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Faith Undone

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The Emerging Church

Revival Or Return To Darkness

Commentary by Roger Oakland

History reveals that Christian fads and trends come and go. It seems that it is common for many pastors and church leaders to constantly look for some new methodology, “new wave” or “new thing” God is doing, “right now.”

We live at a period in church history that is characterized by enthusiasm for methods and means that facilitate church growth. Large churches are commonly equated with successful pastors and successful church growth methods. Whatever it takes to reach that objective, is acceptable, we are told. Church growth has become the measuring stick for successful Christianity.

Purpose-Driven Christianity

It is true that some of the largest and fastest growing churches and church movements in the world today promote a concept called “purpose-driven.” No matter where you go these days anywhere around the world, purpose-driven is being proclaimed as the latest church growth method.

But stop for a moment and think. What is it that defines success from a biblical perspective? While we are accustomed to accepting numbers or quantity as the yardstick for measuring success, when it comes to Christianity, quantity without quality can be misleading.

According to the Bible, Christian faith must be directly related to God’s Word. Faith comes by hearing what God has said and then acting accordingly. With regard to church growth, if the growth is the product of some technique authored by some man, and this technique is not based on God’s Word, the results may actually be deceptive.

With this in mind, we will consider this current common trend known as the “purpose-driven” church growth movement. Before we do, let’s review the biblical premise that we are to test the teachings of men as the Bereans did (Acts chapter 17) and search the Scriptures diligently.

The Purpose of Purpose-Driven

One of the major goals of the purpose-driven church growth movement is church growth. This growth is dependent on adding numbers based on human methods and techniques. While promoters say these human methods are found in the Bible, there are reasons to question this claim.

It would appear that many of the purpose-driven techniques are oriented towards what’s in it for me, rather than what I can do for you. Successful purpose-driven church leaders find out what appeals to seekers who might come to their church and then provide the service or the environment that meets their approval. Thus purpose-driven churches can become market-oriented for the “seeker-friendly” without being so biblical that “seekers” would be offended.

Most Christians would agree that to be faithful to Jesus and His Word, healthy church growth should be based on the teaching of God’s Word. However, a market-driven church based on man-made methods designed to increase numbers may produce converts who are biblically illiterate.

Man’s word or God’s Word

The Scriptures have been carefully translated from Hebrew and Greek so the Word of God can be understood in the languages of our day. Some say we need to make the Bible more understandable by taking the Word of God and changing it to the words of men. But is this idea biblical?

Remember that the Bible has been given to us by God. As Paul stated in his letter to Timothy:

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. [1]

While the Bible has been written by human hands, the words were inspired by God. Not only are the words inspired, but the Bible states humans are prohibited from altering the Scriptures by adding to or taking away from what God has said. Notice what we read in the Book of Revelation:

For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, if any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book. [2]

Therefore according to Scripture, humans tread on dangerous ground when we take the liberty of adding to or deleting from what God has said. However, it is a fact that many seeker-friendly churches try to make the scriptures more “seeker-friendly”, by altering the actual inspired Word of God and reinterpret it into the ideas or views of man.

Whose Message?

For example, consider a new version of the Bible authored by Eugene Peterson known as “The Message.” Described as a “contemporary rendering of the Bible from the original languages, crafted to present its tone, rhythm, events, and ideas in everyday language,” this “paraphrased” version of the Bible, in reality, is nothing more than Eugene Peterson’s thoughts and views. Peterson has taken the carefully translated words of the Bible and put them into his own words and chosen idioms. [3]

For example, consider the following portion of Scripture taken from John 3:17 - "that the world through him might be saved.” Peterson’s rendering reads: "He came to help, to put the world right again." It does not take a biblical scholar to understand that "saved" means that we can be redeemed from the judgment we deserve for our sins so that we can go to heaven. It should be obvious that using "help" instead of “saved” completely distorts the meaning of what Jesus said. And "to put the world right again" has nothing to do with the salvation of souls. In fact this sounds like the social gospel to reform the world through political action.

Rick Warren, the author of The Purpose Driven Church, is a strong supporter of Eugene Peterson’s message. While Warren claims he quotes the Bible when he quotes The Message he is not quoting the Bible. He is quoting the thoughts of some man who thinks he is stating what the Bible states.

You may ask, so what is wrong with this? Isn’t it better for a seeker to be reading some version of the Bible, rather than not reading the Bible at all? Many Christians, although they have been believers for years, claim they still have difficulty in understanding the Bible that has been translated word by word from the original text. If someone can come up with a way to make the Bible more understandable, wouldn’t this be a great tool for planting seeds for the gospel of Jesus Christ?

Such a line of reasoning may sound acceptable. However we also know that what seems right to man, may be wrong from God’s perspective. Further when we rely upon man’s thoughts rather than God’s thoughts it’s almost certain that we will be deceived. With regard to Eugene Peterson’s The Message, there is one message that should be clear. If you want the truth and all the truth, read the Bible - not some man’s conjecture about what he thinks God has said. Otherwise you have the potential of committing spiritual suicide.

Relevancy without Compromise

While it is true, Christianity must be relevant in order to be effective, how far can we stray from biblical standards and still be sound Christian witnesses of the gospel of Jesus Christ?

Perhaps you have not heard about another new trend sweeping the Christian church. Many are saying a great change lies ahead. The seeker-friendly era is over. Now we are headed into another new period of church history. It’s called “the emerging church.” If you have not heard of this, try doing a search on the Internet by tying “emerging church” into a search engine. I guarantee you will be amazed at what you find.

Rick Warren is very supportive of “the emerging church.” This is what he wrote in a foreword for Dan Kimball’s book, The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations --

This book is a wonderful, detailed example of what a purpose-driven church can look like in a postmodern world.  My friend Dan Kimball writes passionately, with a deep desire to reach the emerging generation and culture. While my book The Purpose-Driven Church explained what the church is called to do, Dan’s book explains how to do it with the cultural creatives who think and feel in postmodern terms. You need to pay attention to him because times are changing.[4]

It is true over the past decades many trends have come and gone. As Warren stated in the foreword of Kimball’s book:

As a pastor, I’ve watched churches adopt many contemporary styles in worship, programming, architecture, music, and other elements. That’s okay as long as the biblical message is unchanged. But whatever is in style now will inevitably be out of style soon, and the cycles of change are getting shorter and shorter, aided by technology and the media. New styles, like fashions, are always emerging. [5]

Not all these trends have been based on sound biblical doctrine. In fact the reason many of these trends occurred was because Christians were vulnerable to “winds of doctrine” that had no biblical basis.

According to the Bible, in last days these winds of doctrine will be “doctrines of demons” that will influence Christians to fall away from the truth and accept ideas that “tickle their ears.” [6]

Rick Warren is not only supportive of the “emerging church,” he believes that it is exactly what is required at this time. He believes this is what “the purpose-driven” church that he founded will become in the “postmodern world.” He notes:

In the past twenty years, spiritual seekers have changed a lot. In the first place, there are a whole lot more of them. There are seekers everywhere. I’ve never seen more people so hungry to discover and develop the spiritual dimension of their lives. That is why there is such a big interest in Eastern thought, New Age practices, mysticism and the transcendent. [7]

Further, he explains what the “emerging church” must do in order to emerge:

Today seekers are hungry for symbols and metaphors and experiences and stories that reveal the greatness of God. Because seekers are constantly changing, we must be sensitive to them like Jesus was; we must be willing to meet them on their own turf and speak to them in ways they understand. [8]


Now, let’s follow Rick Warren’s line of reasoning through to its logical conclusion based on the idea the world is hungry for an Eastern worldview, the New Age, mysticism and spiritual enlightenment. If it is necessary to meet these “spiritual seekers” on their turf, wouldn’t that require Christianity to become more New Age and mystical?

Emerging into What?

Rick Warren and others say we need to pay attention to the emerging church. Things are changing, they say and the “emerging church” has the answers for our generation. But what will the emerging church emerge into? Could it be a form of Christianity that embraces experience rather than God’s Word?

Dan Kimball is the author of The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations. He is also launching a church called Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California. Kimball makes the following statement in the introduction of his book:

I believe with all my heart that this discussion about the fast-changing culture and the emerging church must take place. While many of us have been preparing sermons and keeping busy with the internal affairs of our churches, something alarming has been happening on the outside. What once was a Christian nation with a Judeo-Christian worldview is quickly becoming a post Christian, unchurched, unreached nation. New generations are arising all around us without any Christian influence. So we must rethink virtually everything we are doing in our ministries. [9]

Certainly the spiritual climate in North America has changed radically over the past number of years just as Dan Kimball has stated. Many, including Rick Warren and Dan Kimball use the term “post-Christian era” to describe the days in which we are living. They say, while the seeker-friendly era was successful in bringing a generation of “baby-boomers” to Jesus, that time is past. Now we need to find new innovative methods that will reach this new generation for Jesus.

Kimball’s book, The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations, is written for this purpose. He not only identifies the problems he believes the church is now facing, he provides the answers and the solutions. The church for the future, he believes, must be more sensual and experienced-based. He calls this church “Vintage Christianity”.

Perhaps the term “Vintage Christianity” is new to you. While it is not my intention to describe all that it means in this commentary, a few chapter titles from Kimball’s book under a heading called “Reconstructing Vintage Christianity in the Emerging Church” will be helpful for us to understand where the emerging church is headed. These are: “Overcoming the Fear of Mulitsensory Worship and Teaching”, [10] “Creating a Sacred Space for Vintage Worship”, [11] “Expecting the Spiritual”, [12] “Creating Experiential Multisensory Worship Gatherings”, [13] “Becoming Story Tellers Again” [14] and “Preaching Without Words”. [15]

Now, I ask you, this question. What does the Bible say about Vintage Christianity and the so-called emerging church? Is the goal of Christianity experience-based or Bible-based? Jesus said: “If ye continue in My word, then are ye My disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” [16] Further He stated: “Why do ye not understand My speech? because ye cannot hear My word.” [17]

Less Word, More Worship

It should be apparent by now that the emerging church is more experience-based than Bible-based. Further, in the emerging church the Word of God takes a secondary position to the worship of God. 

While Dan Kimball and other promoters of the emerging church may be sincere in their efforts to evangelize the postmodern generation and believe they are genuinely representing the scriptures, there are some real concerns that need to be addressed. Deviating from the Word of God for extrabiblical experience can open the door to deception. While worshipping God is a very important part of the Christian faith there are problems that can occur if worship supersedes the word.

However, Dan Kimball sees a new worship generation in the making based on experience that is essential to the emerging church. In a section of his book subtitled "Truly worshipping in a worship gathering,” he writes:

We should be returning to a no-holds-barred approach to worship and teaching so that when we gather, there is no doubt we are in the presence of God. I believe that both believers and unbelievers in our emerging culture are hungry for this. It isn’t about clever apologetics or careful exegetical and expository preaching or great worship bands. … Emerging generations are hungry to experience God in worship. [18]

Obviously, in order for this to happen, changes would have to be incorporated. Kimball has thought this through and offers a number of suggestions which he lists in a chart [19] that shows how the “modern church” must adjust and move towards a “no-holds-barred approach” to worship. Some of these are:

  • Services designed to be user-friendly and contemporary must change to services that are designed to be experiential and spiritual-mystical.

  • Stained-glass that was taken out of churches and replaced with video screens should now be brought back into the church on video screens.

  • Lit up and cheery sanctuaries need to be darkened because darkness is valued and displays a sense of spirituality.

  • The focal point of the service that was the sermon must be changed so that the focal point of the service is a holistic experience.

  • Use of modern technology that was used to communicate with a contemporary flare must change so that church attendees can experience the ancient and mystical (and use technology to do so).

While I realize we are living at a period of time where technology is the key to entertainment and visual stimulation is a necessary tool required for capturing the attention of this generation, I ask you to consider what the Bible teaches. What about less Word and more experience? Could someone quote the chapter and verse to justify that? What about the idea that visual stimulation is the formula for inducing a spiritual atmosphere that will draw seekers to Jesus? Where is that found in the Bible?

I don’t know about you, but my when I hear about the emerging-church-methodology to forsake “apologetics” and “careful exegetical and expository preaching” for the sake of a generation that is “hungry to experience God”, I have some concerns. Could this be another avenue to “dumb-down” Christianity so that we no longer know what God has said? How effective can experiential Christianity be when it comes to knowing who we are, where we are in time, and where we are headed?

Jesus said He is coming again? How many professing Christians will be ready when He returns?

Ancient-Future Faith

Dr. Robert “Bob” Webber is recognized by pastors, denominational leaders, scholars and lay people as one of the foremost authorities on worship renewal. He regularly conducts workshops for almost every major denomination in North America through the Institute of Worship Studies which he founded in 1995.

Prior to his appointment to his present position at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dr. Webber taught at Wheaton College for 32 years as Professor of Theology. He has authored over 40 books and is also a regular contributor to numerous magazines and newspapers. [20] He is on the editorial board of Chuck Fromm’s “Worship Leader” magazine.

I was first introduced to Dr. Webber and his views when I read an article that he had written in the May/June issue of “Worship Leader” tiled Wanted: Ancient Future Talent. Under a subheading labeled “The Call for Ancient-Future Worship Talent” Webber wrote:

I am personally most gratified to see the shift toward a recovery of the ancient. While many good choruses have been produced over the past forty years, the rejection of the sources of hymnody and worship by the contemporary church has resulted in a faith that is an inch deep. [21]

In this article, Dr. Webber stated that “the Spirit is working a new thing in the church” and an “ancient-future worship is being born.” He listed a number of things that he believes are necessary for “talented workers” to discover if they are going to be a successful part of this new movement. Some of these are:

  • Rediscover how God acts through the sacred signs of water, bread and wine, oil and laying on of hands.

  • Rediscover the central nature of the table of the Lord in the Lord’s Supper, breaking of bread, communion and Eucharist.

  • Rediscover how congregational spirituality is formed through the Christian celebration of time in Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter and Pentecost.

While I agree with Dr. Webber it would be beneficial to reintroduce the great hymns written in the past by anointed men and women of God that expound sound biblical doctrine, it appears that is not what he means by returning to “the ancient.” In fact his list of things to do in his call for “ancient-future worship talent” mentions a number of terms and ideas that cannot be found in the Bible.

For example, when I hear the expression “sacred signs of bread and wine” or the mention of “Lent” as a means of “rediscovering congregational spirituality” - while these ideas may be ancient, I wonder where the ideas originate. Further, when I hear about “rediscovering the central nature of the table of the Lord in the Lord’s supper, breaking of bread, communion and Eucharist” I am reminded about the “new evangelization” program that is presently underway. Did you know Pope John Paul II has called for a “missionary vision” centered on “a rekindling of amazement focused on the Eucharist” to bring the world to the Eucharistic Jesus?

Could the Merging Church be Reemerging?

Dr. Webber is one of the chief promoters of the emerging church. He has written a number of books on the topic including Ancient-Future Evangelism: Making Your Church a Faith-Forming Community and Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World.

In order to clarify Dr. Webber’s views, I did some further research. I found an interview Dr. Webber had done posted on a web site called Responding to the question: “What do you think the North American evangelical church is going to look like 25 years from now?”  Dr Webber responded:

Christianity will be less national, less culturally formed. It will be smaller pockets of communities in neighborhoods. The church will focus on people, not buildings, on community, not programs, on scripture study, not showy worship. [22]

Certainly this view of the future sounds reasonable and acceptable from a biblical perspective. In fact, I could say a hearty “Amen” to what Dr. Webber said. But the next statement adds a whole different dimension to the direction he believes Christianity is emerging towards. He stated:

Biblical symbols such as baptismal identity and Eucharistic thanksgiving will take on new meaning. The church will be less concerned about having eschatology and more committed to being an eschatological community. [23]

Over the past several years, I have observed that Dr. Webber’s prediction regarding the future of the church seems to be accurate. Many who were once anticipating the soon and imminent return of Jesus are now asleep. Some are saying it appears “the Lord has delayed His coming.” Others are saying “we have been misled by pastors and teachers who have taught us that the second coming is a literal return of Jesus to set up His Kingdom.” These same people are claiming the “Kingdom of God” will be established here on earth through Christians during the Eucharistic Reign of Jesus.”

After reading Dr. Webber’s prediction that “Biblical symbols such as baptismal identity and Eucharistic thanksgiving will take on new meaning,” I ordered his book “Ancient-Future Evangelism.” This is what I read on page 114:

A brief glance at the teaching of the Eucharist from the pre-Nicene period provides insight into the early church’s understanding. The Fathers taught that continual spiritual nourishment was provided to believers at this great feast. First it is clear from the writings of Justin Martyr in the middle of the second century that this is no empty symbol. Christ is really present in the bread and wine. He feeds us in the remembrance of His salvation. He feeds us through His presence which is accomplished through prayer. [24]


The idea that Jesus is present in the Eucharist is a Roman Catholic teaching. It is based on transubstantiation. Transubstantiation is required to manifest the Eucharistic Jesus. The Eucharistic Jesus is not the Jesus of the Bible. The Eucharistic Jesus is “another Jesus”.

Is the “Emerging Church” emerging or remerging?

Who Is Evangelizing Who?

Supporters of the “Emerging-Church” write and speak passionately about evangelism. They are committed to reaching the Postmodern generation. They say that their goal is to communicate the truths of Christianity in a way that can be understood by this generation. They are willing to adapt or change whatever needs to be changed in order to be relevant evangelists.

While purpose-driven evangelists removed crosses and other Christian symbols from church services to be seeker-friendly, the Postmodern generation, also called the Gen Xers, apparently are attracted to crosses, candles, stained-glass, liturgy, and sacraments. According to Julie Sevig, in an article called “Ancient New” that she wrote for The Lutheran:

Postmoderns prefer to encounter Christ by using all their senses. That's part of the appeal of classical liturgical or contemplative worship: the incense and candles, making the sign of the cross, the taste and smell of the bread and wine, touching icons and being anointed with oil. In Soul Tsunami: Sink or Swim in New Millennium Culture (Zondervan, 1999), Leonard Sweet says: "Postmoderns want a God they can feel, taste, touch, hear and smell--a full sensory immersion in the divine." [25]

Sevig interviewed Karen Ward, an associate director for worship for an “Emerging Church.” Sevig wrote:

This return to the traditional--the sacred--crosses denominational lines, Ward says. In fact, an interesting marriage is occurring between evangelicals and the liturgy. "Evangelicals are using traditions from all liturgical churches from Orthodox to Lutheran to Catholic," she says. "Though they have limited experience using their new-found symbols, rituals and traditions, they're infusing them with vitality and spirit and life, which is reaching people." [26]

It can be documented that Dr. Robert Webber’s books are winning converts. But who is being converted and what are they being converted to? The answer to this question can be found at a Roman Catholic web site called “Ancient and Future Christian Reading List.” Several of Dr. Webber’s books are listed there such as Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism. Under the books heading, there is the following description:

Webber writes about how many Christians today, especially younger ones, are seeking a faith connected to the ancient Church. Thus, postmodern Christians are seeking an ancient and future faith, one that embraces the past for the future, rather than ignoring the past completely. Also, thanks to the reality of relativity (how's that for an oxymoron!), gone are rational apologetics, and coming back are embodied apologetics (i.e. defending the faith by living as Jesus did). Creeds and Councils are in, as is mysticism and community. Editor David Bennett admits that Webber's writings helped lead him to the Catholic Church, although much of what Webber says is far too "cafeteria" in approach. Also, Church Tradition is treated more as an evangelical trend as opposed to what it is: the Truth. Nonetheless, Webber is a good transitional author. [27]

The Ancient and the Mystical

It seems that the “Emerging Church” is reemerging. However, rather than going back to the inspired Word of God found in the Old and New Testaments, the goal is to reintroduce an “Ancient-Future” faith based on the ideas, dogmas, traditions and views of the Roman Catholic Church Fathers.

Over the past number of years I have had the opportunity to travel the world speaking in various countries visiting many old churches that are dark and mystical. These churches were founded by the Roman Catholic or Orthodox Church many centuries ago.

In these churches I have observed, icons, statues of Mary holding baby Jesus, Jesus hanging on the cross, candles, incense, relics, and statues of  the “saints.” While there is a lot of emphasis on the visual sensual and mystical, there is very little evidence that the Bible was ever taught to the people. If it had, there would not be an emphasis on extrabiblical paraphernalia, extra-sensory images, sounds and smells.

It appears to me the “Emerging Church” of the present era and the church that emerged after the New Testament was written are one and the same. Remember the words of Paul as recorded in the book of Acts:

For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. [28]

While Rick Warren, Dan Kimball and Dr. Robert Webber and others may be excited about the “Emerging Church” and the direction it is presently headed, I am concerned the “Emerging Church” may actually be a re-emergence of what has already occurred in church history. If the pattern continues expect to see evangelical Protestants become more and more Roman Catholic.


Will the Emerging Church Lead the Church to the Roman Catholic Church?

It is important to keep scripture in mind when we are looking for a method or a means to promote church growth. A Christianity that is not based on the Scriptures is a false Christianity. It may be ecumenical and it may be successful in attracting numbers, but it is not biblical. It could even lead people to believe they believe, but instead they follow false teachers and false doctrine and are deceived.

You know where they could spend eternity, separated from God!



[1]  2 Timothy 3: 16
[2]  Revelation 22: 18-19
  Warren Smith, "Deceived on Purpose: The New Age Implications of the Purpose-Driven Church," Mountain Stream Press, Magalia, CA, p. 23, 24.
[4]  Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for the New Generation, Zondervan, 2003, page 7.
[5]  Ibid.
[6]  1 Timothy 4: 1 and 2 Timothy 4:3
[7] Dan Kimball, page 6.
[8]  Ibid., pages 7-8.
[9]  Ibid., pages 13-14.
[10]  Ibid., page 127.
[11]  Ibid., page 133.
[12] Ibid., page 143.
[13] Ibid., page 155.
[14] Ibid., page 171.
[15] Ibid., page 185.
[16] John 8: 31-32
[17] John 8: 43
[18]  Dan Kimball, p. 185
[19]  Ibid. p. 185
[21]  Robert Webber, “Wanted Ancient-Future Talent,” Worship Leader, May/June 2005, p. 10
[22]  Jordon Cooper interview with Dr. Webber,, posted December 11, 2003
[23] Ibid.
[24]  Robert Webber, "Ancient-Future Evangelism: Making Your Church a Faith-Forming Community," Baker Books, page 114
[25]  Julie B. Sevig, The Lutheran, “Ancient New, September 2001,
[26]  Ibid.
[28] Acts 20: 29-30

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