Book(s) Review: The Emerging Church and Emerging Worship, by Dan Kimball


Much is made of the allegedly uncharted waters into which the church is sailing these days.  Whether you call ours a post-modern (though the backlash against that term seems to be already well underway) or perhaps even post-Christian society, the consensus among those concerned about the future of the church is that we must adapt or perish.  Post-moderns, we are told, do not think like Christians.  They do not share a Judeo-Christian perspective on the world, and they do not particularly like the church.  Consequently, the old forms of church life are proving ineffective in ministering across the generational divide.  If we are to reach the people of this lost generation, so the reasoning goes, we must understand their thinking and then design our worship to reach them.

Building on the oeuvre of Rick Warren and Brian McLaren, Dan Kimball has emerged as the prophet of those looking to retool their churches in response to these challenges.  In his books The Emerging Church and its follow-up Emerging Worship, Kimball provides both a critical look at the modern “in the box” church and also his guide to “out of the box” church services that will reach the post-modern generation.  From all indications, Kimball’s arguments have been persuasive.  It seems that “Emerging” is set to take its place in the Church Growth Adjective Hall of Fame, right next to “Seeker-Sensitive” and “Purpose Driven”.  Churches around the nation are flocking to implement Gen-X services with vaguely numinous monikers like The Vine, Frontline, or Axis.  Christianity Today has even done a cover story on the movement.  But the question remains: is this for good or ill?  How should we as pastors and leaders think about this development?

First, we should endeavor to understand Kimball’s argument.  He begins his books with a brief criticism of the modern “seeker-sensitive” (read: Willow Creek and Saddleback) church, with its sterile environment, loss of transcendence, and preacher-as-motivational-speaker model.  He rightly points out that this type of worship service tends to breed a sense consumerism in the congregation.  Oftentimes people leave seeker-sensitive churches feeling like they have attended a Broadway play; they have a program in their hand, an opinion about the show they just saw, and not much else.  They did not have a genuine encounter with God; they simply found an entertaining way to spend an hour.  Kimball argues that the quality of teaching in the American church is near its nadir; preaching has too often become like a “self-help guru Tony Robbins-like teaching with some Bible verses added” (Emerging Worship, xii).  The community of the church too often seems self-focused and the evangelism of the church often seems irrelevant and weak.

Kimball’s greatest objection to the seeker-sensitive service, however, is not that it is too shallow but rather that it is fundamentally out of step with what the new generation wants.  People in their forties may enjoy clever skits, bright lighting, and singers in color coordinated outfits, but not the young people today.  The youth of today crave authenticity.  They want a multi-sensory spiritual experience.  They want to be reminded that Christianity is an ancient faith.  They are attracted to community and candles and meditation.  Kimball argues that the church needs to establish opportunities for post-modern people to worship in a way that accommodates their preferences.

The two books in question constitute a manifesto for the church’s makeover.  Kimball describes the post-modern sensibility in great detail and describes what some “emerging” worship service looks like.  It’s difficult to convey briefly what such a gathering would entail, but a few of the forms of the new style of worship include:

  • Incense and candles to promote a “spiritual” feeling (EW, 168)
  • Crosses (preferable Celtic) scattered liberally around the room (EC, 185)
  • Tables set up with objects to aid in mediation (sand, vines, seeds)
  • Prayer stations and art stations for a creative outlet during the sermon
  • Ancient art work projected onto the walls to help set the mood
  • A sermon/teaching time presented in an authentic, non-monolithic way
  • Pictures of Jesus to keep things Christ-focused (EW, 160)
  • Tapestries to add a “tabernacle feel” to the room (EW, 160)
  • Emphasis on the Jewish roots of the faith, giving it an ancient feel (EW, 92)
  • Looping photos of nature scenes (EW, 85)

You probably get the picture by now.  Emerging worship is designed to make people feel comfortable and welcomed.  It is supposed to nourish the person’s sense of the spiritual and mysterious.  It reminds us that ours is an ancient faith.  It teaches us using the senses, not simply by preaching at us.  In contrast to the seeker-sensitive churches, it is dark, deliberate, slow, meditative and serious.

Kimball makes a compelling case for the fact that this style of worship is exactly what post-modern people are looking for.  The generation that has been missing from the church is now flocking to churches that are bold enough to embrace the changing mindset and shift accordingly.  There is little doubt that this is true.  Such gatherings are flourishing and people are enthused; the crowds are coming.

The question before us is this: is that enough?  Is numerical success vindication of the methodology?  For Kimball, the answer is clearly “yes”.  Even his concern about the seeker-sensitive churches is simply that they are no longer attractive to young people.  It is an inviolable truism of the modern (and post-modern) church that whatever brings in the most people must be the most appropriate strategy.  It is here that it becomes clear that Kimball’s acorn has not fallen that far from the seeker-sensitive tree.  It is simply the same ideas about pandering to people’s needs that have been tweaked to reach younger people.  In ten years we will need another book that heralds another approach to reach another generation.

This is certainly no way to think about the church.  We cannot simply attempt to fulfill everyone’s wishes in order to draw people in.  After all, brothels and methadone clinics meet people’s perceived needs and draw large crowds, but we (presumably) can all agree that the church should not adopt their methods for attracting people.  In fact, the church does not serve people well when it simply caters to their desires without challenging them.  Kimball’s work is full of this uncritical acceptance.  He writes of the things that the non-believers in the emerging generation “crave”, “desire”, “long for”, and “connect with”.  His books then describe in detail how the church can accommodate those desires in order to attract the lost.

But shouldn’t the church challenge the desires of the unbeliever?  Unbelievers do not “crave” repentance and faith, but it is the church’s job to tell them that they should.  Non-Christians may “long for” a spiritual experience, but the church that gives them a sense of the transcendent without the offense of the cross has done them great spiritual harm.  Kimball quotes non-Christian author Garrison Keillor approvingly: “If you can’t go to church and at least for a moment be given transcendence, if you can’t pass briefly from this life into the next, then I can’t see why anyone should go.  Just a brief moment of transcendence causes you to come out of church a changed person” (EC, 143).  That is exactly wrong.  Sadly, Hell is full of people who have enjoyed a “brief moment of transcendence” in their lives.  The church’s responsibility is to preach the gospel to all men, regardless of their perception of their needs.

Kimball’s perspective on church life is also problematic.  Underlying all of his thinking about worship is the mistaken notion that our style of worship is completely neutral.  But the Bible indicates that we are simply not free to worship God in any way we see fit in our corporate gatherings.  The 2nd Commandment makes that quite clear, as do Exodus 32:1-4, Deuteronomy 4:15-19, and II Samuel 6:3-7.  We are permitted to worship God only as he has prescribed in his Word.  We may really want to finger-paint in our churches services, but God has not commanded us to finger-paint so we should not.  In addition, many Christians have thought it unwise to use crosses and pictures of Jesus in worship, fearing that it would be impossible not to venerate the object or picture itself.  In addition though pagans, deists, and pantheists enjoy them, Christians have generally though that nature scenes are inappropriate for Christian worship.

Sadly, Kimball does not even address more theologically oriented concerns such as these.  I would have been happy to entertain a challenge to my objections, but they don’t seem to be on the author’s radar.  It is a sad indictment of our times that one of the most popular writers on ecclesiology seems to have no understanding of the concerns and arguments that have shaped the church through its history.

The church would do well to reject Kimball’s prescriptions.  His thinking is simply not clear or Biblical.  He decries consumerism but advocates accommodating people’s tastes completely.  He condemns individualism, but suggests that people get up in the middle of the sermon and pray in the corner by themselves (EW, 166).  On a practical level, it is almost certain that the aesthetics in these types of churches will be poorly done.  The pictures included in the book make the church services look like the leftover set from an under-funded soap opera.  Celtic crosses, Ionic columns, and 19th century French art are jumbled together anachronistically to give a vague sense of antiquity to the proceedings.  Just as people are no longer impressed by dramatic Power Point presentations at church, so will the novelty of such sets and props quickly wear off.  Kimball’s books are simply manuals for chasing the wind.  The target will be consistently moving and the church will drift ever further from its true responsibility.

There is no doubt that the church should endeavor to be culturally relevant.  We should make an effort to make our worship clear and accessible, even to non-believers. But we have a primary responsibility to worship God according to his Word, whether or not emerging generations like it.  It is our charge to preach the offense of the cross to a generation that will not hear it.  Paul did not shrink from preaching a foolish message to a group of pluralistic scoffers (Acts 17), neither should we.

Mike McKinley

Mike is an author and the pastor of Sterling Park Baptist Church in Sterling, Virginia.

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