The Emergent Church and Orthodoxy

There are a variety of post-modern turns to religion: including Post-modern Christianity, post-liberalism, emergent church, weak theology, post-evangelical, theology without Being, minimal theology, Paleo-orthodoxy, and radical orthodoxy. (Personally, I  do not necessarily agree with, or accept, or identify with any of them  except post-liberalism) Some of the new turns are liberal and some are orthodox.  Some are academic and some are popular. Some are ideas and some are social tends. And some are for everyone. while others are only for gen x and gen y – leaving the baby boomers out.  We live in a fluid decade where a Jew raised in the reform movement who starts wearing Zizit, putting on tefillin, and keeping Kosher can still be comfortable in Reform and where those raised Orthodox are still part of the social entity Orthodoxy regardless of believe or practice. Even within Orthodoxy, an ecstatic breslov Carlbachian, a scholarly interested in academic Talmud, a baby-boomer fighting what they perceive as chumrot, and someone advocating GLBT awareness- may or may not have anything in common with each other. .

Since my blog post on post –evangelicalism has generated an interest- I will offer a bit more on a related topic- The EMERGENT CHURCH. But when you read it, the question remains to map out where Judaism is similar and where it is different than the Evangelicals. As I asked in the first post: What needs to be added in the Jewish case? Are Jews playing themselves out in the same way? Where are the differences?
Here is the WIKI definition of the emergent church – I am not sure how it relates to Jews.

The emerging church (sometimes referred to as the emergent movement) is a Christian movement of the late 20th and early 21st century that crosses a number of theological boundaries: participants can be described as evangelical, post-evangelical, liberal, post-liberal, charismatic, neocharismatic and post-charismatic. Participants seek to live their faith in what they believe to be a “postmodern” society. Proponents of this movement call it a “conversation” to emphasize its developing and decentralized nature, its vast range of standpoints and its commitment to dialogue. What those involved in the conversation mostly agree on is their disillusionment with the organized and institutional church and their support for the deconstruction of modern Christian worship, modern evangelism, and the nature of modern Christian community.

The emerging church favors the use of simple story and narrative. Members of the movement often place a high value on good works or social activism, including missional living or new monasticism. Many in the emerging church emphasize the here and now. The movement favors the sharing of experiences via testimonies, prayer, group recitation, sharing meals and other communal practices, which they believe are more personal and sincere than propositional presentations of the Gospel.

I am not sure how much the younger generation of Jews are using narrative, are doing good works, charismatic, or creating a new monasticism.

There was a good article a full three years ago attempting to unpack the Emergent Church that will be helpful in comparing Jewish trends to Evangelical ones.

Five Streams of the Emerging Church

Scot McKnight | posted 1/19/2007

Following are five themes that characterize the emerging movement. I see them as streams flowing into the emerging lake. No one says the emerging movement is the only group of Christians doing these things, but together they crystallize into the emerging movement.

Prophetic (or at least provocative)

One of the streams flowing into the emerging lake is prophetic rhetoric. The emerging movement is consciously and deliberately provocative. Emerging Christians believe the church needs to change, and they are beginning to live as if that change had already occurred. Since I swim in the emerging lake, I can self-critically admit that we sometimes exaggerate.

Brian McLaren in Generous Orthodoxy: “Often I don’t think Jesus would be caught dead as a Christian, were he physically here today. … Generally, I don’t think Christians would like Jesus if he showed up today as he did 2,000 years ago. In fact, I think we’d call him a heretic and plot to kill him, too.” McLaren, on the very next page, calls this statement an exaggeration. Still, the rhetoric is in place..

Postmodern: Mark Twain said the mistake God made was in not forbidding Adam to eat the serpent. Had God forbidden the serpent, Adam would certainly have eaten him. When the evangelical world prohibited postmodernity, as if it were fruit from the forbidden tree, the postmodern “fallen” among us—like F. LeRon Shults, Jamie Smith, Kevin Vanhoozer, John Franke, and Peter Rollins—chose to eat it to see what it might taste like. We found that it tasted good, even if at times we found ourselves spitting out hard chunks of nonsense. Postmodernity is the collapse of inherited metanarratives (overarching explanations of life)

Jamie Smith, a professor at Calvin College, argues in Who’s Afraid of Postmodernity? (Baker Academic, 2006) that such thinking is compatible, in some ways, with classical Augustinian epistemology.

Others minister with postmoderns. That is, they live with, work with, and converse with postmoderns, accepting their postmodernity as a fact of life in our world. Such Christians view postmodernity as a present condition into which we are called to proclaim and live out the gospel.

They don’t deny truth, they don’t deny that Jesus Christ is truth, and they don’t deny the Bible is truth.

From a theological perspective, this fixation with propositions can easily lead to the attempt to use the finite tool of language on an absolute Presence that transcends and embraces all finite reality. Languages are culturally constructed symbol systems that enable humans to communicate by designating one finite reality in distinction from another. The truly infinite God of Christian faith is beyond all our linguistic grasping, as all the great theologians from Irenaeus to Calvin have insisted, and so the struggle to capture God in our finite propositional structures is nothing short of linguistic idolatry.


Worship: I’ve heard folks describe the emerging movement as “funky worship” or “candles and incense” or “smells and bells.” It’s true; many in the emerging movement are creative, experiential, and sensory in their worship gatherings.

They ask these sorts of questions: Is the sermon the most important thing on Sunday morning? If we sat in a circle would we foster a different theology and praxis? If we lit incense, would we practice our prayers differently? If we put the preacher on the same level as the congregation, would we create a clearer sense of the priesthood of all believers?

Orthopraxy: A notable emphasis of the emerging movement is orthopraxy, that is, right living. The contention is that how a person lives is more important than what he or she believes. Many will immediately claim that we need both or that orthopraxy flows from orthodoxy. Most in the emerging movement agree we need both, but they contest the second claim: Experience does not prove that those who believe the right things live the right way. No matter how much sense the traditional connection makes, it does not necessarily work itself out in practice. Public scandals in the church—along with those not made public—prove this point time and again.

Missional: The foremost concern of the praxis stream is being missional. What does this mean? First, the emerging movement becomes missional by participating, with God, in the redemptive work of God in this world.  Second, it seeks to become missional by participating in the community where God’s redemptive work occurs. The church is the community through which God works and in which God manifests the credibility of the gospel.Third, becoming missional means participating in the holistic redemptive work of God in this world. The Spirit groans, the creation groans, and we groan for the redemption of God

Post-evangelical –-A fourth stream flowing into the emerging lake is characterized by the term post-evangelical. The emerging movement is a protest against much of evangelicalism as currently practiced. It is post-evangelical in the way that neo-evangelicalism (in the 1950s) was post-fundamentalist. It would not be unfair to call it postmodern evangelicalism. This stream flows from the conviction that the church must always be reforming itself.

The vast majority of emerging Christians are evangelical theologically. But they are post-evangelical in at least two ways.

Post-systematic theology: The emerging movement tends to be suspicious of systematic theology. Why? Not because we don’t read systematics, but because the diversity of theologies alarms us, no genuine consensus has been achieved, God didn’t reveal a systematic theology but a storied narrative, and no language is capable of capturing the Absolute Truth who alone is God. Frankly, the emerging movement loves ideas and theology. It just doesn’t have an airtight system or statement of faith.

Hence, a trademark feature of the emerging movement is that we believe all theology will remain a conversation about the Truth who is God in Christ through the Spirit, and about God’s story of redemption at work in the church. No systematic theology can be final.

In versus out: An admittedly controversial element of post-evangelicalism is that many in the emerging movement are skeptical about the “in versus out” mentality of much of evangelicalism. Even if one is an exclusivist (believing that there is a dividing line between Christians and non-Christians), the issue of who is in and who is out pains the emerging generation. This emerging ambivalence about who is in and who is out creates a serious problem for evangelism.

Political A final stream flowing into the emerging lake is politics. Tony Jones is regularly told that the emerging movement is a latte-drinking, backpack-lugging, Birkenstock-wearing group of 21st-century, left-wing, hippie wannabes. Put directly, they are Democrats. And that spells “post” for conservative-evangelical-politics-as-usual.

Now—where does this apply to the new generation of modern Orthodox Jews and where do they differ? Why? This is not Baby-boomer liberal Orthodoxy – so where is it going? Do not take this one article and treat it as the definitive word or as the best definition. Dont make it into a Truth. There are many other articles, books, and differing opinions on Emergents, especially since it is a conversation. It was chosen as a temporary quck -fix for clarity. But the question is where do Jews fit into the conversation? Which of these five points apply to Young Jews and which dont?

© Alan Brill 2010

14 responses to “The Emergent Church and Orthodoxy

  1. First I think the emergent church is one of the more extreme examples of a larger trend within evangelicalism of attempts to incorporate the post-modern critique into evangelical theology. There are evangelical theologians like Stanley Grenz who are deeply committed to responding to post-modernism but are wary of the excesses of the emergent church. There are probably similarities to this in Orthodoxy as well. Another parallel that comes to mind is the similarity between the new monascticim and neo-hassidism, there seems to be a trend in both orthodoxy and evangelicalism of embracing traditional pietistic practices. Also there is a trend in modern Orthodoxy of a renewed emphasis on doing “good works” many kiruv groups now advertise many trips over college breaks as an oppurtunity to do community service, the center for the Jewish future organizes similar trips for students at YU, and finally Uri l’Tzedek seems to be gaining a following.
    Scot McKnight wrote another article entitled “The Ironic Faith of Emergents” in which he notes the widespread ironic faith amongst emergents I was struck by the similarity to a sicha given by R. Shagar and translated into english in which he spoke about the importance of irony in faith. Their ideas are not identical but they seem similar enough to be worthy of note.
    Finally, while emergent evangelicals may be harder to categorize politically than there traditional counterparts I think Mcknight is wrong to classify all of them as Democrats. As Rod Dreher showed in Crunchy Cons not all “latte-drinking, backpack-lugging, Birkenstock-wearing” people are liberals. It may be that both young evangelicals and young modern Orthodox Jews will simply be harder to classify politically than their parents were.

  2. I picked this article because it was a handle for those new to these terms to be able to sort out post-evangelical, emergent, post-modern, the turn to praxis and social agendas. That is why I gave the caveat at the end about not treating this article as definitive.
    The connection of ironic faith and Rav Shagar is a good point but most Americans still do not know his writings or the message of his writings.
    Since I see you are familiar with the topic: Is there anything that particularly strikes you in Stanley Grenz more than other attempts? Any other post-modern Christian thinkers that you think people should know?
    On new monasticism and neo-hassidism, I find that they are playing themselves out differently but I cannot completely place my finger on it. The new monastics are writing about how to live monastically at house, cut out media, and figure out how to apply the older ascetic virtues of solitude, purity, simplicity, tranquility, generosity, and selflessness.
    I do not see neo-hasidism going the same route; I see them actually avoiding these topics. Any further thoughts?
    On good works – I do see the interest in the new generation, especially among liberal Jews but within orthodoxy it needs to be discussed more. The good works seem to be more episodic, or left for select individuals, it seems more cerebral, and with more resistance from the establishment. But that is only my first impression.

  3. Whatever trends you think you see in Orthodoxy or elsewhere are in my opinion miniscule. A chabura here, an organization there, the numbers seem to me to be very small. The big trend in my opinion is a Jewish denominational life that is fragmenting or dying with most people feeling isolated and out of touch with a larger whole.

    My friend is working on the Mitzva project of the Conservative movement. This is supposed to be a big deal, a major initiative, a new way of revitalizing shuls. Maybe, if only, let us pray, but meanwhile I think it is one more gurnisht.

    As for Orthodoxy, this Tropper thing plus the other scandals this past year is taking its toll. The security that Orthodoxy is supposed to provide is shaken, and I think will lead religious people to turn at least initially even more inward. We will have even more people where the first identity is a stripe (eg Belz, Lubavitch, yeshivish-yeshivish) and the more diffused identity is Orthodox. These scandals are very difficult to integrate. There has never been a time like this, where the laity have a basic moral sense of right and wrong far more sensitive and far less distorted and self serving than the rabbinical leadership. We are not going post modern, we are going back to the Renaissance papacy. There has not been a single area of vice or stealing, other than gays and burkas , where the charedi leadership has not been much more blasé and decadent than the laity. It’s extraordinary.

  4. Jonathan Hirsch

    I think these three are the most relevant
    Orthopraxy – Many modern Orthodox Jews (Intellectual ) follow this it helps them live in the Modern world yet maintain a Traditional lifestyle .
    Missional – We are influenced by the trends in society , you see more MO Jewish students involved in Tikkun olam ,and the new found emphasis on ethics ,( a backlash to the scandals and Religious establishment that values Tribalism over ethics .
    Praxisoriented – has started to gain some traction

  5. I actually find the Emergent/Emergin Church most relevant to Generation X & Y.

    I think that the Emergent Church most parallels Independent Minyanim.

    They are post-Carlebach (parallel to Charismatic). They emphasize community, inclusiveness, social justice, praying and learning together. They reject dogma.

    The Emergent Church’s issues with Missionizing is more a Christian than a Jewish issue, as missionizing is central to Christianity and in particular Evangelical Christianity. However, the fact that Independent Minyanim are premised on the idea that all members respect each other’s beliefs and practices and do not seek to change them (in strong contrast to Chabad, Beginniners Minyanim or MJE) is significant.

    New Monstasticism is strongly parallel to Independent Minyanim as they are both about creating new forms of community outside of existing structures with a strong emphasis on being welcoming, social justice and personal engagement with the tradition. Additionally, they are both about mining the Tradition to find what you mind personally meaningful.

    Lastly, their politics line up.

    • Mission in this context is closer to the way Jews use the words activism, tikun olam, and working to do God’s will, to let people know the message. Are you part of the Independent minyanim? You sound like you are advocating them, or maybe idealizing them. I said at the top that this is for gen x and gen y. I never thought that they apply to those older no matter how liberal they are.

  6. I think that we cannot escape the proselytizing aspect of the word “Mission” and “Missionizing”.

    I am not part of the Independent Minyanim, though I have been reading literature about them & understand why their members makes the choises that they do.

  7. What strikes me particularly about Stanely Grenz is that he argues evangelicalism need not abandon it fundamental message in order to adequately respond to post-modernism. In particular he formulates a theology which preserves the evangelical meta-narrative as well the importance of borders and he does this without ignoring the post-modern critique. In a certain sense his arguement seems to be similar the way in which early mordern Orthodox leaders defended modern Orthodoxy and I think his works are particulary important if we are trying to formulate a post-modern Orthodoxy. There is a distinction between his approach and that of the emergents who seem to accept even more of post-modernism.
    You’re probably right about the differences between neo-hassidism and new monasctism though there may be certain neo-hassidic communities, like elat hayyim, that are similar to new monasctism.
    In terms of other evangelical theologians of interest. I think John Franke has continued in Grenz’s path and is an interesting thinker. Franke seems to think Barth is a particularly important thinker for formulating post-modern theology. Could the writings of Rav Soloveitchik that were influenced by Barth serve as a resource for doing post-modern orthodox theology? Are there other Jewish theologians that have been influenced by Barth and could serve as a similar resource?

    • Elat Chayyim has changed. Jeff Roth no longer runs it. They’re owned by Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center and, in my opinion, seem to have become more of a business than a community. Their retreats now appeal to a wider Jewish community than just the Renewal crowd.

  8. My post here was on the sociological of post-evangelical and less on the philosophic idea of post-modernity.

    I find Grenz, who died young coming to terms with the 1980’s and early nineties. By 2010, deconstructionists are not seen as howling at the door. People have grown used to post-structural and hermeneutical ideas. But I agree with you, he is most similar to modern Orthodoxy. I do find too much Alister McGrath looking over his shoulder.
    George Lindbeck also uses Barth. I used to be more inclined in this direction but there some articles that I have accepted that contrast the post-liberals to Barth. The latter was more apostolic continuity and institution bound and less text bound. The problem with using Rav Soloveitchik is that he is currently the heroic image for Centrist Orthodoxy which does not appreciate the theological elements in his thought. For example Barth’s idea of the joy of a child as applied to reading a Biblical text, is currently interpreted as the Rav advocating childlike simple faith. or that Roshei Yeshivah are those who can interpret him. I think it can be done and someone once gave an AJS paper on Rav Soloveitchik, Barth, and Lindbeck.(the person still has not published it). I have a paper on Rav Soloveitchik and Barth from 2004 in the Van Leer volume that should appear soon.
    The other Jewish thinkers influenced by Barth include Wyschogrod, Leibowitz, and Eliezer Goldman. What do you think?
    Would you like to do a post on John Franke applied to Judaism?

  9. I know Wyschogrod was rather up front about the influence Barth had on him and even thought I hadn’t thought about a Barthian influence on Leibowitz before now I can see it. I have give some more thought to how these thinkers could serve as a resource for formulating post-modern theology. I don’t know very much about Eliezer Goldman. I would definitely be interested in doing a post on John Franke applied to Judaism.

  10. When you write something up on Franke, then email me. Upper limit 1000 words.

  11. What do you consider palaeo-Orthodoxy among Jews? Rav David Bar-Hayim’s attempt to restore Minhag Eretz Yisrael as it was before the Crusades? Karaism? Are there others?

    • I have met many people who say that all that matters is following Maimonides. Alternately, all that matters is following 3-4 major rishonim- everything after does not count.

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