Part 3: The Emerging Church - Circa 1970
Part 1: The Emerging Church - Circa 1970
Part 2: Early Experimental Emergents
“If we intend to realistically proclaim the truth of Christ’s redemption to nonevengelicals, we must have a significantly different form of outreach. This, in turn, requires significantly new forms of training and study. Organizational structures not deliberately geared to prepare us and effectively carry out our witness would be revised to a more functional format.”
A Book Review
While the Discernment Research Group was working on the previous two posts in this article series “The Emerging Church – Circa 1970” and “Early Experiential Emergents” I purchased a used copy of Bruce Larson & Ralph Osborne’s 1970 book the emerging church. I had read a brief review of it at Dan Kimball’s website and was intrigued by his statement that he “didn’t know” about it. Could it be that this generation of emergents truly aren’t aware of their roots? Kimball simply viewed the two “‘emerging’ time periods” as evidence of examples of “‘what church looks like as culture changes.’” Kimball said that this was just another indication of a “New Testament church… constantly changing and emerging due to cultural issues.” 
Curious, I wanted to know more: what were the similarities between the first “emerging church” era and the second? Were there significant similarities in worldviews? Would this give further credence to our hypothesis that the two emergent church events were connected historically via personnel, organizations, agendas, and philosophies?
When I read the opening paragraphs of the book I was so stunned that I dropped the book. I recognized it! I had read it before – in the mid-1970s. I hadn’t anticipated this. My mind went back into my earliest years in the faith, shortly after salvation. My husband and I had been part of the first emergent church movement!
In fact, back then I was a perfect candidate to read the book and be influenced by its message of change. At the time I was working on a master’s degree based on humanistic psychology. I had come out of a dead Protestant church background, where modern liberalism had abolished the tenets of the faith. By God’s grace I was subsequently saved in the vibrant “Jesus movement” which openly challenged the “God is dead” lifeless postmodernism.
So, reading Larson’s book the first time around, I had accepted the theme of the book without question: the dead, dry, old, stale church structures and traditions are “wrong, inadequate, or outmoded” (p. 25) and “quite irrelevant” (p. 21). I had agreed with the premise, “it is possible to find a radically different approach” (p. 25). Of course, I didn’t know anything about Faith at Work, nor its agenda.
In the ensuing decades my husband and I joined up with many church “experiments” in our zeal to return to a more authentic New Testament faith. But, by God’s grace, we didn’t leave Scripture behind. And that is what makes our story so different. We separated ourselves from our earlier entanglements with humanistic psychology and mysticism. And we spent the next few decades of our lives researching and writing, particularly in opposition to these very same historical and philosophical issues that had once ensnared us.
So, how did I respond to my second reading of Bruce Larson’s book the emerging church 32 years later? Quite differently! The only areas of agreement that I can still find with the basic premise of the book are that: 1) there are problems with spiritual deadness in churches, 2) church structure, function and format can become confining and lifeless, and 3) people are challenged to relate to each other at a deeper, more meaningful level in churches, especially in our depersonalized, mobile and alienated society. But, alas, the answer to all of this is the Word of God and the Holy Spirit working in lives and hearts – not Carl Rogers’ encounter groups! Not Peter Ducker’s strategies, goals and measurable results! Not utopian plans to build the kingdom of God on earth!
What I discovered on my re-read is that this 1970s book contains all of the essential elements of the Emergent/Emerging Church movement of our own era, four decades later. The parallels are so striking that it this cannot be an accident. Read the list of similarities below and see for yourself.
• ENVIRONMENTALISM & ALTERNATIVE FUTURES
- “we are beginning to sense something of God’s enjoyment in His relationship to His creation…. We pollute our atmosphere, soil, and water…. Rampant selfishness at all levels of society hastens the day when the human race will have accomplished its own extinction.” (p. 32)
- “We believe that the Church must not only see current trends as opportunities, but also try to predict future developments so that it may set goals that are in keeping with God’s goals….” (p. 114)
- “does not world peace wait for the time when nations find the freedom and grace to acknowledge their mistakes, confess their failures, and ask the forgiveness of world opinion?” (p. 36)
- “the life of the congregation in the emerging Church will probably be structured around small groups of believers. That is, the interrelationship of people in dialogue is the means by which Christ may most clearly make Himself and His purposes known.” (p. 59)
- “In the emerging Church, we will ‘give God the freedom’ to use the humanness of His people.” (p. 66)
- “people can open their hearts to one another and talk about their past failures and present hopes.” (p. 94)
- “There must also be a place in the small group for dialogue and encounter….” (p. 95)
- “‘We would ask only two questions: What product are we trying to produce? Are we producing it?’” (p. 42)
- “radical rethinking of strategy” (p. 82)
- “We believe that the Church must now only see current trends as opportunities, but also try to predict future developments so that it may set goals that are in keeping with God’s goals….” (p. 114)
- “What measurements could be used to determine the effectiveness of a preaching ministry?” (p. 80)
- “One form of the small group that has been particularly meaningful and helpful to us personally can appropriately be called a ‘covenant community.’ In such a group, the members commit themselves to one another in certain specific, mutually agreed upon ways, for a given period of time, … Both of us are presently part of a covenant fellowship which meets, usually once a month for an entire day.” (p. 96-7)
- “In thinking about strategy, it is interesting to note that in former days differences between denominations (and between individual churches within a denomination) could be seen in the divergent emphases on theology, or on the presence or absence of certain emphases on ethical values. Today the thing that differentiates between churches is not theology or even values so much as strategy.” (p. 90)
- "to evaluate their goals and their performance, and to scrutinize their strategy with ruthless honesty.” (p. 139)
- "people of God to adopt strategies and goals for living, speaking, and governing themselves that would be relevant to their changing times and circumstances.” (p. 140)
- “meet in a shopping center or school or community hall;” (p. 51)
- “radical rethinking of strategy required for the educational ministry of the Church of the '70s.” (p. 82)
- “rethink strategy” (p. 82)
- “‘theology of architecture’” (p. 83);
- “No rigid pews” (p. 83)
- “But then there should be the ‘awaiting’ on an awareness of Christ’s presence and will, …” (p. 57)
- “But one jarring note was that all of the hymns sung (with great gusto!) were from a bygone era;” (p. 85)
- “God not only dwells with His people, but in them.” (p. 54)
- “In too many instances the Church has neglected its primary resources: the divinity of Christ continuing His incarnation in His people, and the very humanity of those in whom he continues to live.” (p. 73)
- “In the emerging Church, a new kind of preacher is coming into his own for whom there is presently no adequate training….” (p. 59)
- “we need to do away with the double standard which demands absolute purity of thought, word, deed, attitude, feeling, intent, motive, and desire for the clergy, but permits something more earthy for laymen.” (p. 70)
- “a clergyman becomes not a disseminator but an interpreter of news.” (p. 108)
- “‘Then it hit me: the only way to break out of my authoritarian role was to shift the emphasis of my ministry from giving answers to sharing experience.’” (p. 129)
- “We conceive of an over-arching strategy that will bind together all local congregations which are a part of the emerging Church of the ‘70s. From our point of view, this strategy – this grand design – is the emergence of the lay apostolate as God’s primary means of accomplishing His will in the world…. The enabling of the emerging lay apostolate.” (p. 92)
- “To be a prophet… means that he discerns where society is crushing an individual or group, declares that this is displeasing to God, and acts to change oppressive laws, systems, circumstances, or conditions.” (p. 93)
- “A retreat… is a time set apart… for members of the church to dream together about the future…. Big business calls this brainstorming; the Bible speaks of dreaming dreams and seeing visions. This is a vital method of raising hopes and seeing issues clearly.” (p. 98)
- “A church that is alive must also encourage individuals within its membership to dream personal dreams about God’s new thing for them.” (p. 144)
- “they were waiting for some mystical experience from outside.” (p. 61)
- “The emerging Church can hardly ignore these young people. It will either see them as a threat and shut them out (which would be suicidal) or it will listen to and learn from them, meanwhile holding high the banner of the true revolutionary, Jesus Christ!” (p. 106)
- “to hold to a morality out of fear of consequences – in the present or hereafter – is no morality at all.” (p. 107)
- “The emerging Church must learn to speak to both sides of the generation gap as regards to sexual morality.” (p. 108)
- “the Church has too often hollowed out its own cave where it could remain untouched by the world,…” (p. 103)
- “When the wall comes down, the Church is free to move out with its message into the very bloodstream of society.” (p. 111)
- “the disintegration of the wall between sacred and secular is a fantastic opportunity for the emerging Church.” (p. 112)
- “In our time… is the growing strength of the behavioral sciences. This is a threat to many in the Church, and viewed with alarm. But if we listen to what the behavioral scientists are saying, we can find a new frontier for the Church. Experimenters in the forefront of the behavioral sciences, whether they emphasize T-groups, sensitivity groups, touch therapy, or any of a dozen other techniques,…” (p. 114)
- “Whenever the emerging Church has become vital enough to make a strong impact, there have been dreamers who saw ‘the big picture’ in a new way.” (p. 143)
- “The Church must be able to dream… about God’s new thing for them… dream a new dream of what God is doing….” (p. 144)
- “[We] do encourage God’s people to dream dreams that are big in scope. God is in the ‘dream business’ for the Church at large and for local congregations as much for any individual or group.” (pp. 146-7)
- “Simultaneously the new emerged and the old diminished. This is the kind of thing that we feel certain God is doing in local churches across the nation and around the world. To dream is not to destroy, but to build. The edifice that results from dreaming quietly overshadows the old, and in time the old may pass away.” (p. 151)
- “advancing Christ’s Kingdom on earth.” (p. 52)
- “the whole thrust of the Kingdom of God that Jesus has established. If the Church is truly on the offensive and aggressive in its war of agape (selfless love), then when the wall comes down which has separated the secular from the sacred, the Church militant – with its equipped, informed, converted, trained lay apostolate – will be able to penetrate the world with its message of the risen Lord and His plan for individuals and for the world.” (p. 111)
- “[Charles Darwin] was able to see the evidence which God had set forth from the beginning – and was still setting forth…. Darwin was able to set aside his preconceptions, reevaluate his goals, and at length open the world’s eyes in a fresh way to the mystery and complexity of the physical creation…. [L]est we look askance at the unwillingness of the Victorians to reexamine their ideas and reevaluate their goals, let us admit that it is difficult for us even today to imagine that God may be far more surprising, dynamic, and creative than our preconceived notions allow Him to be.” (pp. 137-8)
- “God can do once again a new thing and give new orders to His people.” (p. 141)
- “In our own day we have a man like the famed psychiatric pioneer, Carl Gustav Jung, talking about Jesus Christ making possible a new rung on the ladder of evolution.” (p. 144)
The quotes and snippets of quotes on this list have been excerpted from their original context, but they have not been excerpted out of context. In these few quotes we can see a foreshadowing of what is to come. I believe the similarities of philosophy between the first emergent plan for church transformation, outlined in this 1970 the emerging church book by Bruce Larson, and the subsequent emergent movement birthed about a decade ago, are numerous enough to confirm our hypothesis about substantial linkages.
But there is more. . . .
To be continued, Lord willing. . . .
"Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God." (James 4:4)
[NOTE: any links within quotations have been added.]
1. Cited in Bruce Larson & Ralph Osborne, the emerging church (Word, 1970), page 77. “From the newsletter, “Touch News” (undated), published by West Memorial Baptist Church, 14827 Broadgreen, Houston, Texas 77024; Ralph W. Neighbour, Jr., Pastor. Note: Ralph Neighbour would go on to write the main textbook for the cell church movement, vividly illustrating the cellular/apostolic downline networking hierarchical structure of the emerging church of the future: Where Do We Go From Here? A Guidebook for the Cell Group Church (Touch Publications, 1990).
2. Ibid, p. 100.