Getting one’s arms around the emergent church is no mean feat – indeed, I believe that the same may be said about Pentecostalism. In a sense, the genesis of the emergent movement was the disenfranchisement of GenX evangelicals in the 1990s. But in another sense, of course, the Bride of Christ is always emerging. It is, as Brian McLaren has written, better referred to as “the church emerging” than “the emerging church.”
Further, those of us involved in the emergence Christianity have a particular antipathy toward rubrics, labels, and categorizations. They seem to us convenient ways of boxing someone in, which all too often leads to writing someone off.
Please allow me a tangent: Was Thomas Aquinas a “liberal” or a “conservative”? Well, we might at first paint him a conservative, for he rescued orthodox Christianity from a particularly stagnant period by recovering – i.e., conserving – scripture and tradition. But how did he do that? By entering into a thoroughgoing dialogue with the Aristotelian philosophy of medieval Islam. I daresay that if a theologian today were to admit that he or she was dipping into the wells of Muslim philosophy in order undergird Christian theology, that theologian would be condemned as having slipped off the slippery slope.
My point is that the question, Was Thomas a conservative or a liberal? is nonsensical, because “liberalism” and “conservatism” are modern categories, linked to modern (read, analytic) philosophical presuppositions. If I can make the point even more strongly, they are not theological categories. Thomas was not a liberal or a conservative, Paul was not a liberal or a conservative, Jesus was not a liberal or a conservative. And, if I may be so bold, I am not a liberal or a conservative. Those non-theological categories become less helpful each day. I suggest we stop using them. OK, end of tangent.
Further still, I have already used several terms in this essay: emerging church, emergent church, emergence Christianity, emerging movement, the church emerging. The lack of consensus on terminology betokens both the youth and the fluidity of the movement. Imagine, if you will, that you were at the Azusa Street Mission in 1906, and in 1916 you were asked to address a guild of Presbyterian scholars and give them some sort of definitive description of your nascent movement, and you might be able to understand my reticence.
But, alas, define we must. The most oft-quoted definition of the movement come from Fuller Seminary professors, Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger, who write, “Emerging Churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures.” Scot McKnight, who authors the highly influential blog, The Jesus Creed, finds Gibbs and Bolger’s definition too broad, as do I, and thus McKnight specifies it further: “Emerging churches are missional communities emerging in postmodern culture and consisting of followers of Jesus seeking to be faithful to the orthodox Christian faith in their place and time.”
 Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2005), 44.
 Scot McKnight, “Blogossary,” http://blog.beliefnet.com/jesuscreed/2006/11/bloglossary.html.