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Assessing the Emerging Church

The so-called "Emerging Church" movement has garnered quite a bit of attention the last few years. Actually a spectrum of movements ranging from relatively conservative but non-traditional churches to thoroughly postmodern congregations, emerging churches have become all-the-rage in many evangelical circles. This is the case among many younger Southern Baptists who identify themselves with such phrases as "emerging," "emergent," "incarnational" or "missional." Some of these pastors and churches are simply describing new ways of being On Mission (a once-popular slogan in SBC life). Others are questioning not only tradtional methodology but also orthodox theology.

Over the last several months a number of Southern Baptists scholars have weighed in on the debate over the emerging church phenomena. John Hammett, professor of theology at Southeastern Seminary, read a paper at the 2005 meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society entitled "An Ecclesiological Assessment of the Emerging Church Movement." You can access a PDF version of Dr. Hammett's paper here. A number of thinkers also contributed articles to the Spring 2006 issue of the Criswell Theological Review, including several leaders associated with the various segments within the movement itself. For those unacquainted with the emerging church, a helpful place to start may be Ed Stetzer's brief introduction to the movement, written a few months back for Baptist Press. Dr. Stetzer serves as a missiologist with the North American Mission Board of the SBC.

All Southern Baptist pastors, denominational workers and seminarians would do well to avail themselves of these resources and become acquainted with the ever-growing, ever-popular, ever-controversial emerging church movement(s).

Faith of our Father’s Pastor Spotlight: R. G. Lee, part 2


R. G. Lee's oratorical style creatively turned a phrase into the topic of his sermon while passionately and doctrinally proclaiming God's Word. Lee's sermon "The Face of Jesus Christ" is an excellent example of his methodology. The text for the sermon is 2 Corinthians 4:6 which mentions "… the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." He used the last phrase of the verse as his subject matter and title. Lee introduced the Bible as a "vast portrait gallery." He listed God's portraits in the Bible: Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Elijah, Daniel, John the Baptist, Paul, etc.

These biblical portraits set up the contrast for the thesis of his sermon, "But on every page we will get evidence that all its portraits lose their splendor in the greater glory of the face of Jesus Christ. Of His face, His blessed face, His sweet face, His dear face, we would now speak. What kind of face is it?" Lee said that Jesus' face was: sad, shining, stained, smitten, set, scorching, shrouded, and seen. Jesus had a sad face, which speaks of people rejecting his teaching, his compassion on the lost, and his sorrows. Jesus' face was a shining face because his appearance transfigured, his face blinded Paul on the way to Damascus, and his face shone like the sun on Patmos when he revealed himself to John. Jesus had a stained face. This speaks of the tears he wept for Lazarus, tears shed for Jerusalem, blood he sweat at Gethsemane, blood he shed at Calvary, and even spit he received from Roman soldiers. His smitten face speaks of God bruising him and soldiers beating him. Jesus' set face points him toward Calvary. His face scorches because he violently cleared the temple and furiously judges his enemies. Jesus' shrouded face speaks of his death. Yet, his seen face proclaims to the world that Jesus is alive and "we shall see him as he is!" Lee, "The Face of Jesus Christ" in Payday Someday and Other Sermons, 68-87.

This sermon shows how Lee used the scriptural phrase from the verse and turned it into the theme for his sermon. He strung together meditations and thoughts on the theme for the body of the sermon. Indeed, turn of phrase is the most striking feature of his preaching. Mostly he used scriptural phrases or phrases loosely derived from the scriptures (i.e. the sermon title "Christ, Above All" is derived from Philippians 2:9-11 and John 3:31), but there are features other than turn of phrase to note quickly. His oratorical abilities were also demonstrated by his use of: repetition, poetry, and rhetorical questions.

An example of each of these features will make evident Lee's oratorical method of preaching. His repetition is seen in the sermon "The Blood of Christ" where Lee preached (italics mine), "The blood in drops, falling like red rain from the cross… The blood in rills, pouring down like red wine from the crevices of a wine press… The blood, splashing like shafts of red sunlight in the face of his enemies, is saving blood" Lee, Blood of Christ, 3-26. The poetic aspect of his preaching was not only seen in the artistic way that he strung words and phrases together, but it was also seen in the way he used poems in his sermons. One sermon about the Gadarene Demoniac he quotes the boy's testimony by using a poem:

In loving kindness, Jesus came

My soul in mercy to reclaim;

And from the depths of sin and shame,

Through grace he lifted me.

Finally, Lee used rhetorical questions to drive home his points. In his sermon "The Paths of Disappointment" he said, "What shall it profit a man if he be a great artist and know not Jesus, the one altogether lovely? What shall it profit a man if he be a great architect and know not Jesus, the Chief Cornerstone? What shall it profit a man if he be a great baker and know not Jesus, the Living Bread? What shall it profit a man if he be a great banker and know not Jesus, the Priceless Possession? What shall it profit a man if he be a great biologist and know not Jesus, the Life? What shall it profit a man if he be a great carpenter and know not Jesus, the Door? What shall it profit a man if he be a great doctor and know not Jesus, the Great Physician? What shall it profit a man if he be a great farmer and know not Jesus, the Lord of Harvest? What shall it profit a man if he be a great geologist and know not Jesus, the Rock of Ages?" Lee, "Paths of Disappointment" in Whirlwinds of God, 33. Ralph Turnbull described Lee as an orator when he said, "Part of the secret of Lee's effectiveness lies in his oratory. He is one of the few men left in this era who has a link with past oratorical preaching" Turnbull, A History of Preaching vol. 3, 221. Comparison, repetition, clever phrases, poetry, and much more demonstrate the depth and uniqueness of Lee's abilities.

Lee was best known for his powerful preaching. The two biggest influences on Lee's preaching were T. DeWitt Talmadge (whose sermons were published in full in the New York Newspapers every Sunday) and Sam Jones, the great evangelist. Paul Gericke said, "Lee's own preaching style would combine the biblical wisdom and oratorical skill of Talmadge with the down-to-earth applications and evangelistic fervor of Jones" Gericke, The Preaching of Robert G. Lee, 13-14. Lee possessed old era oratorical skills repackaged and applied to his modern hearers. He commanded attention. People could listen spellbound for more than an hour. Turn of phrase, repetition, rhetoric, and poetry demonstrated his oratorical skill. He used these to build his sermons.

Modern preachers need to study the way that Lee used words in a Spurgeon-like way to engage his audience. Words are extremely important, and preachers should be intentional in the way they craft their sermons to dynamically communicate God's Word. Lee and old era oratory may both be resting quietly in their coffins, but the need to craft our words intentionally to effectively confront modern hearers has never been more alive! This and much more can be learned from the preaching of Robert Greene Lee.