The Ongoing Witness of the Emerging Church

The Ongoing Witness of the Emerging Church April 3, 2013

Emergent is dead. Long live Emergent.

Like me, you may occasionally hear comments like this: “The emerging church is dead, and it had no long-lasting impact.” It’s similar to people telling you that no one is doing postmodern philosophy at universities anymore.

Both are patently false. Things have changed, to be sure. Philosophical and ecclesial fashions change, and others take a run at making headlines. But the excitement building around this week’s Subverting the Norm conference just goes to show that both postmodern philosophy and emergent church still have traction.

Two recently released books show more than anything else that the emerging church movement has an ongoing legacy in today’s church:

Mike Stavlund pastors a church called Common Table in Washington, D.C. He also teaches on the subject at Wesley Seminary. He’s been a part of the ECM for a decade.

His book, A Force of Will: The Reshaping of Faith in a Year of Grief, is not about the emerging church, per se. It’s about dealing with grief after the death of his son. It’s about faith and doubt. It is unswerving in its commitment to truth — that is, to the true contradictions of a loving God amidst unthinkable grief.

And it is beautifully written, which is a hallmark of Mike’s.

In what way is his book “emergent”? Well, you’d have to ask him, I suppose. But if I were to venture a guess, it’s this: among clergy and Christian leaders, the emergent movement has pressed for honesty above all things. No efforts to couch theological contradictions in genteel language in order to protect God from embarrassment. And I’m guessing that pastoring amidst such honesty at least encouraged Mike to publicly ask the questions that he was asking in his soul after his son’s death.


Troy Bronsink recently moved to Cincinnati after many years of church planting and communal living in Atlanta. He’s been around emergent as long as I can remember. His book, Drawn In: A Creative Process for Artists, Activists, and Jesus Followers is very different than Mike’s, but I will venture to say that it bubbles up from the same wellspring.

For years, Troy has reflected on what it means to lead worship in a more holistic and thoroughgoing way than most Christians experience it. Personally, I can barely sit through any worship experience that has a dude with a flannel shirt and a faux hawk, earnestly whispering into the mic about how totally awesome Jesus is.

Troy’s reflections on worship and art immediately force us to a much deeper place than the earnest whisper of a “worship leader” ever can. We’ve got to wrestle with many of the same issues — even inconsistencies in God — that Mike wrestles with in his book. In the end, this book is especially good for teams in churches, trying to tap into the true creativity that God engenders in each of us.


These are just a couple of the many books already published by voices which have been cultivated in the ECM. And mark my words, there are many more books (and songs and poems and photos and painting) yet to come, from the same wellspring.

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  • I may not have a full understanding of the idea of emergence, biologically/ecologically speaking, but doesn’t it include, by definition, death in the cycle of continual emergence? This is what I think of whenever I hear someone talking about “the death of emergent church” or whatever. I’m not too concerned with what labels people will continue to use or not use, but there will always be something new emerging. If not, then the church itself, not just “emergent” expressions of it, is dead, period.

    Also, I love the Bronsink book, and haven’t heard of the Stavlund one yet. Thanks for sharing!

  • Read both books and loved them.

  • I can resonate with your statement about the earnest mic whispering in a typical worship service. I’m curious – when you are forced to sit (or stand, depending on the level of peer pressure in the room) through this or other “worship” experiences that may seem off to you…how do YOU worship? I really struggle with having a bad attitude during these times, and I don’t like the way it makes me feel. And then comes the week where it’s MY turn to lead the band, and I feel like a total schmuck, perpetuating what I feel to be a real problem without any clarity on how to both define and solve it.

    • Joel, when told to stand by a singer, I rarely do (unless I think it might be insulting to my host).

      • Ric Shewell

        Dear Ecclesiologist, post some thoughts on worship gatherings. What are they good for? What should happen during that time? What shouldn’t? Or maybe it’s a QTHC. Why should Christians go to a worship service?

        • I’m no ecclesiologist. But I say they’re unnecessary, and maybe doing more harm than good.

        • JoeyS


        • I’m more in favor of a traditional liturgical gathering, at least in structure, if not in content. The traditional order of worship, and the deliverty of word and eucharist, is a way of tying myself together with all Christians around the globe, and through history who follow the same order. It is a sense of oneness with others in Christ, even though we might differ on so many other things.

          A pure praise & worship gathering I’m not so fond of. It always strikes me more as praying out loud, which I think would best be done as direct speech in public, or as prayer in private.

        • I’d argue that worship services are important as a way of re-orienting us in the context of our life back into an eschatological perspective that provides balm to parched souls, correction for wayward ones, and instruction for disciples. In other words, it puts us back in tune with God’s life and ways. In the midst of a week where we are bombarded with a myriad of other identity forming systems, we need to have a focused time of renewing our being.

          Really, it’s a relational thing too. Why go out on a date with your spouse? You’re already married and living life together. Why go to your daughter’s soccer game? They’re not very good, after all. Why attend your son’s junior high band concert? It’s terrible music.

          Because there’s something deeper in the very commitment, in the opening up to another, in the making space for God and for others in the community.

          It’s formative even if it’s not necessarily very good. It’s not always about the aesthetics, it should be about the relationships.

          Though, a lot of churches do both poorly, so I’d not recommend going to those.

  • How is “impact” measured? Do those within the emergent movement and those without measure it differently?

  • Are those outside of the ECM not being honest?

  • STN looks great. The initial lineup announcement for the Wild Goose Festival just went up this week and hopefully the turnout this year will also reflect continuing ECM traction.

  • Perhaps “honesty” is perhaps not completely the right word, but in several of the forms of Christianity that ECM was reacting against – evangelical and liturgical, there are powerful forces; structural, sociological and psychological as well as explicitly theological that have the effect of suppressing difference and inquiry, even when that is not intended.

    Tony’s example related to bereavement in which certainly in a strand of Christianity I am familiar with was subject to a kind of implicit theological censoring of what you could not say or pray when you were experiencing the darkest moments of life. It not that people set out to be dishonest, they just feel constrained by the norms of langauge and behaviour that prevent an encounter with the Real.

    On the other example about worship we see this even more starkly – just look at the range of emotional tones and theological contents of the typical worship set…

  • The emerging church is still going strong? That’s like saying Moltmann’s theology still has something to offer…

    • BradC


      Both Emergent and Moltmann are BRILLIANT!!!


      I agree Tony most don’t consider that they are living in the “Emergent Church” but, if they go to church – they are. The impact and the ongoing influence is here to stay (well at least for another 500 years) and people can discount the influence but not the outcomes.

      BTW: I know both of these authors and I must say – they are worth reading and even better people – get to know them – you will be a better person!

  • Ted Seeber

    I see nothing but damage and failed relationships from Emergence. Both personal (few emergents I know are able to stay married) and Church (when you don’t have the unification of an Orthodox liturgy, it is pretty hard to claim that you are part of the unified Church Christ prayed for in John 10:30). It was an interesting theory, but like Protestantism itself, the fruits of the doctrine tell me about the author of the doctrine.

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