Chapter OneThe Emerging Church
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
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?
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
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
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."