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What is the Emerging Church?

posted by xscot mcknight

My conversation last week with a pastor of a mega-church, with my contention that a caricature was being used and his and others’ justifiable question, “Well, then, what is it?” leads me to a few posts this week that will attempt to sketch the movement in three categories: praxis, protest, and postmodernity. I am speaking for no one else and not for the Emergent Village or Emergent US or Emergent UK. This is my take on the movement.
Three Terms
There are three principal terms used here and each is preferred by one or another: the emerging church, the emerging movement, and the emerging conversation. I prefer “movement.” There is no real “church” as a separate entity, and I do think that “conversation” is at the heart of what is going on, but because I think there are so many involved (Barna’s claims are that there are 2o million such, but I’m not sure he is talking just about those in the emerging movement) that I think it is best to call it a “movement.” Of the three terms, the most accurate is conversation [for that is indisputable], then movement, and only third is “church” appropriate. Some call it the “emerging movement church.” Seems fair to me.
Definition: Start with Wikipedia
In spite of the number of times we ask others to consult the dictionary, the easiest place to begin is read carefully the Wikipedia definition and explanation:

The emerging church or emergent church is a diffuse movement which arose as a “conversation” (in emerging church terminology) in the late 20th century in Western Europe, North America, and the South Pacific. The emerging church is concerned with the deconstruction and reconstruction of Protestant Christianity in a postmodern cultural context.

It goes on:

During recent centuries, Western Christianity was influenced significantly by Modernism in the sense that it sought to take the individual narratives of the Bible and from them extract a set of underlying truths or meta-narratives. Using methods borrowed from scientific reductionism it was hoped that a grand truth and worldview would be attained. In practice, the modernist approach led to additional schism within the Church.
Postmodern church expressions, in turn, encouraged followers to deconstruct each element of their faith experience, and reassemble the pieces in light of his or her own unique journey through this deconstruction process.
One definition of the Emerging Church is that it is the collective term for the individuals who are emerging from this process of deconstruction and reconstruction of Christianity, or those who have joined groups being led by such individuals.
In an alternative perspective, the Emerging Church may be seen as both a reaction to, and a continuation of the Saddleback/Willow Creek movement which achieved such great success in the 1990s using a “seeker-friendly” approach. The “seeker-friendly” approach practiced a ‘come-to-church’ evangelism while the emergent church thesis is ‘come-to-Jesus.’ Every follower a missionary for Christ. Both models are marked by a willingness to retool the church experience as necessary to meet the goal of evangelism, but the resulting church experience can be quite different. The Saddleback/Willow Creek movement sought to forego the “irrelevant trappings” of the traditional church, such as stained glass and candles. The emerging church movement, however, tends to value these same symbols as sacred expressions of faith and creativity. The Saddleback movement is comfortable applying the tools of modern American marketing (focus groups, advertising, polling, etc.), to deliver a highly polished product to a typically baby boomer target demographic. The emerging church movement recognizes that their own target audience has been bombarded and over-saturated with advertising their entire lives and thus places a higher value on authentic personal interactions and the power of the timeless truths themselves.

This definition reflects a broad spectrum (so far as I understand) of the emerging movement.
I could leave it here, but I want to point once again to Emergent Village’s “Order” as a clear place to understand the movement. There are here four features of the movement that need to be seen as unifying:
1. Commitment to God in the Way of Jesus
2. Commitment to the Church in all its forms
3. Commitment to God’s World
4. Commitment to One Another
Each of these is fleshed out and actions inherent to their meaning are explained.
Praxis: A Central Concern
It is this last dimension, action, that concerns me in my comments today about the Emerging Movement. The EM is deeply concerned with the “character” of the Church for there are far too many of those who call themselves Christian and who go to church weekly (or more often) who are not following God in the way of Jesus and who see “doing church” as “going to a service on Sunday morning.”
The Emerging Movement is a summons or an invitation for the Church to live like followers of Jesus in everything they say, do, and think. The Emerging Movement seeks to model that in its emphasis on relationships as the core of the work of God in the world today.
One of the reasons so many are frustrated with the Emerging Movement’s definition is found here: it is a movement concerned with praxis and not simply theology. If the older fashion was to define others by their theology, the Emerging Movement wants to be defined by its behavior. This is a dramatic challenge to the Church.
I see three emphases in the Praxis element of the Emerging Movement:
First, the Emerging Movement calls people to goodness. Not in the sense of just being nice or being politically correct or being inoffensive, but reflecting the goodness of God in this world for the good of others and the good of the world. There is a commitment to do what is right (or to try to do what is right), to loving others as the Jesus Creed calls us to do, to exhibit moral goodness in all the relationships of life. This goodness is exhibited most especially in relation with the community of faith and its relationship to society. Goodness and community are connected. Goodness and being missional are connected: you can’t be good and be holed up on your own. Goodness compels relationships with others for their good.
Second, the Emerging Movement calls people to graciousness. Grace in the sense of knowing that each of us, in one way or another, is a sinful, cracked Eikon (my term from Embracing Grace), and in knowing ourselves in such a way that we can comprehend others as made as God’s Eikons who are also in need of grace. So, God’s grace embraces us so we can embrace others for their good and for the good of the world. There is much talk among the emerging folk about “authenticity” and sometimes one gets the impression that the Emerging Movement has a corner on authenticity: such a claim, if it is made, is inconsistent with its central affirmation that no one is completely authentic and no movement is completely authentic. But, striving for such transcends, so we believe, what is often on display in many churches in the world. Because grace animates the movement, there is less of a border between the “church” and the “world” and more of a fluid recognition of a common humanity where each person is in need of God’s restoring grace and it is the task of the local community to be that grace.
Third, the Emerging Movement operates with a summons to glorify God by being a manifestation of the way of Jesus in this world. Sometimes we all lose sight of this, but my sense of the Emerging Movement is that, though it may tire of old, hackneyed language that is tossed about by Christians in order to say the right thing at the right time, this summons to glorify God by living out the way of Jesus in this world for the good of others and the world is the Church’s only and deepest opportunity in this postmodern age: to be the grace of God for others and the world, to be the blessing of God to others and the world, not just to say it — but to be it.
Tomorrow: I will look at the Emerging Movement as a Protest.



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Brian Wallace

posted October 31, 2005 at 9:22 am


Also of interest might be a series of five sermons that Brian McLaren recently gave at his home church, Cedar Ridge, the entitled “What is the Emerging Church?”.
They can be found on http://www.crcc.org/converse/talks.htm



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Scot McKnight

posted October 31, 2005 at 9:27 am


Brian,
Thanks for this. Many will want to listen or read these.



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Pete

posted October 31, 2005 at 9:46 am


Having been, and still am, part of the Vineyard Movement, I can see EM tendencies that John Wimber communicated WAY BACK in the 80′s. There was, no doubt, the emphasis on the doctrine as a defining clause, but the practice of faith was AS important. This is what drew me and keeps me. At least in the new leadership in the Vineyard (we are still too white and too old but getting ‘broader’) there is room for Emergent Conversation – what you say is so important to the church today – practice is paramount to those who seek God. I look forward to the continued parts of the discussion.



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Scot McKnight

posted October 31, 2005 at 10:07 am


Pete,
I’ve heard more than one compare the Emerging and Vineyard movements. For my take, the Emerging Movement is more like the Jesus Movement of the 60s, but there are definite similarlities with Vineyard at some levels. A major, major difference has to do with Pagitt, Jones, and Seay and the need to minister to youth in a new generation as the impetus for its origins.



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Chris(tine)

posted October 31, 2005 at 11:51 am


Hi Scot -
Not to sidetrack your excellent discussion on what the emerging movement is – having been a part of Vineyard since almost the very beginning, I think the roots of Vineyard were exactly a movement to reach young people of a new generation. The Vineyard I started attending in 1979 already had over 400 mostly college students attending, all lead by a pastor who I believe was about 23 at the time. This was a pre-Wimber healing ministry, pre-Vineyard music scene – and I think it was characterized by much the same kind of concerns that I see in the Emergent movement today. John Wimber’s subsequent dynamic healing ministry, or the Vineyard music scene, is what most people think of when they think of Vineyard, but in my experience it started before that as ministry that reached out to young people and seemed more relevant and revolutionary than the established churches that were our alternative choices.



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Scot McKnight

posted October 31, 2005 at 11:54 am


Christine,
I’m not a historian of the Vineyard at all, but this is news to me: I’m one of those who when you say “Vineyard” I say “John Wimber.”
Whom I once spent an evening with.



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John Frye

posted October 31, 2005 at 12:26 pm


Scot,
You are very astutely “defining” what to you are core characteristics of the “movement/conversation.” I would like to hear McLaren’s, Jones’, Pagitt’s, Seay’s and John Raymond’s responses to your descriptions. Do you think they would respond?



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Scot McKnight

posted October 31, 2005 at 12:46 pm


John,
Brian and Doug have recently said some things along this line, and they tire (as do I) of defining “it.” I think the more who say similar things the better it will get.
Now for me one of the major issues is that Emerging refuses to set out a doctrinal statement as its definition — which is a wonderful commitment. Over time, and you see this in Pagitt’s book, the movement will be articulated by the way it lives. That, I think, is its genius.



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marko

posted October 31, 2005 at 1:10 pm


goodness, graciousness and glorify god? man, scot, you alliterate as well as rick warren! :o)



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Scot McKnight

posted October 31, 2005 at 1:34 pm


Marko,
In this definition-driven life of ours it is necessary.
But no Hawaii shirts at this time of the year for me.



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Wolf Paul

posted October 31, 2005 at 7:00 pm


Going back to the Wikipedia article, when does ‘modernity’ start? As I look at church history I see a certain amount of ‘extracting’ going on VERY early on and seen by the church as the leading into all truth promised by Jesus; and while I agree that starting with scholasticism right through some fairly recent Protestant traditions it got so excessive as to border on the ridiculous I would not be in favor of jettisoning all of that: the faith once delivered to the saints does have some content capable of being defined, as well as requiring us to live in certain ways and relating to those around us in certain ways.
I guess I am not sufficiently post-modern … :-)



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Scot McKnight

posted October 31, 2005 at 7:06 pm


Wolf Paul,
Thanks for this. For the sake of the readers of this blog, could you explain your first three sentences a little more? Thanks.



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James MacDonald

posted October 31, 2005 at 9:48 pm


Dear Scot:
Thanks for the acknowledgement that non of us likes to have our opinions run through the grid of the worst stereo types of who of our respective places in Christ’s kingdom. I am glad for the summary you have written and I accept it as a more factual and informed definition than my own. I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone who wants to see a more compelling vision of Christ presented to our world. I hate the idea that going to church and following Jesus is the same thing and I deeply want my life to reflect both the grace and truth so fully present in our Saviors incarnation.(jn1:14) I definitely see neo-orthodoxy from a different angle than you. The parallel to the emerging church is in the elevation of dialogue and experiential learning over proclamation. More could be said. I hope and pray my concerns prove unwarranted. I will remove the article from my own site and pray that what you describe carries the day and that whatever emerges remains deeply anchored to exactly what God’s word says and prescribes. Thanks for the dialogue I found it all very edifying.
james macdonald



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Wolf N Paul

posted November 1, 2005 at 11:58 am


Scot asked me to clarify my comment #11 above. I apologize for the brevity of it but I wrote it with a stylus on my ipaq while sitting in the bathtub which is very conducive to reading and thinking, but not to verbose writing :-)
In his post, Scot had quoted Wikipedia on the EM as follows:
During recent centuries, Western Christianity was influenced significantly by Modernism in the sense that it sought to take the individual narratives of the Bible and from them extract a set of underlying truths or meta-narratives. Using methods borrowed from scientific reductionism it was hoped that a grand truth and worldview would be attained. In practice, the modernist approach led to additional schism within the Church.
The Wikipedia article then goes on to contrast a post-modern approach with this.
My question was as follows: If this characterization is true — i.e. that the modern approach tries to extract ‘meta-narratives’, i.e. generally applicable truths and doctrines, from the individual biblical narratives, and that this has historically led to division rather than unity in the church, then the question is this: when did this questionable modern approach start? Generally, modernity is counted from around 1400 AD, but the church, considering itself led by the Holy Spirit, began to formulate generally valid truths and doctrines much earlier (like over a thousand years earlier), and I would be extremely hesitant to throw all of that out. This includes such things as the Nicean Creed, the doctrine of the Trinity, etc.
I agree that there were phases when the Church, or segments of the Church, went overboard in their attempts to ‘extract meta-narratives’ from Scripture (examples which come to mind are the Scholastics debating the number of angels which can dance on the point of a pin at the same time, but also more recently fundamentalist protestants trying to pin down the mode of the inspiration of Scripture, or some others declaring a specific translation into English the canonical and inspired Word of God), these things are relatively easy to identify and thus avoid.
I would have a major problem if we emphasized relationship and praxis to the extent that we no longer admit to any sort of propositional (doctrinal, moral, etc.) content to the “faith once delivered to the saints”. I believe we see a good example of what this would lead to in the current crisis in the Episcopal Church and some other member churches of the Anglican Communion.
Mind you, I am not saying that this is happening in the EM — I don’t yet know enough about it — but there are some critics of the movement who are at least implying that this is the direction it seems to be moving. I would be more than happy to hear this charge debunked.



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Scot McKnight

posted November 1, 2005 at 1:52 pm


Wolf Paul,
The Emergent US site, under Order, clearly affirms the Christian creeds or something like them as genuine expressions of the faith — so the metanarrative of Jesus himself is embraced.
Praxis with no narrative is not Christian praxis.



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Anonymous

posted November 2, 2005 at 1:41 pm


Addison Road » What is the emerging church?

[...] Leave it to Scot McKnight to take this one on. According to him, the main ingredients are Praxis, Protest, and Postmodernity. This guy is still blowin’ my mind. [...]



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Anonymous

posted November 2, 2005 at 8:22 pm


Subversive Influence » What is the Emerging Church?

[...] actually got a pretty comprehensive list; a recommended read for sure. Technorati:  Inlinks || Emerging Church || Church ||Emergent [...]



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sarah

posted November 5, 2005 at 3:05 pm


What would you or the emergent movement at large say to claims that in the attempt to move away from the limiting “narrow traditionalism” (for lack of a better phrase), there is actually a failure to face tough, truth-related questions? What is it about the human psyche that wants and doesn’t want definition and boundaries, how much of this should we leave up to God, and how does the emergent movement respond to this? (This question is largely taken from my readings in D.A. Carson’s book “Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church.”)
I am a senior at a private christian college, and am becoming extremely excited as my “research project” on the emergent movement is becoming more of a “jumping in.”



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Scot McKnight

posted November 5, 2005 at 7:32 pm


Sarah,
I can’t speak for the emerging movement, but I can say that the moving away from narrow traditionalism is not a departure from truth but a departure from the capturing of truth in categories that cannot hold the fullness to which we are called.
This issue of “truth” is very complex, and more than I can handle in this context, but perhaps the most exciting thing in the emerging movement is the recognition that truth is a deeply personal relational thing rather than simply a rationally articulable thing. I hope this helps.
I suggest looking at Newbigin’s Proper Confidence — he says much of what is going on with respect to the “truth” discussion.



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Anonymous

posted November 26, 2005 at 12:52 pm


The Blind Beggar – An Evangelical Christian Bible Blog

[...] If you want to pursue your own understanding of EM, start with Scot’s post, “What is the Emerging Church?” Then spend time in his blog category “Emerging Movement” which had 108 posts at the time of my writing. [...]



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John Poon

posted January 20, 2006 at 6:12 pm


Hey Scot, I was wondering whether or not you knew how the term “emerging church” came to be? Who penned it or coined it first? And why did they choose to describe the “conversation/movement/dialogue” as such (a colleague of mine suggested Stanley Grenz as the creative mind behind the term – I am not sure)? What picture or image was their original description attempting to paint and draw? Thank you for any thoughts. Peace.



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Anonymous

posted February 8, 2006 at 7:38 pm


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