Calvinists and Emergents fighting over the same group of us guys

I find myself right in between two movements in Christianity right now: The so-called “emerging church” and the new resurgent Calvinists. They overlap in so many areas, it’s rather fascinating how they can be so opposed to each other at times. They both are moving AWAY from the deadness of “classical” American evangelicism, disillusioned with it’s mega-churches, worn-out revivalism, cheesy Left Behind eschatology, political culture war, CCM, and shallowness. They travel THROUGH largely opposing philosophies, but then surprisingly, arrive BACK at many of the same conclusions.

Both are often intellectual, focus on church planting, desire to return to older liturgies in worship, and spend much more time and money on charity and humanitarian aid then our parents and grandparents ever did. It’s just that the reasoning behind these conclusions come from very different corners. The “Emergents” travel through a mix of postmodern philosophy, the experience of hands-on philanthropy, liberalism, mysticism, and rediscovery of the ancient church. The “Resurgents” get there through renewed academic fervor, systematic theology (and the desire to really apply it), appreciation of the arts (acknowledging the beauty of creation), and more theology. Of course, I’m painting with broad strokes here, but I think these are useful descriptions nonetheless.

Unfortunately, because of their differences, these folks do end up fighting a lot. I don’t think the actual people on the ground fight much, but they certainly do so on the internet and in their rhetoric. A few days ago, Michael Spencer posed a question at the Boar’s Head Tavern about why the new Calvinists spend so much energy trying to squash the emergents. What follows I think offers some brilliant insight into the situation. I just had to repost (edited) snippits of the conversation:

Michael Spencer: Why are the Together for the Gospel Calvinists obsessed with the emerging church? I mean, it’s a never-ending obsession. Why? What’s the connection? Why isn’t it progressives? Lutherans? Atheists? Liberals? Not Really Reformed Calvinists? Baptist Fundamentalists? Why the angst over the EC and especially McLaren?

To which one of the Lutherans quips:

John Halton: I for one am deeply disappointed that Calvinists spend so little time these days attacking Lutherans. C’mon, guys! We believe the most ghastly stuff! Unbelievers get to eat Jesus, babies spring out of the font fully regenerated, Christ paid for all sins of all people… Good grief, all the emergents have done is grow goatees, wear heavy-rimmed glasses and use lower-case for the names of their churches!

Hmm, maybe I could meet in the middle and have a reformed gathering called something like “infusion” or “the storeHaus”.

And then, the nail is hit on the head:

Richard: Because they are both keenly interested in “reaching” the same demographic, viz. white, 20-30 years old, educated, culture-shaper types. That’s why we have a Calvinist book by two guys who“should be emergent but aren’t”. The crowds at Together for the Gospel and a typical Brian McLaren meeting don’t look very different, do they? Lots of young, white faces. The people at the Reformed meeting are a bit better dressed and groomed but they all grew up in the same suburbs, went to the same schools and graduated in the same classes.

Spike: I’m with Richard. As the new reformies see it, they and the emergents are the only two groups in the church that really count because they’re competing over the young male intellectuals. It’s a zero-sum game; any young male intellectual who starts quoting Doug Pagitt could have, should have been quoting John Piper. There aren’t enough resources in the denominational ecology for both of them to thrive.

That’s it. Demographics. I’ve said this before, though I have yet to develop the idea fully. Arguing about theology is often just a front for something else, even if the people talking theology don’t realize it.

Jason Blair: That’s an interesting observation, Spike. But if true, it would expose a flaw in their thinking. All they have to do to win the numbers game is encourage their team to have more babies than the other team. (kidding – kind of).

Kidding, kind of. Actually, I think this is true, though just one of many factors. On this front, the Calvinists probably have an upper hand since they are generally friendly to large families and the liberal-leaning emergents will have fewer goombas.

And on a different note…

Adam Omelianchuk: I’ve thought a lot about the ongoing debate between Emergents and Resurgents (my terminology) and have come to see it as a competition between two paradigms that are battling for the hearts and minds of the younger generation of evangelicals. In the wake of the soft and highly replaceable seeker-sensitive evangelism of the Willow Creek/Rick Warren era, the receding unifying figurehead of Billy Graham, and the disillusion caused by the Religious Right, a void has emerged that cries out for radical change in ministerial innovations, doctrinal education, and cultural engagement.

The Emergents seek to meet these problems with a wholesale rejection of whatever it deems “modern” (read: conservative, rationalistic, propositional, or whatever) and turns towards an Ancient/Future dichotomy that seeks the understanding of a Christian experience that ministers to the challenges presented by the postmodern ethos. The figureheads of the movement, such as Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, and Rob Bell, seek a convention that buys into the idea that culture in an inescapable ingredient in theological formation and therefore should be embraced, albeit critically to varying degrees.

The Resurgents see this as nothing short of heresy and believe it is simply the repetition of the previous errors of Protestant Liberals who accommodated the faith to the tenets of modernity. They too see the unsatisfactory conditions left by the previous generation of evangelicals but stand in disbelief at the proposed solutions of the Emergents largely because they believe they are simply propounding the same philosophies that got the previous generation into trouble in the first place (starting with people’s “felt needs”) and extending them to approaches that can only lead to heresy (as observed historically with the liberals). Thus the need for something fixed, transcendent, confessional, and historically rooted, i.e. Calvinism.

Both groups flourish by way of the same means: conferences, websites, blogs, podcasts, and published books from a “cult of personality” leadership structure. Therefore, when they inevitably intersect we get lots of book reviews, conferences with speakers addressing one or the other, discussions over politics and theology and various answers to the question “What is the gospel?” that are utterly divergent.

In short, what we see today between the Emergents and Resurgents is an echo of an earlier era when Fundamentalism and Modernism clashed.

This is lamentable for several reasons, most of which are related to a false choice between extremes being presented to many young people. Any moderate voice coming from classical Arminians, Postconservatives, young Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, Anabaptists, or those that authored the Evangelical Manifesto are met with an alien and confused look on the face.

The final comment by Adam is good. The refusal of people in both movements to hear the words of wise people still attached to the old institutions is a weakness of both movements. Christians of all flavours still have much to offer.

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