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Cutting John Piper some slack on the emerging church

I was a little harsh on John Piper and his comments on the emerging church and the timing was bad. I posted a response 2 days before he announced his ministry break, and a week before the Desiring God conference. Not cool. He deserves better. My apologies, from one Baptist to another.

And on top of that he gets slammed for inviting Rick Warren to Desiring God. More stuff to deal with.

john piper and rick warren

I know what its like to announce a blog break and then some idiot comes along and challenges you and you feel like you have to say something to clear the air. This time, I am that idiot.

Abraham Piper, John's son, tells me that his dad is OK with the occasional slam but still, I would like to clear the decks a little before his big event. So here is a more gracious response that acknowledges John Piper's worthy observations, and one or two more issues that I want to speak into.

"Emerging Church is a fading reality?" It's true that the 'emerging church' term is fading, as I have chronicled for the past 5 years, but in reality the movement has matured and is now more integrated with the established church and mission enterprises than it previously was, thus losing some identity but greatly increasing its impact.

"It has seen its best days" Probably true. And "you will not hear the word in ten years" is a good prediction, not because everything is falling apart and Ken Silva is bringing it all down, but because many have already moved on to other more helpful words [missional is one of them] but any term given to the new forms of church will have a short shelf life. This is normal. And remember that the word "emerging" and "emergent" are also widely used these days in biology, economics, etc.

"It wasn't a phenomenon in the black community. By and large this is true. Yes there are many exceptions, including the many emerging hip-hop churches, which are, in the most part, not very white at all. And they shouldn't be white - have you seen how stupid we white guys look when we break-dance?? But what Piper says is correct. Even in my own experience in San Francisco, the black Pentecostal church that was letting us use their space on Saturday nights pulled back and kicked us out when they saw the "Christian grafitti" on the walls, despite the fact that it was drawn by young black Christians trying to express themselves with their own art.

Why was the EC NOT a phenomenon in the black community? Some guesses:

- Because the black churches might have been more holistic than the white traditional/seeker churches in the first place and didn't require as much retooling.

- Because the black churches often depend on a strong charismatic individual to lead worship from a stage which is the opposite of group-led, highly-participatory worship experiences in the EC.

- Because the bulk of missionaries in the USA and sent out of USA are also white middle class, very often "upper-middle-class" esp. when a Seminary degree is required, and it is these very people that find themselves in the urban centers starting new emerging forms of church among the less-reached, un-churched population. Thus the fruit of their labors resembles the leaders who invested in them initially. White or multi-cultural churches from white people.

Another observation - I found the black churches to succeed more in urban areas where drug addiction was a major problem. Emerging churches often lack the necessary discipline and hard-core approach. We often used to send off our drug addicts to black-church-based outreach ministries for the first stage of their discipleship because they were more likely to kick the habit without falling back.

"They prioritize relationships over doctrine/truth" This is a good observation and there is some truth in it. Many groups stay in fellowship with each other despite contrasting opinions regarding doctrinal issues, issues that would probably divide those in the traditional church. But it is the missional impetus that creates many of these new churches, rather than doctrinal distinctions, so the pragmatic bent tends to create a larger playground that includes those committed to the same mission, but differing on secondary doctrinal beliefs. Behind this is also a strong commitment to the unity of the church and the value of that unity for both the wider church and outsiders looking in. But the relationship/truth dichotomy might not be the most helpful way to look at it. Obedience to the commands of God, esp. in regard to his missional purposes, brings a lot of diverse people and groups together in the EC and it is this obedience, and willingness to comply with the demands of Jesus, that divides the men from the boys, and it separate those willing to risk it all to bring the gospel to the margins despite the cost from those who are not willing.

And speaking of relationship and unity around God's purposes, I agree with Scot McKnight that its great that John Piper invited Rick Warren to Desiring God Conference. I also agree with Tim Challies that its really not a big deal.

But back to EC.

There are "experimental ways of doing church and spirituality." True. There is a common conception that things are not working as they should, and the harvest is therefore not as plentiful as it should be, combined with a desire to examine the Scriptures for ourselves and reexamine church history for clues on how things have gone wrong, and a entrepreneurial edge in trying new forms of wineskins that will do a better job in keeping and maturing the new wine. OK. Sometimes there is mindless rampant experimentation which is a little stupid, at worst dangerous, but in most cases there is a return to and revamping of a previously successful methodology. And in the case of cyberchurch/social media communities, much of it is very new and precedents are lacking [but they do exist - This will be a theme at this years Cyberchurch Symposium in London.]

However, and I hope I dont undo any goodwill here, one or two things from his video don't sit right with me and I mention them briefly only to add some perspective and help us all come closer to the truth.

Brian McLaren is not the "biggest guru" but he has said things in his books that have expressed succinctly what many EC practitioners, less eloquent than he is, have been thinking and feeling. He is a great listener [once we sat together for 90 minutes and Brian hardly said a thing] as well as a great writer although not everyone will agree with what he says. I have not read his latest book but the "selling like hotcakes" scenario on Amazon might have more to do with critics than supporters.

"Moving away from the gospel?" For many like myself, it was a closer look at the gospels, in particular the methods of Jesus and his apostles [Luke 10 was inspirational] that caused many of us to rethink our ministry strategy and move closer to the way of Jesus as we understood it in the BIble.

"Leadership in shambles?" Here I have to scratch my head. I am aware of one controversy that is lingering, probably the same one John has heard of, although that one seems more cloudy than clear, but that only relates to one person inside of the groups. And there are hundreds of groups. Despite what John Piper has observed, immorality is not "rampant". At least it does not appear more rampant than in the traditional church. Name a recent moral lapse related to a high-profile leader and most likely you will not be looking at an emerging church leader. However, there has been a cultural shift in which Victorian values are not automatically given Biblical credence. Culture shifts and our perception on what upsets or pleases God can change with it. Playing cards was once considered sinful, as was going to the movie theatre, or dancing, but not anymore. [Although if you saw me dancing you would probably also want to outlaw it. - really - I dance like my father who was also a white man lacking in rhythm] See my post on obscene language for another example. [Offensive language - I think my mother taught me]

Anyway, thanks to John Piper for his observations and hoping this year will recharge and renew him for the next season. Also hoping the conference this week in Vancouver will totally rock!

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