The Emerging Church – Circa 1970

The tasks ahead for Emergent Christianity include:

  • Wresting questions of eternity away from its Greek “timeless” bias.
  • Wresting evolution—the story of life—away from both Literal Creationism and Materialistic Darwinism.
  • Wresting Orthodoxy back from Enlightenment modernity.
  • Wresting Imminence (God in Creation) away from Pantheism (God is creation), as well as Deism (God is separate from creation) in a Panentheistic approach (God is in All and All is in God).
  • Developing a new cosmology, a new universe story, based in what the “new” science is making known, and a postmodern view of creation, and discovering the Cosmic Christ within this story.
Nic Paton, “Eternity, Evolution, and Emergence,” Emergent Village, Nov. 12, 2008.

The Emergent/emerging church movement was first tried with that name back in 1970 at a series of conferences sponsored by Faith at Work. This fact is disclosed in Hiley Ward’s book Religion 2101 A.D.: Who or What Will Be God? (Doubleday, 1975). The book is a compendium of futurist thought, including the science fiction and paranormal and metaphysics activities extant in the early 1970s. But first the background information to put this all in context.

In September and October 2005 the Discernment Research Group wrote a series of Herescope posts[1] about two “Consultation[s] on Future Evangelical Concerns” held in the late 1970s in which evangelical leaders openly became enamored of futurism as a new philosophy. The purpose of the first consultation was “to encourage evangelical leaders to think futuristically and begin long-range planning for the church in the face of possible alternative futures.”

In preparation for the first consultation these evangelical leaders evidently read documents [2] associated with Willis Harman of the Stanford Research Institute. They discussed the controversial Club of Rome report Limits to Growth which called for “a global economic and ecological (population control) management, because their MIT computer models showed that the earth ‘probably cannot support present rates of economic and population growth much beyond the year 2100, if that long, even with advanced technology.’”[3]

Donald Hoke, in his Preface to Evangelicals Face the Future (which summarized the first Consultation), quoted Hiley Ward’s futuristic suggestion: “We must consciously work toward creating the future we desire.” [4] This particular statement is the mantra of the futurists, who believe that mankind can envision and facilitate his own evolution. Hoke explained that the initial consultation was precipitated by some meetings with Billy Graham and Hudson Armerding in 1977 in which they considered James Sire’s “penetrating question” published in Eternity magazine (January 1976):

“What if Christ does not come – for 10, 100, 1,000 years?”

This speculation, combined with the ominous declarations of the Club of Rome report (population control, scarce resources, ecological disasters, global governance, etc.) resulted in a call by evangelical leaders for a “new theology” and eschatology to meet the challenges of the perceived future crises on the planet.

In his book Religion 2101 A.D. Ward reveals that he had been meeting regularly with Billy Graham “in interviews… over the years.”[5] His book is a compendium of what was going on with futurist thought, conferences, writings and activities prior to 1975. By this time period evangelical leaders had already been working on futurist projects and doctrines. For example, Ward wrote: “Churchmen were introduced to ‘The Limits of Growth’ theory in Chicago in January 1973, at ‘Insearch: The Future of Religion in America,’ a meeting sponsored by the George Dayton Foundation of Minneapolis.” [6] He also described a number of other church conferences on futurism, including a series of conferences on the topic of “The Emerging Church” which were initiated by the “Faith at Work organization.” [7]

The future of the church, denominations and all, proved to be the basis for an interesting exercise of the emotions at the Emerging Church Conference in Chicago, one of the five regional settings of the conference sparked by the Faith and [sic] Work movement. [8]

Lyman Coleman, who went on to become famous for his “Serendipity” sensitivity group experiences and curricula, conducted a full-fledged touchy-feely, consciousness-raising session at this conference. Participants became engaged in destroying a paper cup which “symbolized the potential total disappearance of [the church] institution.” [9] Ward wrote that “[a]ll this activity about a cup typified the mood of the five ‘1970 National Clergy Conferences’ which took up the question of the shape of the emerging church.” [10] These conferences came up with a “radical theology of the non-church movement.” [11] He explained:

Those 1970 National Clergy Conferences on “The Emerging Church” foresaw a church entirely new, yet keeping (1) the same old doctrines of the “old time religion” and (2) institutional shells. But there would be little preoccupation with life after death. Like the radical modern reformers, who are more at home with non-church building task forces and home groups, the conservative renewalists are concerned with the here and now. [12]

At the Chicago Emerging Church Conference there was a keynote address by Rev. Bruce Larson, then president of Faith at Work, who said there needed to be a push to bring a “relational” or “incarnational principle” into the churches. [13]

Hiley Ward, who was obviously a man passionate about futurism, considered a wide array of potential new theologies that might work for this future emerging church. These new theologies included:

  • Process theology – “Everything—even God—is evolving”
  • Political theology – “efforts of activists who pursue social change in the name of social imperatives for Jesus”
  • Liberation theology – Father Gustavo Guitierrez: “an evangelism which announces the total liberation of Christ”
  • Critical theology – “the dialecticism of Marx”
  • Foundational theology – “A faith based on a more general language and more common experience, shared with all mankind”
  • Contextual theology – “theology is reflection on the experience of the Christian community in a particular place, at a particular time” relevant to the culture
  • Theology of hope – Jurgen Moltmann: “Revolution—a turning of the tables, shattering old institutions, creating new orders, even working toward seemingly unattainable utopias…”
  • Autobiographical theology – “retelling of a personal incident, a testimony, a dramatic experiences—or a chain of experiences—or retelling one’s whole life story. The Jesus People, the poets, the mystics, the newly converted….”
  • Body theology – Rev. Arthur Vogel: “‘presence’—human presence, God’s presence—as a means of linking time and getting above it…. [D]iscipline some part of the body and/or integrate body and mind in order to achieve a higher awareness and consciousness” [14]

All of these evolutionary theologies can be connected in one form or another to the emerging church movement’s theologies today. Interestingly, Ward cites an International Convention of the Religious Education Association held in Toronto in 1973 in which Matthew Fox led a workshop promoting “Panentheistic Spirituality: The Religious Education of Tomorrow?”

[Fox] defined “panentheism” as an “experience of the whole.” Beyond pantheism, which is a passive look at the universe, panentheism emphasizes experience, not of a doctrine or revelation or a Deity, but the experience of the whole. [15]

This original move to create an emerging church movement was set in the rebellious early 1970s, a time when anything connected with “tradition” was being dismantled, discarded and deconstructed. Everything was so wild and radical during this time period that in many cases the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. Man-made traditions in mainline Protestant churches, which often no longer carried any practical or religious significance, were tossed aside just as easily as the traditions firmly rooted in Scripture. This was an era characterized by inadequate discernment, as leaders rushed head over heels into the latest fads or crazes, often trying to outdo one another in trying to be “hip” and “relevant” to the “Jesus Generation.” It seemed to be the perfect time period in which to launch the emerging church movement.

But simple pastors and the folks in the pews hadn’t yet caught up. They hadn’t read the esoteric futurists. And the doctrines of futurism were clearly antithetical to the Gospel. That was precisely the problem facing evangelical church leaders by the time they gathered in December 1977 at the first Consultation on Future Evangelical Concerns, sponsored by the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. Their challenge in the decades that lay ahead was to reformulate old doctrines and invent new theologies that would fit the model of futurism. They would also have to take out a hammer and chisel and begin badmouthing and demolishing the old church structures. It would be several decades before the futuristic emerging church could be fully launched without any noticeable opposition.[16]

To be continued, Lord willing. . .

The Truth:

Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, and saying, “Where is the promise of his coming? (2 Peter 3:3-4a)

1. See the series of Herescope posts in September and October 2005 on this topic.
2. This fact can be ascertained from the context of the “Scenarios, Addresses, and Responses” of the speakers’ published remarks at the Consultations.
3. Dr. Dennis Cuddy, Ph.D. Now is the Dawning of the New Age New World Order
(Hearthstone, 1991), p. 245.
4. Donald E. Hoke, editor, Evangelicals Face the Future (William Carey Library, 1978), Preface, emphasis added.
5. Hiley H. Ward, Religion 2101 A.D.: Who or What Will Be God? (Doubleday, 1975), p. xi.
6. Ibid, p. 8.
7. Ibid, p. 70.
8. Ibid, emphasis added.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid, p. 71, emphasis added.
11. Ibid, emphasis added.
12. Ibid, emphasis added.
13. Ibid, p. 72.
14. Ibid, pp. 153-160.
15. Ibid. p. 62, link added.
16. To see how the Leadership Network launched the Emergent/emerging church movement, read the series of Herescope posts here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Leadership Network also jumpstarted the megachurch movement.