I’m enjoying the discussion about the Emerging Church Movement (ECM) here. It has waxed and waned here several times since my blog began. Every time the discussion takes off it seems to suffer from a distinct lack of clarity about what exactly counts as “emerging.” Some have even questioned whether there is an ECM. Of course, no one questions the existence of the Emergent Village, but nobody thinks that is the whole of the phenomenon. So, it is one thing to describe EV and its affiliates and something else (perhaps not entirely) to describe an ECM–if such a thing actually exists.
One commenter here asked me to define or describe the concept “movement,” which I attempted to do in my brief response to him. I regard any affinity group that networks with each other for mutual support and change a movement. If there’s no networking, then it’s not a movement but a phenomenon. If there’s a headquarters and boundaries, then it’s not a movement but an organization. I grew up in a denomination that preferred to call itself a movement, but it clearly was not; it was an organization because it had a headquarters and clear boundaries. People were either in or out. I may be wrong, but I’m not sure the “Cowboy Church” phenomenon is really a movement because I’m not aware of much networking going on except in relatively enclosed geographical areas. (I’m open to correction, but I haven’t heard of cowboy churches in South Dakota networking with cowboy churches in Texas.)
A movement has a center without boundaries. The center is a set of common interests and ideals. People who make up the movement are more or less committed to those ideals, but all share the interests. When a movement develops boundaries it is no longer a movement but an organization. (Of course most movements spin off organizations that are then part of the movement but rarely become all of it.)
Movements are notoriously difficult to pin down and describe–except by their common interests, ideals and commitments (although it must be remembered that within any movement, insofar as it is truly a movement and not an organization, levels of commitment to the ideals varies.) That’s what makes them so interesting and what gives rise to so much discussion and debate about them. But that debate can become confusing when people forget the nature of movements.
Let’s look at some examples of religious movements. The charismatic movement began in the late 1950s and early 1960s when members of Catholic and so-called mainline Protestant churches began speaking in tongues. It really took off in the late 1960s with conferences and conventions like the Lutheran Conference on the Holy Spirit held annually in Minneapolis. By all accounts thousands of Catholic and mainline Protestant churches jumped on the charismatic bandwagon as did some classical Pentecostal churches that shook off their Pentecostal ethos to become more ecumenical and inclusive (of, for example, people who smoked and drank wine and danced!). (I was part of a Pentecostal church that shifted to charismatic.) Throughout the 1960s and 1970s people debated the nature of the charismatic movement and its boundaries. Much of that discussion was misguided and misleading because there never was a headquarters or magisterium or universal spokesperson or group for the whole movement. But a cottage industry arose around attempts to define it and describe it and gain influence over it. Some organizations tried hard to harness the movement’s energy and control it for their own purposes. During the 1970s and 1980s Oral Roberts tried desperately to do that with little success. Eventually the movement died out as charismatics stopped networking with each other and settled into competing organizations. The charismatic ethos (it’s center) gradually blended into the religious mainstream as demonstrated in, for example, “praise and worship” chorus singing during Sunday morning worship services (something virtually unheard of before the charismatic movement).
What was the (relatively) unifying center of the charismatic movement? It was, of course, interest in and practice of the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit and especially speaking in tongues (but also prophecy and healing). The ideal for change was to renew the mainline churches with these gifts and their modern recovery. Charismatics all over the world networked with each other through conferences, publications and projects. Looking back on it, nobody would claim the movement had boundaries. What would they have been? It was about as diverse as a religious movement can be! And yet nobody doubted it existed–as a movement. What made it more than a phenomenon was the networking; what made it not an organization was the lack of a unifying structure.
I could mention other religious movements like that–the so-called new age movement, the Jesus people Movement, the fundamentalist movement and, of course, the (neo-)evangelical movement.
I think a lot more light and less heat could be generated in the discussions and debates about the ECM if people recognized and acknowledged its nature as a movement. Like all movements it didn’t must pop up out of nowhere; it has antecedents and older roots. The charismatic movement was influenced by the Pentecostal movement. (Assemblies of God minister David du Plessis is usually credited with being the catalyst of the charismatic movement.) The new age movement was influenced by the various theosophical groups that preceded it. The Jesus people movement was influenced by both fundamentalism and Pentecostalism. (Foursquare minister Chuck Smith is usually credited with being the catalyst of the Jesus people movement.) The ECM seems to be influenced by Mike Yaconelli and Youth Specialties.
Every movement takes up the old in a new way and adds to it as well as subtracts from it. Every movement includes some diversity and is dynamic–flexible and changing. Every movement has its founders and its “Johnny-come-latelies” and its exploiters. And every movement has its would-be popes, its prophets and its critics (both internal and external). AND, every movement has its adherents who refuse to be identified with it. (For example, as the charismatic movement gradually died out and television evangelists began using the label for themselves and their ministries many of the original charismatic leaders declined the label and distanced themselves from the movement without discarding its original ethos.)
So how can we ever get a handle on the ECM–assuming it is really a movement which I think is obvious (in the sense I have outlined above)? Two alternative approaches come to mind. First, we might simply survey all the people who call themselves “emerging” or “emergent” and find out (e.g., along the lines of an ethnographical study) from them what they have in common. That way we might discover the central, magnetic core of common interests, ideals and (relative) commitments that define the movement. Second, we might survey scholars who study the movement (as opposed to simply believing everyone who self-identifies as emerging or emergent)–asking them what defines or characterizes it. In either case what we are after are the movement’s “family resemblances” which I would call its core interests, ideals (values) and commitments.
The two approaches are very different and each has its dangers. One danger of the first approach is that we might only ask those leaders we favor or are directed to by others who favor them. Another danger is that we might include in the survey mere hangers-on—people who are exploiting the popularity of the term “emerging” (or “emergent”) but have no real affinity with the original movement. A danger of the second approach is that we might locate and interview scholars who have a bias about the movement or whose study of it is focused on only one segment of the movement.
Obviously, the best approach is to combine the approaches—survey many people who self-identify as emerging or emergent and ask scholars and experts who have studied the movement with some scholarly distance. In practicing these approaches we have to strive to include as much of the diversity of the movement as possible and find scholars who are as objective as possible. None of this is guaranteed to deliver the definitive definition or description, but it’s probably as close as we can come to it. (And, of course, we have to remember that a movement is dynamic so “as close as we can come to it” always means “for now.”)
I cannot claim to be a scholar of the movement or even an expert, but I have become acquainted over the years with a variety of people in some leadership position in self-identified emerging churches (and some that don’t self-identify as emerging but are widely considered to be that anyway). I have also read fairly widely in the literature associated with the movement. Some of the people I have met face-to-face and talked with about emerging churches are Doug Pagitt, Dan Kimball, Tony Jones, Kyle Lake, and Brian McLaren (who has spoken in my classes). I have spoken at emerging churches and retreats of emerging church planters. I attended and spoke at the National Pastors Convention in San Diego which was a gathering place for people interested in and involved with the ECM. Some of my students have gone on to be leaders in emerging churches including Journey (Dallas), Mosaic (Austin), Eucatastrophe (Fort Worth) and UBC (Waco).
Earlier I mentioned a book that I consider especially helpful in understanding the ECM: Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger. Another very helpful book is Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches: Five Perspectives edited by the late Robert Webber and authored by Mark Driscoll, John Burke, Dan Kimball, Doug Pagitt and Karen Ward. “Listening” includes chapters by the five self-identified emerging church pastors and responses to each chapter by the others. An excellent article that attempts to describe the ECM is “Five Streams of the Emerging Church” by Scot McKnight, by all accounts one of the most sympathetic and astute scholarly observers of the movement. It was published in Christianity Today’s February, 2007 issue and may be read at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/february/11.35.html?start=6 of simply by googling the title.
The five authors of “Listening” seem to represent a broad spectrum of approaches to doctrine, theology, scripture, authority in general, worship and interactions with culture. At opposite ends (at least on some major issues of concern to both) are Mark Driscoll and Doug Pagitt. Clearly Driscoll considers Pagitt too liberal and Pagitt is uncomfortable with what he seems to regard as a fundamentalist streak in Driscoll. (I have heard that Driscoll has since disassociated himself from the ECM, but that only raises the question whether someone can do that definitively or whether they are still emergent even if they reject the label and much of the rest of the movement. Driscoll, for example, seems to be in quite a bit of sympathy with Kimball who is, by all accounts, an influential ECM pastor and author.) Between then are Kimball, who calls himself a “conservative evangelical” while distancing himself from much that goes under that label, and John Burke, who clearly is evangelical in his sympathies even if he doesn’t like much that people associate with the evangelical movement in America. Karen Ward is difficult to describe; she regards herself as part of the so-called mainline of Protestant life and yet also pushes the envelope on matters of church life and leadership as well as worship and even theology.
One thing is obvious from the “Listening” dialogue. These five authors, chosen because editor Webber and publisher Zondervan consider them representative of the diversity of the ECM, have some things in common in terms of core interests, concerns, ideals, values and commitments but also diverge from each other quite a bit on at least the details.
For example, Kimball believes the Nicene Creed must serve as a kind of “floor” on which all Christians, emerging or otherwise, conduct their theological dance (to use a Pagitt metaphor for theology). Pagitt, on the other hand, expresses disagreement and prefers to hold all human statements of belief, creeds or confessions or doctrines, open to reconsideration and revision. For Kimball (and probably also for Burke to say nothing of Driscoll!) the Bible holds a place of primacy in determining right doctrine and practice. For Pagitt (and Ward?) the Bible is story and guide but not absolutely authoritative in any traditional sense.
One cannot help but come away from reading “Listening” with the impression that among these five ECM leaders (who network with each other) there are really three distinct “flavors,” if you will. One is Driscoll’s and it is hardly different from traditional conservative evangelicalism and even smacks of fundamentalism. It’s no surprise that, after this book was published, Driscoll disavowed the ECM. But that still leaves Kimball and Burke who seem fairly close to each other in terms of wanting to hold to the primacy of inspired scripture and historical Christian orthodoxy even if they seek to hold those in new ways (e.g., without beating people over the head with them). For Kimball and Burke, apparently, what makes their ministries “emerging” is their emphasis on contextualization and sensitivity to non-Christians and their worldviews and beliefs.
Pagitt and Ward seem to breathe a different air than Kimball and Burke (to say nothing of Driscoll). For them, so it seems, “authority” is a dirty word that conjures up images of inquisitions or at least modern emphasis on certainty and the power that comes with its claims. Pagitt and Ward seem to be open to endless revision of doctrine; for them theology is a journey without end or any definite place to stand. Revealing is Pagitt’s objection to Kimball’s metaphor of the Nicene Creed as an anchor to keep the boat (the ECM?) from drifting too far. Pagitt is uncomfortable with any anchor and Kimball responds by wondering why love is so non-negotiable for Pagitt (if he rejects any definite anchors).
The five authors are cordial with each other, but their differences are sharp. Kimball and Burke definitely want to keep at least one foot firmly planted in Christian orthodoxy and even evangelical faith broadly defined (not as it is defined by the media or the Religious Right). Pagitt seems to be in reaction against orthodoxy and evangelicalism—without throwing them out altogether. Pagitt is the prophet calling for greater humility and fighting triumphalism in the evangelical ranks while wanting to be part of that conversation. Kimball and Burke sympathize with those concerns of Pagitt’s but, at the same time, worry that he is in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
So what do these five and other emerging church leaders I have known and read have in common?
Drawing on my own acquaintance with emerging church leaders and on the books and articles I have read I have come up with a portrait, as it were, of the ECM today. The portrait is made up of common (not unanimous) interests, concerns, methods, ideals, values and commitments of ECM people especially in North America.
First, they are dissatisfied with traditional church life because it seems inauthentic and stuck in modern modes of thinking and acting. They are seeking authenticity in church life by re-examining traditional approaches to either doctrine, worship or church structure or all of those. They are willing to discard what is not useful in contextualizing the gospel of the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus among today’s postmodern (especially young) people. At least some of them would balk, however, at discarding the authority of scripture and basic creedal orthodoxy.
Second, they believe the conventional approach to church membership of believe, behave, belong needs to be replaced with belong, believe, behave. In other words, right belief and behavior spring from right community. (One of my concerns, however, is how this plays out in terms of leadership. Most of the emerging churches I know that talk this way have higher expectations for belief and behavior for the leadership team which is often the only membership.)
Third, they believe Christian churches should not primarily be focused on their own survival but should focus primarily on mission to and for the world and that mission should be driven by a vision of God’s kingdom as bringing as much of the world as possible into conformity with the message of Jesus Christ as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. They are all opposed to anything that smacks of Christendom including any coercive methods of bringing in the kingdom.
Fourth, they are disillusioned with modernity and its affects in Western culture and society. And they believe “religion” and “modernity” are so intertwined that we need to develop a form of Christianity free of both. They like Bonhoeffer’s suggestion of a “religionless Christianity.” By “modernity” they mean the inflation of reason that seems to exclude faith (Peter Rollins) and the emphasis on control that has marked so much of Western culture since the Enlightenment. (They do not mean the advances made by science.) By “religion” they mean traditionalism that goes through motions without knowing why (except it’s what has always been done).
Fifth, they are mostly driven by youth culture. With some notable exceptions, people over forty do not seem very involved—except as gurus of the movement (e.g., Leonard Sweet, Brian McLaren, et al.). (However, many of the older leaders of the ECM are pushing forty and it will be interesting to see what comes next—when kids in middle school today get into their twenties and begin to develop their own youth-oriented movement. As Alexander Pope quipped “We think our fathers fools, so wise we grow. Our wiser sons, no doubt, will think us so!”)
Perhaps others will want to add more common features, family resemblances, of the ECM, but these five seem to me to sum up the movement’s core pretty well—at least for now.
So, now, let’s return to Brandon Morgan’s point in his two guest posts here. It seems to me he is arguing that, to a very large extent, the ECM has rightly focused its critique of “religion” on conservative evangelicalism. (And I would add that much of that critique is really aimed at what I call neo-fundamentalism and the Religious Right. Almost without exception when I meet ECM people who call themselves post-evangelical they mean post-fundamentalist or post-neo-fundamentalist. Most of them are unfamiliar with, for example, the Anabaptist and Arminian wings of evangelicalism.) If I understand Brandon correctly, he is asking why ECM leaders who raise their voices against conservative evangelicalism do not critique so-called mainstream Protestantism as well. I agree. Here I won’t speak for Brandon, but I think so-called mainstream Protestantism is dying for lack of vitality and that vitality has something to do with its adoption of liberal theology as its default theological method and foundation. I’m not referring to everyone and everything associated with it; no doubt there’s still much good and alive in some segments of mainline Protestantism. However, overall and in general mainline Protestantism is still working within a modernist paradigm that reduces Christianity to cosmic awe and ethics. These aren’t bad in and of themselves, but authentic Christianity also includes personal transformation, a relationship with Jesus Christ (however mediated) and sound doctrine (not necessarily held or promoted dogmatically). The shadows of Schleiermacher and Ritschl still haunt the halls of mainline Protestant power.