The The and the Dangers of Generalizations

In this post, Scot McKnight publishes a letter from a pastor struggling with some Christian leaders’ reactions to the “emerging church,” and an extremely lively conversation has ensued.

I am not going to comment on the post itself, but many of the comments talk about “the” emerging church or “the” evangelical church. This is a common, yet dangerous, practice. The world of Christian thought and practice is so diverse that it’s practically impossible to summarize even what subgroups like “emerging” or “evangelical” Christians believe and practice. I do it myself, I know, though I shouldn’t.

Let me use my own church as an example. Most Americans, I think, would classify us as “evangelical,” if they were familiar with that term. Our church tradition, however, historically had very little interaction with the broader Protestant tradition: we have published our own magazines, read our own Bible commentaries, founded our own colleges, etc. That changed about 20 years ago. Today, our church incorporates some unique beliefs and practices that developed in isolation from the wider church with beliefs/practices borrowed from, say, Bill Hybels or Beth Moore, to just give two examples. At the same time, there are many elements of Hybels’ and Moore’s theologies that our church either outright rejects or simply ignores. Other giants of “the” evangelical world – like J. I. Packer or John Stott – are practically unknown. For many of our members in their forties and fifties, Francis Schaeffer was an enormous influence, but younger members have no idea who he was. Rob Bell has gained currency among our members in their 20’s and 30’s, but no one in our church has even heard of Brian McLaren. An increasing number people are reading John Piper, while others think that Reformed theology is practically heresy.

Even within just one church, it’s difficult to generalize. And now a generalization about generalizations: painting with a broad brush can be easy. You can create a straw man that’s easy to knock down with your arguments. Since you get to paint with your own brush, you don’t have to interact with specific positions or find a real basis for your criticism. You discover that you’re always rights, and anyone else is wrong, if you want them to be. It’s intellectual softness that does nothing to advance the Church.

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