Emergent Church Overview – Uncivil Dialogue

Uncivil dialogue and the case of Leonard Sweet and Calvary Chapel Albuquerque

Unfortunately much of the dialogue about the Emergent church is not cordial; it is often contentious and can move beyond discussions of philosophies and facts into ad hominem attacks, guilt by association, and ego battles.  This happens in both blog postings and maybe especially in comments that follow those postings.   Consider the following example.

During the spring of 2010, a controversy arose in the blogosphere concerning an announcement that Leonard Sweet would be speaking at a National Worship Leaders Conference event being hosted at Calvary Chapel Albuquerque.  A number of Online Discernment Ministries (ODMs) got hold of this prospect and began to express great concern: how could Calvary Chapel allow an Emergent church leader and New Age sympathizer to speak at their church?  Of course it is highly unlikely that Calvary Chapel had anything to do with the selection of speakers for the event, and either was caught off guard by Sweet’s selection, or was unaware of controversy surrounding Sweet. 

Unfortunately even at the start of this situation, some bloggers wrote in a manner that implied that pastor Skip Hertzig had personally endorsed Sweet and invited him to speak.  Actually all the church had done was to allow their facility to be used for the conference. 

As the days rolled by, not only blog postings but also emails and phone calls began to be a part of the protest.  But what also began to be seen were counter-protests from Sweet supporters.  The tone of some of these exchanges became quite ugly.  After several weeks of continued turbulent activity, Sweet issued a response on his blog.  By contrast to the acrimonious blog exchanges, Sweet’s response was a model of grace and humility.  In it, among other things, he distanced himself from the New Age and progressive thought:

”Let me say first of all that for me, New Age rhymes with sewage. I have such a low threshold for Gaia worship that in the middle of the movie “Avatar” I had to take a break, so severe was my attack of Gaiarrhea. In fact, I have challenged “new age sensibilities” (which now are known as “integral spirituality” or “Enlightenment,” not “New Age”) for the way in which they goddify the self and expect others to orbit in a Youniverse that revolves around them as if they were a god. “The Secret” of the universe is not that you can have life your way. “The Secret” is that Jesus is The Way (Colossians 3). Jesus did not come to make us divine. Jesus came to show us how to be authentically what God made us to be–human.” (ref)

Earlier in this essay, Sweet’s quote about his criticisms of the Emergent Church and some of its leadership from this same blog posting is provided.  In addition, he also appears to distance himself from his own 1991 book, “Quantum Spirituality”:

“I wrote a book 20 years ago called Quantum Spirituality, [….]  Would I write the same book today? No. Would I say some things differently? Yes. I started working on the book in my late 20s. I hope I’m older and wiser now. But this was the first book to examine the challenges confronting Christianity as it entered into the uncharted waters of a new postGutenberg, postChristian, postmodern culture, and I quoted and referenced New Age thinkers who seemed to “get” this cultural transition better than the church did while I outlined avenues of approach to their minds and hearts.” (ref)

Finally, it was announced that Sweet had been “dis-invited” to speak at the conference, apparently at the request of Calvary Chapel Albuquerque. At least for a while, the exchanges continued to be very argumentative, with the focus now turned from Sweet’s expressed beliefs to how Sweet was treated by some bloggers and how the bloggers themselves behaved: who said what, who didn’t allow comments, who was bullying, who was lying, who was a coward, etc.  Very unsettling.

Lost in all of this was any methodical objective analysis of Sweet’s stated beliefs.  The vast majority of complaints about Sweet came from the contents of “Quantum Spirituality,” with apparently no consideration that his thoughts might have changed over time.  Once his “response” was posted, you would think that there would be some expression of understanding, with attention refocused to recent output from Sweet.  But that did not seem to be the case, at least among the bloggers that were involved in this controversy.

The upshot of this is that on the one hand, Sweet seems to have been unfairly treated, and on the other some of the ODM’s seem to have lost credibility.  And that’s unfortunate because ODM’s are needed in times such as this, to direct attention to possible confusing or heretical beliefs being proclaimed.  Even Sweet’s defenders did not come off as civil or able to deal with this issue in a calm and gracious manner.

Unfortunately this is just one of many such uncivil conversations that have been taking place over the past decade among people dealing with all sides of the EC moment.  It’s a wonder anyone is left standing!   Another example is the pro- and anti-EC websites dealing with the Church of the Nazarene.  See for example:

http://concernednazarenes.org/   (anti-emergent)

http://reformednazarene.wordpress.com/   (anti-emergent)

http://naznet.com/     (pro-emergent)

There is no question that passions run high in these matters, and motives on all sides may start out as pure.  But as the discussions evolve, often the tone can mask the arguments being presented.  And also there is often – on all sides – a lack of diligent investigation of these matters; statements taken out of context, writings and presentations misunderstood, the involvement of egos, uncivil dialogue, all creating an atmosphere of confusion, masking real and important issues.

There are however some exceptions, as discussed in the next section.

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