Monday, April 10, 2006

Defining the Indefinable?

What is Emergent?

Nailing Jell-o to a wall. Stapling wet noodles to the ceiling. You will have about as much success attempting these things as you will at defining Emergent.[1] To begin with, you have to decide what to classify it as; is it a movement, a group, a way to keep High School kids going to church, a denomination, a groundswell, a heresy, a conversation, an appeal to younger evangelicals, an ever-changing feeling? All of these classifications have been suggested in some form. For our purposes, I will call it a movement: in the sense of “a collective effort by a large number of people to try to achieve something, especially a political or social reform” – like, “the civil rights movement.” This seems a fair description since Emergent includes many different denominations, backgrounds, etc. and a leading attribute is the desire to bring about change.[2]

The movement must certainly include the word “church,” since it makes all its appeals for change to the church at large. Even though Emergent is not a “church” in and of itself, it is true to say it is a movement within the greater church body.

Now for the actual word “emergent.” What is meant by it? Brian McLaren attempts to illustrate the use of the term by referring to “emerging saplings in a forest floor,”[3] “emergent wetlands” or emerging, concentric circles as seen in the rings of a tree trunk.[4] The thrust of each illustration is to suggest that Emergent is something that is growing out of the past Christian tradition, encompassing it and expanding it into new realms.[5] Thus, Emergent (at least in McLaren’s characterization) is not against the church per se, rather it is growing out of the fertile decomposition of previous generations and assuming that into a new future. That is why Emergent is so flexible and fluid – and why McLaren can write things like: “So will our current emergence yield a superior and ultimate form of Christianity? Will the emerging form finally get it right? Of course not![6]

Carson gives a rather lengthy description of Emergent that amounts to a sort of definition:

...during the last dozen years, “emerging” and “emergent” have become strongly associated with an important movement that is sweeping across America, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. Many in the movement use “emerging” or “emergent...” as the defining adjective for their movement. A dozen books talk about “the emergent church” and “stories of emergence” and the like. One website encourages its patrons in “emergent friendship...”

At the heart of the “movement”—or as some of its leaders prefer to call it, the “conversation”—lies the conviction that changes in the culture sig­nal that a new church is “emerging.” Christian leaders must therefore adapt to this emerging church. Those who fail to do so are blind to the cultural accretions [“build up” or “accumulation”] that hide the gospel behind forms of thought and modes of expression that no longer communicate with the new generation, the emerging generation... I should stress that not only is the movement amorphous, but its boundaries are ill-defined.

Some would argue that the very attempt of defining emergent is misguided![7] It is not something to be defined in a cold, modernistic, scientific manner. That whole category is out of place. It is like asking a hockey player his batting average – it is the wrong question. For these, Emergent is something to be experienced, felt, walked in, and embraced... it is not a static thing to be pinned to the laboratory table and dissected into little bits. Hence the constant use of phrases like, “Emergent is a conversation.” Perhaps that explains the definition offered on both the US and Canadian Emergent websites: “Emergent is a growing generative friendship among missional[8] Christian Leaders.”[9] That says something – but not much.

Towards a Working Definition

So, fully aware that many people will not like my definition (some by the fact that I am creating one at all, others by the fact they disagree with the content of it and still others by the fact that it is too imprecise!) for my purposes I will speak of the Emergent Church Movement (EC throughout this paper) as that collective effort of diverse individuals sharing a similar worldview (that embraces much of post-modernism) to re-define the mission of the church, the doctrine of the church and the essence of the church in order to more relevantly and purely reflect God’s purposes in this day.[10]

Broken down into bite-sized pieces, the whole thing is trying to say this:

· collective effort – EC is big into words like “conversation,” “dialogue,” “gathering (instead of ‘conference’) and the like. There is enormous emphasis on communal effort in reaching understanding and in impacting the surrounding world.

· of diverse individuals – While the collective comes first, those who comprise it will be from a wide range of religious and socio-economic backgrounds (although predominantly white, male and western!)

· sharing a similar worldview (that embraces much of post-modernism) – Foundational to the movement is an embrace of much or some of what post-modernism (loosely-defined) has to offer. Some of the divisions within EC (as reflected in later sections of this paper) are the result of varying degrees of affinity to and understanding of post-modernism.

· to re-define – Or, “re-imagine” or “re-think” or a slough of other terms that mean start at the bottom, assume nothing and work your way to a conclusion on everything. Much of the angst of EC is aroused by what is perceived as an irrelevant evangelicalism that refuses to engage the world around it. Therefore, Christians must re-do everything from worship to leadership structures in order to represent Christ accurately to this culture. The three main areas of emphasis are:

o the mission of the church – why the church exists

o the doctrine of the church – what the church believes[11]

o and the essence of the church – the fundamental nature of what it means to be a Christian[12]

· in order to more relevantly and purely reflect God’s purposes in this day – What might be labelled as the real goal to all things EC. To be relevant.[13]

The New Tripartite Division

This definition is more precisely focused by noting the three “tribes” within EC. This “hot off the press” categorizing is extremely helpful in the overall analysis, as it identifies some of the distinctions under the one large, encompassing definition I have offered above.[14]

First, the Emerging church is a broad category that encompasses a wide variety of churches and Christians who are seeking to be effective missionaries wherever they live. This includes Europeans and Australians who are having the same conversation as their American counterparts. The Emerging church includes three distinct types of Christians. In a conversation with Dr. Ed Stetzer, a noted missiologist, he classified them as the Relevants, Reconstructionists, and Revisionists.

Relevants are theologically conservative evangelicals who are not as interested in reshaping theology as much as updating such things as worship styles, preaching styles, and church leadership structures. Their goal is to be more relevant; thus, appealing to postmodernminded people. Relevants commonly begin alternative worship services within evangelical churches to keep generally younger Christians from leaving their churches. They also plant new churches to reach emerging people. Relevant leaders look to people such as Dan Kimball, Donald Miller, and Rob Bell as like-minded leaders.

The common critique of Relevants is that they are doing little more than conducting “cool church” for hip young Christians and are not seeing significant conversion growth. Within the Relevants there is also a growing group of outreach-minded Reformed Relevants, which look to men like John Piper, Tim Keller, and D. A. Carson for theological direction.

Reconstructionists are generally theologically evangelical and dissatisfied with the current forms of church (e.g. seeker, purpose, contemporary). They bolster their critique by noting that our nation is becoming less Christian and that those who profess faith are not living lives markedly different than non-Christians; thereby, proving that current church forms have failed to create life transformation. Subsequently, they propose more informal, incarnational, and organic church forms such as house churches. Reconstructionists, who are more influenced by mainline Christian traditions, will also use terms like “new monastic communities” and “abbess.” Reconstructionist leaders look to such people as Neil Cole and Australians Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch.

The common critique of Reconstructionists is that they are collecting disgruntled Christians who are overreacting to the megachurch trend but are not seeing significant conversion growth.

Revisionists are theologically liberal and question key evangelical doctrines, critiquing their appropriateness for the emerging postmodern world. Reconstructionists look to such leaders as Brian McLaren and Doug Pagitt as well as other Emerging Christians.

The common critique of Revisionists is that they are recycling the doctrinal debates of a previous generation and also not seeing significant conversion growth. What ties each of these types of Emerging Christians together is a missiological conversation about what a faithful church should believe and do to reach Western culture. However, beyond that there is little unity because there is widespread disagreement on what counts as faithful doctrine and practice.[15]

This three-fold division is rather new and the jury is out on whether “every tribe” agrees first of all with the distinctions and secondly with their placement in them! I include it here, however, as it reveals the large disparity in the movement as a whole. Most of the authors and writings I will treat in this paper would fall into the Stetzer-Driscoll Revisionist category. That should be kept in mind throughout.[16]

[1] If you are perplexed as to why it is difficult to arrive at a definition, then consider this example as one that is not too uncommon. “’The emerging church is being willing to take the red pill, going down the rabbit hole, and enjoying the ride. It is Dorothy not in Kansas anymore yet finding her way home. It is Superman braving kryptonite to embrace Krypton. It is sight seeking wider vision, relationships seeking expanded embrace, and spirituality seeking holistic practice. It is a ‘road of destination’ where Christ followers, formerly of divergent pasts, are meeting up in the missional present and moving together toward God’s future.’ - Karen Ward, Church of the Apostles, Seattle.” Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger, Emerging Churches: creating christian community in postmodern cultures (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2005) 27.

[2] Phil Johnson disagrees: In some important ways the emerging subculture is not really even a movement in the classic sense. There are no clear leaders or universally-recognized spokespersons who would be affirmed by everyone associated with the emerging church. The closest to a dominant figure would be Brian McLaren, and he is so controversial and so prone to making disturbing statements that many who have adopted the emerging style or otherwise identified with the emergent movement say they don't want their ministries or opinions to be evaluated by what he says. And I don't blame them.
On top of that, this is a movement that hates formal structure, so it has been resistant to any kind of definition or careful boundaries that would make its shape easy to discern or describe. It's a movement that is purposely foggy and amorphous, fluid and diverse--and most in the movement want to keep it that way.” From which is the text of an address Johnson gave at the 2006 Shepherd’s Conference at Grace Community Church.

[3] Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I Am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-yet-Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished CHRISTIAN. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: emergent/YS Zondervan, 2004) 275.

[4] Orthodoxy, 276-277.

[5] He concludes these illustrative descriptions with: “In this way of seeing, God stands ahead of us in time, at the end of the journey, sending to us in waves, as it were, the gift of the present, an inrush of the future that pushes the past behind us and washes over us with a ceaseless flow of new possibilities, new options, new chances to rethink and receive new direction, new empowerment. This newness, these possibilities are always “at hand,” “among us,” and “coming” so we can “enter” the larger reality and transcend the space we currently fill—language you will recognize as being, again, the language of the kingdom of God, which is the language of the gospel. What we will be is not yet clear to us. What we are becoming is presently only visible as through a glass darkly.” Orthodoxy, 283.

[6] Orthodoxy, 285. Emphasis his.

[7] See, for example, New Zealand Pastor Steve Taylor’s “Emergent Alphabet,” where he offers these self-descriptors: O=open ended. We don’t even want to define ourselves. We’re not even sure we are a movement. Let’s keep things … open. P=participatory. Gone is the pulpit and in is the discussion. Comments are essential to websites, to teaching and to preaching. Q=questioning. Got lots of those. Faith is mixed with ambiguity and juxtaposed with inconsistency. R=random – images, words, thoughts. S=seeking. We still haven’t found what we’re looking for, although some of us seem to know what we’re reacting against. Accessed on March 31, 2006.

[8] “Missional” is an oft-quoted term in EC circles and essentially carries the meaning of re-thinking church forms in order to more relevantly evangelize our own culture – in other words, local evangelism. Driscoll says, Missional means “the truths of Christianity are constant, unchanging, and meant for all people, times, and places. But the methods by which truth is articulated and practiced must be culturally appropriated, and therefore constantly translated (1 Cor. 9:22–23).” Accessed April 3, 2006.

More recently, Scot McKnight has defined the term this way: “This term ‘missional’ is crucial. To be ‘missional’ means embracing a holistic gospel, which is a gospel for the whole person (heart, soul, mind, and strength), for the whole society (politics, economy, culture, environment), and for the whole world. The missional emphasis focuses on the kingdom of God as taught by Jesus. Being missional means living out the gospel so that the gospel is seen and experienced through that community.

The EM invites us to be Christians, to follow Jesus, and to let others see the gospel in action. The gospel is performed as well as proclaimed. The EM often contends that people come to faith because they see the gospel and experience the gospel and come to trust and love others who live that gospel out in their daily life. The mission of the EM comes from the themes of the Gospels—especially the Magnificat of Mary in Luke 1, Jesus’s inaugural sermon in Luke 4, the Sermon on the Mount, the re-statement of Jesus’s mission to John the Baptist in Matthew 11, and the descriptions of the early Jerusalem community in Acts 2 to 4. For the EM, the kingdom vision of Jesus ought to be the missional focus of every local church. Accessed April 3, 2006. It seems to me that missional is simply local evangelism... although not necessarily with the Gospel proclaimed.

[10] George Lings wouldn’t much like my definition. He writes: “The phrase ‘Emerging church’ is an attempt to express succinctly the re-imagining of church that has been taking place in the last 20 years as a response to our rapidly changing UK mission context. The phrase ‘emerging church’, in my mind, is too passive and too modest; these ways of expressing church differently have already emerged and are very much claiming to be more authentic church than the inherited models. So keep an eye out for the phrase ‘fresh expressions of church’ that has increasing currency in the circles I move in.” accessed March 30, 2006. Emphasis mine.

[11] See for example Rob Bell’s interview in Christianity Today where he states: "This is not just the same old message with new methods... We're rediscovering Christianity as an Eastern religion, as a way of life. Legal metaphors for faith don't deliver a way of life." Accessed on April 4, 2006.

[12] Hence one of McLaren’s book titles: A New Kind of Christian.

[13] Ryan Bolger and Eddie Gibbs recently issued this definition of emergent at one of their book signings: “Emerging Churches are those who take the life of Jesus as a model way to live (one), who transform the secular realm (two), as they live highly communal lives (three). Because of these three activities, they welcome those who are outside (four), they share generously (five), they participate (six), create (seven), they lead without control (eight), and function together in spiritual activities (nine).” Accessed April 2, 2006.

The Wikipedia definition states: “The emerging church or emergent church is a diverse movement within Protestant Christianity that arose in the late 20th century as a reaction to the influence of modernism in Western Christianity. The movement is usually called a ‘conversation’ by its proponents to emphasize its diffuse nature with contributions from many people and no explicitly defined leadership or direction. The emerging church seeks to deconstruct and reconstruct Christianity as its mainly Western members live in a postmodern culture.” accessed on April 3, 2006. But this is disputed.

[14] This helpful tripartite organization was first offered on January 6, 2006 by Ed Stetzer in Baptist Press News.

[15] Criswell Theological Review, 3/2 (Spring 2006), 89-90 accessed online at,2%20APastoralPerspectiveontheEmergentChurch%5BDriscoll%5D.PDF. More recently, Driscoll refined these categories to look like this: “Relevants: theologically conservative, culturally innovative church forms. Reformed Relevants: theologically conservative and reformed, culturally innovative church forms. Reconstructionists: theologically conservative, reinventing church forms. Revisionists: theologically liberal, reinventing church forms. I have no problem with the evangelical Relevants (e.g. Dan Kimball, Chris Seay, Rob Bell, Erwin McManus). I have respect for, but some concerns with, the house church Reconstructionists. I consider myself a Reformed Relevant. And, the Emergent crowd is Revisionist, which I have strong concerns about regarding such things as gender roles, original sin, substitionary [sic] atonement, homosexuality, authority of Scripture, hell, etc. From accessed on April 3, 2006. Emphasis original.

[16] Mclaren himself suggests we read Ryan Bolger and Eddie Gibbs recently released Emerging Churches when asked for a definition. “It is by far the best introduction to the whole phenomenon. Also, it is smart to survey the websites and blogs connected with emergent, starting with and One will link to another, so before long you can get a broad exposure to emerging voices.” Criswell Theological Review 3/2 (Spring 2006) 5-14. Accessed online at,2%20InterviewwithBrianMcLaren%28Streett%29.PDF on March 31, 2006. That definition runs like this: “Emerging churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures. This definition encompasses the nine practices. Emerging churches (1) identify with the life of Jesus, (2) transform the secular realm, and (3) live highly communal lives. Because of these three activities, they (4) welcome the stranger, (5) serve with generosity, (6) participate as producers, (7) create as created beings, (8) lead as a body, and (9) take part in spiritual activities.” Emerging Churches, 44-45. (But compare to footnote 15 to see how even since the 2005 release of their book they have tweaked the definition.)


“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![1] 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!

[1] Brian McLaren, one leading spokesperson, noted at the April 8, 2006 resonate/emergent Canada event held at Richview Baptist Church, that: “[Emergent] is pretty hard to define.”


On Monday, April 10, 2006, I delivered a paper detailing my research into "The Emergent Church" for a local Pastor's Fellowship. The meeting was attended by many different folks, some involved in the emergent movement and others just hearing of it for the first time.
I am posting that paper here in sections. The idea is to invite comment on each section as we go along and see if we cannot learn what good emergent has to offer and also what areas need correction. Some day I hope to include a link to an audio recording of the meeting so that you can listen to the discussion that followed - I think it was a very helpful time. Once our new church website is up and running, I will also link to a PDF of the entire paper in case you would prefer to read the whole thing at once and skip the comments.
So - welcome! Feel free to comment away... I only request that you do your best to make your comments constructive, as in "adding to" the conversation.
Let's examine emergent!