Changing Church

Today’s Christians are wrestling with how to make their faith relevant and countercultural

When Rob Bell’s book Love Wins created a storm of controversy following its publication last year, both USA Today and Time magazine called Dr. Richard Mouw ’59 for comment. Mouw, a leading evangelical voice in the United States, serves as president of Fuller Theological Seminary. Bell, at the time the pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., is a Fuller graduate.

In fact, Bell may be Fuller’s most well-known alumnus. The 41-year-old was an evangelical celebrity by the age of 30, having founded Mars Hill in 1999 when he was just 28. The church grew quickly and today draws 7,000 people to its Sunday services. Bell also created the popular video series on Christianity called Nooma (a variation of the Greek word for spirit) and authored books with the unusual titles of Velvet Elvis and Sex God. In 2011 Time included Bell on its list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Mouw describes Bell as a solid evangelical with a provocative style. “I’ve always admired the way Rob reaches out to the younger generation and people who are alienated from traditional churches,” he says. “I’ve met many people in Grand Rapids who go to Mars Hill who either came to faith in Christ or who found a new vitality in their faith through Rob’s ministry.”

Some of those people, however, (Mouw says as many as 1,000) have left Mars Hill due to the theology of Love Wins. The book is widely criticized for Bell’s suggestion that the redemptive work of Jesus may be universal—that every person who ever lived will eventually succumb to God’s irresistible grace and enter heaven.

 “I think the voice in the book is, again, more provocative,” Mouw says. “It’s speaking to a broader culture.”

A Changing World

The culture Bell is addressing is the one in which today’s college students are asking questions about faith and the church. They’re reading books like Bell’s and also learning about Reformed doctrines like predestination. They’re wondering what the churches they grew up in have to offer and how to follow Jesus. They live in a world referred to as post-Christian that is shifting from modernism to postmodernism.

For centuries, the church held a central and privileged role in Western society—ever since the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine in 313 A.D. With the rise of pluralism, however, it has lost its favored status and more and more finds itself on the margins of society.

Part of that shift was due to modernism, a worldview arising in the 17th century that argued truth could be discovered not through revelation, but through reason. Life was divided into sacred and secular, and the scientific method was viewed as the way to understand both ourselves and the world.

Dr. Mitch Kinsinger, who teaches religion at Northwestern, says postmodernism is a response to modernity, “a reaction to science and reason having the final say and being the final authority.” Instead of belief in a universal truth based on reason, truth is thought to be subjective and relative—and therefore different for each person.

While modernism is agnostic about the spiritual and supernatural, postmodernism embraces mystery, says Dr. Michael Andres, another Northwestern religion professor. “In postmodernism there’s a real questioning about how we can know anything with certainty,” he says. “There’s always been skepticism, but in postmodernism, it’s not a begrudging skepticism; it’s an embrace of it.”

Andres, who taught a senior seminar course at Northwestern that dealt with postmodernism, says today’s students may not know what it is, but they resonate with his description of some of its characteristics: suspicion of any form of authority and power, increasing fragmentation, relativism and ambiguity, and a deep yearning for community and connection.

The Birth of the Emerging Church

At the time Bell was founding Mars Hill, other young evangelicals were beginning to wrestle with how to relate the gospel to a postmodern society. Initially focused on alternative worship services for Generation X, they were dissatisfied with the traditional church and eager to pioneer new models of ministry. Soon they were writing and speaking about what they saw as evangelicalism’s faults.

By 2001, the words emerging and emergent were being used as the name for what many saw as a protest movement. One of the earliest voices in that movement was that of Brian McLaren, a pastor who wrote about a postmodern form of Christianity in his book A New Kind of Christian. McLaren eventually became the leader of a network of emerging church leaders that took the name Emergent Village and communicated through a website and blog.

For many people, McLaren—who has become more and more liberal in his theology—represents the emerging church. But Jim Belcher, a Fuller grad who considers Richard Mouw a mentor and who used to meet weekly with Rob Bell and other young pastors to talk about ministry, stresses there are many different camps in the emerging movement and no single voice.

Church planter Ed Stetzer suggests three broad categories of emerging churches. What Stetzer calls “relevants” are theologically conservative evangelicals who want to make the gospel understandable to postmodern culture by updating preaching techniques, worship styles and church leadership structures. “Reconstructionists” is his term for those who hold a more orthodox view of Scripture but want to change the church’s current form and structure. Finally, “revisionists” are those who question and revise both the gospel and the church, looking to leaders from the Emergent Village like McLaren, Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt.

Rev. Seth Sundstrom, a 42-year-old Reformed Church in America pastor in Sioux Falls, S.D., fits the definition of a relevant, although he eschews labels. A native Californian, he was doing road construction when he became a Christian in 1992.

When his denomination asked him to start an outreach church to Generation X, Sundstrom was working as a youth pastor and reading about postmodernism’s influence on the church. Data from the 2000 census had revealed there were 33,000 people in Sioux Falls between the ages of 18 and 36, but only 1,800 of them were attending a church. The Crossing held its first worship service on Pentecost Sunday in 2002.

“The original intent was to reach that age group,” Sundstrom says, “but as time went on, there were a number of us around the country who were doing church a little differently—not theologically different, but stylistically. We were attempting new things to be more relevant to the current culture. There was no plan or leader. It’s just that a number of churches started to emerge across the country that had a similar hunger for relevance and passion in the life of the church.”

Reaching Today’s Generation

The specter of young people abandoning church is a fear of many Christians. However, Dr. Scott Monsma, who teaches sociology at Northwestern, says that looking at just one slice of a person’s life provides an incomplete picture.

“If we look at youth as they’re leaving home and before they’re married and have kids, it’s very common for them to be less attached to a church,” he says. “Research shows people come back to church when they start having a family.”

Dr. Bradley Wright, a sociologist who teaches at the University of Connecticut, studies national surveys about the religious practices of Americans. He says research also shows that today’s single young people are much less likely to attend church than single people of the previous generation. “This problem is compounded by the trend that fewer people are getting married, and they are often older when they do,” he writes. “As a result, a key challenge for today’s church is reaching young single people.”

Another change in demographics is the increase in people who are religiously unaffiliated. Those who indicate no religion in national surveys has risen from 8 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008. Rare before the 1970s, the unaffiliated have grown in every decade and in every age category. During that same time period, evangelicals reached approximately 25 percent of the population—a level they’ve maintained since the 1990s—while mainline Protestants dropped from over 30 percent to less than 15 percent.

Also notable is another characteristic of the religiously unaffiliated. “Earlier in the 20th century, it was common for people raised without a religious affiliation to convert to a religion in adulthood, typically upon marriage,” Wright says. “In more recent decades, however, this pattern has changed. Now those raised without religion are as likely to remain unaffiliated as those raised with religion are to stay in their religion.”

Statistics like these underscore the need to reach today’s postmodern generation with the gospel and are at the core of efforts to transform the church.

 “We have to remember that more and more individuals in our emerging culture have not grown up in a church,” says Dan Kimball, a pastor and author of They Like Jesus but Not the Church. “Most don’t see the church as a place they would naturally go to seek God and spiritual growth.”

As the title of Kimball’s book implies, people in emerging generations often respect and admire Jesus but have a negative view of the church. Could it be, he asks, that they have stereotypes because Christians are so caught up in our church subculture we’ve never engaged them in conversation or formed relationships with them?

Hallmarks of a Protest Movement

Joe Hubers is a 2003 graduate of Northwestern who grew up in the church and wed his college sweetheart, Lacey (Heemstra ’02), when he was a sophomore. Despite his upbringing and marriage, their church attendance was sporadic and they found themselves drifting. Part of their disillusionment stemmed from the separation—Joe even refers to it as a wall—between their church and the world.

In his book Deep Church, Belcher calls that separation a “narrow view of salvation.” It’s why the emerging church argues traditional churches are too focused on what people believe and not enough on how they live. Or, put another way, orthodoxy (right believing) trumps orthopraxy (right living). The Christian faith is merely “fire insurance.”

Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger are two Fuller Seminary professors who have extensively researched emerging churches. They say there are three core practices those churches have in common, and the first is identifying with the life of Jesus.

“Modern readings of Jesus are prone to dismiss his life and focus [only] on his death and resurrection,” they write in their book Emerging Churches. Identifying with Jesus means emulating the way Christ served others, cared for the poor, welcomed the outcast and created community. It’s hearing the Lord’s teaching about the Kingdom of God as a reminder that—to quote Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper—“God is in the reclamation business and is calling us to be part of it.”

This distinctive of the emerging church is particularly appealing to young people, says Kinsinger. “Students want a church that’s engaged in the world, that’s trying to make a difference,” the Northwestern professor says. “This generation is very service-oriented, so a church that only cares about individual souls going to heaven is not where this generation is at. They want a church that cares about the broad, redemptive purposes of God, that wants to heal and restore the broken, fight injustice and oppression, and care for the world God has made.”

A second core practice of emerging churches—transforming secular space—is a response to modernism’s division of the sacred from the secular. Instead of that false dichotomy, there’s a recognition that all of life is sacred and due to God as worship.

Joe and Lacey Hubers found that kind of “whole life” spirituality when they began attending The Crossing, the RCA’s church plant in Sioux Falls.

“What was different about The Crossing is that their intention at all times was to take it beyond just this ‘club’ mentality,” Joe says. A focus on discipleship and relationships helped the Hubers mature in their faith. Being a Christian became more than just a cultural practice relegated to Sundays.

“[Pastor] Seth and I talked about this idea of compartmentalization,” Joe explains. “For a lot of people, they have their church box and their work box and their family box. We want to mix all the boxes up and spill them out on the floor and have no separation or boundary between work, family and faith. It’s all influencing each other.”

The third core practice of emerging churches is living in community. There’s a focus on relationships instead of meetings and an understanding that the church is people rather than a building. In place of modernism’s embrace of individualism, there’s postmodernism’s hunger for connection.

“Church is a seven-day-a-week identification,” write Gibbs and Bolger, “not a once-a-week, 90-minute respite from the real world.” Measuring success by connectedness instead of growth, they say, calls into question many of the activities of the traditional church. It also means reproducing by establishing a new church when size interferes with the relational health of the congregation.

While The Crossing isn’t large—it has a core of just 200 people and 250 to 270 attending on any given Sunday—community is encouraged through the church’s 22 Life Groups. And within those Life Groups are Kyros Groups: people meeting one-on-one or in smaller gatherings of three or four for accountability and discipleship.

“What I think The Crossing has done very well is saying, no, this isn’t a club. This is church. This is doing life together. This is walking with Christ,” says Hubers. “The Crossing doesn’t have one front door; it has 22 front doors.”

Coffee, Candles and Couches

As important as community is to the emerging church, so is the question of who may belong. Gibbs and Bolger refer to this hallmark of the emerging church as “welcoming the stranger,” something that’s in keeping with its focus on changed lives rather than changed beliefs.

This view, says Kinsinger, holds that “traditional churches want to get people to believe, and then they can belong. They would say, ‘You need to accept Jesus and then you can start coming to church,’ or ‘I’ll bring you to church so you’ll accept Jesus.’

“The emerging church would want to reverse that and include someone and have them belong so that they might believe. They would say, ‘You don’t need to have your mind made up about Jesus. Just come and hang out with us, and let’s talk.’”

One stereotype associated with emerging churches is that of a darkened sanctuary filled with candles and incense or a room with couches, coffee and communion. It’s true many of today’s young people are turned off by the seeker-sensitive church, with its ministry strategies modeled on the business world and emphasis on entertainment-oriented worship. Instead, there is a return to traditions and practices of the past that were abandoned by a church influenced by modernism. There’s an emphasis on art, dialogue and using one’s gifts in worship—on being a participant instead of a spectator.

At The Crossing, services are rarely the same from month to month or year to year. The congregation has used drama, art, readings, silence and foot washings as part of worship.

“When people ask us what worship style we espouse, we say, ‘It’s relevant,’” says Sundstrom. “We use songs that are current along with songs that are ancient, and we mix them together and worship in a way that is relevant to who we are as human beings, desiring to express our love for God.”

Knowing Truth

While traditional and emerging churches may not see eye to eye on matters of worship style or the best way to witness, the biggest source of conflict between the two camps stems from whether they see postmodernism in a positive or negative light.

Kinsinger says the root of the traditional church’s objection to postmodernism lies in one’s understanding of truth. “For a modern mindset, we know absolutes and we absolutely know them. And God is absolute and the Bible is absolute, so you can’t have a Christianity that’s postmodern when postmodernism doesn’t believe in absolutes.”

Postmodernism, on the other hand, acknowledges that beliefs and understanding are shaped by one’s culture, race, gender, religion and community.

“It’s not that truth is relative. It’s that human understanding is always limited and relative,” explains Monsma. “It’s not that I give up trying to understand who God is or to read the text and get insights. It’s that I must have humility as I approach the text. I think a postmodern approach gives me a greater sense of learning from others. In some ways, it’s true to the Reformed notion that all truth is God’s truth.”

Humility is prized by those in the emerging generation wounded by church leaders wielding the Bible as a club, holding to positions with arrogance and dogmatism. How can those preachers and teachers all be right, emergents ask, when there are differing interpretations of Scripture and 41,000 denominations in the world?

Those in the Emergent Village—the revisionists like McLaren—take such doubt even further, contending that because God is infinite and we are finite, we may know God personally but we can’t confidently know things about him.

Kevin DeYoung is a Hope College and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary graduate who served as associate pastor of First Reformed Church in Orange City for two years. Since 2004 he has been the senior pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Mich., just an hour away from Mars Hill, Bell’s former church. He is also the author of Why We’re Not Emergent, a book he wrote with Ted Kluck that won a Christianity Today book award in 2009. Belcher praises it for presenting “the most in-depth analysis of emergent theology to date.”

DeYoung says there are strengths and weaknesses in both modernism and postmodernism—aspects of both that either fit or conflict with the Christian faith. “Modernism believes in truth and absolutes but has a harder time believing in miracles or the mysterious,” he writes, “whereas, postmodernism accepts spirituality and the unexplainable but doesn’t have a firm concept of truth.”

The fact that there are different interpretations of Scripture shouldn’t surprise us, DeYoung says. People hold differing viewpoints in any field of human inquiry, including science. “If we can’t know anything about the Bible because people disagree,” he reasons, “then we can’t know anything about anything, because people disagree about every single thing under the sun.”

Such disagreements have admittedly contributed to the thousands of denominations in the world today, but DeYoung points out that in mainstream evangelicalism, there are more similarities than differences, “and certainly similarity and agreement on the core essentials of the faith.”

Agreement on those core essentials is possible, he says, “because God has spoken to us clearly and intelligibly and has given us ears to hear his voice. Christianity is based upon, and the whole Bible assumes, a certain knowledge of and adherence to confident assertions about God and his Christ.”

Belcher, too, believes the Scriptures are clear on what he calls “the first-tier doctrines of the Great Tradition” as outlined in the Apostles’ Creed. It’s those first-tier doctrines that can help determine if someone remains orthodox, he says, while second-tier doctrines—those that are distinctive from one denomination to another—should be held with humility rather than used to divide.

From Emerging to Missional

Emerging church author and pastor Dan Kimball maintains that those essential core doctrines can be held with “bold confidence.”

“In fact, I believe emerging generations are looking for something to believe in,” he says. “I believe they are looking for truth, and when we have something we know is true, we should clearly and boldly say it.”

DeYoung thinks the emerging church movement lost followers when McLaren and other revisionists moved from evangelicalism and historic orthodoxy to classic liberalism, equating right living with right belief. But without faith in the person and work of Jesus as the only access to God and the only atonement for sins—without the new life that comes from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit—there can be no right living.

“If orthodoxy [only] means I live the right way, the way of Jesus, I have no hope,” DeYoung writes. “Just a call to live rightly and love one another won’t sustain and propel a gospel-driven church, because it isn’t the gospel.”

Belcher tells of discussing the relationship between believing in Jesus and living for Jesus with his mentor, Richard Mouw. Mouw replied that it’s not a matter of balance but more a matter of priority, that justification or penal atonement on the cross has to be held as “first among equals.”

Despite the faults of some aspects of the emerging church, Andres sees positive things coming from the last decade’s conversation.

“I think as a protest movement, it has influenced the church,” he says. “The church still has a long way to go, but the discomfort with consumerism, the desire to talk about justice issues, looking at the life of Christ and not just the cross, discussions we’re having now about race, the nature of justification and the atonement are in a different place than they were 10 years ago.”

Now, even as some in the emerging church have embraced liberalism, others are adopting more of a missional stance. “Some parts of the emerging church have morphed into the missional church, which I think is very influential now,” Andres says.

As with the emerging church, there are different strands of the missional church. One strand is connected with the RCA; Western Theological Seminary is the institutional host for the Gospel and Our Culture Network, for which author and theologian John Franke serves as the general coordinator. The network supports Christian leaders of churches and organizations by providing useful research regarding the encounter between the gospel and culture and encouraging transformation in the life and witness of the church.

As with the emerging church, the missional church will need to find a way to reach today’s culture with the gospel without losing the gospel’s counter-cultural message.

“We just need to preach Jesus,” Sundstrom says. “When it comes down to it, we have the gospel, and that’s what’s most important. When you look at places like China or India and how the gospel is exploding there, it’s not exploding because they have slick PowerPoint presentations or Rob Bell videos. It’s because they have the Word.”

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