Response to Harvey Schultz’s Methodology in “What is the Emerging Church Movement?”
Note: The tone of this essay is quite strong -- be advised in reading it that both authors are trying to critically engage a set of terms and ideas in an effort to advance teachings and understandings of these very important topics.
Generally, one is excited to come across a hardcore, realistic engagement by a church leader of a leading, if not controversial, theological or philosophical issue. All to often, we are spoon fed “talking points”, cozy “3-point Homilies”, and slickly packaged ethical and theological truths along with the supporting bumper sticker moralizing. One of the great differences between Anabaptism and American-style Evangelicalism is the implied accountability the Anabaptist retains as a member of the congregation. We do not achieve Salvation through the Church so we cannot blame the Church for our success or failure. We are responsible to explore the scriptures and participate in the Spirit of Fellowship so as to be able to discern and recognize Truth and right doctrine. We are to come forth in our true conscience and to participate in the consensual congregational fellowship of the believer found in the correct relationship to God, our fellow humankind, the Church, and God’s Creation. The “Nuremberg Defence” is simply not available to the Anabaptist -- we cannot say that we believe this or that because we were told to, because that is what we have been taught, or that “it” made as good sense as anything. Simply put, as Anabaptists, we have been called individually and congregationally to engage the Scriptures and the world in a Spiritually tuned manner.
As I write, the a debate is raging over a topic Mr. Schultz actually brings up in part 2 of his article -- a California judge has struck down that state’s Proposition 8 outlawing the recognition of same-sex marriage. Frustrated, the judge challenged the defendants to show any actual evidence, not mere opinion, that same-sex unions are in fact detrimental to the concept of “traditional” heterosexual marriage. The defendants failed to produce any solid evidence in that regard with the consequence that the judge ruled against them in an ethical area they claim to be of the utmost spiritual importance and consequence. Bernard of Clairveaux, a well-known opponent of same-sex unions, would be, should be, turning in his grave.
I bring this up, because Mr. Schultz may have committed the error of raising a vitally important question to the present and future of the churches in the Evangelical movement, and then leaving the issues and his readers, mired in murky, unresolved reasoning that can but lead to over-reactions, misjudgments, and significant lost opportunities. In the introduction, Editor Sharon Berg, notes Schultz’s goal of “explain[ing] the background and characteristics of [the emergent church] movement, and how we can evaluate it through a biblical template,” (Schultz, Part I, p. 5). One might feel that Schultz has accomplished the first goal of introducing his readership to the concept of the emergent church, while ending feeling yet unsatisfied as to the establishment of any strongly pertinent criteria for its evaluation. In fact, Schultz ends by stating, in a very non-Anabaptist manner, that, “Everything should sifted through the grid of Scripture,” however that, “it would be very unwise to use the writings and study materials emergent authors for Bible Study groups,” (Schultz, Part II, p. 5). In fact, instead of examining such materials through group study and mutual edification, he encourages his Christian readers to forsake the unified, mutually supportive group Bible study in favour of merely accepting and adopting the perspectives of two authors who seem reasonable to himself. He concludes the two part article with a slightly deceptive debating trick -- he publishes a list of some 21 “emergent church” writers and 4 “church fathers” with whom he encourages one to familiarize his or herself -- but his presentation is such that the 25 writers indicated are more or less a hit list of writers to be avoided lest the reader be contaminated by “Emergent Church Theology.”
Without determining the correctness or error of these authors or of the “Emergent Church Theology” itself, I would like to engage the argument itself for relevancy, completeness, and usefulness for consideration of the readership in the congregations of the Fellowship.
¶1 “Recently I heard of a church where several dozen people walked out, saying that their church leadership had succumbed to emerging church thinking and practices,” (Schultz, Part I, p. 4).
Schultz starts off with an immediate judgment as to the ethics of the emergent church movement. People are leaving the church -- so it must be bad. However, the same would probably not be said for those who left the church because it was “too conservative” in its worship style, because the music was “too modern,” or “unsatisfying.” Purposefully or not, Schultz ends up implying that that particular congregation had alienated the faithful and fallen into error. Schultz did not determine whether or not the persons who left were leaving for a good cause, or whether they were the ones who had fallen to actual error (in the end, Schultz would fail to wrap up his reasoning and leave this essential question unresolved).
¶2 Schultz commits two errors of reasoning in this paragraph alone. First, Schultz states, “It is important that each one of us become capable of recognizing and evaluating the characteristics of this movement. We need to be able to discern if a church(our own church?) is being unduly influenced by it,” (Schultz, Part I, p. 4). Again, the concept has been judged without reason as being negative or bad. Rather than defining the issues or presenting his promised “template for evaluation,” Schultz has prejudiced the reader. At the end of the paragraph, he compounds his error by confusing the reading through self-contradiction, “Neither should we react negatively to everything which might be dumped into the emergent basket. Not everything about the movement is negative,” (Schultz, Part I, p. 4). The probable defence that Schultz is actually trying to say that while the movement is bad, not all aspects of it are bad, is not an option left open to his readers -- hitherto fore, Schultz has not indicated that adopting emergent church principles can go too far, or too far too fast, or too far at the cost of traditional practices -- no, Schultz has already indicated that the movement itself was suspect.
¶4 Born of Reaction; Schultz begins this section by explaining to his readers that he is discussing a movement, not an organization or group. In other words, while it possible to determine that the hit list authors are in fact proponents of the emergent church movement, no one really knows what it means, no one has effectively defined it, and no one group is pursuing or sponsoring it. In other words, “Beware,” but beware of what? Of whom? Why?
Would it be off-base to extrapolate from the paragraphs we have examined so far that Schultz is actually proposing that the reader fear an unknowable, undefined, and yet infinitely dangerous enemy of the church. How much more frightening could one get? “Trust me my children for there are dangers out there that cannot be defined, nor easily recognized but that can destroy your churches and lead your very soul astray. Stick close to me and follow my lead lest you fall victim to these errors.” You have a church leader asking for followers who are afraid of what they know not. Talk about power.
¶5 “…we need to bear in mind that this movement is a reflection of the post modern philosophy,” While Schultz returns to define this better later on, he has again intuited a value statement with no references, no reasoning, and no real context. Nor is it exactly clear as to how emergent churches relate themselves to the evil of post modernism. Interestingly, many of the charges that Schultz makes against the emergent churches are the same scare tactics that the Roman Catholics and later the Lutherans charged against the early Anabaptists. To oppose the unitary authority of the Pope and the Catholic Church would lead to spiritual and social anarchy.
To be fair to Schultz, he has entered, through this paragraph, a huge theological void dealing with the relationship of the individual believer to God, Truth, and the Church. Regrettably, he should be able to at this point, simply refer to the writings, teachings, and archetypical definitions established by FEBC church scholars -- however, the lack of such a scholarly heritage leaves the reader hanging…and afraid. The reader is not only afraid of “Postmodernity” but is suddenly panicked because he or she really has no idea as to how this second new concept impacts their spiritual life.
¶6-10 In this series of paragraphs, Schulz correctly identifies the “emergent church movement” as a reactionary movement. However, he fails to note that this is natural -- any change meant to correct a previous weakness is by definition reactionary. A movement or concept that is reactionary is not inherently good or bad. In this sense, Schultz’s organization has fallen thin. Schultz mentions that the emergent movement is a reaction to modernity, to seeker-oriented churches, to mega churches, to the lack of evangelistic integrity, and to general weaknesses within the church. If Schultz provided a more value-neutral definition of the concept of Postmodernity, he could reorganize his reactions into two general and broad categories. The first category would be the reactions that form the core of Postmodern thought. Postmodernity is a reactionary movement itself, reacting against the rational, scientific world of the Modernists, of a scientifically based capitalism that has sponsored greed and corruption, and alienated the individual from the larger, corporate unit. Schultz then should indicate the tension between the Modernist and the Postmodern perspectives on the church and what made a church “good.” The reaction against scientific group organization, and an over rationalization of the religious experience manifests itself in the remaining reactionary movements.
Finally, in my reading, Schultz overreacts against the concept of Postmodernity setting it in direct opposition to Modernity, “which has often been described as the conviction that truth can be known, systematized, classified and presented in a rational, linear process through the scientific method (hence, doctrinal statements, creeds, systematic theology, etc.),” (Scultz, Part I, p. 4). First off, Schultz mistakenly states that Postmodernity is, “where the autonomous self has been elevated to a position of absolute authority,” (Schultz, Part I, p. 4). This attribute which Schultz ascribes to Postmodernity is actually the grounding precept of Existentialism.
It is not clear that given the Pietist roots of the FEBC conference, that its own founding fathers were not themselves reactionaries against the same type of movements such as the seeker-oriented churches, the mega-churches, and church corruption. Again, the problem is not the definition that Schultz is building for “emergent churches” but rather the implied negative, yet not justified, judgment against this movement.
A Philosophy of Truth; Since we are harping on our poor author, Schultz would do better to insert the word Relative in before the word Truth. Secondly, after explaining that the movement lacks clear characteristics or proponents, Schultz begins to attack those non-existent proponents -- this is an extremely dangerous tactic in as much as not being defined, anyone or anything could be suspected by “emergent eschatology” if not fingered as a proponent. In fact, several of the writers on the suspect list were years ago, well respected names on the Evangelical bookshelf.
Now is where Schultz really drops into the same type of argumentation that sank the Pro-Proposition 8 attorneys in California. He just makes statements that we take to be true without having been presented any evidence, and he paints his opponents with a very wide brush.
While he does employ the modifier most in explaining that most emerging church proponents believe that absolute truth does not exist, he hardly leaves room to indicate the incredibly striated variations of depth and degree to which such convictions are held. Just because someone shops at a co-op does not mean that they are closet Communists. A large number of Postmodernists do in fact believe in Absolute Truth. Postmodern Science is based on the belief that there is a basic, unified, and discoverable principle that unites all laws and truths in the universe (see String Theory, Chaos Theory, and the so-called god particle). Furthermore, Schultz just blanketedly ignores the understanding that Postmodern was not designed to attack Absolute Truth per se, but rather the false little truths that are commonly held up as absolutes, depending often on social pressures, political power and economic might for their backing rather than on genuine, inclusive discourse. Humorously, numerous pastors have performed weddings or spoken from the Epistles on Mothers’ Day or Fathers’ Day reading the relevant passages with a focus on their masculine or feminine voice -- that is a simple and basic version of “Postmodern's textual deconstructivism” but it is a very Postmodern approach one way or another.
Interestingly, as part of this critique, I choose to examine the various church Statements of Faith and governing documents. Arguably, the first conference documents were generated by the application of Pre-Modernist Reason buttressing faith and a prayerfully inclusive spirit. The first documents were paradigms of religious Pietism and early Modernist humanism. Yet, they have been changed several times -- so much for the effectiveness of Schultz’s Modernist approach, and so much for his feeling that they contained an unchanging Absolute Truth. In fact, the changes between the 1953 Statement of Faith and that of 2009 are fairly major in their treatment of humanity’s role in Salvation, revising statements regarding humanity’s relationship to Creation, regarding the inclusiveness of the greater church, and a general cleansing of much of the early Bruderthaler’s initial Pietistic theological leanings in favour of a more contemporary American Evangelical understanding. Most Postmodernists would see this an indication that whether or not Absolute Truth exists, the mere historic experience of the church indicates that the church’s understanding of this truth does change and can be clarified and does suffer from differing perspectives in its application. Nor it is assumed that Postmodernism condemns this reality, rather, many would argue that Postmodernism merely accepts and reflects this reality, only cautioning persons to reflect on these changes and in light of these changes, to be more tolerant of the perspectives and viewpoints of others.
Schultz complains that, “it is alleged that we used to say that if you have the right teaching, you have experienced God. Now it is taught that if you experience God, then you have the right teaching,” (Schultz, Part I, p. 5). Again, Schultz uses a term loaded with judgment -- alleged. In fact, this is what Pastor Korns taught us in high school -- that, “right theology leads to right thinking leads to a happy and fulfilled life.” Schultz needs to flesh this out more -- is this wrong? is it a perversion of Anabaptist-Evangelical thought? Is it correct? We do not know. But, our sense of panic has grown in our confusion.
The closing paragraph of this section is almost an orphan fragment -- of what, to whom, and from what perspective is Schultz speaking? “Finally, direct encounter with the Divine should be our daily norm. Expect it in all circumstances and experiences. And it likely will not happen according to our preconceived expectations,” (Shultz, Part I, p. 5). Is he telling us that this is what we should believe or that we should reject it as part of the Postmodern emergent church-ism?
In the section, Our Attitudes, Schultz completes his task of confusing and frightening his readers. After denouncing reactionaries, he then states that, “I suggest that we need to start by honestly recognizing to what extent there are weaknesses in the evangelical church at large and then ask ourselves: ‘To what extent does this alleged weakness characterize my church?’ … let’s be willing to admit to our own shortcomings and correct our own practices and tendencies,” (Schultz, Part I, p. 5). Schultz is clearly indicating that shortcomings should be identified and dealt with. If the solutions that are proffered from which to address the shortcomings relate directly to the problem identified, then they are a reaction to that problem and therefore reactionary. Wait a second, was this not condemned a few paragraphs earlier? One could easily get confused at this point.
Schultz goes on to say, “we need to read emergent authors with discernment and analyze their ‘solutions’ in the light of Scripture. We should learn to understand, articulate and refute their tenets which are definitely non-Biblical, counter-Biblical or extra-Biblical,” (Schultz, Part I, p. 5). But, in Part II, Schultz discourages us from studying these authors as a group. This does not make sense. Also, at certain points, Schultz indicates that many Emergent principles are in fact good -- yet here, he clearly states that, “which are definitely non-Biblical.” Now they are all bad or non-Biblical. Schultz is clearly not saying that we should avoid those tenets that are un-Biblical, but rather that they, as tenets of the Emergent church, are in fact un-Biblical.
Schultz closes Part I continuing in his ambivalence -- “They are, for the most part, believers whose teachings will harm or even destroy them” (quoting Bible verses for authority).
Part II of Schultz’s engagement of the Emerging Church Movement is actually much better written than is Part I, and is in fact, quite informative.
Structurally, he does start off with a grave, if common, error, by listing the perceived weaknesses in the “Modernist” Evangelical church:
Too much emphasis on the “hereafter” and not enough on the here and now.
Too much emphasis on correct doctrine and not enough on relationships.
Too great a tendency to “dissect” and analyze the Bible without being transformed by it.
Too much emphasis on rationalism and not enough on mysticism.
Too many Christians want to live in the Christian “ghetto” and not be salt and light in the world.
Too often church worship services are “shallow,” entertainment oriented, and one-dimensional.
Too much emphasis on fear-motivated Christianity, (Schultz, Part II, p. 4).
First off, though not readily apparent from his argument, Schultz’s perspective is one of a church that has consistently distanced itself from its ethnic Mennonite roots. The list comprised by Schultz is very well written in that linguistically it could be divided into a table contrasting the Modernist Evangelicalism with what he states is the Postmodern Emergent value. In researching the emergent movement, I determined that many of the movements adherents are not so much reactionary as they are reversionary, in other words, they are not so much reacting against a situation as they have now found it, they are rather desiring a return to what they perceive as an earlier, more fundamentally affecting, and deeper Pre-Modern church experience. A smart debater would immediately question whether or not Schultz had a personal stake in this debate. In the case, Schultz would do well in a future article to disclose his involvement in the reworking of the EMB constitution and attempt to reorient it from a Pietist, outwardly engaging Mennonite Conference into a more Modern, American-style Evangelical fellowship. The reason that this important is that Schultz sets his argument up in a manner whereby the “traditional” or “fundamental” position is claimed by the current Modern movement. Though valid, it is not exactly intellectually honest of him to not admit the recent intellectual battles to replace the earlier movement with the Modern one -- I would recommend that he remove this debate from a dichotomy (Modern versus Postmodern), but more in line with Toews excellent overview of the use of the Lord’s Supper in the Mennonite Tradition, that he also include the values or positions of the Pre-Modern movement that was also so recently displaced.
But then again, Schultz immediately begins contradicting himself. The Modernist church services are perceived as too shallow, entertainment oriented and one-dimensional -- but Postmodern services are “often very laid back…participation by all is encouraged…Rational analysis is out…Feelings and sensations are in…structure is out…different groups may be doing different things throughout the auditorium at one and the same time,” (Schultz, Part II, p.4). Unless I am missing something, it appears that Schultz is arguing that all Evangelical services are shallow, entertainment-oriented, and one-dimensional, whether they are Modern or Postmodern. If Schultz is making such a statement, then it follows that if the Postmodernists need to experience reform, so do the Modernists.
Schultz then goes on to say that, “People are encouraged [by emergents] to engage in practices many of us knew nothing about,” (Schultz, Part II, p. 4). Again, we hit upon a non-argument. A conservative might argue that “I will not listen to that because I know nothing about it.” But that hardly means that it is right or wrong. Schultz then lists some obscure practices such as Lectio divina, “walking the labyrinth“, Journaling, mysticism, etc. Without stating that these practices are correct or wrong, Schultz’s argument is not that they conflict with Truth, but rather that they are unknown. Only in the case of pursuing mystical experiences does he come close to indicating why there is a problem -- theologically, there would be questions as to whether or not God can be experienced directly without the intercession of Christ. Having studied Mysticism at university, Schultz has again oversimplified things in at least two key points. First, the Modern movement that he helped bring into the conference is by definition suspicious of the mystical experience. However, it is not clear that mystical experiences do not occur theologically. In fact, while claiming to be suspicious of these non-rational experiences, he then goes on in the next section to champion a number of irrational or non-rational beliefs such as the inerrancy of the revealed scriptures and prophecy (both mystical experiences), the ultimate know-ability/unknown-ability of God (a mystical stance), etc. So what we perceive is that rather than building up a rational or even consistently organized response to the Emergents, Schultz is really merely stating that any position critical of what currently exists is suspect and “not of God.” Simply put, “If you have a problem with how things are, the problem is how you perceive them or your discontent. The problem is not with the current system.” Later, Schultz accuses Emergents of failing to provide a spiritual compass for the next generation, “When the words of the Bible take on meanings that are constantly shifting, depending on who is reading it, where is the spiritual compass for the next generation?” (Schultz, Part II, p. 5). Again Schultz has trapped the Emergents into a position where unlike their Modernist forebears, they are condemned merely for questioning, being dissatisfied, or applying their own understanding to passages (using their reason). Schultz completely ignores the irony that these persons would not be exploring emergent alternatives if they had found the moral compass proposed and championed by the Modernists as effective or meaningful. Again, these are not even arguments, they are “do as you are told and do not question authority.” If Schultz’s position as a leader during the time the Modernists overthrew the traditionalists, he would have a more legitimate stance. But, lacking an organized, formal argument, Schultz might be perceived in the same manner as the participant in a coup then telling the populace that to ponder a future coup is unpatriotic and bad. Only he and his are allowed to create a coup.
Whether they are right or wrong, Schultz has placed the Emergents in a position where every one of their beliefs is subjected to the reasonability and acceptance of only those most extreme positions. A church with Anabaptist roots aught to avoid this type of argumentation strenuously in that this is the same type of sophistry that the Lutherans used against the early Anabaptists to discredit them and the entire movement by the extreme actions and beliefs of a minor few. In such a case, the Anabaptist conscience aught to move the greater church to give those accused a fair and reasonable hearing. Note that a hearing is not the same as adopting those principles.
But going back to the beginning of this paper, Schultz is recommending against such a hearing. His own arguments are that, “Books written by emergent authors should be read carefully and discerningly. Everything should be sifted through the grid of Scripture,” (Schultz, Part II, p. 5), but that, “…it would be very unwise to use the writings and study materials of emergent authors for Bible study groups… and I strongly encourage each one to read one or more of the [anti-emergent] books,” (Schultz, Part II, p. 5).
As disclosure on my part, I am definitely interested in Schultz’s ideas because I have always more closely affiliated with the values and practices of the older Bruderthaler Evangelicals than with the non-denominational Evangelicals. The Bruderthaler are the community that was overthrown by the Americanized Modernist party of Schultz’s generation. As Bruderthaler, our argument would be that the issues to which the Emergents are reacting were themselves caused by the Modernist overthrow of the Evangelical Traditionalists. So as Mennonite Bruderthaler, we would have a vested interest in examining both the Modernist arguments and the corrective actions recommended by the Emergents as a possible corrective to the Modernist agenda.
To this end, Schultz promised, “it has been my [Schultz’s] goal to present a framework each reader can use to do his [or her] own evaluation of the movement and its various proponents,” (Schultz, Part II, p. 5). In this, he failed. Neither is a framework presented or proposed, nor does Schultz present the views and perspectives of any particular proponent of the Emergent movement. Rather, we are provided a list of writers to approach with the most extreme caution - a list that contains a great many names that were once honoured in the Evangelical tradition, with all proponents lumped together under the most extreme of propositions. With no clear framework or even criteria, other critics of the Emergent church have gone as far as to add Charles Swindoll and C.S. Lewis as suspects. In such cases, all Evangelical writers become suspect until approved, but are not to be studied or discussed, and anyone that calls for a return to pre-Modernist values (such as the non-Modernist/non-Emergent Bruderthaler) is under threat of being added to the list. The Modernists will have led us not to a clearer understanding of the Scriptures and a more effective relationship with our Lord as they promised us in the 70s and 80s, but rather will have ushered in a new century of irrational inquisitions, enforced conformity, and censorship. This is not a system, it is itself reactionary. Schultz’s piece is not a well-reasoned argument, but rather an appeal for status quo. Like the defendants of Proposition 8, Schultz has failed to show any reasonable, empirical evidence for his alarm. We are left merely with cautionary opinions.