Defining the Emerging Church

kogbooksHave you ever been engaged in a long conversation when it suddenly hits you: “We are talking about two different things! Same words but different definitions!!”

Well, this is exactly what has happened here on Requisite Danger these last two months!! 😀

I have been using the term “emerging church” in one way – while some of you have been reading it in another way. Specifically, some readers have been reading the term exactly the way Webster would define it (i.e. churches that are emerging – or up and coming). Yet, this is not the way that I have been using the term.

For me – and for a lot of folks around the country – the term ‘emerging church’ brings to mind a new movement within Christianity (similar to the Jesus Movement, the Third Wave, etc – if these terms confuse you, check out Adrian Warnock article on the “The State of the Evangelical Movement” for a short history lesson). Therefore, in an effort to clear up the confusion, here is a brief definition of the Emerging Church Movement:

The Emerging Church is a movement that began in the mid to late 1980’s (Andrew Jones of Tall Skinny Kiwi fame says 1989 as well as Wikipedia – but there are some that 1985 is the true date) among mainline Protestant and Evangelical churches in the USA and UK (note, however, that the movement did not stay within these countries or denominations, but quickly spread around the globe with Brazil having one of the largest Emerging Church conferences in the world).

One of the best definitions of Emerging Church Movement comes from Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger in their book, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (also see Scott McKnight’s article in Christianity Today)

Emerging churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures. This definition encompasses 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.

While of these nine practices seem fairly tame – or even ‘normal’ – in reality, they are quite different then the majority of Christianity as they are heavily influenced by postmodern philosophy. Or, in other words, members of the emerging church movement see the world differently then their traditional ‘cousins’ who are operating under a modernity worldview (this would be similar to how someone in Africa sees, thinks, and does thinks differently then someone in the USA).

Here is where it gets a tad confusing.

pagittIn 2000, a group of Emerging Church leaders got together and started an organization called the Emergent Village. This group had some good financial backing – and a tad more radical theology – leading to a large following, a lot of books, and a ton of backlash from the traditional church. Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, and Doug Pragitt are probably the three most renown (and controversial) Emergent Village leaders/authors.

Thus, the term “Emerging Church” refers to the greater movement while “Emergent Village” refers to a particular group within the Emerging Movement. On a personally level, I tend to like a lot of what I seen in the “Emerging Church” (theologically, practically, and philosophical) while I do not care much for the “Emergent Village” folks as they tend to be a tad too generous in their deconstruction of the church and classic theology (read: very, very liberal).

Got it? Good. 🙂


Updated: June 5, 2010

It seems that in trying to clarify one thing, I confused folks a tad more…=?  In an effort to help folks under the Emerging Church (EC), I have briefly summarized the nine practices identified by Gibbs and Bolger (listed above). However, I would like to say that you really need to read their book to get a grasp on how these practices differ from those of the traditional church (i.e. while some of the outward actions are similar, the reasons why they are done are different).

(1) Identify with the life of Jesus – For years, churches have tended to rank Paul and the Epistles above the Gospels and Jesus (mostly because Paul’s writings are more logical, whereas the Gospels are more story orientated). The EC is seeking to reserve this order (ie. reading Paul through the eyes of Jesus vs Jesus through the eyes of Paul).

(2) Transform the secular realm – Traditionally the church has separated the world into the secular and the sacred. The EC believes that this is a false dichotomy which needs to be broken down.

(3) Live highly communal lives – This means what it says. The EC is trying to stop the idea that folks come to church once a week, say ‘hi’ to some folks and go home. Being a believer means joining a family that hang out together in community.

(4) Welcome the stranger – Just like Jesus, the EC seeks to welcome anyone and everyone. Or, in different words, the postmodern EC groups allow people to ‘belong’ before they ‘believe,’ whereas most modernity churches force folks to believe before then can belong.

(5) Serve with generosity – i.e. serving others with no strings attached. This is different then the liberal “social gospel” (in which serving was the gospel) and the conservative approach (serve others with the goal of making converts).

(6) Participate as producers – Highly interact worship in which everyone in the church participates in everything. Folks are no longer consumers, but producers.

(7) Create as created beings – The imagination is embraced, allow for folks to create new things whether it is art, movies, music, etc.

(8) Lead as a body – The EC is breaking down the barriers between the clergy and the layperson. Instead, the community leads as a whole according to the gifts of the people (note that this is different then a modernity congregational church in which the congregation votes on the actions, but the paid pastor did everything.)

(9) Take part in spiritual activities – This is an embrace of the ancient spiritual disciplines of the premodern era; drawing from various traditions and mixing together in a creative mix. The body, mind, soul and spirit are also highly connected whereas modernity tended to separate them.