Emerging trends in emergent church?

04a prayer candlesWhat are we supposed to think when we read that pastor so-and-so is controversial because he is the leader of such-and-such a church (which may or may not call itself a church), which is part of the emergent stream of the emerging conversation inside the emerging or emergent church?

If you don’t “get it,” does that mean you are merely the kind of person who just doesn’t “get it,” which means you will not understand what the people on the inside who do “get it” are talking about when they talk about “it”?

Yes, on one level we are talking about postmodernism. At the same time we are talking about evangelical Protestants who love postmodernism, which may or may not mean that they are no longer evangelicals, but it surely means that they are free-church Protestants because they are all creating their own future churches out of the pieces of lots of other churches in the past (woven together with media and technology from the present), except for those who are so free church that they now insist that their congregations (because they say so) should no longer be considered old-fashioned churches at all. I think that’s what they are saying and I ought to know, since, for some reason, many emerging-church leaders read this blog. I think.

Clearly I am confused. But that’s OK. In fact, it’s kind of postmodern. Maybe I “get it” after all.

So, journalists, if you are as confused as I am, you need to scroll through the resources at the new covering-the-emerging-church resource page assembled by the religion-beat professionals at ReligionLink.org. They say that this emerging thing is just starting to warm up and get complex, because it’s not just for evangelicals anymore.

As the emerging church — also known as the postmodern church or “po mo” — evolves, it’s also diversifying. Some want to transcend boundaries between conservative evangelicals and liberal mainline churches. Others are seeking more leadership opportunities for women and non-Anglos. And many churches, though they’re not all about youth or culture, are borrowing ideas from the emerging church trend, available through the Internet, conferences, books and CDs. Jewish leaders hoping to engage more youth have even consulted with emerging church groups.

So are people messing with (1) the doctrine of the church, (2) traditional doctrines (plural) taught by the church or (3) the very idea that doctrines should exist at all?

ReligionLink says that:

The emerging church seems to be forking in three directions, says scholar Ed Stetzer in his forthcoming book, Breaking the Missional Code: When Churches Become Missionaries in Their Communities (co-author David Putman, Broadman & Holman Publishers, May 2006). The most conservative fork accepts the gospel and the church in their historic forms but seeks to make them more understandable in contemporary culture. A second fork accepts the gospel but questions and reconstructs much of the traditional church form. The third, the most radical, questions and re-envisions both the gospel and the church.

chartreslabyrinth3abSo what does all of this mean?

Early on in my work as a religion reporter — about 25 years ago — I started trying to find quick ways to find out who was who in the various Christian groups that I covered. This quest evolved into my fascination with the work of sociologist James Davison Hunter at the University of Virginia (click here for background).

Before long, I learned that you could learn a whole lot in this post-1960s world by asking mainline and Catholic leaders three blunt questions. Think of these as research questions that would work for any Godbeat reporter.

(1) Did the resurrection of Jesus really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus alone?

(3) Is sex outside of the sacrament of marriage a sin?

Now, it appears that it is time to start asking these old mainline questions among some of the “emerging” evangelical leaders, including the person who often is named as the leader of the progressive pack. As ReligionLink notes:

For a sense of the distance between conservative and liberal emerging evangelicals, read Mark Driscoll’s “rant” about Brian McLaren and homosexuality at the Christianity Today blog, Out of Ur. [Out of Ur is the blog of Christianity Today's sister publication, Leadership Journal. CT's blog is here.]

By all means, read it. The rise of a true evangelical left is an emerging story.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://innercitysoul.blogspot.com/ Michael Rew

    I do not understand the emerging church.

  • http://bobhyatt.typepad.com bob

    It’s okay not to understand it :) Yes, in many ways, it is an evangelical left- combining orthodox (even fairly conservative, though not always) theology with a deep concern for social justice. What evangelicalism was to fundamentalism, in many ways, the emerging church is to evangelicalism.

    What is important to understand is that much of the hysteria from more conservative evangelicals is based on misunderstanding… Books like DA Carson’s “Becoming Conversant With the Emerging Church” do precious little conversing with the emerging church.

    To really understand it, get past the books of Brian McLaren and into actual emerging churches (it is, after all the emerging CHURCH movement)… like Apostles’ in Seattle, the Evergreen Community in Portland, or Ecclesia in Houston. What you’ll find are people rethinking ways of doing church, doing ministry, and even rethinking some theology, though by and large coming to very orthodox conclusions.

    And if you really want a sense of the heart of the emerging church, books like Frost and Hirsch’s The Shaping of Things to Come will give you a great introduction.

  • http://www.brotherbobsblog.blogspot.com Brother Bob

    From one Bob to another, good post above.
    I agree with Driscoll’s “rant.” McLaren didn’t want to say anything about homosexuality, because he would offend somebody. The prophet Nathan didn’t think like that when David and Bathsheba committed their sexual sin.
    One question, however. I’m still trying to figure out from Driscoll’s “rant” what a male lesbian is.

  • http://fixedandconsidering.typepad.com/a_worthy_message Dan

    Since we’re talking in generalities, I think the main thing to understand about the emerging church is the failure of the traditional church. People are leaving the traditional church, and forming “emerging” churches, because they want to get closer to God. Traditional churches, I’m afraid, for the most part don’t want you to really live a radical life of service and devotion, although they might say they do. What they want is for you to be like them. In most cases, that ain’t Christ.

  • http://brad.boydston.us Brad Boydston

    Fuller professors Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Boger have actually done some research and written a book with the creative title “Emerging Churches” (BakerAcademic). They have attempted to create some categories (chapter titles) and include interviews. If there is a weakness with their approach it is that they are looking for common threads and not seeing as cleaerly the diversity. Perhaps, though, that is what is necessary at this point.

  • Jay

    It seems to me that there’s a tremendous egotism among those who assume that technological progress nullifies 2000 years of Christian tradition and understanding of Biblical revealed truth. Sure we’ve discovered electricity, space travel and recombinant DNA. And sure mores have changed dramatically in the last 50 years. But does that mean we know better about what Christ said and did than the authors who were decades (rather than millennia) removed?
    It’s hard to see how someone who denies the received meaning of the Gospels can be called a “Christian”. If you “modernize” the church’s teachings to fit a contemporary human understanding of what is intended by the Bible, where do you draw the line? What stops you from saying down is up or wrong is right? To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, someone who says “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” is either the son of god or a nutcase. Where’s the middle ground?

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  • http://fixedandconsidering.typepad.com/a_worthy_message Dan

    Jay, sincerely and with all due respect, I don’t think you get “it.”

    I have yet to hear a teacher who is commonly labeled as an emergent, including McLaren, deny the deity of Christ, his resurrection, that salvation is only through him, or that the Scriptures are God-breathed.

    I think it’s best we follow James’ admonition to listen and not be so quick to judge and speak against one another.

    Here is an article from some of those teachers in response to many of the criticisms and generalizations, including the one you brought up:


  • http://www.intheopen.blogspot.com pilgrimscrybe

    First off, let me say I’m relatively new to the emerging movement arena. While I’d heard about it over the last few years, I didn’t really look into what it is until a few months ago. Also, much of my current understanding is indebted to Scot McKnight, a NT scholar/writer (who also often writes for Christianity Today, an evangelical publication, and runs the Jesus Creed blog, http://www.jesuscreed.org). But even in light of my relative ignorance and my heavy reliance on one source, I’d like to make some comments based on what I’ve learned so far.

    Perhaps most importantly, I’ve found there are many stereotypes and misunderstanding about what the emerging movement is all about. Early on in my quest to find out more about the movement, I ran across McKnight’s short article, “Seven Habits of Successful Emerging Discussions” (you can read it at http://www.the-next-wave-wave.org), which I found very helpful. In particular, it helped me to separate the “emerging” movement (a discussion on a grand scale) and the “emergent” church (groups of people/gatherings that are changing the way we practice church). Some other helpful McKnight cautions:

    –not all emerging/emergent churches use candles and incense (in other words, they don’t all practice church the same way)

    –not everyone in the emerging circles is postmodernist in epistemology; also don’t buy into the stereotype that “emerging folk deny absolute truth”—it’s just not so.

    But, regarding the emerging movement (discussion) in particular, I think the talk taking place is extremely important. Many people in this discussion hold to and value Christian orthodoxy and church tradition (like McKnight) but are asking hard questions about our theologies (granted, this is only one question among many being discussed, but one I find very important). Christians come to the table with certain perspectives on God, Scripture and how/why we do church the way we do. For example, Protestants (including evangelicals) elevate Scripture, but we even do that in different ways—in other words, most of us don’t have “flat Bibles.” We choose some part of Scripture from which to view the rest. Some choose the Sermon on the Mount. Some choose Romans. Some choose the Gospels (particularly, various aspects of them). Add to the mix that, for many, theology (which, of course, none of us can get away from), determines our faith rather than Scripture itself. So, in my opinion, this discussion is important because it gets at why we believe what we believe–and in our uniformed church culture, this is crucial.

    There is much more to this discussion, but I’m just wading in. (And that probably makes me a questionable commentator, ack). Anyway, that’s my disorganized, still-not-so-informed .02 worth.


  • http://www.intheopen.blogspot.com pilgrimscrybe

    Ack, in that second-to-last graph, last sentence, I meant “uninformed,” not “uniformed”.

  • Fr. Raphael

    Too bad, Pilgrim – I sort of liked “uniformed” church, but, of course, I would, since I’m Orthodox.

    What is commendable about the emerging church movement is the desire the movements leaders have in pleasing God and growing radical disciples for Christ.

    What’s troublesome to me is the tendency to creeping synchretism – a bit of this, a dash of that, a bit more of whatever, and a smidgin of pastor’s secret ingredient. And if enough people don’t “like” the finished product (and by “like” I mean exhibit the expected response)– well, let’s try it again with different measurements (and/or ingredients) until we “get it right”. The bottom line is no longer Holy Tradion, Sacred Tradition, or faithfulness to the faith received. The bottom line, as with capitalism, becomes “whatever the market will bear.” Wasn’t it one of the circus magnates who advised “Keep the marks happy”? And isn’t this what the movement is doing – in the Name of the Lord, and to His glory and the advancement of His kingdom, of course – but still, keep the congregants happy.

    I guess I don’t “get it” when it comes to the emerging church movement. Or, even worse, I “get it” all too well. And from the comments already posted, I’m not the only one who fails to comprehend (or comprehends too well and shudders). And if WE don’t get it, how will the average reporter, swamped by too many demands on her time and deadlines that leap up and slap her in the face, get it and report with clarity and acumen? Pray for me, a sinner.

  • http://www.chasclifton.com/blogger.hrml Chas S. Clifton

    Mark Driscoll: “Fifth, I am myself a devoted heterosexual male lesbian who has been in a monogamous marriage with my high school sweetheart since I was 21 and personally know the pain of being a marginalized sexual minority as a male lesbian.”

    What I don’t “get,” I think, is emerging church
    humor. Did he really think that that was a knee-
    slapping funny remark.

    But as a student of American religion, I am
    enjoying the spectacle from the sidelines.

  • http://www.intheopen.blogspot.com pilgrimscrybe

    Fr. Raphael, Your concern about church practice is one I share as well. I’m on the more conservative side, thinking we should let the emerging discussion move a bit further down the line before we implement changes in practice. I’m a theological mix (evangelical/Anabaptist), which leaves me open to the discussion but slow to move, heh.

    One of the reasons, I think, that people (me included) have such a hard time wrapping our minds around the emerging movement is because it’s less a movement and more a discussion — in the early stages, at that. That makes it difficult to define (though, as McKnight has already said, that doesn’t mean those within the discussion shouldn’t try).

    That’s my impression so far, anyway.


  • http://fixedandconsidering.typepad.com/a_worthy_message Dan

    Pilgrimscrybe, I think you’ve hit “it” right on the head about as well as anyone. I think thinking in terms of discussion or conversation is the key here.

  • Micah Weedman

    What’s disappointing about the emergent movement/churches, besides the Old Navy quality to their notion of “vintage” faith, is precisely what tmatt notes–they seem to be unable to offer an alternative to plain ol’ traditional culture warring. While I’ve no love for McLaren’s work, I did find A Generous Orthodoxy interesting, though wanted to rant about his lack of discussion about homosexuality as well–for completely different reasons than Driscoll, of course. I’d have liked to see him actually stake a decent place in that discussion that could be theologically interesting with regards to marriage and family but fell short of traditional gay rights blahness. However, I suspect this isn’t coming anytime soon. I’d love to be wrong.

  • cryptopapsit

    “What you’ll find are people rethinking ways of doing church, doing ministry, and even rethinking some theology” . . .

    Oh, dear. I suppose the bright spot here, if we must talk about “doing” Church or “doing” ministry is that a lot of folks who try this become more or less catholic. But you don’t have to hurt yourself thinking. This ain’t rocket science folks. “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” That’s Christian worship. That’s the Catholic faith. That’s Christian theology.

  • jayman

    I tend to agree with Tmatt on this. While the emerging church has its more conservative elements I think the existence of someone like McLaren portends the emergence (wink-wink) of a truly indigenous theological left-wing within evangelicalism. Reading McLaren’s comments, and even more so of those who wrote in to defend him, on the homosexuality debate in the recent brouhaha on Leadership Journal’s Out of Ur blog convinced me of that.

    It will be interesting and (from my perspective) probably disturbing to see how it develops from here.

  • dk

    Yep, tmatt is right about that. Emergent is the emergence of a theological and political left in Evangelicalism that may or may not have problems with the mainline protestant left but is more directly concerned with created a new evangelicalism or remaking evangelicalism. There is commonly a great hostility for “traditional” (Protestant) churches in many cases, though you get two faces on this in a lot of the literature.

    McLaren in particular reads and speaks like a Evangelical Spong-lite. His consistent trait is a John Kerry-like love of uncertainty, “openness,” “inclusivity,” ambiguity, and endless questions in an interminable “conversation.” He refuses to be pinned down or take responsibility for his views, and he finds it appropriate to question established broadly Christian (eg. the nature of Christ) and more specifically Protestant doctrines (eg. the nature of scripture, salvation and hell). He will listen to, converse with, and vaguely affirm people who are on the full-blown Spong path and deny the divinity of Christ, etc. McLaren may not agree, but he will not say so. Now if Emergent folks want to pull a McLaren and refuse to be pinned with his ideas and name as a leader, I think you will still find many of them playing these kind of vacuous and spineless language games. Clearly this attitude appeals to many, many Americans, and they see it as a kind of enlightenment.

    One item I’ve not seen raised in journalism on Emergent is how it is, as another commenter suggested, another turn of the free-churcher evangelical crank. For this bloc of confessionally and sacramentally unmoored evangelicals, it seems each generation must leave “the church” as they know it and make a new kind. (Additionally, “growth” for them is primarily in “conversion” or new adult members, not children born to members.) In this process of progressive free-church fission, there is a steady loss of former distinctives that grounded predecessors in their identity, beliefs and practices. I would guess there are also parallel processes at work, such as lower birthrates and later marriages among younger, more emergent-interested evangelicals. The larger demographic and cultural-anthropological picture then may be one of communities in decline. As with mainline churches, you end up with a static, non-replacing group that believes anything or nothing.

  • http://fixedandconsidering.typepad.com/a_worthy_message Dan

    Dan Kimball has a good article — the first of two parts — on his blog about the origin of the terms “emerging” and “emergent.”