Monday, July 5, 2010

The Emergent Church - Part 1 - Guest Blogger: Katie Williamson

Before explaining what the Emergent Church is and what it looks like there must first be a distinction made between two very similar but different terms. There is often much confusion between the words emerging and emergent. Geoff Ashley, of the Village Church, does an excellent job of offering a separation of the two terms. “Think of the Emerging Church as a general movement (a tree) and the Emergent ‘conversation’ as a specific or particular subset (a branch) of that broader movement”(2). So, the Emerging Church is basically an umbrella that covers a variety of denominations, movements, and theologies, while the Emergent Church is a movement or theology under the umbrella of emerging.

What exactly is the Emergent Church? The Emergent Church is an up and coming movement that is seeking to change not only the way that “outsiders” view Christianity but also the way that Christians view Christianity. In the late 1990s young pastors and theologians began to meet under an organization called the Leadership Network to discuss “church.” The Leadership Network seeks to foster church innovation and growth through strategies, programs, tools, and resources (Leadership Network). These discussions took place in coffee shops and living rooms all across America. People were seeking to rethink the historic and modern inadequacies with church, tradition, and evangelicalism. In 2001 this discussion was made into its own individual organization known as the Emergent Village.

The Emergent Village is very different than most Christian organizations that one might come across. There are two facets to the leadership of the Emergent Village. The first is Emergent Village cohorts; the second is the Emergent Village Board of Directors. The board of directors is a small group of “friends” that oversee the projects and finances of the EV. They serve only a three year term and meet four times a year. Cohorts are the localized way the Emergent Village works. Around the nation friends of Emergent Village meet at their own time and place to discuss what they choose (“Leadership”).

The Emergent Church is very broad in its beliefs; however; there is a list of four core values and practices expressed on their website. The first is “Commitment to God in the Way of Jesus”. They claim to be committed to God through a “generous orthodoxy”. They want to understand the gospel in terms of Jesus’ radical, profound, and expansive message. The second core value is “Commitment to the Church in all its Forms”. There is not a need to critique or reject any denomination or form of “church”. Everything is accepted and encouraged. They are also “Committed to God’s World”. This is where a radical idea of community comes in. They are seeking to build friendships across gender, racial, ethnic, and economic boundaries. The Emergent Village seeks participation in movements towards peace and justice. Lastly, there is a “Commitment to One Another”. The Emergent Church seeks to welcome all people to join their humble pilgrimage through their journey of faith (“Values and Practices”).

While the Emergent Church has a set of “core values,” they have not been at all successful in determining, theologically, what they believe about Christ and the Bible. To understand this movement, however, one must understand that this lack of determination was absolutely intentional. Emergent Christianity seeks to provoke thoughtful questions that will lead you not to an understanding of the Bible, but to an acceptance of “mystery”. In his book, Adventures in Missing the Point, Brian Mclaren encourages Christians to “drop any affair you may have with certainty, proof, argument, - and replace it with dialogue, conversation, intrigue and search”(84). Within the Emergent circle certainty is not something to be celebrated but rather something to be destroyed.

It is hard to really understand the motivations of the movement without understanding the backgrounds of many of its leaders. Most of them have come from very conservative and traditional backgrounds. They are seeking something less fundamental and dogmatic. They want freedom in opinion rather that restriction in doctrine. D.A. Carson(a critic of Emergent Village) goes as far to say that, “...the reforms that the movement encourages mirror the protests of the lives of many of its leaders” (14).

“Leadership” is not necessarily a word that Emergent Christians like to use when referring to their organization. In 2008 they implemented a “board of directors” to replace Tony Jones, the organization's central leader at the time. The Emergent Village said that they wanted to bring the group back to its original purpose, an “egalitarian social-networking organization.” Board member Brian Mclaren said, “we are gifting the power of Emergent back to the people at a grassroots level of the conversation.” While Mclaren was never the organization's central leader, he has become one of its most prominent voices (O'Brein). Mclaren is the pastor of a small church in Maryland. He has written several books and travels around speaking at different locations. Mclaren is in his fifties and has spent the majority of his life studying the Bible. After all these years he still claims to know very little about God. At the beginning of his book, A Generous Orthodoxy, Mclaren warns the reader and says that he has gone out of his way to be, “provocative, mischievous, and unclear. Reflecting [his] belief that that clarity is sometimes overrated. (27)” He tells the reader in another book that he has been “on a journey of doubt”(7). Mclaren is fond of asking hard questions but not so fond of answering them.

Another name that tends to associate itself with the emergent village is, Rob Bell. Bell is the pastor of a rather large church in Michigan, Mars Hill (not to be confused with Mars Hill Bible Church in Spokane, Washington). Bell is on the same journey of “doubt” that Mclaren is. He has also written several books and travels around the nation on different speaking tours. Bell believes that we should “test everything” and is very intrigued by the “mysteries of God” (Velvet Elvis).

There are several others along with Jones, Bell, and Mclaren, that are leading this movement. A few names to be aware of are Phyllis Tickle, Doug Paggitt, Dallas Willard, Spencer Burke, Dan Kimball and Tony Campolo. There is a common theme about the thinking of many of these leaders. They are seeking a theology change. There is also a common “irritation” towards doctrine, orthodox, and tradition. There is irritation towards absoluteness. And there is frustration towards anyone who has “answers.”

The world is living in a culture that says, “there is nothing that is absolute, and nothing that is certain,” but at the same time Christians are reading a Bible that says to live outside the ways and teachings of culture. The struggle that Christianity faces today is deciding how to engage this skeptical culture. This is where the Emergent church comes in. Rather than seeking to fill a question filled world with hopeful answers they are joining in and coming up with more unanswered questions.

The Great Emergence, why now? According to Phyllis Tickle it is time for the church to do a “rummage sale.” Tickle is an internationally renowned religion expert. She has spent large amounts of time studying church patterns throughout history. She recently wrote a book called, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why. In this book she discusses the reasons for the Emergent movement. If someone were to travel back through time five-hundred years they would be placed directly in the middle of what is now known as the Great Reformation. Five-hundred years back from there would take them to the Great Schism. Five-hundred years before The Great Schism history finds the “Fall of the Roman Empire.” Tickle recognizes a pattern in church history. She points out that every five-hundred years the church has undergone some sort of major “change”. It has been five-hundred years since the church last had a reformation, so here we are, “The Great Emergence.”

Tickle is probably right about most things in her book. There is an obvious pattern of church reformations in history and it makes sense for there to be another one happening right now. There is however something that Tickle, along with most Emergent Christians, does not fully understand. The Culture is ever-changing but the Gospel is never-changing. If some one were to look closely at the church reformations in the past they would see another pattern. These “reformations” have been an effort to bring culture back to what the Gospel has always been saying. Never before has anyone successfully changed the message of the Gospel to fit what the culture is saying. The Emergent Church is seeking a message change.

Postmodernism is the driving force behind the Emergent church. At the beginning of Brian Mclaren's book, Church on the Other Side, he says, “If you have a new world you need a new church. You have a new world”(15). The world is changing their mind about philosophy and religion thus causing Christians to rethink theology. If the world was not in a postmodern era would Emergent Christians still feel the need to make a change? Postmodernism is nothing new to theology. John Calvin was a theologian living in a premodern era. Even Calvin had to address postmodernism:

"But they contend that it is a matter of rash presumption for us to claim an undoubted knowledge of God's will. Now I would concede that point to them only if we took upon ourselves to subject God's incomprehensible plan to our slender understanding. But when we simply say with Paul: “we have not received the spirit of this world, but the Spirit that is from God . . .” by whose teaching “we know the gifts bestowed on us by God” [1 Cor. 2:12], how can they yelp against us without abusively assaulting the Holy Spirit? But if it is a dreadful sacrilege to accuse the revelation of given by the Spirit either of falsehood or uncertainty or ambiguity, how do we transgress in declaring its certainty?" - John Calvin

Here we are again, 500 years later, dealing with postmodernism. Emergent ideas are not new. They came about in Europe's Great Reformation but they did not last. The certainty of the Gospel trumped the ambiguity of postmoderns.


  1. hey I found this post very informative. One of the clear signs of the emerging church is the recognition that truth can come from many of the other religions without losing its truthfulness or demolishing our own understanding. After all Truth is always truth because its source is God. Whether it is catholic, protestant or Muslim. Truth is not in the hands of only one organisation or faith. I am convinced God did this to stop it being hijacked by any one organisation.

    I believe we can address a skeptical culture by accepting that our particular faith experience does not represent all the truth about God but only the part we posess. Rather than start from a fixed position it is an evolving process of discovery and questioning along the way. for 300 years that church had no bible so what they taught evolved our of their everyday living and interactions. We are not trying to get people to believe our brand of truth but inviting them to explore their own truth that already exists within their experience. Our work is simply helping them see that. The emphasis of emerging fatith is not on what you believe (doctrine) but also how you believe also (openess and simplicity. Jesus called it child like faith). By sharing our truth with one another the whole picture becomes more obvious to all. The truth is clarified through a multitude of experiences rather than one belief system which is the churches current limitation. It is through cross pollination that we create better and more accurate truth to live by.

  2. "...realizing that truth can come from many different religions with out losing its truthfulness..." is a very dangerous statement, especially for a Bible believing Christian (however, I don't know if you are or not). The God of Bible...and nothing absolutely the only source of truth. At first I can see how that would seem extremely narrow and close-minded. But when carefully examined we see that Christianity is not a religion or an organization, it is a way of life. The truth of God covers EVERY aspect, and every "experience" in our lives. You are correct in saying that Truth is always Truth because its source is God, but the question needing to be answered is, which god? There can not be multiple sources for truth. If there were then there would be no absolute truth and if there were no absolute truth there would be no God...and vice versa. God IS truth, so why would he want to credit that truthfulness to anything else?

    Also, I see a major problem with the first sentence of your second paragraph, "I believe we can address a skeptical culture by accepting that..." Stop right there. Just because the culture is skeptical does not mean you must change what you accept! Truth is truth and always will be. I agree that our faith is evolving (sanctification) and we will have questions. But the problem that I find with in Emergent circles is that it ends there. We have tons of questions. But what about answers? What about defending our faith and KNOWING what we believe? We can NOT get to a place where we are "inviting people to explore their OWN truth that already exists within their experience" You said earlier that God is the source of truth and now you are encouraging people to explore their "own" truth. It doesn't work like that. I believe that as a Christian all of my "experiences" point to the cross. And I believe that everyones do. Whether people see it or not, the cross is where truth brings us to. And as a Christian it is my job to point people there rather than to their "own" truth.