What do emerging churches believe?

emerging churchEileen Flynn of the Austin American-Statesman had a huge package of stories on the emerging Christian church movement, both in Austin and throughout the country. The four-story series (here, here, here and here), along with solid photos by Laura Skelding, covers the emergent church movement that started in the late 1990s by a group of young Christians who worried about the gap between traditional churches and young people without formal church backgrounds or were frustrated with traditional churches.

In the main story, Flynn highlights local Austin groups and focuses on individuals involved in the movement. Here’s a slice of the scene Flynn describes throughout the package:

One Sunday this spring, [Gideon] Tsang and his congregation volunteered to spend the day reforesting an Austin nature preserve — that was their worship gathering. Afterward, sweaty and dirty, they stopped for burgers, and people asked where they were coming from.

They grinned and replied, “Church.”

“For the emerging churches, (church is) not a place, it’s a people,” [Fuller Seminary's Eddie] Gibbs said. “It’s not a weekly gathering; it’s a seven-day-a-week community. And you don’t go to church; you are the church.”

Now that’s a great word picture, but I am glad Flynn didn’t just leave the story at the tree-planting churchgoers. In what should be a larger, more-widely covered national story, Flynn takes a step back:

Some scholars who have watched the movement see young people rejecting the consumerism and individualism of the previous generation by simplifying their lives, paying more attention to environmental and social concerns and building stronger connections with other people. They say it is gaining steam and could be Christianity’s next reformation; others dismiss it as one of the faith’s fleeting fads, like the hippie-driven Jesus People movement in the 1960s and ’70s.

The movement has taken on a variety of labels — it’s called emergent, emerging, postmodern and missional, among other things — although these Christians resist being defined. Their numbers are difficult to estimate because they don’t focus on attendance, and their ideas about what church should be cover a wide spectrum:

As tmatt says, this story is right out of the “hip heartland.” From my own experience I would like to take issue with the idea that this is some type of reformation that will turn the Christian church on its head. While there is certainly a strong emerging church movement going on outside the traditional denominations, I have observed traditional denominations (at least theologically traditional) embrace the day-to-day-living principles described in these articles as vigorously as anyone.

And speaking of theology, that is the one aspect I found the package lacking. Much is made about the style of service, rejection of materialism and embracing the “Come as you are … but don’t stay that way” style of church discipleship, but we aren’t told where these churches come down on key issues that often are make-or-break matters for families choosing a church home. And this is the most controversial and tricky part of the movement.

In a sidebar, Flynn touches on the teaching of one emerging-church pastor who was ousted from an Austin megachurch:

When he was an associate pastor at Riverbend, a West Austin megachurch, Rick Diamond remembers trying to convey the humanness of Jesus during a Bible study. Jesus was flesh and blood, Diamond told the group. He got sweaty; he went to the bathroom. Just like everyone else.

After the session, a man accosted him, seething, and said, “Jesus did not go to the bathroom.” It occurred to Diamond that, for this man, Jesus needed to stay abstract. And it occurred to Diamond — not for the first time — that he wasn’t comfortable where so many believed Jesus wasn’t real.

And here is the section of the main article that briefly mentions theological issues:

Gateway pastor John Burke wrote a book, “No Perfect People Allowed,” that has resonated with many ministers seeking to reach people who wouldn’t normally set foot in a church.

Though Burke’s writings deal with Emergent Church themes — his church is hosting a conference on the subject this fall — he says he isn’t casting doubt on basic Christian doctrine the way some emerging Christians do. The church, he said, must tend to what’s broken by opening its arms to sexual abuse victims, drug addicts, homosexuals and nonbelievers, giving them a place to ask hard questions about faith and helping them heal.

Who are these emerging Christians challenging basic Christian doctrine? And what is considered basic Christian doctrine these days anyway? The Nicene Creed? Then again, Flynn could have just asked the tmatt trio, or some version of it.

It’s challenging to write about the theological beliefs of these emerging churches. Many seem embarrassed that they maintain some traditional teachings and practices, but will robustly proclaim their belief that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead and that the Bible is the inerrant word of God (determining which parts are symbolic is another matter).

It would have been helpful if Flynn worked out these views in a sidebar or touched on the subject when introducing those who believe the emerging church movement is 21st-century philosophical relativism. The criticisms of the movement are more complex than that, and the movement can’t be defined as a bunch of theological mushiness.

As Scot McKnight writes in a Christianity Today piece on the subject, emerging church types tend to believe that how a person lives is more important than what that person believes. Now that’s an interesting belief.

Note to those wishing to comment: It’s great that Flynn was able to publish such a long story on what is a fairly controversial subject. In keeping with the mission of this blog, keep your comments focused on Flynn’s stories — what aspects you liked and what aspects you thought were missing. There will be no theological snipping on this post. There are other blogs for that discussion.

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  • http://pos51.org Elmo

    As far as explaining what these churches believe, it would have been hard for Flynn to nail down much more than a short outline of their beliefs. Zondervan recently released a book, Listening To The Beliefs of Emerging Churches that is intended to get doctrinal views from a sort of representative sample of emerging pastors. The simplest way to explain it is that the beliefs run the gamut from very conservative/traditional to very liberal/progressive.

  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    What I really want to know is where the picture came from.

  • David

    Excellent critique and, yes, great (make that “perfect!”) picture. Ditto Elmo’s comment.

  • http://www.bcartfarm.com Jim Janknegt

    Flynn has done a consistently good job for the Austin paper, reaching out to a broad spectrum of believers. I know one fellow who is an arts pastor for an independent evangelical church in Austin. After doing several stories around his particular church (they do a pretty amazing arts festival every other year which she covered) she invited him down for a meeting with the staff of the paper. He was able to talk to them about his notion of what defines an evangelical. I think this was a bold attempt by Flynn to get her colleaques to look beyond the stereotypes. I hope she keeps up the good work.

  • http://god-of-small-things.blogspot.com Bob Smietana

    Scot McKnight wrote an excellent an overview of emergent theology last year. It’s concise and informative, written by a well-respected source. McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog has a ton of emergent theological conversation.

  • Ralph Webb

    McKnight’s accurate comment reveals a major point that the emerging church movement holds in common with progressive mainliners, who also tend to believe that how you live is more important than what you believe. It would be a huge mistake to simply equate the emerging church movement with progressive Christianity, but there are significant similarities (as well as significant differences).

  • http://god-of-small-things.blogspot.com Bob Smietana

    This is probably a better summary of what Mcknight said that emergent folks believe:”By their fruits [not their theology] you will know them.”

    He went on to say:

    As Jesus’ brother James said, “Faith without works is dead.” Rhetorical exaggerations aside, I know of no one in the emerging movement who believes that one’s relationship with God is established by how one lives. Nor do I know anyone who thinks that it doesn’t matter what one believes about Jesus Christ. But the focus is shifted. Gibbs and Bolger define emerging churches as those who practice “the way of Jesus” in the postmodern era.

    Jesus declared that we will be judged according to how we treat the least of these (Matt. 25:31-46) and that the wise man is the one who practices the words of Jesus (Matt. 7:24-27). In addition, every judgment scene in the Bible is portrayed as a judgment based on works; no judgment scene looks like a theological articulation test.

  • danr

    “…it occurred to Diamond — not for the first time — that he wasn’t comfortable where so many believed Jesus wasn’t real.”

    Umm… virtually all Christians, emerging or non-emerging, wouldn’t be comfortable where the full (i.e. “real”) humanity of Jesus wasn’t affirmed. Flynn could’ve fleshed that strawman out more (pun intended).
    To my understanding, one of the few common denominators of EC is that they say that orthodoxy (truth) has been overemphasized at the expense of orthopraxy (life/action). They fail to see the false dichotomy – the (correct) notion that truth should be practiced, and not merely read/studied, is itself truth. And conversely, of course, truth must guide action. As DPulliam wryly noted (“Now that’s an interesting belief”), it’s self-contradictory to say that “we strongly believe that practice is more important than strong belief”.

    Despite defensive complaints to the contrary, the more extreme elements of EC indeed have been known to downplay such basic Gospel essentials as the deity of Christ, the nature/purpose of His atonement, authority/infallibility of Scripture, moral/theological relativism sometimes tantamount to universalism, etc. My church is in a pastor search, and our most recent visiting candidate aligned himself with EC. One of several disturbing comments: “I do not think that Christ’s death upon the cross was primarily to placate the wrath of God.” Really? Next…

    For an excellent (if perhaps a little biased the other way) counterpoint to McKnight, see Kowalski’s concise but comprehensive overview here.
    P.S. I’ve saved that classic pic to my hard drive, hope that’s legal/ethical…

  • http://www.misterdavid.typepad.com David (from Edinburgh)

    If you’ve ever hung out in the Emerging Church world, you’ll know that it’s (usually) all about the journey, about sharing a conversation, about being characters in The Story. That’s why there seem to be tens times as many emergent bloggers writing about theology (ie. they write about the parties they go to) than those from streams of church who have a more accepted, stable doctrinal basis.

    I feel tremendously sorry for any reporter attempting to untangle it all for the benefit of the lay reader – how can you summarise an on-going conversation without setting it in stone (at which point it ceases to be a conversation)? I think the emphasis on praxis-theology is important, as is the lack of secular-sacred divide, but other than that, you are generally stuck with giving examples of what the gathered members do. In Edinburgh, we tend to drink a lot of tea :)

    And yes, you’re right to say that traditional denominations (Anglicans & Baptists mainly, from what I’ve seen in Britain and New Zealand) are very well represented in the EC world.

  • http://carelesshand.net Jinzang

    After the session, a man accosted him, seething, and said, “Jesus did not go to the bathroom.”

    Ooh! Ooh! I know then name of that heresy! It’s Docetism!

  • Gary

    Flynn could have listen to the Lutheran (LCMS) radio program “Issues, Etc” to find out more about the Emergent Church. The program has devoted hours to the Emergent Church movement.

  • http://unfinishedchristianity.com Virgil

    I sympathize with those asking questions about the emergent conversation. The problem is that more than often they get frustrated by the fact that the answers they receive cannot be put in a box and neatly labeled; and if that is the goal of the questions, those asking them will remain unsatisfied.

    The beauty of the emergent church/conversation is that it is mirrors what we see happening in the first century with “the way” of Christ. Christ’s way attracted all kinds of people…Romans, Jews, Gentiles, prostitutes, adulterers, tax collectors, temple priests and average people. It offered them a message of hope, not of despair. It did not ask for their money, but their hearts and minds.

    This “Church” we see in the first century is what John draws as a beautiful bride in Revelation, a bride Christ wants to dwell with and have intimacy with.

    Does the traditional, contemporary evangelical church resemble this bride? Does it offer hope or a bleak future? Does it practice Christ or teach doctrine? Does if offer intimacy with God or with theological constructs? Does it bring the presence of God to the world or does it have the “members only attitude?”

    If you are comfortable with asking those questions, you may be on the path to understanding what the emergent conversation is all about. :)

  • Gene Thomas

    You noted that “As Scot McKnight writes in a Christianity Today piece on the subject, emerging church types tend to believe that how a person lives is more important than what that person believes. Now that’s an interesting belief.” But. . .

    People can only live as they believe. What you are inside always comes through on the outside.