The Emergent Church: Everyone’s Favorite Whipping Boy

I mosied over to the fellow Patheos blogger, Roger Olson’s blog, and there found a guest post by Brandon Morgan of the Void Collective (which, I must say, I like very much — the Void Collective, that is).  Morgan claims to be sympathetic with the emerging church movement (ECM), though he consistently uses the third person plural (“they”) as opposed to the first person plural (“we”) when describing the movement.

Morgan’s experience at the Wild Goose Festival gives rise to his criticism of the ECM:

Upon returning from the Wild Goose festival, I felt that the festival was, among others things, a blatant attempt to show how well Emergent folks and mainline folks get along (particularly regarding the LGBTQ community) and how they generally have the same enemies (conservative evangelicals).

He goes on to use some anecdotal evidence — what he saw and heard at the festival — to conclude that the ECM doesn’t have anything new to offer the American church.  Well, to be fair, most of his post is phrased in the form of rhetorical questions, which allows him to ask questions of the ECM without really landing the plane.*  But it’s pretty clear that he’s disappointed with the ECM (he’s not the first).

Morgan’s bottom line is that the ECM “looks” no different than liberalism.  If the ECM is just a bunch of liberals, he posits, we should just join the mainline church.

In a subsequent post, Roger Olson piles on,

However, disappointment sets in when we hear emergent church leaders/spokespersons sharing their excitement in “discovering” a new type of theoloogy [sic] that turns out to be thoroughly modern.  For example, not long ago a leading emergent church personality shared his excitement in finding and reading Henry Churchill King’s The Reconstruction of Theology published in 1901.  The problem is, that book is a classic of liberal (Ritschlian) Protestantism!  It’s thoroughly modern!  I don’t understand its appeal to a supposedly postmodern, emergent Christian.

I don’t know who Olson is referencing here — it might be Doug.  Whoever it is, I find it disheartening that a seminary theology professor is taking someone to task for discovering and reading a classic theological text.  Should we not read texts that you have already read and written off, Roger?**

Olson continues,

I think Brandon’s challenge to emergent church types is worthy of very serious consideration and response, but by all means let’s not get bogged down in details of his analysis.

But the problem is that Morgan’s challenge is rooted entirely in his analysis.  Thus, if his analysis is wrong, then his challenge is misplaced.

Most of all, what frustrates me about the latest wave of disappointment in the ECM is that all of the portraits painted of the movement are painted using anecdotal brushstrokes.  But the ECM has been around for over a decade — there’s been plenty of time to collect quantitative and qualitative data.  Whether the beliefs and practices are really no different from mainline, liberal Protestantism is a hypothesis that can actually be tested.  Until you’re willing to do that kind of hard work, you’d better phrase your conjectures in the form of rhetorical questions.***

Nota bene, my next book will be available this week.  It is based on actual research into the ECM.  I hope it helps to sophisticate this conversation.


* For the record, paragraphs full of rhetorical questions are among my most despised form of prose, and are rampant in Christian non-fiction writing.

** See above.

*** Ditto.

"Have you considered professional online editing services like ?"

The Writing Life
"I'm not missing out on anything - it's rather condescending for you to assume that ..."

Is It Time for Christians to ..."
"I really don't understand what you want to say.Your"

Would John Piper Excommunicate His Son?

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • unfortunately identifying and escalating minor internal tensions has become an evangelical hallmark. expending significant energy on critiquing emergent or disputing openness theology is far easier than engaging the culture in which we are currently situated.

  • Tripp Fuller

    Next post…. A guide to scoring evangelical credibility by making extremely shallow criticisms to emergent.

  • Scot Miller

    I grew up as a Southern Baptist, went to a Baptist college and to the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville (Al Mohler lived down the hall from me when he was an M.Div. student), and I have been ordained in a Southern Baptist church, so I think I have my “conservative” and Evangelical bona fides. I also came to embrace liberal theology relatively early in my academic journey, so that by the time I started my doctoral work at Boston University, I really considered myself secular (very skeptical, if not agnostic). When I “discovered” the Emergent movement last year (by reading Peter Rollins), I was impressed with the effort by the ECM to transcend the liberal/conservative divide. While I credit the ECM with allowing me to embrace theism again, I’m usually struck with how theologically conservative the movement is. Guess I’m just saying that the “criticisms” probably say more about the critic and less the object of their criticism.

  • The problem isn’t so much with ECM, but with those who insist on placing everything on a conservative/liberal or right/left axis. As if the way the Estates General were seated during the French Revolution has meaning for modern or post-modern theology. Most of the emergent types I know want to escape from this false left/right gradation, which is just a low-cost way to label people. Yes, to a self-professed conservative we (or I, at least) might appear to be (horror!) “liberal”, but to a classical theological liberal we appear “conservative”, so what are we, neither? both? a squishy moderate? Or maybe something else?

  • Chris

    If it quacks like a duck.

  • Far right evangelical conservatives should just be called ‘baptist and psyho-conservative reformed’ for short. Then the rest of us wouldn’t be led to believe they stole the phrase and made it their own…

    I look forward to another book Tony!

  • This kind of “shallow” criticism sometimes seems as simple as one critiquing the once “indie” band, that no one knew about and was therefore “cool”, now that’s it’s become somewhat known. If that makes any sense.

    Also… what tripp said.

  • Zach Lind


    Maybe you should grow a sweet ‘stache like Olson has and you guys will be taken more seriously.

  • Austin

    I go to a liberal seminary where “emergent” is considered conservative by pretty much everybody I know here, so I always find it amusing when I hear evangelicals continue to say the exact opposite. The first person that I talked to at school about emergent said (with a slightly hostile tone) that they considered it to be nothing more than repackaged evangelicalism with a clever post-modern sheen (unfortunately, she pointed at you first, Tony). But then again, this person is almost as liberal as they come in a mainline seminary: a post-structuralist Buddhist-Christian Episcopalian who loves the Jesus Seminar. Even so, most liberal mainline Christians I meet are at least suspicious of the Emergent Church. On the other hand, there are some liberals who seem to see the Emergent Church as the answer to the mainline church’s problems.

  • Pingback: Third Verse Generation: the turning of the tide is pulling the old personalities away | Theology and Culture: a theoblog for creativity, pop culture and God stuff()

  • When I first began to research ECM, just a general intro reading shows a 20th century liberal theology baseline.

    Most of what’s new seems to be a matter of style and flavor.

    One thing that is new, is ECM’s seem to try to reach a mystical state during worship services through calm, meditative rituals. Similar to charismatics, but again different in style and flavor.

  • What about the practice of both emergent-minded and mainline liberal-minded Christians? It’s possible that some convergence is coming, if both sides seek a more relevant, intense relationship with God, and intense immersion in the messy world we live in. Maybe there’s some NEW common ground?

    I’m really not an expert on mainline Christian practice. Can someone help explain the difference between ECM Christians and mainline Christians? UCC says God is Still Speaking. That’s pretty on target. Also Justice is the action word, meaning that the church cares and is willing to lead the world in caring and action instead of just standing by being pious.

    Tell me where the action is. That’s where I want to go! Any advice is appreciated.

  • I enjoyed the comments here. Let me throw something out – I actually like parts of this guy’s writing and I also think that he REALLY gets the conservative/evangelical side of this. There is a real familiarity with this camp that becomes… noticeably absent when he discusses the ‘mainline’ half of the binary.

    I was raised in one evangelical denomination and ordained in a second. I have emerged from that context and I am currently employed in a mainline church. As one who is neck deep in all things EMC, I can assure him that while there may be certain questions and conversations in the emergent conversation that take on a progressive or liberal tinge, any assumption that equates that with ‘mainline’ is somewhere between sophomoric and premature.

  • Michael Dise

    So what’s this new book called? Where can I find it?

  • Travis Greene

    If you think of yourself as the North Pole, any direction others move away from you is going to look like South, even if they are actually different directions.

  • Pingback: Goosing Emergents into the Mainline()

  • Pingback: Church, Emerging Church, and American Christianities | Priestly Goth()