“Help, my church is going emergent!”

Over the past few months there have been a number of internet posts–from friend and foe–claiming that the emergent church movement is some combination of dead or dying (or at least has checked into the ecclesiastical nursing home). Personally, I think the movement has splintered, the publishing has slowed down, the buzz has waned, the sides have been drawn, and the organization has been decentralized. I don’t think we’ll be talking about the emergent church in five years, but some of the ideas and some of the authors will still be popular. And many churches will still be affected.

Since Why We’re Not Emergent came out over a year ago, I’ve have had a number of people ask me–by phone, in person, and by email–what they should do now that their church is drifting emergent. I received one such email just last week (so emergent’s not dead yet!). Here’s what I try to tell people (if I can remember it all) when they finish their “Help, my church is going emergent” story.

1. Search your own heart. Ask God to show you your sin. Are you bitter? Are you being unfair? Have you been divisive? Is your concern motivated by love for the truth, love for the gospel, and love for the church, or love for controversy?

2. Talk to another trusted, mature brother or sister in your congregation to see if your on track with your concerns. Don’t talk to ten people; talk to one. Don’t bash the pastor or the church. Approach the conversation wanting to learn and figure out if your concerns are justified. Maybe you heard the word “journey” and overreacted. Or maybe they lit a candle for Advent and you flipped out.

3. If it seems that your concerns are justified, go with another brother or sister and ask the pastor if you could talk to a few of the leaders about some questions you have. These are your spiritual leaders. You owe them a conversation before you do anything else. (This is different than responding to public blogs or books with other public blogs or books. No emergent fan has an obligation to talk to me first before he pans my book. But members of my church who are seriously upset with me should come talk to me–as they have on occasion!). Be up front with your concerns. I’d rather know as a pastor what I’m getting into than be wondering for two weeks what these “concerns” are about. I think a small group is better than a large group, and a small group is better than one on one for this sort of meeting. If the group is too big, it can feel stilted, not a genuine conversation. If it is just you and your pastor, that could work, but he may feel defensive and you may end up with “he said-she said” from such a meeting.

4. In this meeting, be calm and humble. Don’t go on the warpath. Come ready to share specific examples. Don’t say “it feels different.” Say, “I’m concerned that our small groups are doing Velvet Elvis because of what he says on pages….” Be ready to listen. Ask important questions like “What is the gospel?” “What is our view of Scripture?” “What did the cross accomplish?” Without seeming like a hard-nosed lawyer, you may want to highlight your church’s statement of faith or confessional standards. Usually, the theology on the books is still good even when the theology from the pulpit starts going south. Pointing out inconsistencies may be helpful.

5. At this point several things may happen. 1) The leaders may say, “You’ve misunderstood things. We still believe what you want us to believe.” If their explanation makes sense, move on and let them know you’ll be praying for them. If you’re not quite convinced, ask if it would be alright to have a follow up conversation in 6 months. 2) The leaders may welcome your feedback and have their eyes opened to some dangers down the road they are taking. This would be God’ grace. 3) The leaders may tell you you’re too propositional, or mean, or narrow, or something to the effect of “We are not changing our course. We think you are wrong.” Saying “we’re going a different direction” is not bad in itself. I’ve said things to that effect to people in my church before (hopefully in a kind, gentle way). Clarity is better than obfuscation. So if they are intent on going down a theological path you don’t agree with, you’ll have some decisions to make.

6. You could stay in the church. If you do, you should not be forming a church within a church. Don’t make it your life’s goal to purge every last emergent idea from your church. If you have a voice to make constructive comments or change, use it. If the errors are not of a central nature but are more stylistic or related to the way they talk about things, you may want to stay. But if the leaders are excited about every author you find troubling and they dislike everything about the gospel you find most important, then this is probably not the place for you anymore.

7. You could leave the church. If the church is no longer preaching the gospel, you should leave. Short of that, you still may leave, but only after much prayer, and honest soul-searching. People leave churches all the time. It happens, to and from my church too. But we should be thoughtful about our reasons for leaving. It may be helpful to kindly explain to your leaders why you are leaving. But don’t do this if you are just going to write an angry, vindictive letter.

8. If you leave, you may be asked by others why you left. Give an honest answer, but refuse taking ad hominem shots at the church or leadership. Explain your reasons frankly and matter-of-factly.

9. Pray for your leaders, the church, and your own heart. Then move on. Unless you are the pastor/elder, you are not the overseer of souls in your old church. (If you an elder and you are out-voted, the blame for not guarding the flock lies with the whole board; if you think the board’s decisions are serious sinful, you should probably resign). Don’t assume responsibility for responsibilities you haven’t been given. Find a good church for you and your family–that is your responsibility. Don’t live in the past. Don’t become a crank. Love the gospel, love God, and love people more than you despise bad theology. Keep doing ministry and doing it joyfully.

Oh, and feel free to pass out copies of Why We’re Not Emergent along the way.