Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Defining the Emerging Church Movement

Last Thursday I attended the Emergent Villiage Cohort at Solomon's Porch in Minneapolis. I have been tuning in to the Emergent Podcast and thought I would check this monthly meeting out. It was fun to sit and listen to Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt (among others) talk about how the Emerging Movement came into being and where they see it going.

For the past few months, I have been increasingly interested in the topic of the Emerging Movement. I came across this fantastic article by Dr. Scot McKnight which is a transcript of a message he gave defining the Emerging Church Movement (thanks to Vanguard Church and The Jesus Creed). The article comes in response to the Widely read book by D. A. Carson Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church. Carson is a big enough name that many people hear what he has to say, except it as truth and don't investigate for themselves, when in reality Carson get it completely wrong. As McKnight says, "I have almost never heard anything that resembles what Carson thinks is so typical of the emerging 'church'," and that the book is "sloppy work."

Having said this, let us take how Dr. McKnight defines the Emerging Church. In fact, it is better to start by asserting what it is not. (*All Quotations are from the referenced article, unless otherwise specified.)

1. The Emerging Church is not what you've heard.

In addition to what has been said about Carson's poor analysis above, there are stereotypes about them being postmoderns who deny all truth and who reject morality. These claims are false, and someone who makes the claims about the EC doesn't know what they are talking about. So, maybe the first step to defining this movement is to forget what you know (or have heard). I honestly believe that this movement has been misquoted or quoted out of context more than any other in Christendom recently (i.e Brian McLaren).

2. The Emerging Church is not a "Church."

To call it a “church” on the title of his book [as Carson does] is to pretend that it is something like a denomination, which it isn’t. The leaders are determined, right now, to prevent it becoming anything more than a loose association of those who want to explore conversation about the Christian faith and the Christian mission and the Christian praxis in this world of ours, and they want to explore that conversation with freedom and impunity when it comes to doctrine.

3. The Emerging Church is not defined by its theological statement or destinctives.

[T]he evangelical movement is defined by its theology (or as David Wells would say, by its lack of theology); the emerging movement is not defined by its theology. It doesn’t stand up and say, 'Lookee here, this is our doctrinal statement.' To force the emerging movement into a theological definition is to do violence to it – it isn’t a theological movement and so can’t be defined that way.

The EM is not known by its innovative doctrinal statement or by its confessional stances. Now, to be sure, every movement is “theological” in one way or another, and that means the EM is a theological movement. But, what we need to keep in mind is
that it not a “Reformed” movement with a new twist, or an Anabaptist movement with new leaders (though I think it is more Anabaptist than anything else), and it is not a Wesleyan movement centuries later. It is, instead, best to see it as a conversation about theology, with all kinds of theologies represented, with a core adhering to the classical creeds in a new key.

4. The Emerging Church is not "Emergent".

A clear destinction should be made; Emergent refers to Emergent Villiage, headed up by Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt, an organization that exists through Cohorts across the nation (like the one I attended recently) that is made of of people from all different Christian backgrounds who come together to have conversations. Emerging "is bigger, broader, and deeper." The Emerging Movement is what McKnight is defining in this article, of which Emergent Villiage is a part.

Now, we can safely turn to what the Emerging Movement is. I will offer four statements taken from the article without any commentary. We will then use the outline that McKnight provides along with quotes about each in order to get a better grasp of the movement.

1. The Emerging Movement is a conversation.

2. The Emerging Movement is a reaction against Evangelicalism.

3. "The Emerging Movement thinks love defines Christian existence."

4. The Emerging Movement "is about 'how to do church' in our age" and "how to practice the way of Jesus in postmodernity."

As McKnight says, we must allow the Emerging Movement to define itself first, and then when outsiders define it, it must be in such a way that those in the movement say "Yes, that's it." In doing this, McKnight turns to Andrew Jones and his definition of the movement:

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.

McKnight continues on to offer his own metaphore as an outline, as follows:

The Emerging Movement is a lake (Lake Emerging) with four rivers flowing into it, which can me grasped generally in the following outline:

1. Postmodern: This can be subdivided into 3 categories, but suffice it to say, all emergence have some relationship with postmodernity.
  • Those who minister to postmoderns
  • Those who minister with postmoderns
  • Those who minister as postmoderns
    2. Praxis: This is what a person, group, or church does, and a great emphasis is put on praxis in the EM. McKnight highlights 4 areas of praxis.
  • Worship: This is usually characterized by newer forms, including couches, sitting in the round, candles, poetry, art etc.
  • Orthopraxy: To be straight up about it, the emerging movement thinks how a person lives is more important than what they believe,that orthopraxy is the most important thing.

    That being said, let it be clear that those in the Emerging Movement would not say that belief is not important. McKnight also says, I know no one in the emerging movement who thinks one’s relationship to God is established by how one lives, nor do I know anyone who really thinks it doesn’t matter what one believes about Jesus Christ. Pehaps it is important to say that both beliefs and praxis matter, but that those who are Emerging focus on the praxis because Jesus seems to.

  • Social justice: But what has to be seen is that anyone who thinks the Christian can withdraw from culture and society, cloistering themselves into huddled Bible study groups, longing for heaven and hoping it will happen soon are unfaithful to Jesus’ message of the kingdom. That’s the heart of the emerging movement’s concern with social justice.

  • Missional: This is to say, the EM is not concerned with "evangelisim" in the modern, evangelical sense, but in empowering "the Church" to go into the world, rather than creating a building for outsiders to come. The central element of this missional praxis is that the emerging movement is not attractional in its model of the church but is instead missional: that is, it does not invite people to church but instead wanders into the world as the church.

    3. Postevangelical: The EM is a reaction to evangelicalism in several ways.
  • Post-Bible-Study-Piety: The goal, so we in the emerging movement often say, of the Christian life is not to master the Bible but to be mastered by the Bible... The goal is not information, but formation.

  • Post Systematic Theology: So, let me begin with a simplification: the gospel is more than Jesus coming to die for my sins so I can get to heaven. This gospel is not only protested by the emerging movement; it is rejected. Emerging Christians are trying to get beyond this gospel and that movement. Please observe: as an Apple computer is post a PC or a Dell, so the emerging movement is post evangelical. Not in the sense of abandonment, not in the sense of rendering obsolete, but in the sense of taking up and moving beyond as a fresh work of the Spirit.

    I would say that the vast majority of emerging Christians are evangelical theologically or evangelical conversionally, but they are postevangelical when it comes to describing the Christian life and theology.

  • Post In vs Out: Those in the EM no longer stress the dichotomy between in vs out, saved vs unsaved, ingroup vs outgroup, because of the damage that has done.

    4. Politics: Brian McLaren says that Emerging politics are "purple" (i.e the combining of the good elements of the red and the blue). McKnight acknowledges this, but claims that practically speaking the politics of the Emerging Movement are skewed left.

    In conclusion, to summarize, here is the outline again below. If this topic interests you, read the article by Scot McKnight, It is the best attempt I have seen yet at difining this movement. Here is the outline:

    The Emerging Movement is a lake, with four rivers running into it:

    1. Postmodern
  • Those who minister to postmoderns
  • Those who minister with postmoderns
  • Those who minister as postmoderns
    2. Praxis
  • Worship
  • Orthopraxy
  • Social justice
  • Missional
    3. Postevangelical
  • Post-Bible-Study-Piety
  • Post Systematic Theology
  • Post In vs Out
    4. Politics


    Anonymous said...

    Thanks for defining "emerging" church / movement.

    However I see some key problems in this movement

    Definition of Terms and Beliefs
    (There are core truths of being a believer / christian)

    Guidelines given to us by Scripture

    If we get rid of Absolute Truth's 30 years from now - The Bible will no longer be our reference!

    What do you think?

    Nick said...

    Hi Jim, thanks for the comment.

    A couple things. Your comment was vague, so I'm not entirely sure what you were saying, but I'll make some general comments. Dont think I'm trying to put words in your mouth. I'm just going to respond to some of the big issues.

    First, just because the ECM doesnt write an official statement of faith or belief doesnt mean they dont hold core beliefs. They seem to identify with the ancient creeds more than anything, and those creeds certainly affirm the core beliefs of the faith. McKnight's article (which I hope you read) talks a bit more about this.

    Second, the ECM has no intention of removing scripture or absolute truth from the church. That is a regular critique of anything that is ever associated with postmodernity, but it is most often false. I know of no leader who identifies with this movement (ECM) who denies absolute truth, and if there are some (there may be), they would seem to be in the minority, the exception to the rule.

    Again, McKnight's article tries to address all of these, and offers a more robust explanation of the movement than i could do on this blog.

    Thanks for reading.