June 2005 Issue
by J.D. Greear, Ph. D.
Many Southern Baptist pastors have
labored hard to bring their churches into the "contemporary"
age. As some of these pastors rounded the final bend of outfitting
their sanctuaries with theatre seats, plasma screens, and drums,
they were greeted only by news that the relevant church had left
the contemporary building. The relevant church is now "emerging,"
they have been told it is post-modern, post-contemporary,
post-traditional, post-denominational, post-liberal/conservative,
and a host of other post-s.
The "emerging church" is concerned (among other things)
with relating Christianity to the outside world. They are disturbed
with a certain "showiness" and "institutionalism"
in contemporary churches that panders, they believe, to a consumerist,
individualistic culture. They see a place for quietness, reverence,
art, liturgy, and tradition in worship. They believe that Christians
have made a grave mistake in withdrawing from their culture to
live in religious ghettos. They thus want to re-infiltrate the
arts, the bars, and the movie and music studios. At the same time,
they deplore consumer-based Christian culture, "cheesy"
Christian art and music, and any form of what they perceive to
be legalism or politicized Christianity. The marks of a vibrant
church are not doctrinal orthodoxy or aggressive evangelism, they
say, but authenticity and community. The recovery of authenticity
and community will make the gospel relevant to the disenfranchised,
Perhaps no book better encapsulates the emerging church's presentation
of Christianity to unbelievers than Donald Miller's Blue Like
Jazz: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. Miller
believes that the "Americanization" of the gospel, rather
than making it more palatable to the next generation of Americans,
is actually turning them away. Expressing the gospel in "non-religious"
terms, Miller believes, is the only way to attract unbelievers
to the true gospel. Christianity is not a program, lifestyle,
or creed, he says. It is not a linear formula that can be used
to prove truth or provide simple answers to your needs. Christianity
is like jazz music in that it doesn't neatly "resolve."
In order to "get it," you have to experience it.
I loved reading Miller's book and would recommend it to almost
anyone Miller's wit, sincerity, and candor make its pages
a delight. I giggled all the way through it. My copy is ruthlessly
underlined and earmarked, and I have carried the book about town
reading delightful paragraphs to my wife, friends, and complete
strangers. I was moved, challenged, and encouraged. Miller's book
encapsulates the best of what the emerging church has to add to
our gospel witness. But Miller's book also demonstrates its weaknesses,
about which I would like to briefly comment.
The Irrationality of Faith
Miller's defense of Christianity to unbelieving friends conspicuously
avoids any evidential or logical foundation. An unbelieving friend
(p. 52) tells Miller that she doesn't understand why he believes
in God or why he insists she must also. He responds by saying,
"I don't know why, either ... but I believe in God, Laura.
There is something inside me that causes me to believe" (p.
53). He then compares it to belief in Peter Pan or the Tooth Fairy
(p. 55), or the feeling of love, or the experience of beauty (p.
54). It is "feeling" a supra-logical sensation
of beauty that is the basis of his belief. He further explains
that this is not a belief that you can choose, but one that seems
to choose you. Furthermore, claiming logical or evidential surety
comes across as arrogant, Miller believes, and a turn-off to those
outside the faith. (Miller recently concluded an otherwise compelling
presentation of the gospel he gave at UNC-Chapel Hill with the
deflating statement, "Well, that's what I believe ... for
It is true that faith is a blind-eye-opening experience, comparable
to waking up from a dream (Ephesians 5:14), and one indeed hard
to explain. Yet, the Bible is replete with reasons and "proofs"
of the veracity of the gospel (Acts 1:3; Hebrews 2:3-4). Paul
and the Apostles did not base their faith on goose bumps or an
unexplained surge of "feeling" like love or hope or
indigestion. Instead, they pointed to the evidence of fulfilled
prophecy and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (Acts 4:13;
1 Corinthians 15:12-19). Some people chose to believe the "many
infallible proofs," others did not.
It was Kant and the other fathers of modernistic philosophy
who first banished Christianity from the objective realm of reason
to the subjective realm of feeling and aesthetics. Postmodernism,
the stepchild of modernism, accepted this distinction, as does
Miller in his defense of Christianity. But it is simply not consistent
with the New Testament presentation of truth.
The Banishment of Religion
from the Public Square
Miller next chastises conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists
who have turned Christianity, he believes, into a political platform,
self-righteously pontificating about the evils of abortion, homosexuality,
and other selected societal ills. He charges the modern church
with Pharisaism, caring more about the Law than they do about
Certainly, Miller's observation has a measure of truth. But
does it apply to all working for justice in the public square?
In a day when so many religious worldviews are trying to set the
standards for public morality, why should the gospel be excluded?
Can we say that we are truly loving our fellow man if we allow
the destructiveness of sin to go unchecked in our societal institutions?
God has not compartmentalized His world so that His truth applies
only within the church. If we love this society, we cannot simply
ignore what is happening in its institutions, for "righteousness
exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people."
Legalistic About Not Being
Miller further criticizes Christians who, he believes, have
turned Christianity into a set of rules, such as abstention from
alcohol, various movies and TV, a certain type of dating, etc.
Such legalism is a betrayal of the gospel and a stumbling block
to those outside the faith.
Miller is, of course, correct that Christianity is not a set
of rules imposed from without, but a righteousness flowing from
the new creation within. But it is not having "standards
of righteousness" which makes one legalistic, but the attitude
with which those standards are held. I am certain Miller has some
standards and principles he lives by. Miller probably doesn't
wear a thong in public, nor approve of his pastor's wife doing
so. Standards, even if low, inevitably form when one applies his
"love for Christ and people" to a specific area. Standards
are "authentically Christian" so long as they remain
just what they are applications of faith and not the substance
of the faith itself. In fact, Jesus said that loving God causes
one to have a righteousness that is superior to even "that
of the scribes and Pharisees."
Miller goes so far as to charge that popular Christian books
are mostly "self-righteous conservative propaganda"
(p. 188). I took a look at the Christian book best-seller list
for the past decade, and I found such works on it as Desiring
God; Power of a Praying Wife; Not Even a Hint;
Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire; Wild at Heart; and Purpose-Driven
Life. Which of these would Miller say is the "self-righteous
conservative propaganda?" In all this I wonder if Miller
isn't being a little self-righteous and judgmental about not being
self-righteous and judgmental.
Christianity Without a Prophetic
Miller, like many emerging church leaders, is sensitive to
the alienation some in America feel toward the church. This alienation
results from the fact that unsaved people are spoken of as "enemies"
and proponents of offensive political positions, Miller says.
Rather, unbelievers are mostly good people who love and hurt and
are trying to make sense of life. "My pastors and leaders
were wrong," he says, "liberals are not evil" (p.
215). He admonishes us to not use our ethics to judge people,
but rather to heal them. He argues for the effectiveness of this
approach by telling a story about an "apology tent"
he and a few friends set up on the campus of Reed University.
They wanted to apologize to unbelievers for the abuses of Christianity.
It is the Christians who have been wrong, they said, and they
asked for the unbelievers' forgiveness.
As I read this, I was touched by Miller's humility. But I couldn't
help but wonder how Miller would feel about John the Baptist's
brazen condemnation of Herod's adultery. I do not recall John
setting up an apology tent to apologize for the abuses of Jewish
traditionalism. Nor did Stephen dwell on the hypocrisy of Ananias
and Sapphira when witnessing to the resurrection before the Sanhedrin.
Both spoke out, and their message was so unpopular that it cost
them their lives. There are times to apologize, and our witness
should embody the humility that characterizes deeply forgiven,
fallible people. But is there not also a time that we are to "rebuke
the works of darkness?" And must the two be mutually exclusive?
A Culturally-Conformed Christianity?
In the final analysis, I am concerned that in his attempt to
relate Christianity to the world, Miller has let the postmodern
world define Christianity for him. Blue Like Jazz is, in
some ways, Christianity exactly the way our unbelieving society
would like it: a belief system which lacks compelling evidence,
not one that inflames the believer to tell others that Jesus is
the only way of salvation. It is also a Christianity that keeps
its nose out of politics, not one that would tell Herod that living
with his brother's wife is adultery.
Institutionalized Christianity is not wrong simply because
it is unpopular at Reed or any other university. In every age,
including that of Jesus and the Apostles, Christians have been
despised by the world. The world, under the sway of the wicked
one, has always interpreted our convictions as judgmental and
self-righteous. The world has always misconstrued our acts of
charity and mocked our piety. I don't expect things ever to change.
Furthermore, if the church loses a clear, prophetic voice,
will her message of salvation in Jesus have any relevance at all?
The church I pastor, whose attendance consists of 25 percent college
students, is consistently told that the popularity of our church
on the college campus results from the fact that we don't avoid
"the hard things," and that students know they will
be told what the Word of God really says, regardless of its counter-cultural
implications. One unbelieving, homosexual student told me recently
that she was tired of being pandered to by people who told her
what they thought she wanted to hear. She wanted to come to a
place, she said, where she would not be singled out as a homosexual,
but where she would still hear the truth spoken straightly to
In fact, my main concern with Miller and the emerging church
is that what they prescribe as a corrective to evangelism doesn't
seem to be working in their own lives and ministries. Miller admits
that he is frustrated at his inability to effectively impact those
around him. He confesses that he is a "sheep about sharing
his faith" and that he only wins someone to Christ about
every ten years. A question I must ask is, "Why would I want
to learn about relating Christianity to the outside world from
someone who, by his own estimation, has been frustratingly ineffective
at doing so?"
And yet, Miller and other emerging church leaders have reminded
us of the sweetness of grace and the authenticity of faith. He
has reminded us that there is an audience not yet being effectively
reached in our own country. He has helped us see that we can indeed
be legalists, and that we have been wrong to abandon culture to
live in Christian ghettos with our Shepherd's Guides, our radio
stations, our lingo, and our Christian kitsch. He is right-on
in his diagnosis of the problem, and in his insistence that we
must take drastic measures to correct it. But his prognosis I
do not find compelling. He seems to me to have thrown out the
bathwater, the baby, and, in some ways, the institution of bathing
We will go forward by returning to those unchanging values
that have propelled the gospel in every generation the
power of the Word, the priority of prayer, the exclusivity of
the gospel, the certainty of the Resurrection, and the need for
incarnational ministry. No new "emerging" or "postmodern"
values need to be adopted biblical ones are sufficient.
They are, after all, authored by the most effective Fisher of
Men of all time.
J.D. Greear, 31, has been pastor of the
Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, for three years. The
church, which has grown from 390 to 1,550 in average attendance,
is located between the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill,
and Duke University. J.D served for two years as IMB personnel in Southeast Asia.
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