Thursday, May 22, 2008

emergent church not reaching the lost ... but what is the measure of who is being reached?

Found this linked to on the Boar's Head Tavern, which I obviously read quite regularly.

This is interesting to me because while I would be inclined to think emergent/emerging churches may not reach the lost (though Driscoll has described Mars Hill as emerging so I hope he'd be more precise about the terminology because I don't think Mars Hill is emergent but I've heard him describe it as emerging. A few months ago he described Mars Hill as emerging so I don't know why the church is not emerging recently but was a few months ago, unless the real point is that he doesn't care about the meanings of the terms anymore, which is fair enough, really). So, maybe the emergent churches don't reach the lost.

But who are the lost? Do these churches reach people who grew up completely unchurched or the nominally churched? I have met plenty of Christians over the years who were raised in Christian homes, turned on it, feel they were never really Christians, but had the seeds planted for decades. I just can't persuade myself that those people were really unchurched so much as people coming from Christian homes who were brought up to embrace the Gospel but simply didn't. How many adult conversions are of this stripe? They seem to me to be an embrace of childhood faith with the heart and mind of an adult, not necessarily a full-scale missionary interaction with someone who has never heard of Jesus before. In other words, these may not be people who were never Christians in the sense of having never been touched by residual Christendom in a supposedly post-CHristian culture, these were Jack Catholics or Protestants of convenience or filial obligation who simply never took to the faith but eventually came to appreciate it.

The reason I find it hard to treat these people as converts is because of SCripture, ironically. Train up a child in the way that he should go and when he is older he will not depart from it. There we are, a biblical explanation for why most people who go to megachurches may not be unchurched people at all. Since I don't see that the church is necessarily ONLY supposed to reach the lost, it has a role in helping to deepen the walk believers already have with Christ the mission of the Church is to be the light of the world and that doesn't always mean GETTING THEM IN, it also means KEEPING THEM IN by reflecting Christ to them.

A term like "post-Christian" is the sort of thing Christians can talk about from the inside but which will seem like nonsense to the atheists and agnostics who grow up seeing "In God We Trust" on money and see TV preachers talking about how we need to get God back in America again. Unbelievers may fairly level the charge at us that when we talk about "post-Christian" culture in America we're not talking about anything so much as the loss of what we felt was a deserved home court advantage. If we view civil religion as an ENEMY of the truth faith then things could be more advantageous for the practice of true Christianity now than at any point in an overly lauded past.

If Fitch wants to make a more cogent argument, couldn't he point out that a church like Mars Hill probably has more people coming in who are ALREADY CHURCHED and already Christians? Probably not? Maybe the stats just aren't available, but the cross section of people I know consists of a spectacular majority who were raised in Christian homes of some kind, some of them may have been raised in Christian homes where they now repudiate that form of Christianity as unorthodox or not really Christian but that's beyond the pale of any statistical verification as far as I can tell.

This is not to knock growth at Mars Hill, as such, but it's a caveat about what gets measured. If you measure church growth in terms of people who were completely unchurched rather than people who were in some way churched perhaps the growth of megachurches is accountable more by virtue of shifting allegiances within Christendom than actual conversions. This is a relatively old observation in terms of sociological work, isn't it?

Per commentary, what if the ratio of the unchurched who join the emergent village is proportionally the same as the number of unchurched who join a megachurch? What if the exodus to the emergents or the megachurches simply reflects standard internecine squabbles we've seen going on in Protestantism for the last three decades? This has been going on long enough that we could probably safely say that a certain percentage of Protestants will convert to Orthodoxy or Catholicism simply to get off the merry-go-round. PErsonally I've got no problem with the merry-go-round because of epistlemological issues but I won't get into that. We'll just say I don't mind being Protestant and won't complain if some people don't embrace it because if they love Christ, that's the important thing.

The idea that in a post-Christian society unbelievers need time to come to a decision, I don't know about that. We don't see the Gospel spreading that slowly in the apostolic era, do we? Or does the apostolic era simply not count?

I would tend to agree that most of what seems to be the emergent church isn't reaching the lost. I just can't shake the feeling that megachurches are not really the alternative, that they aren't really reaching the lost either. Even in a city where statistically the number of professing evangelical Chrstians is amongst the lowest in the land I wonder about the reliability of the statistics. Let me put it this way, if you don't count ANY Methodists or Lutherans because you don't consider them to be Jesus-loving Bible-believing Christians than you skew the entire statistical survey into thinking Seattle is the least-churched city in America and atheists will, not without some grounds, ask, "So what are all these CHURCHES doing in the least-churched city in America?" I mean, it got asked point blank on an old discussion forum hosted by Mars Hill Church. Even though I think the point was purely polemical I can't help but wonder where the stats are. As pundits are fond of pointing out, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.

I'll put it this way, I've got friends who are Episcopalians who love the Lord but wouldn't be counted among those who love Jesus and believe the Bible depending on what statistical measurements are being used.

I'm not sure that the megachurch is really reaching the lost as appealing to the apathetic. Appealing to the apathetic is valuable, however, so I would submit that one goal is being oversold in megachurches while the other is potentially undersold by both the megachurch and the emergent village (whatever that is).


JaaJoe said...

Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck just released a great book on the growing Emergent Christian movement and what a load it truly is. Why We're Not Emergent. It is a must read.

Matt J. said...

Hey, been enjoying your blogging for a few weeks.

Growing up in the northwest myself (Porf\tland and such), I used to wonder about that unchurched statistic myself. However, my wife (also from around here) recently visited eastern Texas and was amazed at how many Christians there were. Just about every other person on the street it seemed. A sea of cars with fish on the bumpers. Right in the middle of the bible belt. A lot of them go to megachurches. I'd believe that places like Seattle have relatively few compared to that.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Thanks for reading, Matt. Per recent prooftexts on someone else's blog entry over at BHT, don't overlook the parable of the good Samaritan. But he, wanting to justify himself, asked "And who is my neighbor?" It was the first thing I thought of.