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Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches. Part One.

An early release copy just arrived and I read it straight away. Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches, edited by Robert Webber. I didn't expect to like it as much as I did! Fantastic book! Really. And this means i have to make room on my top ten Emerging Church books.

0310271355.01. Aa240 Sclzzzzzzz Dr. Robert Webber has done a great job in creating a snapshot of 5 emerging church leaders and pushing them to bring their theological leanings out of the closet. Not the widest scope - more a focus on the evangelical. non-Pentecostal, protestant, non-house church seminary-trained leader with a more traditional church structure and leadership hierarchy. But the book is about theology, not methodology, so I will cut some slack and give it the kudos it deserves.

If you have read "The Church in Emerging Culture" edited by Len Sweet, then you might think you're looking at its sequel. Robert Webber is the editor, and like Len, does a superb job in framing the conversation. Len Sweet's four categories (Garden/Park/Glen/Meadow), which I said were worth the price of the book, are replaced by four cultural stages that Webber takes from sociologists Strauss and Howe. They are four cultural turnings in a cycle that is finding completion in this present dispensation of emerging church.
1. High Evangelicals (1946-1964)
2. Awakening Evangelicals (1964- 1984)
3. Evangelical Unravelling (1984- 2004)
4. The Emerging Church and Younger Evangelical Leaders (2004 - )

The grid offers some good insight into where we have come and its a superb read, as was Sweet's intro. Both are worthy contributions on their own standing. Although, as in Webber's book on Younger Evangelicals, i would argue an emerging church that is older, more integrated, more invisible, less institutional, more international and more influenced by the charasmatic and post-charasmatic movement than Webber is willing to acknowledge.

Four of the five characters in Sweets book have their counterparts in Webber's. Reformer Michael Horton now becomes Mark Driscoll, the joker figure Brian McLaren is played by Doug Pagitt, the token female main-liner Fredrica Matthews-Green is replaced by Anglo-Lutheran Karen Ward, and the role of emerging church beyond the seeker sensitive model shifts from Erwin McManus to John Burke.

But there is a difference between these books. Rather than dealing with culture, Robert Webber tackles theology and focuses on the differences between them. This gives the book more EDGE than Sweet's book. And what allows Webber's authors to engage with vigor in this theological pillow-fight is the fact that they are all on friendly terms with each other, giving them freedom to be harsh and forthright in their critiques without getting nasty or personal.

These are five great people and over the years I have met all of them.

Mark Driscoll (Biblicist Theology) is the elephant in the room, the crabby schoolteacher, and one continually wonders whether he is on the defensive to protect his own reputation from participation in this book project or if he considers it his ministry to bring the others back to Calvin. Or, as a pastor, he is worried about his flock going into spaces where there be dragons. Maybe all of those. Reformed folk will be cheering him on as he chastises the others for treating theology as if dynamic rather than static. But his comments open up so many questions that the book almost needs a place for the other authors to respond to Driscoll's comments on them
"No, Mark, that was not a sly reference to homosexuality . . "
Mark's defensive posture prevents him from taking the conversation forward and he defers to a restating of what we have already heard, interspersed with a thousand Scriptural references. He is usually better than this, as you may know. When in his element, he is genius. But Driscoll's presence in the book, awkward as it is, acts as a reminder that a portion of the emerging church hails from reformed and fundamentalist corners of the room and they also need a place at the table. Mark's presence here is an entry ticket for those people to enter mission in the emerging culture. And for that, I am thankful.

Doug Pagitt (Embodied Theology) is brilliant. I have said this before but The Pagitt has not been able to display it in such a way as to prove I am right. His two books are OK . . but not great. Not as great as I know Doug is. But this chapter gives me hope that Doug is finding some space to shine in the literary world. At last.
In his chapter, he is Driscoll's nemesis - "We are called to be communities that are cauldrons of theological imagination, not "authorized re-staters" of past ideas."

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Dan Kimball (Missional Theology) plays my usual role in conversations like these- the bridge builder and spokesperson for the marginalized. Dan plays the "missional" card and he writes a good chapter. But I don't feel he made it clear that the missional focus is the primary undergirding apparatus for the emerging church as well as providing an ecumenical space for conversation such as this book. We do not meet together on the grounds of theological compromise (and Dan does not suggest we do) but rather because of mutual participation in God's mission among the emerging culture. It may be that Webber let it slide because, being more attuned to theology and worship, he does not see the missional basis for much of this current thinking or its roots in missiological thinking over the past 50 years. But then again, maybe that is just my horse and i should stop whipping it here.
Having said that, Dan is a star and he carries many things that are dear to me. Dan is a spokesman and peace-maker and ambassador for the emerging church and his writings are widely accessible. Great to have his voice in this book.

John Burke (Incarnational Theology) offers a gateway for those feeling stifled in the World of WillowBack and are pilgrimaging forward into emergent territory, but he also speaks out for global issues (also my role in conversations like these) and the good news for new age and neo-paganism.

Karen Ward (Communal Theology) also does exceedingly well, perhaps better than anyone. With great flair and skill she weaves ideas of cooking and theology and art into her chapter and allows others in her community to add their voices. Those on the creative fringe of the emerging church will warm immediately to Karen's chapter. There will also be much appeal to mainliners, artists and those seeking the rhythms of nu-monastisticism. Brits already love her and she is becoming a regular at Greenbelt Festival.

Critics who say the emerging church leaders are not clear on their theology should shut the heck up and buy this book. They are very clear. But outdated terms and categories often fail to communicate theological belief among ourselves, creating suspicion and confusion. What is also clear is this: there is a lot of scope for different takes on theology within the emerging church, because, I would add, of our common missional purpose. And thats good because it means more people can play.

This book needs a sequel with some new players. If we are keeping it on American soil, I would suggest these five:
1. Earl Creps to bring some Pentecostal theology to the mix.
2. Some emerging church practitioner from the Catholic or Orthodox tradition.
3. An emerging house church practitioner like Neil Cole . . no wait . . Neil is too nice. Jonathan Campbell would be edgier.
4. A post-charasmatic to lead Vineyard exiles into emerging pasture. Although Brian McLaren seems to be playing that role and might be a good choice.
5. A cyberchurch geek like e-church pastor Tim Bedner.

And for a wild card, why not throw in a full-throttle fundamentalist anti-emergent in the mix to make things really interesting. Someone like, say . . . Ken Silva?

For more on Listening to the Belief's of Emerging Churches, read what the authors say about their own chapters:
Doug Pagitt who also lists the exact questions they were asked.
Dan Kimball who also links to the statements of faith from these author's churches
Mark Driscoll who links to a sample PDF of his own chapter.

Others commenting on the book include Scot McKnight,

Or you can attend a session with these authors. A number of events related to this book and the release of Emergent Manifesto of Hope will happen around the country (Austin, Seattle, Minneapolis). Scott McKnight will moderate the Austin session. I will be moderating the Minneapolis session with some of these authors, which is why i am so interested in the book. May 17-18. Details later.
[UPDATE, March 20: Seattle is still on but the other two events are postponed until later this year.]

[UPDATE: Dan Kimball has reminded me that the contributors were asked to clearly state their beliefs on key doctrines. Taking that into consideration, I may have been too harsh on Driscoll and Kimball and a Part Two is called for.]