The Emerging Church Is What It Says It Is

The Emerging Church Is What It Says It Is October 27, 2014

On Friday I covered the first of two articles by political scientists Ryan P. Burge of Eastern Illinois University and Paul Djupe of Denison University. In that article, they used their research to show that emergent are not universally liberal, as opponents claim, but are really rather diverse when it comes to politics and theology.

Today I turn to their second article, “Emergent Church Practices in America: Inclusion and Deliberation in American Congregations,” published in the Review of Religious Research. Here’s the abstract of the article:

 In the last 15 years a small but growing movement organized under the label ‘‘emergent church’’ has begun to help push the church through what many of them believe to be the first careful steps that will usher in a new understanding of Christianity for the twenty-first century. An emergent church model is quite a radical one that prioritizes the agency of those in attendance to determine the beliefs and direction of the church. In this way, emergent churches, at least in theory, are radical deliberative democrats in orientation, which may have profound effects on how the church is run and how members view the church, each other, and society as a result. Using the first dataset known to acquire this identity of Protestant clergy, we assess whether emergent Christian clergy adhere to a different set of religious beliefs, values, and deliberative norms than those in the modern church.

Again, Burge and Djupe use a representative set of clergy from 8 denominations, and they compare the clergy within each set who self-identify with the emerging church with those who do not. As we saw on Friday, anywhere from 1% to 14% of the clergy in various denominations identify with emergent (and Burge revealed in a comment on that post that more recent study has added another denomination, the PC(USA), which clocks in at 11.5% emergent).

In this study, they’re primarily looking at the claims that the ECM makes about itself — that it is inclusive and conversational (or, in political science parlance, deliberative).

Regarding the first characteristic, Burge and Djupe slice it two ways, asking if ECM clergy are “inclusive” and if they’re “not exclusive.” In both cases, ECMers clearly rank high. For example, 17% of overall clergy consider themselves “progressive,” while 47% of emergents do. And 25% of clergy think of themselves as “ecumenical,” and 48% of emergent clergy accept that label.

Regarding theological commitments, Burge and Djupe write, “The results…show emerging churches to be less dogmatic, more open, and more questioning of denominations.” And, “The clearest distinction of emergents from others is how they consider denominations, with high agreement that denominations should embrace modernity rather than preserve tradition.” And remember, they are only studying emergent clergy who are inside of denominations.

The proportion of Cooperative Clergy Study sample denominations identifying as an emerging church, progressive, and ecumenical.

Most interesting to me, however, is Burge and Djupe’s research into what the ECM has most often touted as its “conversational” or “dialogical” character. The claim that they set out to investigate was that the ECM claims to prioritize interaction among all members, and that a church’s beliefs are determined by all the people involved, not by the clergy nor the tradition with which the church is affiliated. “In this way,” Burge and Djupe write, “emergent churches might be called radical deliberative democrats in orientation.”

But wanting to be deliberative is one thing. Actually being deliberative is another.

I’m most interested in this research question because I’ve long touted the deliberative democracy component of the ECM. In speeches and in books, I’ve hailed dialogical sermons and flat polities as characteristic of how the ECM challenges conventional church practice. The survey questions about deliberative practices were limited to adult education — the authors note that they hope to gather similar data about worship services — but it is nevertheless clear that “emergent church clergy are more committed to these deliberative values than are clergy of other churches.”

Finally, Burge and Djupe conclude,

The short answer is that emergents are what they say they are. They are inclusive, non-dogmatic, and committed to discussion, but are also convinced that all religions are not equally good. That is, they are committed to a general Christian belief system, but it appears that anything else is on the table, able to be discussed and debated, discarded, or adopted by members. Moreover, it does not appear that emerging churches are merely upper class debating societies, but are actually full of a mix of people…

Lastly, the emergent church is explicit about its commitment to discussion. Whether through push of expediency or pull of ideology, almost all ECM congregations in this sample report a commitment to deliberative norms…Deliberation may simply be functional, helping to hold together fragile social groups. But deliberation also holds normative importance as it may help build the skills and commitments necessary to hold together other, larger social groups such as the state and nation. Though it has not been tested as such, participation in deliberative encounters in small social groups, such as congregations, may build tolerance that is necessary for limited democracy to survive in the long run.

Well, I don’t suppose that will satisfy the critics (on the left or the right). But, armed with this data, at least we can say that emergent has neither simply become assimilated into mainline Protestantism, nor that it’s merely a group of disaffected evangelicals.


You can find all of Tony’s books HERE, and you can sign up to be the first to know about his next book, Did God Kill Jesus? HERE.

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  • The emergent church has basically the same challenge as those who satay within the more conservative churches: that is to determine what to keep from orthodoxy and what to discard. Certainly some think that dogmatism must be discarded. But that would be a mistake. What would be a better approach is to clearly define what we need to be dogmatic about and what can we be flexible about. For to eliminate all dogmatism would be to center the Church on today’s movement rather than on the person of Jesus Christ. And centering the Church solely on today’s movement lays a foundation for the future of potential total disconnect with the future Church except when it comes to how it regards dogmatism.

    • Susan

      That sounds strangely similar to the early statements of the fundamentalist movement of a century ago. In the abstract, it sounds like a satisfactory compromise, but the fruits of that movement’s 100-year history have led, I think, to caution among emergents toward adopting that kind of framework.

      What impressed me as I read this piece is how closely its description of deliberative democracy fits with Anabaptist norms.

  • Rolland

    Interesting that they left out the UCC, one of the largest and most progressive denominations in the U.S. I’m sure there would be many emergent clergy within.

  • Tim McCoy

    Quantum World. Multi-dimensional, infinite possibilities, both/and, not fixed but ever changing, chaos to creation to chaos to creation. This is reality. The system of thinking western Christianity was developed in is a dying system. The generative process is a world of potential for amazing. The church is a dynamic, living, spirit breathing system, oh and quite sustainable.

  • BradC

    Doesn’t surprise me to see this – the discussion (in the
    early days) was such a mix of theological positions. The emergent conversation made people very aware of the philosophical assumptions they used to build their theological constructs. With the recognition that most of the assumptions were no longer sustainable – it meant that new theological constructs would be necessary. I always suspected people would attempt to maintain what was previously built because of the time and energy spent constructing them and teaching to others.

    Denominations exist to protect and promote a set of beliefs and practices that they believe are “the correct beliefs and practices.” This is reinforced in the system of seminary training and clergy ordination required to be a professional. In this emerging milieu – I wondered if denominations would adapt to a more democratic process or die. In the early days many of the denominational leaders listened to the conversation and said “this sounds like us” but in those days we responded: “this is not repackaged liberalism –this is different”. I remember the meeting with all of the emergent folks in NYC in the “God Box” (475 Riverside Drive) at the home office of the RCA. After Driscoll offended our host about their liberalism, our host still said to me:“I think you will find more friends in the mainline denominations than you will find in the evangelical church – turns out he was correct.

    To read in the abstract “An emergent church model is quite a radical one that prioritizes the agency of those in attendance to determine the beliefs and direction of the church. In this way, emergent churches, at least in theory, are radical deliberative democrats in orientation, which may have profound effects on how the church is run and how members view the church, each other, and society as a result.”

    This is quite informative and very revolutionary from a denominational perspective – I’m fascinated by this research.

  • This was a very interesting article, but please excuse my negligence because I have to pose the question: what distinguishes an emergent church from a Methodist or Presbyterian? I understand some of the issues brought up and such, but if one desired to attend an emergent congregation, what would they look for (title, type of title, etc.)? Would this be the same as non-denominational? I’ve been Presbyterian all my life, but I’m very open-minded to new approaches to worship and theology. Thank you in advance for excusing my ignorance!

    • In this survey, the distinguishing characteristic is that the clergy self-identified as emergent.

      • Darla

        My question seems to be, did they self identify because they choose to be lukewarm and not hot or cold?

    • BradC

      I am an emergent apologist – I believe this is one of the most signtificant movements in the church today, and happily promote and defend the work. I attend a Presbyterian church as well – I’m most comfortable in this church because of the embrace of most of the key principles found in the movement. Keep in mind emergent is not a brand – it really is just a philosophical/theological conversation and the ideas are still being developed. You might be in a church that embraces some of these ideas – best way to find out is in conversation with the leaders and others in the church.

      • I’m starting to understand and appreciate both yours and Tony’s replies. I’m glad to see more people digging deeper into faith instead of rehashing the same stuff over and over.

  • pamela chaddock

    Thanks, Tony, for this perspective. Yes,
    the generative value in Emergence and the democracy of de-liberation. I
    heartily agree the Emergent model is ‘radical in prioritizing the agency of
    those in attendance to determine the beliefs and direction of the church’.
    I see this power of the individual before God as a mainstay of Jesus’
    message–‘liberty’ that sets us free. The church is destined to become a
    ‘living organism’ of followers of Jesus. Far too long “Christianity’
    has been an institutionalized ‘religion ABOUT Jesus, and this is changing!
    I’m most inspired by the audacity of Emergents who seem to have ears to
    hear AND courage to follow.

  • BradC

    Another thought
    The issue of authority is very significant in the emerging milieu
    If you follow the thinking behind the 500 year increments of church history since the time of Christ, the issue of authority and the transition may be the most significant thing to deal with:·
    1st 500 years authority was Apostolic – derived from the direct relationships with the early Apostles·
    2nd 500 years authority was Autocratic – derived from the emperor or established king·
    3rd 500 years authority was the Magisterium – derived from the formation of the universal church
    4th 500 years authority was Individualistic – derived from the reformers cry of Sola Scriptura. The idea that any individual can ascertain truth from studying the original scriptures can only develop as the idea of radical individualism from the
    enlightenment thinkers spreads.·
    The post modern critique demonstrates the fallacy of the individual and the idea of “absolute truth”. Holding an idea alone is no longer considered “noble and brave” it is considered weak and foolish. Ideas that are worth holding must have agreement from others – this is why the idea of deliberate democracy is growing in our churches. We must come to agreement on matters of faith and practice.