Back in 2012 I officially said farewell to the Emergent Church. Having spent years studying what was supposed to be the movement that would save American Evangelicalism from irrelevancy for my thesis, the Emergent Movement has ceased to exist. I held on longer than most largely due to the hours I spent researching the movement but it came to a point that I was alone in the dark listening to silence.
For those unaware, the Emerging Church Movement came on the scene like a wildfire especially after its cover feature in Christianity Today in 2004. It launched cohorts, and a host of “conversations” regarding postmodernism, the future of Christianity and Christian theology, and what church should/will look like the future.
But now, the Emergent Church is dead. All of those books, blogs, and Nooma videos are largely forgotten. By the end of the movement, the primary leaders (in a movement that bragged about not having any official leaders) adopted process theology. So having already abandoned orthodoxy, the Emergent Movement abandoned Christianity. No wonder it has faded.
With that said, I was recently asked about the Emergent Church, a movement I had not considered for some time. It made me wonder what has become of some of its leaders. Here is my small attempt to find out.
In 2007 Zondervan Publishers (who had been somewhat friendly to the Emergent movement) published a book entitled Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches: Five Views. The book featured some of the leading voices within the wide-ranging Emerging movement that had yet found its foundation (at the time, anti-foundationalism was its core doctrine). No other book highlighted some of it’s key leaders nor illustrated the early diversity in the movement. For me, it was in this volume I first heard of Mark Driscoll.
Driscoll’s “involvement” in the Emerging movement was short-lived. His roll was largely as a young evangelical that was cool and leading a growing church in a major metropolitan city. As the movement evolved, Driscoll obviously did not fit in. As Brian McLaren and Tony Jones’ influence grew within the Emergent Movement, there was not enough room for the likes of Driscoll (and I would add Dan Kimball).
In the volume highlighted above, Driscoll was the only writer to saturated his chapter with Scriptural references. At times it was overwhelming. But in so doing, Driscoll planted his flag as conservative and orthodox – a position Emergents would later not tolerate.
With that said, Driscoll found a home among the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement. Driscoll, along with the likes of younger pastors like Matt Chandler, Kevin DeYoung, JD Greear, and David Platt, became leaders who all looked to legacy established by men like Albert Mohler, Mark Dever, John Piper, John MacArthur, and RC Sproul among others.
In this world, Driscoll’s fame dramatically expanded. I found myself reading many of his books (I still recommend many of them) and listened to countless hours of his sermons and lectures. Driscoll portrayed himself as a man’s man in a increasingly feminized society.
Yet before long, Driscoll stepped down as pastor of Mars Hill, the church he founded in Seattle. No single controversy brought his downfall, rather it was a death of a thousand cuts. Accusations of plagiarism, fraudulent attempts to get one of his books on the New York Times best sellers list, and a reputation of bullying at Mars Hill eventually led to his resignation.
After a period of silence, Driscoll eventually relocated to Scottsdale, AZ and planted a new church entitled Trinity Church in 2015. He has largely avoided the controversy and headlines that followed him before. His blog posts, videos, and sermons are less noteworthy as before. Perhaps Driscoll’s repentance is sincere. In October 2018, Driscoll published his first book since his resignation entitled Spirit-Filled Jesus: Live By His Power.
My M. Div thesis was on Brian McLaren’s soteriology. I argued it was less than orthodox and consistent with classic liberal theology. McLaren, along with other Emergent voices, tried to hide behind postmodernism, it was no different than heresy of old.
With that said, McLaren was the fatherly figure of the Emergent Movement. When he spoke, Emergents listened. From a visual perspective, he and Phyllis Tickle did not fit the stereotype. Emergents were younger believers and ex-believers experimenting with postmodernity, modern society, and Christianity. Yet having flirted with these ideas previously, both McLaren and Tickle gained an large audience with Emergents.
The peak of McLaren’s influence came in the publication of his book A New Kind of Christianity. Though McLaren abhorred systematic theology as echoes of modernism where theologians tried to dissect God, McLaren essentially offers his own systematic theology in this volume. It is here that McLaren refuses to hide behind strict postmodern jargon and instead openly rejects orthodoxy. After this volume, McLaren’s influence goes the way of the Emergent Church.
Yet even before this volume, McLaren largely became more of a social gospel evangelists. Beginning with the publication of his book Everything Must Change much of McLaren’s ministry has been focused on issues of justice, poverty, racism, LGBT+ issues, and climate change. According to his own website, McLaren now considers himself an author, speaker, and activists. Preacher and theologian are largely out the window.
At the end of the day, McLaren continues to the follow the direction of liberal theology. For some, liberalism leads to process theology or even to agnosticism. For the likes of McLaren, Christianity is exclusively about justice apart from justification. His theology lacks a cross and that has not changed since the birth of the Emergent movement.