Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications

(Paperback - Apr 2005)
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A careful and informed assessment of the emerging church by a respected author and scholar The emerging church movement has generated a lot of excitement and exerts an astonishingly broad influence. Is it the wave of the future or a passing fancy? Who are the leaders and what are they saying? The time has come for a mature assessment. D. A. Carson not only gives those who may be unfamiliar with it a perceptive introduction to the emerging church movement, but also includes a skillful assessment of its theological views. Carson addresses some troubling weaknesses of the movement frankly and thoughtfully, while at the same time recognizing that it has important things to say to the rest of Christianity. The author strives to provide a perspective that is both honest and fair. Anyone interested in the future of the church in a rapidly changing world will find this an informative and stimulating read. D. A. Carson (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He is the author of over 45 books, including the Gold Medallion Award-winning book The Gagging of God, and is general editor of Telling the Truth and Worship by the Book. He has served as a pastor and is an active guest lecturer in church and academic settings around the world."


  • SKU: 9780310259473
  • UPC: 025986259471
  • SKU10: 0310259479
  • Title: Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications
  • Qty Remaining Online: 3
  • Publisher: Zondervan
  • Date Published: Apr 2005
  • Pages: 256
  • Weight lbs: 0.73
  • Dimensions: 8.00" L x 5.38" W x 0.85" H
  • Features: Price on Product, Index, Bibliography
  • Themes: Theometrics | Evangelical; Theometrics | Mainline;
  • Category: CHURCH LIFE
  • Subject: Christian Church - Growth

Chapter Excerpt

Chapter One

The Emerging Church Profile

What Are We Talking About?

When I have mentioned to a few friends that I am writing a book on the emerging church, I get rather diverse reactions.

"What's that?" one of them asked, betraying that his field of expertise does not encourage him to keep up with contemporary movements.

"Are you going to focus primarily on Acts, or are you going to include the Pauline and other epistles?" queried another, presupposing that I am writing about the church as it "emerged" in the first century-since, after all, I teach in a New Testament department at a seminary.

Another colleague, known for his worldwide connections, asked, "How did you become interested in the difficult and challenging questions surrounding the emergence of the church in the Two-Thirds World?" After all, the last hundred years have witnessed remarkable stories of "emergence" in Korea, many parts of sub-Saharan black Africa, Latin America, certain countries of Eastern Europe (especially Ukraine, Romania, and Moldova), and elsewhere.

The responses are sensible enough, since "emerging" and related terms are words that have been applied to these and other circumstances, including some fairly esoteric discussions in the philosophy of science. But 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" (I will use the two words as equivalents) 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," which turns out to refer, not to friendship that is emerging, but to the importance of friendship in the movement-thus confirming that "emergent" is, for those in the movement, a sufficient label of self-identification, so that "emergent friendship" is formally akin to, say, "house church friendship" or "Baptist 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 that hide the gospel behind forms of thought and modes of expression that no longer communicate with the new generation, the emerging generation. The National Pastors Convention and the Emergent Convention were held simultaneously in San Diego in 2003; of the three thousand pastors who attended, 1,900 chose the more traditional forum, the NPC, while 1,100 chose the other.

Before attempting to outline its emphases, I should stress that not only is the movement amorphous, but its boundaries are ill-defined. Doubtless many (I have no idea how many) of the thousand pastors at the Emergent Convention did not (at that time, anyway) consider themselves part of the emerging church: they were exploring, aligning themselves perhaps with some aspects of the movement but not with others. By contrast, one reason why the movement has mushroomed so quickly is that it is bringing to focus a lot of hazy perceptions already widely circulating in the culture. It is articulating crisply and polemically what many pastors and others were already beginning to think, even though they did not enjoy-until the leaders of this movement came along-any champions who put their amorphous malaise into perspective.

So it is not surprising that many books and articles that do not identify themselves as part of the emerging church movement nevertheless share its core values and thus belong to it without the label. One thinks, for instance, of Pete Ward's Liquid Church or an essay by Graham Kings that analyzes evangelicalism in the Church of England. Some months ago I was speaking to a group of several hundred pastors in Australia and used the emerging church movement in America as illustrative of something or other. None of the pastors to whom I was speaking had heard of the movement, but quite a number of them described churches near them that reflected exactly the same values. In Great Britain, churches of the Baptist Union used to emphasize "believing" before "belonging"-reflecting their historical roots in the believers' church tradition. But today the leaders of the Baptist Union encourage its member churches to reverse the priorities: first "belonging," then "believing." This parallels the priorities of the emerging church movement, even though the "emerging church" rubric has made only marginal headway on that side of the Atlantic.

From these diverse tendencies I infer that the emerging church movement is probably slightly smaller than some of its leaders think, and perhaps also substantially larger than some of its leaders think. Indeed, one perceptive observer has suggested that talk about "the emerging church" is already out of date, since the emerging church has already emerged.

What Characterizes the Movement?

1. Protest

It is difficult to gain a full appreciation of the distinctives of the movement without listening attentively to the life-stories of its leaders. Many of them have come from conservative, traditional, evangelical churches, sometimes with a fundamentalist streak. Thus the reforms that the movement encourages mirror the protests of the lives of many of its leaders.

Probably the place to begin is a book of Stories of Emergence. The book tells fifteen such stories, and the first interesting fact about this list is who is in it. Of course, many of the self-identified leaders of the emerging church movement are here, people such as the late Mike Yaconelli (the editor), Spencer Burke, and Brian McLaren. But the list also includes people who, though they may be sympathetic to the movement, would not think of themselves as part of it. Chuck Smith Jr., for instance, in some ways belongs to another generation and another movement. Frederica Mathewes-Green left a childhood in Roman Catholicism and young adulthood in feminism and Episcopalianism for the Orthodox Church; she is one of several exceptions in the book.

Most of these "stories of emergence" have in common a shared destination (namely, the emerging church movement) and a shared point of origin: traditional (and sometimes fundamentalist) evangelicalism. What all of these people have in common is that they began in one thing and "emerged" into something else. This gives the book a flavor of protest, of rejection: we were where you were once, but we emerged from it into something different. The subtitle of the book discloses what the editor sees as common ground: Moving from Absolute to Authentic.

Some examples may clarify what the book is trying to accomplish. Spencer Burke's account of his emergence is entitled "From the Third Floor to the Garage." Burke used to sit in a plush third-floor office, serving as one of the pastors of Mariners Church in Irvine, California-"a bona fide megachurch with a 25-acre property and a $7.8 million budget." Every weekend 4,500 adults use the facilities, and the church ministers to 10,000 people a week. But Burke became troubled by things such as parking lot ministry. ("Helping well-dressed families in SUVs find the next available parking space isn't my spiritual gift.") He became equally disenchanted with three-point sermons and ten-step discipleship programs, not to mention the premillennial, pretribulational eschatology in which he had been trained.

After eighteen years of ministry, things began to come apart for Burke. Sensing his unrest, the senior pastor asked Burke to start a Saturday evening service in which he could "try new ideas and put a postmodern spin on the message." At first this went well, and new folk started to attend. Nevertheless, he began to feel even more unsettled, partly because he still felt the services were "cross-wired" (some elements very modern, others very postmodern) and partly because he felt less and less connected to the rest of the church's program. So eventually he resigned "and drove home to my 700-square-foot beach shack. Five years later, here I sit"-or more precisely, he often sits in its garage, which he converted to a makeshift office.

The half-decade of separation has enabled Burke to crystallize why he had to leave Mariners: "I've come to realize that my discontent was never with Mariners as a church, but contemporary Christianity as an institution."



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