Thursday, November 17, 2005

The "Emergent Church" (Part I)

My introduction to the “Emergent Church” came through a DVD series of short sermonettes by Rob Bell. Bell is the pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan, the author of the book, “Velvet Elvis,” and the featured speaker in each DVD sermonette available from The first Nooma video I watched was called “Sunday" (pictured at right).

My initial reaction was quite positive. The message was about rejecting empty tradition and ritual and replacing it with an authentic Christianity that is visible through lives lived for Jesus Christ. “Sunday” is summarized on the Nooma website like this: “God doesn't want the meaningless rituals. God wants our hearts.”

I was impressed. I liked the message. I liked the method for delivering the message. Nooma DVDs are very well done and engaging. I was ready for more.

I watched “Dust” (pictured at left) next. I started out just as impressed with “Dust” as I had been with “Sunday.” For the first two-thirds of Bell's monologue I was quite impressed with his understanding of Jewish culture in the first century. Not only did he know the background concerning religious study in Jewish culture but he was able to apply that cultural context to Jesus' relationship with his disciples and thus draw a firm connection between the way God dealt with His chosen people in the Old Testament (Israel) and the way he incorporated His chosen people into that relationship in the New Testament (the Church).

“Dust” draws a parallel between the enormous commitment one made when following a rabbi in religious training and the enormous commitment God expects of Christians to their Lord Jesus Christ. It is a lordship message that is sorely lacking in far too many 21st century churches. He implies that Christianity is more than just another aspect in the life of a Christian. It is our life. Christianity is who we are and we need to live in a manner so as to increasingly reflect the character of our Lord Jesus.

There were several things I liked about Bell's message. He was challenging Christians to stop playing church and to live their faith. He was demonstrating the importance of knowing the historical context of Scripture and of church history. He uses innovative methods for delivering the gospel. I was making plans for more Nooma DVDs.

Then Bell made a statement that jolted me like the sound of a gunshot.

He was describing the story in Matthew 14 where Peter left the boat to walk to Jesus on the water. When Peter began to focus on the wind and the waves he began to sink. According to Bell Peter didn't begin to sink because he had lost faith in Jesus, “Jesus was doing fine.” No, Bell contends, Peter sank because he lost faith in himself.


Is Bell saying that it was Peter's faith in Peter that allowed him to walk on the water in the first place? And it was only when Peter's faith in Peter waned that he began to sink?

Bell goes on to say that it is appropriate for us to have faith in God but we need to realize that God has faith in us, too. His implication is clear: We have the ability, in and of ourselves, to “be like our rabbi,” Jesus, and to please God.

His message in “Dust” is dripping with humanism.

I immediately began to reference the classic commentaries on the passage from Matthew 14: 25-31. Here is what I found:

Peter walked upon the water, not for diversion or to boast of it, but to go to Jesus; and in that he was thus wonderfully borne up. Special supports are promised, and are to be expected, but only in spiritual pursuits; nor can we ever come to Jesus, unless we are upheld by his power. Christ bade Peter come, not only that he might walk upon the water, and so know his Lord's power, but that he might know his own weakness. And the Lord often lets his servants have their choice, to humble and prove them, and to show the greatness of his power and grace. When we look off from Christ, and look at the greatness of opposing difficulties, we shall begin to fall; but when we call to him, he will stretch out his arm, and save us. Christ is the great Saviour; those who would be saved, must come to him, and cry to him, for salvation; we are never brought to this, till we find ourselves sinking: the sense of need drives us to him. He rebuked Peter. Could we but believe more, we should suffer less. The weakness of faith, and the prevailing of our doubts, displease our Lord Jesus, for there is no good reason why Christ's disciples should be of a doubtful mind. Even in a stormy day he is to them a very present help. None but the world's Creator could multiply the loaves, none but its Governor could tread upon the waters of the sea: the disciples yield to the evidence, and confess their faith. They were suitably affected, and worshipped Christ.

In my mind this is more than a slight difference of opinion with regard to the text. Bell interprets this passage in light of a post-modern, humanistic worldview. It's a common mistake. Many of us try to build a biblical worldview on a humanistic foundation. When we read Scripture, we have a tendency to think the stories are about us. But they're not. They are for us, but they are about God. Bell seems to embrace the idea that Scripture is about us. The Mars Hill Bible Church website says this, “Mars Hill began as just an idea, a desire to open a church where the scripture would be taught in a new way, a way that would reach a changing culture.”

A “new way” indeed.

He seems to have found a message in Scripture that generations of believers have failed to see. Bell seems to think (in fact this is a cornerstone of Emergent Church teaching) that since our culture is now post-modern Christianity should conform to the culture in order to reach it. The problem is when we try to conform Christianity to our culture we often compromise the message to the point where it loses all meaning.

Bell doesn't seem to be merely teaching Scripture in a “new way” but rather he seems to be teaching something new altogether. Which reminded me of a quote from Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the 19th century Baptist preacher from England. He said, “I cannot agree with those who say that they have 'new truth' to teach. The two words seem to me to contradict each other; that which is new is not true. It is the old that is true, for truth is as old as God himself."

These discoveries prompted me to begin some serious research on Rob Bell and the “Emergent Church” movement of which he is a part.

In Part Two I will discuss some of what I found.


At 2:07 PM, Blogger Mike Morrell said...

Hi brother. Nice post. I felt that you were courteous and did a fair job at weighing the pros and cons you saw in Rob Bell's teaching.

Before you completely "jump ship" and start reading EmergentNo and SliceOf'Decia exclusively, though, I'd encourage you to take a longer look at the breadth of Jesus-followers who are on this "emerging" journey.

One place you can do this is here at zoecarnate. Yeah, its my site; my roommate and I started collecting off-the-beaten-path Christian websites several years ago and its mushroomed. Here you will see the breadth and depth of emerging thought, worship, and spiritual practice.

We don't all agree with each other, but we have covenanted among ourselves, I suppose, to be respectful conversation partners. Please look around, and keep blogging--I think you are a valuable voice in this conversation.

At 4:34 PM, Blogger Jacob said...

I enjoyed your post. My experience in following the emerging "conversation" over the last couple of years is there is some good in terms of doing things in different ways in order to reach people. However, theologically the movement is very troubling. Protestant liberalism is something we don't need more of.

Just found your blog. Looking forward to reading more.

At 6:31 PM, Blogger Ann said...

Hi Chip. Followed your link over from Slice. I really like the way you explained your experience with Nooma and look forward to reading more of your blog. Blessings to you.

At 9:42 PM, Blogger Matt said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 9:47 PM, Blogger Matt said...

i totaly think you've over read a small slice of this guy's theology.

What I got from RB from the Dust video is that God trust's us. that when he's chosen us for a task or called us he's saying that he's done enough for us to complete it. that as peter came looking at jesus he saw jesus affirming him, that he could do it, and that the moment he took his eye's off jesus he began to fall because he began to focus on his limitations instead of seeing that jesus had told him that he could come to him.
I think your being way too over sensitive
and reading way to much into pretty much one sentance of a video.
When as you admit this guy isn't just bending a biblical passage to fit his world view but is bring out what he's learnt from a real examination of both the passage and jewish culture surrounding it.

Like let's be real with this bible situation.

So even though your walking on water
surely there are very few people who
after spending the time with Jesus that peter had, and seeing jesus do what peter had and actually seeing jesus not far from you walking on the water
are actually stupid enough to Doubt what jesus can do

I mean really you would have to be much more stupid than your average republican right wing bible basher, to doubt what jesus can do

To see the reality of Jesus walking onwater surely would let you know jesus doesn't have a problem doing anything he wants to do, by now surely you've got the message that Jesus isn't really limited by anything really and is a pretty powerful dude.

So as scary as wind and water are
no-one really is stupid enough to doubt jesus in that situation ,knowing him as you do, seeing him as you do.

and therefore it actually makes logical sense that the problem peter will start to have in faith will be with himself not jesus, all peter has to do to rectify a problem of faith in what Jesus can do is look at him he's only there walking on water in front of him, in reality peter lacks faith when it comes to the question of can jesus really work thorugh me,with me and in me.
Then no matter how convinced of Jesus's power he is the faith lack and problem is actually to do with him.

And so is it sooo heretical to suggest that Peter is actually doubting himself more than Jesus.

And actually if you go out there and talk to most christians is lack of faith in God the thing most holding them back from the fullness of what God want's them to live in, maybe but I bet you not half as much as they're lack of faith that God could use them, that God has given them the power to live as he comand's and that God can work through them.

At 2:57 AM, Blogger Carla said...

Thanks for this entry, your reaction to the NOOMA series is the same reaction many others have had. Liked the general idea of it at first, then were struck cold by some of the theology put forth.

I have a friend who works in a Christian bookstore in MI, in the general location of Mars Hill. At one point the NOOMA videos were playing all day at the store, so he watched them all, and watched them several times. He was deeply grieved to hear a lot of what he also believes to be a humanism message.

Thanks for your message at ENo, appreciate the contribution.


At 2:59 PM, Anonymous Cowboy said...

Teaching the Scriptures in a new way is troublesome. I believe a pastor's job is to produce recollection not be innovative.

At 7:17 PM, Blogger Coffee and a Muffin said...

I followed Dave Black's link and look forward to reading the rest of your series. Looks like good stuff. :)

At 2:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For almost 1500 years, Christians believed that the earth was flat, and that the Sun rotated around us. Are we supposed keep the old interpretation of Psalms 93:1 simply because it has been held longer? Didn't the classical comentaries you speak of innovate in their interpretation of the Bible? Isn't that why we still read them? Dismissing a point simply because it is new seems pretty rediculous.

At 8:58 AM, Blogger gray0013 said...

I do believe many of you are reading way too much into these DVD's. They are not an exhaustive display of church theology. They are called "modern parables" for a reason.

If we built our understanding of Jesus based only on his parable of the Dishonest Manager in Luke 16, we would be forced to conclude that Jesus is dishonest and that he wishes me to be dishonest.

The Nooma videos are excellent parables, communicating a specific point. I would suggest you listen to some of the sermons posted at Mars Hill's website and ask the church directly what they believe. I would also recommend you order the sermon series Jesus is difficult. You will like what you hear.

At 11:51 AM, Anonymous Franklin Rant said...

gray0013 -- with all due respect the parable in Luke 16 does NOT teach dishonesty. Please consider the commentary of Matthew Henry (a Bible scholar whose handling of the Word far exceeds my own)...

"The lord referred to in this parable commended not the fraud, but the policy of the steward. In that respect alone is it so noticed. Worldly men, in the choice of their object, are foolish; but in their activity, and perseverance, they are often wiser than believers. The unjust steward is not set before us as an example in cheating his master, or to justify any dishonesty, but to point out the careful ways of worldly men. It would be well if the children of light would learn wisdom from the men of the world, and would as earnestly pursue their better object."

And if there is still a question in your mind you should employ a basic rule of biblical interpretation: whenever a verse is vague interpret that verse in light of other verses which are not as vague. We know from other parts of the Bible that God does not advocate dishonesty. So when we get to a passage (like Luke 16) where the meaning could go two ways, we look to other parts of Scripture for guidance.

You are correct in saying the Nooma dvds are modern parables designed to communicate a specific point. However, I think Chip has made an excellent case that the specific point being made is often at odds with Scripture. And that is not something to be overlooked or taken lightly.


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