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Lausanne, postmodernism and the emerging church

18 February 2011

According to this blog post the Third Lausanne Congress, held at Cape Town in October 2010, issued a “call to action” against “postmodernism” and “the emerging church”.

Now I wasn’t at the Cape Town Congress, though I did take part in some of the online conversations leading up to the congress. Unfortunately the web site for these conversations seems to be broken, otherwise I would have asked these questions there. I would like to hear from some people who were actually at the Congress, to hear from them whether it was their understanding that the Congress issued a “call to action” against “postmodernism” (and whether they believe that postmodernism is called “the emergin g church movement”). I find it hard to believe that the Congress actually said or intended what the linked blog post claimed it did.

The Emerging Threat of Postmodernism in the Church in South Africa: LAUSANNE CONGRESS ‘CAPE TOWN CALL TO ACTION’ AGAINST POSTMODERNISM:

Evangelical Christianity has been under severe and sustained attack from those who wish to compromise and synthesize Christianity with Postmodernism (called the Emerging Church movement) instead of fighting back against it. Some of our largest Evangelical institutions including for example Zondervan Publishers, many denominations and seminaries have been compromising. These compromisers threaten to destroy the very definition of Biblical evangelical Christianity.

Some other claims made by the blog post are:

  • the [Lausanne] statement is explicit. Unlike many other public statements, it does not beat about the bush. Postmodernism is identified as false, illogical, misleading, a negative influence a threat to Evangelical Christianity and religious freedom
  • combating Postmodernism in the church in the Western World will greatly assist the forward progress of world evangelism (the principal goal of the Lausanne Congress) and the persecuted church
  • they put the call to action to defend the truth against Postmodernism first in the practical part of the document their ‘call to action’, recognising the central importance of the fight against Postmodernism to the defence and advance of Christianity in the Western World

I belive that the linked blog post, where these statements appear, is itself  “false, illogical, misleading, a negative influence a threat to Evangelical Christianity and religious freedom”. And to say that Postmodernism is called “the emerging church” is ridiculous. Postmodernism is a rather broad movement in art, architecture, literature, philosophy and several other fields, generally in reaction to, or moving beyond modernism, so to say that Postmodernism is called “the emerging church” is just silly.

The emerging church movement, as I understand it, is also a pretty broad thing, covering  quite a wide range of Christian theology and practice, with a broad general aim of proclaiming the gospel in postmodern society (which I would have thought would be consonant with the aims of the Lausanne movement). I really can’t see the Lausanne movement consciously tying itself to Modernism, and saying that Modernism is good while Postmodernism is bad, and restricting Evangelical Christians to the proclamation of the Gospel only in Modern societies.

It also seems to me that most of those who identified with the emerging church movement a few years ago have moved on, and now call themselves missional or something else.

I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’m an Orthodox Christian, and as far as I know there were no Orthodox Christians at the 2010 congress. As a missiologist I’m interested in what movements like Lausanne and the emerging church are saying and doing about mission and evangelism. From my own observations, there is considerable overlap between the Lausanne movement and the emerging church movement, though there are also areas  where they don’t overlap. The blog post I’ve quoted, however, presents them as being at loggerheads with each other, which I think gives a false and misleading picture.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. 18 February 2011 6:25 am

    ridiculous. i was there in Cape Town, as was other emerging-missional church leaders from many countries (Michael Frost included) and we were a part of the program without controversy at all. This is just silly. Let me know if the link clears up and i will have a friendly chat with whoever this person is.

  2. 18 February 2011 12:12 pm

    Dear Steve,
    What is missiology? What does it mean in the C21st for Orthodox Christians? Is it related to being missionary-minded? Please forgive my ignorance and bear in mind I am a simple physicist, so not particularly cultured – I know something about the deep mysteries of the universe as measured by my instruments, but know little about human culture.
    Very much enjoy reading your blog.

  3. 18 February 2011 2:03 pm

    I was not at the conference, but I did pick up the vibe from some there that it was very much a retreat to modernity.

    The CT Commitment does seem to back up some of what is being claimed – the second section of the Call To Action is a call to defend truthiness against the big bad wolf of postmodernity. But it doesn’t go much detail, really, and nothing like what is being claimed.

    Funny, isn’t it? You’d think that people so committed to upholding the truth would want to spread a bit more of it about.

  4. Carl permalink
    18 February 2011 4:03 pm

    Agreed. Post-modernism is a paradigmical shift in world-view, not an ecclesial fad – I would think Lausanne might have used the opportunity to explore how to reach out in this context. Another term being bandied about in the emergent conversation was ‘post-colonial’ and had something to do with Amahoro. Any update on this term?

    • 18 February 2011 6:49 pm

      Every time I look for Edward Said’s Orientalism, which I am told is the book to read on Postcolonialism, I find someone else has taken it out.

      • 18 February 2011 6:55 pm

        I seem to be full of book recommendations today, but for postcolonialism and mission, have a look at Beyond Empire. (Disclaimer: I didn’t publish this, but I’m working on publishing Jonathan’s new book which is more of a practical guide to mission in the postmodern/postcolonial/globalized world.)

      • Elliott P. permalink
        24 February 2011 4:27 pm

        And hopefully burned it.

  5. 19 February 2011 12:52 pm

    I’m always suspicious of blogs who’s raison d’être is anti-(whatever). I wouldn’t take it too seriously.

  6. 7 March 2011 2:30 pm

    Tangential Point of Info: There were a few Orthodox present as ‘observers’, who took part fully in table groups, etc. Anecdotally, the vibe from them seemed positive!

  7. Tony Harding permalink
    9 March 2011 9:29 pm

    I have always been concerned about the assumption that ‘modernism’ is the norm for Evangelical theology (or am I wrong on this?). Maybe, ‘has become the norm…

    Although I have some issues with people like Ken Wilber as a theorist of our ‘current time’, I think he is correct in asserting that there is a false dichotomy between the rational and the irrational (in the formal use of the word).

    In Lekgowa, I am comfortable saying that ‘in the end, all truths are lies’. We need to accept that ‘contingency’ is the ‘norm’.

    The notion of science as ‘understanding the mind of God’, or biblical theology as reading the ‘objective Word of God’ is time-bound, and is posited in a framework that does not even meet the challenges of current understandings of ‘mind’, if such a thing even exists (which few would still defend as a viable ‘object’ of enquiry).

    I think I once asked you the rather tendentious question: what is it about Evangelicalism that makes it more racist than more Orthodox belief frameworks?

    The answer that I have been toying with is that Evangelical theology is tied into the thinking of the Enlightenment, with all its pitfalls (and delusions).

    In other words, Evangelicalism is overtly about conversion to a particular standard of faith (and practice), which I respect, but it carries the ‘hidden curriculum’ of becoming ‘modern’.

    It seeks erasure of all other forms of understanding human experience, particularly the mystical, as against the ‘rational’. Other societies which are comfortable with the full range of human experience have questioned the ‘logic’ of this, particularly as their understanding of ‘being human’ requires acceptance of a wider range of experience, including the contingency of human experience.

    Some people think that I am defending the ‘irrational’, or even stereotyping other societies as ‘irrational’, by romanticising ‘irrationality. Of course not, but I do understand that this is just a projection of a sense of truth…which has passed its sell-by date.

    • 10 March 2011 6:13 am


      I’m not sure who makes the assumption that modernism is the norm for Evangelical theology, but those Evangelicals who are anti-postmodern seem to make that assumption. One might need to explore the relationship between Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism, and howe much overlap there is between them. Fundamentalism started of by being opposed to “Modernism”, but, like many other such reactions, was dominated by what it was reactiong too, so its methodology is thoroughly modernist. And I suspect that much Evangelicalism today is a kind of “Fundamentalism-lite”.

      PS I’m trying to remember where I’ve met you before — or perhaps I’m thinking of someone else.


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