The Birth of the Emerging Church & a Missing Voice

The Birth of the Emerging Church & a Missing Voice January 16, 2012

There is one important person who helped start the entire discussion about “Progressive Christianity” or the “Emerging Church” who has been silenced. He is speaking again, and I’d suggest we all welcome him back. Let me explain:

Somewhere around 1996 an organization called Leadership Network pulled together about 10-20 young leaders in the church to begin a discussion about ministry for Generation X. Within a few months, the conversation morphed into a more academic one about post-modernism and theology. I was there. I wasn’t a strong voice, but somehow I was invited in a few months into the process. I was only 23.

Many of the “emerging” leaders who sat in that room have greatly influenced the current state of the American church. Around 1998 I wandered out of the conversation and fell into the smaller “house church” or “organic church” subset of the group. Then I eventually left that discussion as well. I was burnt out on discussing anything at all – until recently.

A few years ago, a Yale Divinity student called me to do an interview for her thesis. I thought it was an odd thing, but I took the call. The premise of her paper was that those meetings in the mid-nineties changed the face of American Christianity for the long haul. She wanted to get my take on what it was like from the inside. I could barely remember any details, but I told her a few stories. If her premise is true, I can’t take any of the credit or blame for what has happened since. I didn’t contribute much at all, but evidently I had a great seat to watch history in the making.

The loudest voices of my peers seemed to be Mark Driscoll, Chris Seay, Brad Cecil and Doug Pagitt. (If you know of these guys, you can easily see the extremely different results of those early conversations with 15 years of hindsight.) They were all roughly my age, but much more vocal and confident than me.

There were some “older” voices speaking into the discussion as well. (It’s funny for me to realize that the older people back then were younger than I am now.) People like Brian McLaren, Sally Morgenthaler, Todd Hunter, and many others. I also met rogue Christians like Joel Vestal, Andrew Jones, and Tony Jones. There was this 22-year old clean cut ball-cap-wearing worship leader named David Crowder whom I especially liked. I was just lucky to be there with all these fascinating people.

But, here’s the thing. As much as I liked everyone, there were two guys who interacted differently with me. There were all these green up-and-coming leaders jostling amongst themselves to take the reins of an unknown movement, and then there was Dieter Zander and Tim Celek. They had about a decade on all of us. They were actually pastoring established churches full of young people, so they had less patience to sit around and debate post-modern theory with us. They had just co-written a very practical little book called Inside the Soul of  New Generation.

Looking back on it now, they simply took the time to get to know me and love me. Maybe they saw that I wasn’t ever going to be one of the louder voices in this new movement. But they seemed to see something else in me. Dieter would call to check up on me from time to time.  Tim invited me to speak at his church several years in a row. (Which was great because it meant free vacations to Newport Beach at a time when we were dirt poor.) Of everyone, Tim had the most personal impact on my life, trusting me to wade back into vocational ministry at his church, The Crossing, in 2005. The two years there showed me that I could have a place in the organized church again. There’s no way I am here now without Tim believing in me back then.

But Dieter and I lost touch. He was at Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago leading a huge sub-church called Axis. We’d talk from time to time in those days. Then he moved to San Francisco to start a house church. It would have made sense for us to reconnect then, but we didn’t. In 2008, Dieter suffered a stroke that left him unable to speak, sing or play piano. His whole life he had made a living as public speaker and worship leader. It was devastating. I should have reached out, but I didn’t. I was sure he had closer friends to help him recover and just thought I’d get in the way. Maybe this post now is my way of finally reaching out on behalf of all of us.

Here is how Dieter describes himself now:

“I lost most of my speech and the use of my right hand. I am creative and an artist. I’ve been a musician, pianist, singer, bandleader, composer, teacher, pastor, writer, counselor, speaker, but that’s gone now. I’m alive! I’m married, parent, friend, son, brother, and God’s child. I’m creative and an artist again. I’m a photographer. And I love it!”

Dieter Zander

Dieter’s life is harder now. He is a preacher and singer without a voice. In response, he has turned to visual art to communicate. I would love to add Dieter’s “voice” back into the current conversation. Below is a video Dieter created using his art to tell his story. Check it out, along with his photography website.

@JoeBoyd blogs daily at

"Catholics elevated tradition. Christians elevated the bible. Sola scriptura, inerrency, infallible...yea ok. That's anything but ..."

The Bible is NOT the WORD ..."
"Pains me to report that, a recent colleague from Princeton informed me of sexual and ..."

The Body Never Lies

Browse Our Archives

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Andrew Jones

    Hanging out with Dieter was a huge privilege for me. The guy was so pastoral and caring and had no super-star complex whatsover. Tim Celek also a nice guy. Thanks for filling in some necessary blanks in the story.

    • Thanks Andrew. We need to hang out again before retirement..

  • This was a great story. thanks for sharing it Joe! I was a mere teeny bopper when those conversations started…. but I’m so grateful for how those early dialogues cleared the way for me to question, explore, and dream about the kingdom. Also, I’m grateful for the way that Dieter’s story shows us the beauty and creativity of God.

  • Joe, thanks for sharing this. We were similarly impacted by Dieter’s ministry during our time in San Francisco. You captured my sentiments well.

  • wayne

    I always amuses me how these gen-x evangelicals think they invented post-modern theology around 1996. If these folks had not been raised in such near-sighted churches, they would have realized that mainstream Christianity had been wrestling with post-modern theology since the mid-20th century. Read about the history of Semenx in 1974, for example. The historical/metaphorical reading of Scripture, that seemed such a revolution to the emergent folks in 2000, has been practiced by the ELCA since its formation in 1988.

    I appreciate the Emergent Movement and how it is causing some entrenched churches to look at God anew. But sometimes it seems like these young scholars a little too full of themselves to think that they invented the whole thing from scratch.

  • Some good perspective and sentiments, Joe – – thanks. I need to get in touch with Dieter, too. We served on a church planting strategy team for several years starting in the late 1990s. He is a good man, a journeyer and a learner.

    On the historical side of the GenX Ministry –> Postmodern Ministry –> Terra Nova –> Emergent Village, there are many “forgotten details” and anecdotes in Steve Rabey’s book, *In Search of Authentic Faith* (2001, WaterBrook Press). He was there at the 1996 event and other early gatherings in this movement. And, as a former Associated Press reporter, Steve did a great job in talking to the broad range of people – the then-celebrities and non-celebrities and eventual-celebrities. So, his book will be immensely helpful for additional retrospective to see where the various streams/branches started and compare with now and where they’ve moved.

    I tried to get in on the 1996 conference but was the third person after the registration cutoff limit. Plus I was one year “too old.” They only allowed in like half a dozen people over the age of 40 that year. If I remember right it included Don Simmons, Sue Mallory, Steve Rabey, and a few others … and were Tim Celek and Dieter Zander there? (They opened up registration in 1997, so I got to participate then.) I had a sense the 1996 event would be history in the making …

    Anyway, for what it’s worth, I suspect the Yale Divinity student’s thesis has some weight to it – in part because of the generational shifts that were wrapped up with the GenX ministry movement. In my opinion, its impact was as much about breaking through the Boomers’ glass ceiling on leadership as about postmodern theology and ministry methods/models. It changed dynamics irreversibly, at least for the branches on the evangelical-theologically conservative side of the ChristianiTree.

    And this is where I’d push back on Wayne’s comments some. I don’t think that primarily Builder and Boomer mainliners wrestling with postmodern theology is exactly the same cultural/paradigm experience as primarily Buster conservatives/evangelicals developing postmodern ministry models, which was one of the larger issues at the time – perhaps even more prominent than the emerging theological questions. Also, some of what has manifested in the years following the birth of Emergent is that there was a whole stream of people from multiple generations who could heartily identify with postmodern ministry *practitioner* concerns but never really were drawn to Emergent as they saw it as more involved with *theological* wrangling. But, at the time, they had nowhere else to go. Some of them were instrumental in the movement toward “missional.”

    Anyway, it will be intriguing to see what connections and separations happen with all the branches in the future, as those early seeds planted by Dieter and Tim and others continue to grow …

    • Deb

      Many of us have come late to the party on this one. I had to do a wilderness wandering in and out of fundamentalist and complementarian traps before I finally owned what God had been tugging on me to do for years – to get the training I need, and own up to my part of the deal, being willing to serve as God leads. My kids are 15 years older; I’m through seminary and almost done with chaplaincy training. And whether or not the conversation, as “wayne” suggests, has been round for many, many years, for the average Jesus-lover, it took a while to hear the voice of change over the loud, clanging Christian media voices. Or maybe it’s just me.

      What I DO know is that my children, though raised with love and care, and exposed to the love and grace of God, are not status quo Christians. For that I am thankful. They push us to consider how faith intersects with life, how action must reflect creeds. I may have been “too old” for that meeting, but I am definitely not out of the conversation. And, FWIW, there is an ever-increasing number of patients I care for who insist they have “no” religious affiliation. And I tell them, “I don’t either. I have no use for religion.”

      Thank you for Dieter’s art and voice. And thank you for reminding me that I have one to use as well. I’ll get right on that. 🙂

  • Back in the mid to late 90s, I was involved in a young adult, Gen-X, church within a church, and I read and followed Dieter – trying to figure out what we were doing in this rapidly developing movement.

    Of course, we came to realize it wasn’t an age thing, but a postmodern transition. (I was just talking to my wife about how we don’t really refer to GenX anymore)

    I had no idea he’d suffered a stroke. Thanks for the update – and I agree, he (and you) have much to offer.