Is the Emerging Church Lacking the Spirit? [1]

EC and Spirit [2] | EC and Spirit [3] | EC and Spirit [4]

Any visit to my parents’ house requires the customary penance to be done: reading all the Christian press that they subscribe to. October’s Christianity carried an article which questioned whether the Emerging Church was lacking the Spirit. Their much-used stock graphic of an arid desert pretty much summarized the tone that Chris Simmons – a Vineyard pastor from Brighton – took. It’s a depressing read.

Jason Clark has helpfully posted a PDF of the article, written a reply to Christianity, and looks like he is also hosting a conference around the issues this Saturday. All of which has catalyzed me to get some thoughts down about this vital issue over the course of a few posts….

Chris’ article worries me on a number of levels. Firstly, he writes that “it was frightening and horrifying to see that Jesus was much bigger and more powerful that I had thought” and goes on to criticize the other speakers at the event he was at who “spoke eloquently but then just left the platform”. He then describes how he sees power manifestations – healings, exorcisms etc. as not only central to his ‘conversion’, but a required part of normal Christian life.

His argument appears to run like this: power manifestations are evidence of the Spirit; without the manifestations the Spirit is not there.

I find this not only deeply troubling as an argument, but deeply insulting too. In what power and in whose name does Chris think Christians in the Emerging Church are working? If he really thinks it is being done outside of the Spirit this is a very serious indictment indeed… One that would appear, in what I am assuming to be the fairly standard Vineyard theology, to condemn us to a very unfortunate fate.

Confusingly, he ends his piece by saying:

“In the UK church let’s keep loving the church in all its diversity… Let’s pray that we can identify with our converts in the UK as the apostle Paul did with his 2000 years ago with the words, ‘Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?’”

I totally agree with the diversity angle – but don’t really see it reflected in his argument, which appears to present a very one-dimensional view of the Spirit. Not a wrong dimension necessarily. But only affirming one.

Secondly, Chris seems to be equating observation of the law with “mental ascent, a journey of faith with more questions than answers” – in other words, doubt, questioning and uncertainty. We should simply ‘believe what we hear’, a conclusion that deeply troubles me when connected back to his opening statements about how he as a pastor is constantly being hassled “by people with some new idea, usually to do with something called emergent.” A precis of the piece thus seems to read:

Power manifestations are the true test of whether something is ‘of the Spirit.’ If you are going to doubt this, you are falling into ‘observing the law.’ The right thing to do? Just believe what you hear from me.

I have to feel sorry for those in his church who have come up to him with these new ideas. I hope they have not really been re-buffed in this way, and don’t doubt that he would have been pastorally sensitive. What worries me is the underlying message that the leader is right and there is no other way.

So what should we do? If we are not experiencing power manifestations is the journey we are exploring not ‘of God’? Ought we simply ‘believe what we’ve heard’?

I want to propose that we need to radically re-imagine our language of the Spirit. It is unfortunate that the charismatic wing of the Church have hijacked the concept of the Spirit and taken it hostage to the power-evangelism agenda… It seems that one cannot talk about the gifts of the Spirit without it being taken as meaning healing, speaking in tongues, prophecy etc.

This, I believe is a real shame, for the concept of gift, as I’ve explored in the book, is an incredible rich one. And it’s this I want to explore in the next post.


12 responses to “Is the Emerging Church Lacking the Spirit? [1]”

  1. While I agree with your hijaking metaphor, I think there is something more fundamental going on (no pun intended). It appears that a carpenter has looked at Emergent and gone away disappointed that it doesn’t look like a nail as he expected.
    The truth is, sad as it might be for those attempting to “nail” down a description, anything that’s truly emergent will look different at different times. The only way to know whether it is working under the the influence of the Spirit is to look at the fruit produced. And we all know that Paul defined the fruit of the Spirit to be love.

  2. Timothy Wright

    1 Corinthians 2:3-5 (New International Version)
    3 I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.
    When I read your article this scripture came to mind. And I also agree with what your saying. I think we talk out of our own experiences, and we live in that world. I wouldn’t want to equate Power Evangelism with walking in the authority and the power of the Holy Spirit.
    My concern with Emergent is that Emergent means that all gods lead to Jesus, and that the Jesus that I follow is not the same Jesus that Emergent follows. Looking forward to reading you other upcoming blogs.

  3. i appreciate your hi-jacked metaphor too, im wondeing if EC hasn’t branded our their/our own metaphor for spirit… and added to definition that gifts are more of a self help addage for personal growth, than ‘as needed for the moment tool’.
    it seems to me that a big difference in approaches from ‘gift’ perspectives is that ‘the vineyard theology” you mentioned seems often centered around ‘demonstration for proclaimation’ vs the EC ‘manifestation for maturation’…
    im just rambling now, but i am looking forward to your next post… and wish i could make the roundtable discussion.
    i can’t wait for you next installment

  4. Really good thoughts, these. The church I am with comes out of a Vineyard background and is kind of fumbling and stumbling toward something new (call it “emerging” if you like). So I often feel like I’m being tugged in two directions at once… because there is a real gap between these two “theologies” – there is a perception they cannot co-exist.
    But I am dreaming about some kind of both/and theology of the Spirit, instead of the either/or of “power manifestations” vs. “growth manifestations.” I guess you could call them loud works of the Spirit and quiet works of the Spirit. I have seen fruit borne through both, but have yet to see a theology and praxis that successfully holds the two together, treating each with equal respect, acknowledging with equal praise all of the works of the Holy Spirit.

  5. Good thougths. I got the Link to here from Jason. I’m thinking along similar lines myself so good to hear others doing it too.
    Will look forward to reading and thinking more.

  6. This is a very important debate. I lead a largish church with six congregations – one of which is a very small emerging church (see the link to the blog)
    I’ve had a gut feeling that the Spirit is lacking somehow, but since our meetings avoid preaching and singing (delibarately) maybe it’s just my prior expectations of how the Holy Spirit works that are too limited. Certainly when we had an evening where we focused on the things of the Spirit one person recieved what classic pentecostals would call the Baptism in the Spirit.
    Incidentally, I agree with some of Don Carson’s book (Becoming Conversant with The Emerging Church)from a conservative perspective but think he’s too hard line. The new expressions need time to play, discover and discard the dross. Don’t they?

  7. Well put Derek. The time to play is vital. It’s what all good parents do…

  8. Time indeed.
    The whole notion of dumping Roman/Top>Down structure is so utterly alien and seemingly impossible that, personally, I take great pains to go slow as possible in what ways and places and times our church here in Pompey is meeting/feeding back.
    Some of the church miss meetings, and this really shows in their eagerness to meet in any form! While others like me are very wary of anything remotely organised!!!
    This issue of power is bizarre! I’ve neverhad more words-of-knowledge and other such things at work than since our church went “unchurched”. Let alone Holy Spirit felt in conversationand life lived with workcollegues and other *nonchurch* now absorbed into our *church*.
    But I am noticing a more Liberal, even Universal bent in fellow*unchurched* christians, some of whom are part of EC.

  9. Still thinking- and blogging a bit about this stuff myself too.
    Just to respond to Tim, not everyone who calls themselves emergent have gone pluralist. I often find myself on the very liberal wing even of emergent when I suggest that all roads may lead to God!

  10. I totally dissagree with Chris’s coments in his article and am really supportive of what I hear from Brian Mclaren (whom most/all of Emergant critiscm seems to get leveled at) and I’ve just finnished the first of his books that i’ve found and enjoyd it allot. Although I’m not always comfortable about the distaining tones that emergant folks often talk about the charismatic movement with as if most of the rest of the church body deserve’s respect and tollerance but you can kinda get away with talking down to charismatics, now I’m with allot of folk not the biggest fan of charismatic culture but think we should respect the churches and work of God within it.
    I think there is a nature within Vineyard being part of the Last wave of change in one stance to shun this new change not wanting to admit that it is no longer the new thing.
    On a side note if you look outside of emergant but inside of the emerging at house church’s for instance you can often find an over flow of manifestation’s of the Holy spirit esspecially out of the west. see see james rutz “Mega shift”.
    Miracles, healing’s, tounges and prophesy although not the be all or end all of the church surely have their own place in the work of God and should not be ignored, dissmised as myth or as something that only really happens very rarely or just back in the past of back when the first apostles walk the earth.

  11. “I think there is a nature within Vineyard being part of the Last wave of change in one stance to shun this new change not wanting to admit that it is no longer the new thing.”
    Wise words. And nor will Emergent be. Question is, will it have the nous to remember this in…. let’s say, 10 years time, when it becomes, like Vineyard said it never would, an established denomination with logos and hierarchies and bills to pay?
    I hope so.

  12. I’m of the personal opinion that rather than being devoid of the Spirit in terms of Power, the EC is actually a profound work of the Holy Spirit beyond the Charismatic/Pentecostal churches. Indeed, I think this may be its defining characteristic. Remember that the Holy Spirit always, by nature, points to Christ.
    The problem with these latter movements is they got so caught up with all the cool things they could do in the Spirit, they lost sight of the Spirit’s primary goals in this world. And thus, while they talk a good game, they are as limited in their understanding of the Spirit’s work as any other denomination, though limited in different ways and thus seemingly more profound.
    The EC, from what I can tell, is correcting a lot of these errors and in various ways better reflecting the fullness of the Spirit’s work, even if the emphases are no longer on the various “showing off” gifts. In my estimation, the so-called charismatic gifts aren’t denied, as they are in many Evangelical churches, but rather they are assumed and no longer set apart. The mission of the Spirit is not to put on a show but to save the world and draw believers into an ever deeper relationship with the Triune God. How this works out may require all manner of different gifts, but these gifts should never, as they have in the Pentecostal Church, themselves become the emphasis.