There was a very interesting article on the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch this morning, titled omniously, "Missouri's most powerful Baptist takes on the 'emerging church'." In some ways, it was a follow-up to an earlier article that the P-D had run on The Journey, a very successful Acts 29 network church in our city that was (unfortunately) titled "The Bible and Beer" (that article had highlighted the church's "Theology on Tap" conversation held at Schafly's Brewery).
The article this morning focused on Roger Moran, one of the leaders of SBC conservatives here in this state. And admist some of the silliness, there were some very interesting quotes that moved beyond the "issue" to the real issues.
First, it appears that Moran lumps together "emerging" churches such as The Journey with the SBC moderates that he defeated earlier. But the reason for doing this was that these emerging churches are places "where you can drink beer in the bar, you can talk about rock 'n' roll, you can watch R-rated movies on film night." In Moran's mind, these were the moral excesses of the SBC progressives in the 1980s (and when I was in Louisville, stories of SBTS keggers were legendary and probably a little overblown); these cultural and moral markers that characterized the progressives are the same as the emerging church; hence, the Acts 29 network must be moderate.
But this line of reasoning is an uneasy fit, even for Moran. Though he doesn't acknowledge it in the P-D article, there are major theological differences between SBC progressives and the Acts 29 folks like the leaders of The Journey. Chief among them is that the Acts 29 network actually believes the Gospel (in its classic and Calvinistic formulations), holds to the inerrancy of Scripture, and is passionate about evangelism and discipleship. As a result, the identification of the emerging church leaders and SBC "moderates" is an uneasy one at best.
Even more striking, Moran identifies the nature of the church (and its Christianity) based on external practices--drinking, rock music, and movies--that were the bellweather issues for Baptist conservatives of the 1970s and 1980s. And yet, those issues don't seem to resonate as much as they used to do. In fact, many younger evangelical Christians view those issues as matters of indifference compared to the "weighter" matters of love, justice, and mercy to the poor or the need for sustainable care for the creation. While Moran's issues may have "worked" during the early days of the SBC conservative resurgence, they may not work as well now--because they seem to be culturally as opposed to biblically derived.
Second, I thought it was interesting how Bill Leonard, a Baptist scholar, characterized the state of the current SBC: "The Southern Baptist Convention is growing increasingly terrified that they've spent all this time recreating the denomination in this (conservative) image, and now nobody cares. Young seminarians are challenging them on issues and saying, 'Your vision of reality is not ours.'" It does seem that the Gen X generation that is moving into pastoral leadership--both in the SBC and in my own denomination--struggles with viewing the church in the same terms as some leaders might.
For example, if the church (or a particular denomination) is meant to stand for "conservative evangelicalism" and that means standing for certain political or cultural positions, or standing for those positions in a harsh or insensitive manner, then the "emerging" generation will have none of it. As Darrin Patrick, the pastor of The Journey, put it in the article, "When you're stricter than God about what he commands and permits, younger pastors are not going to play ball. They're not going to take one for the denomination" (emphasis mine). I actually think this stance of "not taking one for the denomination" could be a good thing--if it forces church leaders to reorient themselves to Gospel priorities and attitudes.
And yet, to forsake denominations for "networks" doesn't necessarily solve the problem. Because there will be times when the "network" will prove to move in directions that feel denomination-like and could illegitimately bind the conscience as well. Thus, the goal is not necessarily to cop the attitude that "if you don't play ball the way I want you to, I'm taking my ball and going home" or to independency or whatever. The goal is biblical reformation of church mission and structures so that the church to which we belong evidences to a greater degree the reign of God.
And so, the article provide a great deal of food for thought--about the Gospel, the nature of the church, and the future of evangelical Christianity.