Are the Emergents “Yesterday’s News”? Part 1

In 2005, Crossway published my book, Truth and the New Kind of Christian: The Emerging Effects of Postmodernism in the Church. It was the second book on the emerging church, and it was specifically on Brian McLaren’s and Tony Jones’s views. There was a surging interest in the emerging church & Emergent then. There was lots of discussion, and Zondervan was publishing many such books.

While strong criticisms were developing, around 2010, McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity came out, and things changed significantly. Evangelical academics and publishers at places like the Evangelical Theological Society national meetings saw the emerging church as “yesterday’s news.”[1] I noticed a marked decrease in willingness to really listen to and carefully assess their views. Like someone at one of my presentations blurted out (paraphrasing), “Can’t we just call them heretics and move on?!”

Even emergentvillage.com ceased to exist. But, that did not mean the end of the conversations that had been generated. Contrary to the attitude I observed amongst many evangelicals, I began to observe that the influence of McLaren, Jones, and others, such as Doug Pagitt and Rob Bell, had morphed and actually increased. Instead of publishing with companies like Zondervan, now they write for some of the largest presses, such as HarperCollins and Random House. They have their own ministries, which for Pagitt and Jones host training conferences, and Jones earned his PhD in practical theology and teaches as a professor. Bell and his views have become widely publicized, now extended through his podcast, an e-course available through Oprah.com, and a television show on her network. And McLaren writes prolifically. Moreover, they now write under the broader umbrella of “progressive” Christianity.

When I wrote Truth, I tried to balance some criticism with some important things they had to say to evangelicals. Then, in fall 2006, I taught a class at Biola for our Christian Apologetics program. I was learning more, and Jones offered to do an interview by phone.

I had asked the Lord if there was something specific he wanted me to ask Tony, and I believe He gave me a specific answer, yet which seemed unusual. It wasn’t about anything that as of then I had written or studied. I am glad I asked Tony. I was blown away by what I learned. I realized there was much more I needed to research and study.

So, I started to read more broadly, including works of Pagitt, Bell, Stan Grenz, John Franke, and more. I started to see more connections than their epistemological concerns, which was my focus in Truth. There also were ethical ones about patterns they noticed amongst evangelicals. They also were making shifts regarding the nature of humans and the relationship of creation with God.

At the same time, I too started to become aware of some patterns amongst evangelicals, ones that seemed to explain why I think, all too often, we are not seeing the biblically-promised power and presence of the Lord. As I investigated this, I came to realize that McLaren, Jones, Pagitt, and Bell actually were much more on target about what has gone wrong with the church than I understood when I wrote Truth.

So, in my new book, Authentically Emergent: In Search of a Truly Progressive Christianity, I reconsider my earlier work, as well as carefully assess, pro and con, their updated thoughts. Yet, I think there is a much deeper set of factors at work in both these emergents’ more recent views and amongst all too many evangelicals. In summary, I think both have been deeply deeply influenced by naturalism. I hope to offer a compelling analysis and a better way forward for both groups, one that will be truly “progressive” and “emergent” in the biblical sense that we will see the fullness of the power and presence of the Lord manifested in our midst, which we desperately need.

I am writing to both evangelicals, my emergent friends, and those influenced by them. So, why read this? There are many reasons, and I will look at some of them in my next post.


¹Scott Burson explains several reasons in his fine book, Brian McLaren in Focus (Abilene Christian University Press, 2016), 164.

Scott Smith is keenly interested in our abilities to have knowledge of reality, particularly in the areas of ethics and religion. He also is very interested in the needed ontology to have knowledge. He addresses “constructivism,” the fact-value split, and issues with our being able to have knowledge on the basis of naturalism, postmodernism and nominalism. He also has written on the emergent church, as well as a knowledge argument and the moral argument for God’s existence. Currently, he is working on exposing and addressing the many, even subtle, influences of naturalism on western churches. He also serves as secretary-treasurer for the Evangelical Philosophical Society. Scott Smith has earned a Ph.D. from University of Southern California, M.A., University of Southern California, M.A., Talbot Theological Seminary and a B.A. from California State University, Hayward.

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