

To the extent these writers do reveal their doctrinal positions, they also reveal that there is no doctrinal unity within the emerging church. Their beliefs range from conservative evangelical to mainline liberal. What this tells us is that the movement is a style movement, not a substance movement–the latest in a long line of Church growth strategies.

The problem with this is that the heart of Christianity is a bit of news–an actual truth claim that the eternal Son of God was incarnated, died for the sins of his people, rose from the dead, ascended to heaven, and will return. To be a Christian, one must hold these things to be true. Certainly that’s not all there is to being a Christian, but that’s the centerpiece. “If Christ be not raised, then our preaching is vain, and our faith also is vain.” The assigned mission of the Church is the proclamation of this message in words and deeds. It has been shown repeatedly in the history of the Church that when we focus our attention on style, we start to forget the substance. This book shows that it’s happened again in the emerging church.

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