An Interview with Scot McKnight by Stephen Shields

[This interview first appeared in October 2005. You can browse the rest of the articles from that issue here: ] Scot McKnight is Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University and a prolific author, having penned more than ten books. His most recent book is...

[This interview first appeared in October 2005. You can browse the rest of the articles from that issue here: ]

Scot McKnight is Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University and a prolific author, having penned more than ten books. His most recent book is The Jesus Creed.  Scot recently began interacting with emerging church folks via his blog after discovering his own resonances with the movement.

What originally precipitated your interest in the emerging church conversation?
It all began when Brian McLaren came to NPU [North Park University] and my colleagues, Ginny Olson and Jim Dekker, encouraged me to go hear him. I did, and ended up sitting next to him. I listened in, thought he had some interesting things to say, and began to work on the ideas. I read A New Kind of Christian with Kris, and then she read the second volume (I didn’t). Then I read Generous Orthodoxy.

Then DA Carson’s book [Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church] was announced and I figured I ought to do more intense work on what was going on.

Here’s what I found: many of the concerns with Evangelicalism and many of the theological interests and shapings of the way of Jesus I hear about among the Emerging movement (I still hesitate to call it “church” and think it is more than conversation – but who am I to decide that one?) are concerns and shapings I’ve had for a long time. For me it was “Now here’s a group that is saying things I also believe and do.”

Whom have you personally met in the movement (either f2f or in significant online interaction)?
Doug Pagitt was the first leader I sat down with; I found him intensely stimulated and stimulating. He had a big vision; he had firm ideas but knew how to converse. I’ve been in touch with Brian McLaren and with Tony Jones. And plenty of bloggers. I’ve read a shelf of books on the movement, and some of the writers are so disarming I feel I know them.

TSK [Tall Skinny Kiwi – Andrew Jones] has been helpful to me; his blog puts me in touch with many others. TSK reminds constantly that the emerging movement is not just American – and this needs to be emphasized. I think of Andrew Hamilton and Sivin Kit, and those around the world who have drawn deeply on the emerging voices.

I’m impressed with Steve McCoy who is a leading voice among the Southern Baptists when it comes to things emerging. His blog has a wealth of back-and-forth, pomo humor, and good ideas.

Who are your thought leaders in the movement?

McLaren stimulates me to think. Pagitt does, too. I’ve read some of Tony Jones’ blogs and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with for his dissertation. For me, though, the thinker I most resonate with would be Stan Grenz (and John Franke too). I’ve met Stan, but New Testament scholars and theological scholars run in different circles – which is sad. So, I never got to sit over coffee with him. I really like Lesslie Newbigin’s books, and think he had a “proper confidence” in the gospel in a pluralistic society.

What did Newbigin mean by “proper confidence” and what do you see as its significance?

Newbigin means that we need to have and can have “confidence” but we can’t achieve intellectual certainty as fallen human beings in world where all our knowledge claims are shaped by our context. This book is a must-read for all interested in the emerging conversation.

Have you had opportunity yet to participate in any emerging church events (e.g. conferences, gatherings)?  What were your impressions?

I wanted to go last Spring to Nashville [The Emergent Convention] and beat myself up thinking about it, but I had a publishing deadline to meet and simply couldn’t afford to take time away from Embracing Grace at that time. I can’t go to New Mexico and miss that much class, but I’m hoping to get some events this year if I can. I sense I will meet old friends I’ve known for years but never met.

What do you think that the larger evangelical world needs to learn from the emergers?

First, that the gospel is something that has to be performed or incarnated or lived out as much as something that is to be believed in.

Second, that the gospel is holistic and means working with God in the redemption God has planned.

Third, that culture has a grip on our minds and our theology and that we need to be both more circumspect and humble about what we know and believe.

Fourth, that it is OK to ask questions about cherished things and that humans are worthy of being listened to when they ask questions – questions lead to conversations that can lead to transformation and relationship.

Fifth, the church is bigger than the evangelical church and the historic churches are part of who we are.

Since most emergers came from an evangelical background, what do you think the emerging church community needs to remember from their days as “just evangelicals”?

The greatest contributions to the catholic Church by evangelicals are manifold – personal faith and conversion or what Stan Grenz called “convertive piety”; Bible study and the need for theology to be rooted in Scripture; the value (if also some problems) of local church integrity (I think “autonomy” is a bad word for the church).

Could you unpack your term “local church integrity” for me?

Local churches need to have the freedom to work things out for themselves – in relationship to other churches and the wider history of the catholic Church. But, when it becomes “autonomy” the local church begins to become insulated and arrogant. Evangelicalism sometimes shows the arrogance bug in its local church mentality – when pastors operate in the pretence that they are papal (though never in wording).

Do you think there are any features of evangelicalism that emerging church enthusiasts are throwing out to their detriment?

Some, I suppose, are. My biggest fear for the emerging movement is a fear of evangelism as proclamation. The gospel has to be lived out (performed) but Jesus not only performed Kingdom but he also proclaimed it. Some are so ashamed of the excesses of evangelism and the abuse of people by some in evangelistic practices that they are shying away from the good news as something Jesus offers to each of us.

Some would say that a strength of the emerging church is its emphasis on dialogue.  How do dialogue and proclamation coexist in the church?  Or, put another way, what is the balance between “a chastened rationalism” and Christian conviction?

Good question, Stephen, and I’m not sure I have an answer to this one. (How’s that for dialogical?) Dialogue occurs when we operate with what Alan Jacobs calls a “hermeneutic of love.” That is, when we treat the words of others with a genuine listening. And when we can be treated by the other in such a manner that we can express what we really think and believe. When this occurs, dialogue occurs. Dialogue today too often means compromise for the purpose of getting along – dialogue is best when I can tell you exactly what I think and you will listen and we can talk about it; and when you say what you think and I can listen.

Some have compared the emerging church phenomenon with the Jesus People movement of the 1970′s.  Do you see that comparison and do you see any other comparisons in Church History?

It was the first thing that came to mind. I mentioned this to Pagitt, and he smiled as if he was hearing a high school teacher tell a new class an old joke. There are always major differences in such comparisons, but there are some major similarities – not the least of which is a radical commitment to live the gospel in spite of what it might do for a person’s economic future. There is a strong and healthy counterculturalism to the emerging movement. A commitment to community. I also think there are some significant parallels to Anabaptism, but that is in part biased in my own favor and in part accurate – their radical commitment to community, to radical Christian life-styles, and to the Bible, etc., show some similarities.

Do you plan to do any book length writing around the emerging church experience?

In a space of about two weeks I was approached by three publishers; I may and I may not. I’ve got some things to say, but I have a full plate for publications right now and I think I need to focus on those things. Maybe some papers will spin into a small book.

Other than the Bible, what’s the one book you’ve read which has most moved you to love God and others?

Please don’t pin me to a “one book” option. I have two marvelous kids, so I’ll give you two books, and they show my catholic spirit: The Little Flowers of St Francis and Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections.

If you could change 3 things about how pastors are trained in the United States what would you change?  How can the local churches and the seminaries dance better together?  Have you seen any really effective models?

Now you’re meddling in what is uppermost in my mind at times, and it pains me to say so because I left teaching at a seminary. That I no longer teach there thins my words, but they are still what I think.

First, seminarians need to be involved in ministry, deeply, while in seminary.

Second, more careful assessment of giftedness needs to take place. (Most seminaries admit those who can afford the tuition, and rarely do they do serious assessment of gifts first.)

Third, everything needs to be shaped toward personal living of the Christian life.

And I’ll add a fourth:  learning in seminary should take place within a small group of fellow seminarians so that it becomes communally-shaped.

Local churches should be where seminaries are located. Any seminary disconnected from a church is creating problems that are long-term.

Models. I’ll avoid answering that one for fear of offending those doing it right and criticizing those I don’t think are doing it right.

Before leaving this one, Stephen, know that for more than a decade I was part of that problem myself for I taught at a seminary and I believed the best model of a pastor was a scholar/theologian who could preach and teach. I believe in scholarship, and preaching and teaching, but pastoring is so much more and begins at home and not in the study or library.

You’ve written, “Is there a possibility for a Fourth Way for the Emerging Church? A way that lives in the story of the entire Church, including the Eastern Orthodox tradition and the Western Roman Catholic tradition, as well as the Protestant tradition, one that both lets this be our story and yet that gives us freedom to take that story into a new story for a new day? I think so.”

Have you been able to develop a vision yet of how that might play out in the next 5-20 years institutionally or will it require the development of new institutions (realizing that’s a bad word for some)?

I believe we are on the threshold of creating a church identity that transcends the old boundaries, and I want to be part of it. But, I’m not the sort of person that can spell these things out – as I’m not in a position to effect those changes. But, if I could (like Eric Clapton) change the world, I’d ask churches to begin by spelling out outcomes (and I’d want them to be loving God and loving others) and I’d ask pastors and leaders and churches to shape everything in that direction. How often have our churches been taught “how” to love and “what loves looks like” and “how we can become more loving” (of God or others)? If this is the Jesus Creed, then why is it not more central to our focuses?

Institutions is not a bad term for me; it is the inevitable result of charismatic movements (here I sound like Max Weber). We want institutions that keep thing alive (here I protest Weber). But, we’ll need central organizations and we’ll need “seminaries” (and we’ll have to think how they ought to look and where they could be and what they should accomplish), and churches that have new focus and that cooperate with other Christians and with local governments, and that see a holistic gospel and seek to perform it locally for the good of the world.

You’ve also written:

“But this one comment: the singular most arrogant posture a Christian can take is to pretend (and that is what it is) that he or she can start all over again” and do so by ignoring the creeds and the voice of the Spirit in the Church.”

What are some practical ways that you suggest local emerging church communities can ensure they stay in creedal tradition without being boxed in by mere traditionalism?

I link to the creeds on my blogsite (; churches need to read them and learn them and teach them. They need to see the big sweep of the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Movement, and they need to see that local churches can embody the whole Church in a variety of ways – not just by swiping icons from the Orthodox or candles from the Catholics and disciplines from the monastics, but by learning the story of the Church (read Gonzalez or someone like him) and letting that story be our story.

Assessment is the key to keeping things being alive: we have to have an outcome-based shape to what we are doing so people see why we are doing what we are doing.

Could you say a few words about the nexus of the Jesus Creed and the Emerging Church distinctives?

Jesus grew up saying the Shema twice a day; he taught his followers a new shape to that Shema (both Hear O Israel… love God, and love your neighbor as yourself). This shaped how Jesus lived and taught others how to live. Love is what God’s nature is all about, in the perichoretic dance of God’s interpenetrating Trinitarian love) and it is what our live with others is about.

The gospel is not designed to forgive us so we can go to heaven; it is so much more. It is the work of God to restore Eikons (humans as the image of God) to union with God and communion with others, through the Cross, resurrection, and Pentecost, for the good of others and the world.

For me, the distinctive trait of the emerging movement is the word “missional” and a gospel definition like that above, which is the heart of my next book, Embracing Grace, can sustain an entire missional focus to the church of the emerging generation. I hope I live forty more years to see it all work out!

Stephen Shields is the founder of and the moderator of the faithmappers’ online discussion group.  Stephen is also a Manager with USA TODAY, formerly a bi-vocational pastor with Brian McLaren, and a frequent contributor to Next-Wave.  Stephen received a M.Div from Grace Theological Seminary and lives with his wife Beth and his three daughters – Michaela Siobhan, Skye Teresa, and Alia Noelle – in the Baltimore-Washington corridor. Stephen and his wife most recently began co-coordinating Columbia, MD’s Grace Community Church’s Hurricane Katrina Relief ministry entitled KatrinaGrace.  He can be contacted at and blogs here.

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