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Postmodernism and the Emerging Church

The postmodern emphasis on experience, presentation, and narrative has enhanced our faith richly in many ways. However, experience and narrative are by no means the beginning or ending points of our faith in Christ. God's holiness is. Of course, we'll experience God in tangible ways that shape our lives and increase our Christ-likeness tremendously, but our experience is ultimately not the anchor of our faith.

We can never create an experience of God's holiness, because that's something that comes from revelation. God alone makes this revelation possible. How can we pursue God's holiness practically? Today's church should bolster her understanding of God's holiness. We're in danger of making the experience, new language, multimedia presentations, or liturgy the centerpiece of our faith. And the result is an experience-based faith instead of one that is holiness-based. Ultimately, this kind of faith will crumble. Our calling as followers of Jesus is to ground our faith in his God-ness, which rests outside our experience. In terms of youth ministry, we should be careful not to overemphasize the experience of church to our students, while inadvertently de-emphasizing God's holiness (Youth Specialties…


The threat to the church is that it will reduce the gospel to emotionalism and fanaticism. Experience and feeling are important but the postmodern emphasis is to abandon truth and doctrine. We must never be satisfied with spirituality without truth. Leith Anderson says:

We have a generation that is less interested in cerebral arguments, linear

thinking, theological systems, and more interested in encountering the

supernatural. Consequently, churchgoers operate with a different paradigm

of spirituality. The old paradigm taught that if you have the right teaching,

you will experience God. The new paradigm says that if you experience God,

you will have the right teaching.


 What those involved in Post Modernism mostly agree on is their disillusionment with the organized and institutional church and their support for the deconstruction of modern Christian worship, modern evangelism, and the nature of modern Christian community. (Widipedia)


 It seems by reading many of the Emergent Church books that much of what is driving them into postmodernism is the lack of humility that comes from some pulpits, legalism, and extreme fundamentalism. These are problems that should be addressed, but postmodernism is the wrong solution. There are many church leaders who hold to the correspondence theory of truth who are not arrogant with the truth, legalistic, or extreme in their fundamentalism. Foundationalism is not the cause of these attitudes; in fact these attitudes appear in the emergent church also. There are those who think they understand the way things should be, and if you’re not postmodern you are given a smug look and a roll of the eyes. Abandoning the idea of truth is not the answer to these problems. The emergent church with all of its motives that seem to be in line with Godly living, has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. For if truth is gone, then what is Godly living and all these motives and attitudes they promote, but constructs in their linguistic world. To put it into one of H. Richard Niebuhr’s categories, all we have is the “Christ of Culture (Neibuhr, 83).” The Christ each culture creates, and this is not the Christ of Scripture.
-Doug Eaton-


  • The world is radically changing and the church must radically change with it
    Emergents believe postmodernity represents a dramatic break with the past and that only an extreme transformation in the church can keep the church relevant and effective in this environment. What is needed, they say, is not just a change in methodology. We need a new kind of Christian.
  • Since the Church has been culture bound for so long we must reexamine and question every belief and practice in the Church, finding new ways to define and express these
    Visiting emergent blogs, one will find that absolutely any doctrine or moral standard can be questioned. It seems at times that emergents are engaging in a complete reinvention of Christianity accompanied by a radical redefinition of Christian terms.
  • We have no foundation for any beliefs, therefore we cannot know absolute truth
    Critics of the Emerging Church movement insist that emergents misrepresent epistemological foundationalism (the belief that we do possess some knowledge that serves as a basis for further knowledge) as requiring “bombproof certainty,” something contemporary foundationalists insist they do not hold to. What contemporary foundationalists do believe is that we can possess real knowledge that is so certain it requires extraordinary evidence to refute it.
    [13] D. A. Carson points out that emergent postfoundationalism is based upon yet another of their false antitheses, saying “In effect the antithesis demands that we be God, with all of God’s omniscience, or else forever be condemned to knowing nothing objective for sure.” [14] Additionally, emergents fail to consider the scriptural teaching of faith as something God-given which does possess supernaturally certain knowledge (Mt 21:21, Eph. 2:8, Heb 11:1). Emergents do not seem to realize that critiquing secular foundationalism is not the same as critiquing Evangelical foundationalism. In A New Kind of Christian McLaren’s fictional altar ego, Neo, says even Scripture is neither authoritative (in a “modern” sense) [15] nor a foundation for faith. [16]
  • Since we cannot know absolute truth, we can only experience what is “true” for our communities
    Postmodern philosophers and theologians insist that truth is only known and validated within communities (“There are no Metanarratives only local narratives”). While this implies that truth is culturally relative and that true cross-cultural communication is impossible (those outside a community must first join a community before they can understand the community’s ideas), postmodern authors communicate to people of various communities simultaneously, apparently expecting them to all equally understand their intent.
  • Since we cannot know absolute truth we cannot be dogmatic about doctrine
    Emergents see orthodoxy as “generous,”
    [17] that is, inclusive of many beliefs Christians have historically thought of as aberrant or heretical. Many leading emergents echo McLaren’s refusal to assert Christianity’s superiority to other world religions.
  • Since we cannot know absolute truth we cannot be dogmatic about moral standards
    Absolute stands on issues such as homosexuality are viewed as obsolete. Activities such as drinking, clubbing, watching sexually explicit movies, and using profanities are seen by some emergents as opportunities to show those who are not part of the Christian community that postmodern Christians do not think they are better than them through any false sense of moral superiority.
  • Since we cannot know absolute truth, dogmatic preaching must give way to a dialogue between people of all beliefs
    Emerging Christians do not posture themselves before the world as though they were the light and the world were in darkness. Instead of “preaching” to the “lost” they join in “conversation,” with people of various beliefs. Conservative Evangelicals seem not to be truly welcome to contribute their distinctive content to this conversation since they represent the old, rotting corpse of “modernism.”
  • Since propositional truth is uncertain, spiritual feeling and social action make up the only reliable substance of Christianity
    Emergents consider propositional truth a “modern” (and thus outmoded) fascination. Postmoderns think and communicate in narratives.
    [19] Since the pursuit of truth is portrayed as a never ending journey with no solid starting point, they consider the only legitimate measuring rods of Christianity to be experience and good works. Without a solid footing in revealed truth, however, emergents have no firm foundation for knowing which experiences are valid and which works are good (something they do not seem to notice).
  • To capture a sacred feeling we should reconnect with ancient worship forms
    Trappings such as burning candles and events such as silent retreats are popular in the movement. Embracing these premodern forms further breaks their connection with “modern” Christianity.
  • Since sublime feeling is experienced through outward forms, we should utilize art forms in our worship
    Many participants in the movement see appreciating art for art’s sake as a spiritual experience.
  • Through conversation with them, “outsiders” will become part of our community, and then be able to understand and believe what we teach
    The postmodern approach is not to try to persuade people to believe, it is to try to befriend people into joining. This is commonly expressed as Robert Webber does when he says “People in a postmodern world are not persuaded to faith by reason as much as they are moved to faith by participation in God’s earthly community.”
    [20] There is a false antithesis in such statements, however. We do not have to choose between a purely cerebral attempt to talk others into believing correctly on the one hand and offering an open, unqualified invitation to our group on the other. The Bible teaches us to proclaim the gospel message with reliance upon the Holy Spirit to empower, illuminate, and convict (1 Co 2, 1 Thess 1:9). When such proclamation is absent, as it is in the Emerging Church movement, there is no prophetic voice coming from the church calling sinners to repent and believe the Gospel (Ac 2:38, 16:30-32).
  • All are welcome to join the “conversation” as long as they behave in a kind and open-minded manner.
    Emerging believers reject any posture which hints at exclusivism. Dogmatic Evangelicals, however, are not treated as kindly in the conversation as others are (something many emergents admit).
  • The ultimate goal is to make the world a better place
    The Emerging Church movement envisions a utopia in which the oppressed of the world are free, the poor are no longer impoverished and the environment is clean. This paradise is achieved through social activism. Many emergent leaders think it is selfish folly to live for the return of Christ.

The accomplishing of all of the above is seen by those in the movement as evidence that the Church is emerging to reach the culture, adapting to it. Critics of the movement see these things as signs that the Church is submerging into the culture, being absorbed by it. (


The soft postmodernism of the emerging church is continually on the brink of compromise. As we said before, soft postmoderns are unwilling to stand for things of which they are uncertain. While this sounds good and noble, there are always going to be many things which we are less certain of than others. Where does one draw the line of certainty? How certain does one have to be before he or she can hold and articulate their beliefs with conviction? I, for example, am not certain with mathematical certainty that the sun will rise tomorrow. However unlikely, there could be outside variables that I don’t know about that will cause the earth to stop its rotation. Does this make me irresponsible and arrogant to believe that the sun will rise? Not at all. In fact, it would be the very definition of insanity for me to demand mathematical certainty about the rising of the sun. I have good reason for believing the sun will rise because of the amount of evidence. Therefore, I have a moral obligation to believe and plan according to the evidence. The evidence itself determines the level of certainty about the issue. It is the same with our beliefs. We don’t have to have absolute certainty about something before we can act on and preach those convictions. There are very few things in this life that I can claim with intellectual honesty to be one hundred percent certain about. This overblown view of the need for absolute certainly or nothing can easily lead to moral anarchy. Most, when given the choice, will choose “nothing” since there is nothing which they can be absolutely certain about. There is a formal name for this: nihilism, which translated means “nothingism.” Once nihilism is adopted, anarchy is the inevitable result. This is the problem that hard postmodernism produces. It is important for Christians to hold many of our beliefs in tension, but these beliefs must be limited to those that the Bible does not speak clearly on. Views about the nature and application of the atonement are not qualified for this type of uncertainty. Views about predestination, while there is legitimate room for disagreement, do not need to be sacrificed in the name of love. One wonders if these were not important, why did God bother including them in Scripture? What is to prevent people from ripping out certain portions of their Bible?

As well, while soft postmoderns seem to evidence humility with regards to their ability to come to know truth, this humility can often be misleading. While this could evidence a respect for the fall and its resulting effects upon the mind (noetic effects of sin), it could also be because of the postmodern tendency to seek acceptance even when the cost is compromise. Let’s face it, the less you stand for, the more people will like you. The stronger your convictions, the more chance you have to be rejected. At the very least, let’s not jump in bed with soft postmoderns in order to have broader acceptance. As Christ said, “If they hate me they will hate you.” We don’t need to intentionally seek rejection (as some people attempt to do thinking it evidences more spirituality—another story), but we don’t need to prevent it either, especially if the Gospel is at stake. Soft postmodernism has few convictions, and this is not a positive. As the country song goes, “You have got to stand for something, or you will fall for anything.” It is interesting to put all this into perspective and see that convictionless churches are usually empty churches. Emerging churches, from what I have seen, are not attracting as many people from the culture as you might think. The ideology of compromise is not that attractive. Why go to fellowship with other believers under an umbrella called “few convictions.” On the other hand, churches that have strong leaders with uncompromising convictions are full churches these days. This does not mean that we don’t show grace in the non-essentials, it just means that we don’t have to place all non-essentials on the altar for the sake of unity. We can have strong conviction about non-essentials as well as unifying under the essentials.

As well, the Church needs to have balance with regards to the role of tradition. While tradition can be a bad thing when it becomes baseless folk theology, it is also a good thing that needs to be embraced as a mouth piece of God. Not in the Roman Catholic sense, but in the sense that God is a God of history. He can be found in tradition many times. Tradition, kept in check, can be a beautiful thing. The emerging Church needs to be careful that it does not have an overly selective use of tradition, either. Often times emerging churches can be found jettisoning certain traditions without consideration. This is especially the case with the traditions brought to us by the Reformation. The emerging church often uncritically accepts the earlier traditions of the church fathers, yet denies the Reformation a place. I guess the Reformation is too divisive. All history must be taken into consideration in the development of one’s theology.


In sum, hard postmodernism should be seen as a threat. It is not possible to be a hard postmodernist and be a Christian. Soft postmodernism on the other hand presents the church with many lost virtues of grace and irenics (theology done peaceably). For this we can be thankful. But we must guard the truths of Scripture with the conviction that the evidence has presented. Our traditions may or may not be wrong, but that is for the evidence to decide. There also are non-essentials that need to be spoken about with conviction, even if we might be wrong in the end. In short, let us be balanced in our understanding of the issues on the table and let us not lose the conviction that the truths of Scripture produce. (



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