“Have you heard of this ‘emergent church?’” “Do you have any idea what it is all about?” “What is a ‘missional?’” “What about this McLaren fellow, have you read his books?” These kinds of questions have been asked of me (and perhaps of you) with increasing frequency in the last few years.
To be honest, I was never very interested in researching the topic. By my limited reading it seemed that all this emergent stuff was just one more fad that would eventually fall along the littered trail of North American evangelicalism – right there beside PromiseKeepers, the Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts, the psychology-laden counselling models of the 90’s, the “sawdust trail,” the seeker-sensitive church and other worn out trends. But the calls of the sheep eventually got too loud and repetitive not to do some reading and study in order to discover what all the fuss was about.
Very early on it became apparent this would not be a fast study! The amount of materials and the rapid rate at which they were being produced meant this was going to take more than a few weeks of work. Besides, just when it seemed the dust had settled long enough to make sense of things, some new windstorm would blow matters up only to leave a different Emergent in its trail.
What’s more, the very nature of how the emerging church presents itself and the terms that it uses to do so make understanding what it is very difficult – even to those in the middle of it! A rookie like me has to quickly learn a new vocabulary and then translate what he thinks Emergent is saying into statements and thought-structures that make sense to non-Emergent kind of people. That is not to suggest that Emergent folks don’t make sense to themselves, but there is a certain amount of cross-cultural translation that must take place in order to get at what is meant by what is said.
So my goal in this paper is primarily to present to you what Emergent believes itself to be. I have endeavoured to stay as close to first-source material as possible and to avoid caricature and generalization. That should explain the number of and the extent of the quotations I make in the paper. I have also tried to put into your hands a kind of Emergent Handbook – not a “How To” handbook, but a quick reference guide to “all things Emergent.” My hope is that this will prove to be a useful tool to busy pastors in particular.
After defining Emergent, I move on to a basic critique of strengths and weaknesses. You should know from the outset that my list of weaknesses far outnumbers my list of strengths. Unfortunately, the amount of space all of this took limited my suggested corrections to Emergent to one foundational matter. There really needs to be more done on this last part in the near future and hopefully someone can build off of what I offer here. Certainly many of us will be thinking in our own minds of various responses to the material I present and I trust that will make its way out in our discussion period. The end of the paper includes four appendices on important topics that add to the material presented; substantiating evidence that would have interrupted the flow of thought if included in the main paper.
None of this is meant to be the final word on Emergent. But by presenting everything on paper and in this order I believe it will set the table for some excellent discussion. So, with all of these introductory matters out of the way, let’s get on with the study!