The Emerging Church: More than Just a Face Lift


Karl Tsatalbasidis

Difficult to Define

The emerging church—what is it? Frankly, it is difficult to define; yet, we hope that by the end of this article, readers will be aware of the direct relationship that exists between philosophy and theology and the way we do church. “Doing church” usually includes worship, mission, evangelism, spirituality, and church administration. The emerging church has been described as a Christian movement that includes traditions of a wide range of churches. It began in the late twentieth century and is rapidly expanding. Its adherents can be found in many parts of the world, especially in Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand. The movement itself is comprised mostly of evangelical Christians struggling to find ways to communicate the gospel in this postmodern age.

The thought leaders within the movement believe that the worship forms of many churches are wed to the modern culture from which they arose. To them, this is problematic because “modern” is now old-fashioned; it has given way to postmodernism. Since faith is grounded in culture, the church should recognize that it no longer speaks a language that postmoderns understand; it should, therefore, change its worship forms, mission, evangelism, etc., in such a way that the gospel makes sense to this postmodern generation.

Eddy Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger, two popular postmodern writers, have said, “Emerging churches remove modern practices of Christianity, not the faith itself. Western Christianity has wed itself to a culture, the modern culture, which is now in decline. Many of us do not know what a postmodern or post-Christendom expression of faith looks like. Perhaps nobody does. But we need to give these leaders space to have this conversation, for this dismantling needs to occur if we are to see the gospel translated for and embodied in twenty-firstcentury Western culture.”1 Clearly, this line of reasoning assumes that worship forms, evangelistic strategies, spirituality, and church structure are entirely culturally conditioned, which is something the Bible denies.

The style of worship in emerging churches is sometimes referred to as alternative worship. “Before the name ‘alt worship’ appeared, early experiments were dubbed ‘rave worship’ because they were borrowing directly from the culture of dance music in the late 1980s and early 1990s.”2 In addition to the musical style, emerging churches also use the cross, incense, paintings, slides, drawings, and candles as visual expressions. They may show videos, a TV clip, or occasionally an art installation or exhibit functions as the entire “service.” They also may display icons that resonate with both ancient and modern cultures. Thus, their worship services integrate the mystical aspects of both Orthodox and Roman Catholic liturgies.

Because similarities in worship style with seeker services and other megachurches include varying forms of rock music, some may be tempted to think that the emerging church is nothing more than another innovative way to attract youth and other unchurched Harrys and Marys. Bolger and Gibbs explain:

We were also concerned to dispel the myths that the emerging church is simply a passing fad representing an avant-garde style of worship, a movement seeking to recoup its losses among young people by developing contemporary worship styles, or a new and improved marketing strategy. Neither do we believe emerging churches to be halfway houses of a parent church, established to provide a holding tank for younger members until they emerge from their adolescent years of “worldly ways.”Identifying the emerging church with youth church is to miss the point.3

So then what is the point? What is the emerging church all about? First and foremost, the emerging church is a system of intellectual philosophy grounded in postmodernism. The emerging church is not just a face-lift, or, to use another analogy, it is not the wrapping paper that covers a gift without changing the nature of the gift; the gift is the same when covered with a different wrapping paper. This is not true with the emerging church. We are seeing a change of epic proportions, which has occurred at the foundational level of theology and philosophy; the results affect the entire structure of Christian doctrines and practices. Part of the emerging church’s quest is to express its understanding of Christianity within the context of this philosophy, which is why emerging-church thought leaders state that a study of culture is absolutely indispensable if one is to communicate the gospel today.4

In order to better understand the relationship between the emerging church, Adventism, and other churches, it is important to explore the theological foundation. When we’ve done that, we will see why it would be easier to merge tectonic plates than to adopt the worship forms, mission, and evangelistic strategies of emerging churches into the Adventist church.

The Theological Ground

The books of Daniel and Revelation inform us that the devil’s chief target is the heavenly sanctuary because he knows that the sanctuary comprises the overall theological system that provides the very foundation of our understanding of the plan of salvation, worship forms, mission and spirituality.5 In Revelation 11:19, John recorded this amazing scene: “The temple of God was opened in heaven, and there was seen in his temple the ark of his testament: and there were lightnings, and voices, and thunderings, and an earthquake, and great hail.” Also, in Revelation 4 and 5, both the Father and the Son are being praised in the heavenly sanctuary for their work of creation and redemption.


  • Classical Era
    The Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle developed a system of philosophy that the Christian church has been unable to escape for more than 2,000 years. They theorized that ultimate reality is timeless, which means that it is devoid of space and time; it is also both immaterial and nonhistorical. They described this kind of reality as perfect, immutable, and eternal. Both Augustine and Thomas Aquinas developed this idea into the grand system upon which Roman Catholicism is based.

    According to Roman Catholicism, the Bible contains timeless truths that are wrapped in historical clothing, thus while times and circumstances may change, the timeless truths never do. An application of this has been made regarding creation. According to the Catholic system, the timeless truth in Genesis 1 and 2 is that God created, but the seven days of the creation comprise the historical wrapping in which the Bible writer expressed this timeless truth about creation. Hence, the seven days, which include the Sabbath, that Genesis 1 and 2 record are relegated to the mere cultural understanding of the Bible writer and have nothing to do theologically with creation. This explains why there can be theological compatibility between Roman Catholicism and evolutionary theory.

    This line of reasoning also applies to the wonderful scenes that John described in the book of Revelation that was discussed earlier. Since ultimate reality is timeless, there can be no real sanctuary in heaven where Christ actually moves from the holy to the most holy place. These are “obviously” symbolic representations of heavenly worship that John ascertained from his own cultural understanding of worship. Thus, the forms of worship that are presented in the Bible are culturally conditioned, meaning they are not grounded in theology, which is understood as being built upon timeless conceptions of reality, rather they belong to the ever-changing realm of culture. Therefore, if the forms of worship in the Bible are culturally conditioned, what would be wrong with worshiping God through the cultural forms that exist today? This argument is based upon a false foundation and assumes that the Bible does not provide us with a model that demonstrates the causal relationship between theology and liturgy.

    This era has been described as the era of classical theology, which reigned from the second to about the thirteenth century. Worship within this era can be described as the integration of paganism and Christianity. In a recent trip to the Vatican, I could not fail to observe this integration within the churches, basilicas, and cathedrals as well as in the vast and costly displays of art. With the Word of God literally taken away from the people, art—along with ritual and ceremony— became the conveyor of “truth.” It was interesting to me to notice that, of all the artwork I saw at the Vatican, there was not one painting of Jesus serving as our great High Priest in the heavenly sanctuary. Of course, there couldn’t be any such painting; it’s incompatible with the philosophical system upon which Catholicism is built.

  • The Modern Era
    As the classical era gave way to the modern era, the system that Plato and Aristotle developed was still assumed, only now human reason could not reach timeless truths. In the classical age, philosophy and theology were married, but in the modern era, philosophy gained its independence from theology by building on the authority of human reason. Absolute truth still existed in the modern era, but the only way to get there was through reason.

    The modern era placed an unbridgeable gulf between all that exists in the timeless realm and creation. This means that the whole Bible was simply the opinion of the authors and did not contain any cognitive data from God at all; it was merely the author’s understanding of God based on his own cultural background. This brought about a separation between faith and reason, and between theology and science, which has impacted us to this present day. The modern era also set up the separation of sacred and secular.

    With its emphasis on reason, logic, the attainment of absolute truth, and the invention of the printing press, some emerging church thought leaders erroneously suggested that the Reformation grew out of this change in culture that took place during the modern era.

    Furthermore, they stated that the Reformation emphasis on the preaching of the Word as the central part of worship, and the removal of idols and images, was based on this cultural shift. By doing this, emerging-church thought leaders sought to engulf the Reformation within the Platonic system of ultimate reality by stating that the Reformation emphasis on the Word grew out of culture instead of the Bible. They stated that “Protestant church forms were created by a literary age that no longer exists.”6 Thus, all forms of Protestant worship are completely culturally conditioned, and the criticism of emerging churches is that evangelical churches are continuing to use forms of worship that are wedded to the modern print era and no longer apply in the media image culture of today.

  • The Postmodern Era
    At last, the philosophical system that Plato and Aristotle erected is gone. Now, no such thing as timeless reality exists. Ultimate reality is now considered to be historical. Gone also is the notion of absolute truth that was built upon the Platonic structure. Absolute truth has been replaced by pluralism, relativism, and interpretation. Instead of an emphasis on reason and logic, the emphasis now is on experience, intuition, and feelings.

    The postmodern era can also be characterized by the tearing down of the division between sacred and secular. The God who transcends the universe and is separate from it no longer exists; instead, God is interpreted from within creation as in pantheism (God and the universe are indistinguishable) or panentheism (the universe is in God, yet God is greater than the universe).

    One of the major implications of this shift in the postmodern era is that there is very little difference between God and creation, which effectually breaks down the barriers of sacred and secular which the modern era had erected. As a matter of fact, one of the chief objectives of the emerging church is to tear down this division between sacred and secular because the shifting of the philosophical ground from modern to postmodern indicates that all of human life and experience is sacred.
    Sacralization, the process of making all of life sacred, represents the interaction of kingdom and culture. Emerging churches tear down the church practices that foster a secular mind-set, namely, that there are secular spaces, times, or activities. To emerging churches, all of life must be made sacred. . . . Sacralization in emerging churches is about one thing: the destruction of the sacred/secular split of modernity. The modern period was characterized by the birth of the idea of secular space, that is, the idea of a realm without God. . . . Thus, in the modern period, many dualisms were introduced to church life that had not been problematic before: the natural versus the supernatural; public facts versus private values; the body versus the mind and spirit; faith versus reason; power versus love; and the list goes on. These capitulations to the dualisms of modernity affected every level of the church, including worship, Bible study, power structures, and mission. Postmodern culture questions the legitimacy of these dualisms. Correspondingly, every one of these modern divisions is greatly opposed by emerging churches.7
    This tearing down of the division of sacred and secular helps us to understand the philosophical differences between emerging churches and purpose-driven, seeker-sensitive churches.
    The new paradigm, purpose-driven, seeker, and Gen-X churches are not postmodern in this sense. These movements venerate the large gathering and the heart as the primary spiritual domains. They do not challenge the many dualisms of modernity but rather continue the divisions between natural and supernatural, individual and community, mind and body, public and private, belief and action, and they leave controlling power structures in place. In these movements, religion and spiritual practices are activities one does apart from the culture, and spirituality is still very much at the margins…. For emerging churches, there are no longer any bad places, bad people, or bad times. All can be holy. All can be given to God in worship. All modern dualisms can be overcome.8




1. The foundational role of the heavenly sanctuary is undermined. 
When John Harvey Kellogg’s book The Living Temple was released, Ellen White recognized immediately that the principles espoused in it were a direct attack on the reality of the heavenly sanctuary via Kellogg’s pantheistic beliefs regarding the nature of God. She claimed that if these theories were accepted into our church, it would be the death of Adventism. 
She wrote, “The subject of the sanctuary was the key which unlocked the mystery of the disappointment of 1844. It opened to view a complete system of truth, connected and harmonious.”9

The heavenly sanctuary is the great system that helps us to understand the nature of God, ultimate reality, the plan of salvation, worship, evangelism, and the entire range of doctrines. Yet, in all three eras, the foundational role of the sanctuary was replaced. As a result, our understanding of God, ultimate reality, the plan of salvation, the forms of worship, evangelism, and spirituality has been derived from culture instead of from the Bible. 

In the Bible, the sanctuary integrates theology with liturgy. In other words, the worship forms that are employed in the sanctuary service express our understanding of God and the plan of salvation. In 2 Chronicles 29:25, the Bible states that it was God who commanded and ordered the worship forms through His prophets. The liturgical forms came as a result of God’s revelation and not from the prophet’s cultural understanding of worship. 

We must keep in mind that the emerging church is more than just a face-lift because it is inextricably linked with postmodern philosophy. If their worship forms are adopted into the church, the significance of the heavenly sanctuary and its role in the plan of salvation will be completely discarded, with the result that many will be without an anchor to steady them through the troublesome times ahead. 
Since liturgy always assumes an underlying philosophy, the adoption of emerging church forms within Adventism would cause an earthquake at the foundational level, which would then be felt throughout our doctrines and practices. At the philosophical and theological levels, the doctrine of the heavenly sanctuary cannot coexist with postmodern philosophy; for that matter, it has never coexisted either with the classical era or the modern era. 

It’s interesting to note the theological compatibility between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism regarding the worship forms of the emerging church. The adoption of emerging church worship forms into these belief systems does not alter their theological foundations because their philosophical system teaches that worship forms are culturally conditioned, which means that they have nothing to do with theology. In Adventism, worship forms are not culturally conditioned; the idea that they are can seriously undermine our theological foundations, which are centered in the heavenly sanctuary. 

Furthermore, when the foundational role of the sanctuary is set aside the result is that the preaching of the Word is set aside, replaced by the celebration of the Eucharist and a more visual, sensual style of worship akin to Roman Catholicism. “In emerging churches, the symbolic aspects of worship are central. As a result, there is an appreciation of the Eucharist as the central act of worship.”10 Also, “the experience of many alt worshipers was like that of people suddenly discovering a birthright, a heritage which had been hidden from them. The riches of Catholic liturgical tradition were suddenly spread out before them, overflowing out of the old treasure chest: texts, chants, rituals, use of color, and gesture. The impact of these discoveries was to generate new respect for Catholic tradition.”11 


2. Everything is now considered sacred. 
Instead of profaning the church, secular music becomes holy, and therefore the rest of their lives becomes holy as well. For alternative worshipers . . . music is Christian when they glorify god with it, not because of the lyrics or because a Christian wrote it or played it. All things can be made holy as they are given to God, whether “secular” or not.12 

Postmodern philosophy blends God and culture in such a way that they are hardly distinguishable, which makes it impossible to say that certain forms of worship are false. Thus, when the foundational role of the sanctuary is discarded, the result is a reinterpretation of the second angel’s message to refrain from the false worship of Babylon by coming out of her (Revelation 14:8; 18:1-4). Yet, in the postmodern system, there can be no such thing as false worship since truth is culturally conditioned. Furthermore, why would anyone want to come out of Babylon when God is operating there? However, in spite of what the emerging church claims, the Bible teaches that there is a difference between the sacred and the common (Leviticus 10:8- 10; Ezekiel 22:26). It also teaches that we should not confuse evil with good by stating that everything is holy (Isaiah 5:20).

3. The Sola Scriptura principle is discarded. 
It should be very clear by now that the building blocks of theology for the emerging church are not the Scriptures; instead, it’s an eclectic use of tradition, culture, and experience mixed with a little Scripture.


Adventism Has Not Been Immune 

“Reinventing the Adventist wheel” is the title of a Seventhday Adventist blog site. The subtitle is “Progressive Seventh-day Adventists exploring missional and incarnational expressions of church life in a post-Christian context.”13 What follows is a reinterpretation of our pillars and teachings within the emerging church postmodern framework. Read a few quotes:

  • Worship 
    “I believe worship should be deep and meaningful expressions of faith within our own cultural settings and context. I believe we should reconsider the worship forms we have inherited from our upbringing, and rediscover ancient and alternative Christian worship traditions.”

  • Regarding customs, behavior, and lifestyle 
    “My lifestyle is perceived as ‘liberal’ by Adventist cultural standards for reasons such as music and worship style, dress, habits related to food and/or drink or lifestyle choices related to entertainment. However, I prefer to label myself as a ‘Jesus follower’ because I am a disciple.” 

    “My Adventism doesn’t draw boundaries that determine who or what is in or out of God’s kingdom. It allows for God’s presence in any area of life or culture as I see it.”

  • Regarding doctrines and fundamental messages 
    “I believe we are a ‘part of’ a larger Remnant (Fundamental #13) along with other ‘true churches’ preaching the Gospel. Stressing ‘a part of’ to the official statement would unravel decades of denominational exclusivity and arrogance.” We should observe here that Seventh-day Adventists have always taught that there are true Christians in every denomination; the blog statement can only be understood in the light of the emerging church’s postmodern framework, in which calling one’s church the remnant makes no sense. 

    “I believe that a doctrine of perfection found in the historical Sanctuary message of the investigative judgment (Fundamental #24) is not consistent with the finished work of Jesus’ death on the cross. In updating the meaning, ‘Judgment’ should instead emphasize working to model divine justice on earth.”

  • Evangelism 
    “I do not believe evangelism should be done strictly through large organized events that only further institutional cause to promote Adventism. I regard Adventism as one option among many other options for witnessing to unbelievers about the Gospel.”

These statements make it abundantly clear that worship forms are seen to be culturally conditioned. Also, music, worship, dress, food (clean and unclean?), and entertainment have nothing to do with being a follower of Jesus because these things are all culturally determined and, thus, have nothing to do with genuine spirituality or salvation. They may be defended on cultural grounds but certainly not on theological grounds. In addition, there is nothing theologically unique about Adventism because it’s simply one option among many in this postmodern setting, and when we take this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, then there’s no reason for Adventists to preach the three angels’ messages to draw God’s people out of Babylon. 

The emerging church phenomenon helps us to realize that all of this experimentation with worship styles, spirituality, and evangelism is not something cosmetic. That is the line that we have been fed ever since “worship renewal” was introduced into the Seventh-day Adventist Church. What we are realizing is that the emerging church is an intellectual movement built upon postmodern philosophies and should not be confused with purpose-driven, seeker-sensitive megachurches that still assume a modern framework.

One must see the emerging church as something more than alternative worship styles within the background of mainline evangelical churches. It’s more than a cosmetic change, it’s more than just a face lift: it’s recognition that the message, mission, and worship of the church is inextricably linked to deeper philosophical issues. No attempt can be made to completely understand the emerging church without first coming to grips with modernism and postmodernism. 

I close with this paragraph from Ellen White. Written during the time of the Kellogg controversy, it fits well within this setting of the emerging church.

The enemy of souls has sought to bring in the supposition that a great reformation was to take place among Seventhday Adventists, and that this reformation would consist in giving up the doctrines which stand as the pillars of our faith, and engaging in a process of reorganization. Were this reformation to take place, what would result? The principles of truth that God in His wisdom has given to the remnant church would be discarded. Our religion would be changed. The fundamental principles that have sustained the work for the last fifty years would be accounted as error. A new organization would be established. Books of a new order would be written. A system of intellectual philosophy would be introduced. The founders of this system would go into the cities, and do a wonderful work. The Sabbath of course, would be lightly regarded, as also the God who created it. Nothing would be allowed to stand in the way of the new movement. The leaders would teach that virtue is better than vice, but God being removed, they would place their dependence on human power, which, without God, is worthless. Their foundation would be built on the sand, and storm and tempest would sweep away the structure.14


1 Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 29
2 Jonny Baker and Doug Gay, Alternative Worship: Resources from and for the Emerging Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004), 20.
3 Gibbs and Bolger, 28.
4 Ibid., 1-26.
5 See Daniel 8:11-13; 11:31; Revelation 13:6.
6 Gibbs and Bolger, 71.
7 Ibid., 66-67.
8 Ibid., 67.
9  Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, CA: Pacifc Press Publishing Association, 1911), 423.
10 Gibbs and Bolger, 228.
11  Baker and Gay, 24.
12  Gibbs and Bolger, 71.
13 The last update, as of this writing, was March 6, 2008.
14 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, Book One (Washington DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1958), 204-205.