Who’s To Blame for the Emerging Church Movement (Hint: Evangelicals)

Who’s To Blame for the Emerging Church Movement (Hint: Evangelicals) October 27, 2011
Ever wonder why emerging churches look like youth rooms? (Photo of Solomon's Porch, copyright Courtney Perry (used with permission)

I had the good fortune of presenting a paper last weekend at the Association of Youth Ministry Educators — the academic guild for those who study and teach youth ministry.  My paper, a version of which will appear in the next issue of Immerse Journal, was entitled, “Youth Ministry as the Inspiration and Site of Relational Ecclesiology.”  (Sounds mighty academic, huh?)

At academic conferences, presenting a paper in a non-plenary session actually means summarizing your evidence and thesis in about 30 minutes, and fielding questions for about 30 minutes.  So I spent my time talk about the contours of the emerging church movement, both sociologically and theologically, as developed in my book, The Church Is Flat: The Relational Ecclesiology of the Emerging Church Movement.

Then I said this to the group of largely evangelical youth ministry professionals (believe it or not, it’s mostly evangelical colleges and seminaries that have youth ministry professors): You all have strong feelings about the emerging church movement, most of them negative.  Well, you are directly responsible for the emerging church movement.

I went on to describe that the major themes of the movement are a natural outgrowth of youth ministry, as practiced in evangelical churches for the past three decades.  These evangelical youth ministry professors have been teaching their students, who have subsequently been practicing, relational youth ministry.  Therein, adolescents are encouraged to embrace their own hermeneutical authority, my primary thesis regarding the emerging church movement.

Youth rooms are essentially egalitarian environments, in which the “clergy” shun the accoutrements of power (vestments, titles, special roles in rites).  Instead, youth are encouraged to engage all of the practices of the community equally.

It is no mere coincidence, I continued, that ECM leaders like Tim Keel, Doug Pagitt, Dan Kimball, Tim Conder, and Chris Seay all had extensive experience in evangelical youth ministry.

You taught them relational youth ministry, I told the professors, so what kind of churches did you expect them to plant?

What do you think of my thesis?

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  • Love the thesis. It puts words to why I (as a youth worker that grew up in youth groups) feel so incredibly uncomfortable in most churches … particularly in the mainline where I work.

  • nick

    completely agree

  • First time I ever went to what we were at the time calling “Gen X churches,” that’s exactly what I thought: The kids from various youth groups, forced to leave their youth church setting and finding the adult church to be far less engaging, left to recreate the youth church setting for young adults.

    Of course, we can’t call it a “Gen X church” anymore, ’cause now people of all ages go there.

  • A question I have for you Tony, in all the “relational” structure, have you, or EM pastors you know had to ask members to leave the congregation. It is common to have adultery happening in churches. I am curious as to hearing of an EM that has to ask members to leave over wrong behavior.

    I have heard an EM critic speak of a lot of moral failings among the EM, which is not out of the norm nor unheard of for churches, but his angle seemed to be that it wasn’t dealt with. Evangelicals have their Ted Haggard. It seems that an argument being leveled is “relational based” as opposed to “doctrinal based” leaves your communities toothless to deal with moral transgressions within the community.

    • CJ

      Lock, not knowing who your source is in regard to there being “a lot of moral failings among the EM” it’s impossible to say how those situations have been–or not been–dealt with.

      But I can tell you that at the EM church of which I am a part, people have been asked to leave our community when they have broken the relational covenant that we each agree to when we become members of the community and are unwilling to do the work involved in repairing that relationship. Being “relational based” and not “doctrinal based” actually gives us more “tooth” as it were because we are calling one another to live in such a way that we bless one another, not because the rules tell us to but because we believe that’s how God calls us to live as a community. Hurting someone else in the community is a far more egregious act that breaking a rule. You can deal with the latter by kicking someone to the curb. But healing a broken relationship takes deep commitment and patience and grace and is never, ever fast or easy or neat.

      Also, because we are relationally based, such situations in our community have been handled as any relational issue would be–by the people hurt by the problem and by those close enough to the situation to have some say in how it might be dealt with. In other words, we don’t turn a problem over to a board of elders for them to decide what should happen. That means that anyone not directly involved in the situation might have no idea how it was handled or if it was handled at all. I suppose that approach leaves our community open to criticism that we don’t do anything about the relationship violations in our community, but just because something isn’t announced in the bulletin doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

      • Thanks for a meaty response CJ.

        Your statement, “to live in such a way that we bless one another, not because the rules tell us to but because we believe that’s how God calls us to live as a community”. I would have to think about this statement some.

        • CJ

          me too.

  • Charles

    It puzzles me as to why evangelical churches can’t step outside of their corral and look back at their landscape objectively. Their tunnel vision, even their closed vernacular [dog whistles] cause them to be surprised when they’re questioned. They see themselves as main stream when in actuality they are (my opinion only) a near cult. That’s harsh I know, but having escaped that dogma hindsight is 20-20.

  • David Morris

    Nice way to make a point. I hope your courage rubs off on us all!

    This may not be directly related, but I sometimes wonder if the change we need in churches today is a more egalitarian mindset, or in other words, a more self-initiating ownership for the “laity” as much as we need the authority structures to be less possessive. Perhaps they’re an exception, but I see pastors who appear to me to be quite egalitarian but also deliberate in servant leadership, and yet they have to work with members who struggle with feeling authorized to engage in a tolerant, uncensored community.

  • Steve W.

    I’ve followed your blog for years—from the days of blogspot, even. But, of late, your posts are entirely predictable and very unsatisfying. Your relentless scapegoating, blameshifting, and martyrdom complex makes removing your blog from my RSS an easy decision. I would respect your movement if your foil (for everything) wasn’t a diatribe against evangelicalism or conservative Christianity. Move on and grow up.

    • Charles

      I know your comment was directed at Tony, but your making the exact point I mentioned above. Some of us have moved beyond evangelicalism and conservative Christianity and when we point that out to fellow Christians we get the “Move on and grow up” chastisement. We have moved on and grown. Jussayin…

    • ouch.

  • Ircel Harrison

    Tony, you are right. The emerging church is directly related to how we have done youth ministry and campus ministry for the last three decades. I say this as a former campus minister. We did it ourselves!

  • Amen. I remember being part of a consensus-based youth camp planning session in which someone rightly remarked, “This isn’t a ‘youth’ way of doing ministry, it’s an ‘fully alive’ way of doing ministry.”

  • Curtis

    I’m curious about your assertion that “it’s mostly evangelical colleges and seminaries that have youth ministry professors”. I believe most mainline seminaries have dedicated “Youth and Family Ministry” faculty. I know Luther Seminary in St. Paul has at least two.

  • I agree. I would also add that this is one reason youth ministry is a natural connection point between the emerging church movement and mainline churches. I’m a mainline youth pastor with strong emerging church leanings. I think we ought to explore more what the the emerging church influence on mainline youth ministries might mean for the future of mainline churches.

    • The fact that there is a new fad movement every decade or so, shows the lack of stability at the root of the Protestant church.

      Not to leave Catholic or Orthodox out here, the Catholics have manipulated doctrine, due to their Popery, where one Bishop declared preeminence over others and then caused the split in 1054 AD. One needs to just read the viewpoints of early fathers from 100 to 300 AD to see the slant towards control and money within Catholic teaching.

      With the Orthodox we find the most stable and close to ancient understanding of Christian doctrine. Yet, they are so rigid, it also causes them to have a lower impact on society, as they seem to have less ability to find ways to communicate with current society.

      Most Protestants, from what I have seen, have little understanding of early church dogma. I was quite shocked after doing some studies exclusively on early fathers from 100 to 300 AD.

      I believe some of the reformers had a good start, but then, that is about where it ended. After that it has been a focus on how to reach people, rather than what is truth and how can we please God.

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  • FYI
    Skye Jethani reflected on this post by Tony at
    and Dan Kimball also did a long comment–emphasizing the positive side of youth ministry influence.


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  • Bob

    I agree for the most part, Tony, but I wonder about your point that “the “clergy” shun the accoutrements of power (vestments, titles, special roles in rites).” That hardly has been my experience of youth ministry. The teenagers are used to the teacher-student or coach-player relationship in every aspect of their lives, and the youth pastor-student arrangement is similar. While many youth pastors still giggle when you call them “Pastor Joe” (yes, we evangelicals do that), that doesn’t mean the students don’t perceive them that way. For proof, just look at who they ask to baptize them and (sometimes years later) perform their weddings. The “pancake” quality of the emerging church might have its origins elsewhere.

  • My observations and involvement in youth ministry go back to 1979. The ideas I heard directly from influential youth guys back then bloomed into the Seeker Church and the Emergent Church. Youth ministry was where “purpose-driven” was in seminars and conferences in the 80’s. I remember attending a workshop back then where with candles lit we explored how we were feeling about the texts being spoken to us. The author of the “Heretics Guide to the Universe”, Spencer Burke, is a guy I knew in college and in 1986 I met him at a conference where he invited me to attend a gathering of people that was sort of like a conference. What’s the topic? What is this? His response was that we wouldn’t know until it happened and that we will just have to see what takes place. I didn’t know at the time I had just encountered Emergent philosophy. I observed that among the young Dutch youth guys a strong desire to do church differently and a real animosity to tradition and the institutional aspects of church life and authority. Excellent blog and I’d love to read the paper. Keep going! I was in youth work for 15 years and have seen the movements of the past 30 years directly connected to youth ministry leaders who now don’t have to wait for that old guy in the pulpit to finally step aside so that real ministry can take place.

  • Interesting thought, Tony, but it strikes me as unlikely. I’m sure EC church leaders would point to more profound and considered sources. The fact that a movement shares features with another movement, set of idea or practices does not necessarily mean that these are causes. What seems more likely to me is that youth groups have a certain shape because of a deeper, more pervasive set of influences, which may also have helped form EC. Plus, the relational/non-formal nature of youth groups has arguably influenced many non emergent churches as well.

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  • Lisa

    There’s something to this argument:

    The whole “Youth Ministry” (and “Young Adult Ministry”) experience was geared toward the idea that Every Christian Was A Minister. Every Christian Was A Leader. Every Christian Was An Evangelist. We were trained through 6-8 years of firing-up to go out & do active ministry & Then we got to “Adult Church” and were told to sit quietly in the pews, or at the most, teach Sunday School. And.Give.Money. other than that, leave “ministry” to the “professionals,” “leadership” to the “more mature” (which for some of us, in some churches would Never BE US, unless we grew an extra chromosome,)No wonder we felt excluded.

    But has the response been a church that is equally exclusive? Equally unrelatable? Would my Kind-of-Catholic, ex-Evangelical mother be welcome? My near-agnostic father? My autistic brother? My questions?

    I truly don’t know, as I’m located somewhere in the country where even having a woman pastor a church in denominations that welcome women pastors is unusual, Where, at near 40 I was the youngest attender by a decade at the tiny ELCA church I visited.

    I’m burned out on religion. burned out on doctrine. running out of faith.

    I miss God, I miss community.

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