Roger Olson's thoughts on the emerging church movement

Roger Olson is always worth reading. (Well, perhaps not always. No one is always worth reading.) He has just posted an excellent and very sympathetic piece on the emerging church movement. It feels a little bit behind the curve, but that may have more to do with perception than with reality; and in any case, the issues remain pertinent. He concludes with some good comments on the sort of commitments that ought to characterize emerging churches.

I would argue that one such commitment MUST be self-criticism and willingness frequently to change combined with rejection of hierarchical models of leadership or absolutizing of tradition or being new and different for their own sakes. Another commitment MUST be rejection of modernity as the foundation or norm for belief and life and mission and service. Both conservatives and progressives have (often unwittingly and even against their own intentions) adopted modernity as the cultural norm even for Christianity and church life. What will that mean? It must mean an openness to new things the Spirit of God wants to do among his people that do not fit the modern box. It must mean a refusal of control, manipulation and orderliness. It must mean a refusal to reduce Christianity to either doctrine or ethics and a determination to discover it as transformative spirituality that is not privatized or individualized. It must mean attempts to discover the meaning of true community without confining structures, rules and protocols that put these before persons and relationships.

I will, however, draw attention to the fact that nothing is said here about the theology of the movement—other than the negative point that the emerging church should not reduce Christianity to doctrine The characteristics that Gibbs and Bolger identified five years ago—clearly a major reference point for Olson—may loosely presuppose a theology of some sorts, but they give no indication how it ought to be constructed.

I suggested a while back that an emerging theology should be marked by the recovery of a biblical realism and narrative-historical context. More recently I argued that a convergence of the emerging movement and the New Perspective would be no bad thing. All much too simplistic, I’ve no doubt, but I think it points us in roughly the right direction.

So I will repeat the point that I have made many times before, that the emerging church movement needs a coherent and credible theology if it is to be genuinely reformative. It’s good to see that Rob Bell is at least trying.

Submitted by Watch on  Tue, 08/09/2011 - 13:16

Wouldn't establishing a "coherent and credible theology" go against the very fiber of post-modern thinking? Modern thinking involved institutionalized and dogmatic theologies, including creeds and confessions. But, the emerging church has done very well in foregoing this Enlightenment way of thinking and has, in most part, remained theology free. However, I agree that something needs to be done to solidify the emerging church's thoughts and ideology on paper. But, I just want to avoid the very institutions that the emerging church stands against. And, I'm afraid by establishing a firm theology, we will become the very entity we are trying to avoid.

A “coherent and credible theology” does not have to be dogma for dogma's sake alone. Some within the emerging movement have reacted in a pendulum swing away from doctrine to ambiguity. But this is not helpful either. We need to be clear about what we believe, but not to the point where we are divisive.

To paraphrase Rob Bell (because I don't have my copy of "Velvet Elvis" in front of me) doctrine makes a great servant but a horrible master.

If we use "what we believe" to cause division, we are in error. But I agree that we should be able to clearly articulate our theology in a way that is both coherent and credible.

Just my $.02.

Submitted by Nathanael on  Tue, 08/09/2011 - 13:57

Good thoughts, brother. It is amazing how some recoil at the thought of questioning the status quo. It's certaintly not easy, but necessary, to step back and examine why "we've always done it this way."