Emerging Church: Defined?

So I have called myself Emergent in this blog for some time now. I dare say that anyone who has been around the church and is under 50 years old (and some who are older) has probably heard the terms “emergent” and “emerging church” without much explanation. Sometimes it refers to a way of worship that includes candles, eclectic music, and some alternative to a traditional sermon, just to name a few key features.

Now, I do kinda like music performed by those with dreadlocks. But that isn’t what I mean when I call myself emergent. Part of the reason there is so much confusion and complexity around the term goes back to the very definition of the term to begin with.

First of all, emergence is a term that comes out of systems thinking and some philosophers of science. I don’t know much about how this works in natural systems, but I can understand the concept. Emergence is a complex of interactions between simpler things which causes the appearance of something(s) which is greater than the sum or difference of the parts. Not knowing much about the other philosophies, I will just go straight to the church discussion.

Emergent, at least in one form of the definition, would describe people who believe that the truth of the Christian gospel and the Church comes out of the interaction of a multitude of traditions, not simply one tradition expounded well. Emergents generally do not want to believe that either Roman Catholicism nor Reformed Presbyterianism nor Tibetan Buddhism is a full and complete system of thought without error. Neither is Keynesian economics nor philosophical naturalism.

The natural outworking of this theory is a kind of Christian pluralism which is steeped in the various Christian traditions. Because I am not convinced that my pentecostal heritage is without error, I also intentionally worship with and engage the thought of Roman Catholics and Methodists and Lutherans. This is a new kind of ecumenism, but on somewhat different grounds than the previous versions of ecumenism. The previous ecumenical movement which is now represented by the World Council of Churches and similar bodies imagined that Christianity would be better represented by the various churches’ lowest common denominator. This new brand of emergent ecumenism encourages each Christian or church to fully embrace the complexities of their own system of thought, but to do so in dialogue with other Christians and even those outside of confessing Christian faith. Most of this comes from the disillusionment with the previous generation of leaders’ theological arrogance. This move is perceived to be an act of intellectual and spiritual humility, I think.

I think this humility is a good thing. But for me, the reason for such an approach comes directly out of my pentecostal heritage. Pentecostals embrace a “prophethood of all believers” perspective which considers every Christian to potentially speak the very words of God to the church. The church is then charged with a discernment process whereby the community will determine whether what they have heard are the words of God. Usually this discernment is an informal process and even occurs simultaneously in worship as the pastor, elders, and congregation lift their hands and hearts approvingly after the prophetic word and thank God for speaking. On one or two occasions in my pentecostal life, I have had a leader come to the front of the congregation and explain that they did not believe God had spoken through such a word. For me, being emergent is embracing this process throughout the Christian dialogue, even with voices that rub us the wrong way. The theory of emergence would tell us that the words of God which come from others have the potential to communicate truth to us.

Now this can go in two directions that I think are problematic. The first is a Christian pluralism that becomes little more than pluralism from a Christian perspective. I do not happen to think that Christians can learn as much from Buddhists or Muslims as they can from other Christians. There may be things we can learn from other faiths, but I would prefer to say that we are listening for the lost voice of earlier forgotten Christians among our brothers and sisters of other faiths. There are certainly some emergent-types who are ready to embrace everyone as if all truth is relative. I happen to think Christianity is the one true religion, I am just not sure that my interpretation of Christianity is completely true. I do think there is “absolute truth”, for whatever that term is worth, I just don’t think I have it. I do happen to think I am pretty close to it, or I would change my opinion to something closer to what I think is true. That is the reason for the dialogue.

While some emergents are ready to chuck the idea of truth beyond some subjective “true for you” concept, I think that is pretty ridiculous. Only a very small segment of philosophers and a great deal more literature academics ever really bought this concept, but someone forgets to tell that to every class of freshman undergraduates. People like Derrida and Foucault really buy it. At least if I understand Derrida, he buys it. But I don’t think even Derridians live that way. It is non-sensical. But the theories keep getting repeated in discussions by non-philosophical types over and over until people think it actually has some logical weight. I don’t think it does.

The other direction which is problematic is what I would call a spiritual consumerism. Here the problem is that emergent types think that they can just pick and choose which elements of the Church’s tradition that they want to select out for recovery. Labyrinths and cathedrals and deification are cool. Original sin and substitutionary atonement and conservative sexual practices are not cool. Now, I think we should only adopt that of the Christian tradition which we find to be truthful and life-giving and we should reject what should be rejected. And I don’t think that the whole tradition is without error or messiness. Honestly, I don’t have any good criteria by which we should engage the tradition critically and not become consumers who simply choose what is bright and shiny and reject our spiritual peas and carrots. I just know that I get nervous when I hear emergent types talking about Lectio Divina, but not talking about hell and evangelism.

So, that is my take on emergent and emerging church. Maybe I will write a follow-up post on the practical implications for the church. For now, this will do.

But, of course, if emergent is really a conversation which produces truthful dialogue, then you all need to comment and tell me what you think I have said truthfully and what I have said that is not quite there.



  1. says

    Insightful. I think you are on to something, but I just read through once. I will print and read again to see if the thoughts that popped into my head during the first reading formulate into questions.Thanks for initiating the dialogue.Peace brother, Rob.

  2. says

    A wonderful primer for all – especially pentecostals!I would argue that the clear message(s) of Scripture and the consensual theology of the first 5 centuries gives us a place to start. A great book that will force emergents to clarify thinking is Webb's, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals.Keep writing, but also show courage – there are solid foundations to assess the self-absorbed thinkers who claim special status (smile).

  3. says

    Okay, not having the time to do the 'other' reading [theological stuff] that I would like, I will accept your definition of 'Emergent' at face value and base my reflections on this understanding.I have, probably mistakenly so, always lumped those who label themselves as Emergent, Progressive, Post-modern, etc. in the same bucket. My impression of much of these writings/expressions is that the scandelous nature of the gospel makes them uncomfortable, and the simplicity – yet radicalness of the message not sufficiently sophisticated for their air of learnedness, so they present arguements as though the world has been waiting in exasperation for them to finally explain the 'secret' of understanding Christianity that has eluded the rest of us. Generally, throwing the baby out with the bath water in the process.I get the need for innovation, but I don't want to forget the challenge to remember the 'least of these' – a radical call to community and inclusiveness that makes the Love of Christ a tent large enough for everyone – including those not as enlightened as those on the 'progressive' 21st century track of Christendom.Your emphasis on humility is appreciated, your willingness to hear from all traditions, yet keeping Christianity as your capital 'T' works for me.Your concern for not falling into the trap of absolute relativity resonates with me – the need to maintain a sincere level of commitment to the creeds in our Christian practice is important. I get the academic arguements that call the contents of these creeds into question – there are those more concerned with the correctness of their creed, instead of the compassion in their lives lived – but I still feel strongly that the Creeds and the early foundations of the church are relative and important today.Your reference to 'spiritual consumerism' is an outstanding point, it is a point that I believe gets overlooked in many of the current Academic discussions or conclusions for seminarians.Keep writing, I appreciate the forum and your expression of faith and conviction. Your parents had more insight then they knew when they chose 'Jeremiah' as your name.Peace to you – Rob.

  4. says

    Thanks for your gracious comments Rob.Your comments give me reason to further clarify…especially the nature of the scandalous Gospel. I definitely don't think most emergents have a problem with the Gospel scandalizing us. They kind of like it in fact. This is a significant difference from the typical progressive Christian.The point about the secret and academic nature of their message is well-taken. This understanding emphasizes the complexity of the gospel message, rather than the simplicity which so many evangelicals of the last generation did. I think some work will need to be done by emergents which can explain how this is not a kind of gnosticism whereby only a select few can get it. The Gospel is a message for every person and, according to Jesus, the little child actually has an advantage in "getting it." Thanks again.

  5. says

    Hi Jeremiah,I like a lot of what you've said here but don't quite get (or agree with) your thinking that the prior ecumenical wave was predicated on a "lowest common denominator" approach. While no fan of the WCC myself, the very fact that it grew out of the prior international missionary conferences (Edinburgh, etc.)gave it a collaborative, actively missionary impulse. Even later, when a lot of the initial mission impulse died down, the very publication of "Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry" wasn't so much a LCD since it was also accompanied by several volumes of comments and addendums by different church bodies. Some things they did were rich, nuanced, and very helpful. Where they obviously went wrong over time was in the radicalizing and politicizing of some of the program unit departments. They've never been able to return to their original bearings in the modern missionary movement.God's peace,~Fred Nelson

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