Thursday, April 14, 2005

What is the Emerging Church?

Your religious leaders are worried. Your parents and church members are suspicious. You might be part of it, and not even realize it.

Just what is this “emerging church” thing that folks are talking about? Should churches get on board in the hopes that this will be another great evangelistic tool, a way to be “relevant” to the kids? Should they denounce it as yet another culturally accommodated fad, a hip and postmodern Christianity that waters down the Gospel?

They shouldn’t do either.

The “Emerging Church” is not a movement, or an organization. It’s simply a phrase, a more or less useful shorthand for discussing what God seems to be doing in the midst of his people. Among the Christians who identify themselves as emerging, one would find a variety of descriptions of just what God is up to, and many of them contradictory. Hence, it’s not a cohesive “movement” by any means. I can’t speak for other “emerging” Christians, only myself and the communities with which I am involved. It’s only in that context that I can offer a definition. Emergence is a process that’s occurring now: ancient Christian orthodoxy and the practice of transformation in God’s new community have been buried in our Western religious culture, and they are surfacing again through an act of God’s love and power. There is nothing new here.

Our faithful response to God’s initiative is a work of deconstruction and positive construction. It is deconstructive, because it demands that we confront our assumptions about Jesus and ourselves. Nothing we have learned needs to be thrown away, but rather judged in light of the Gospel. For example, many Christians have remembered that the Bible is not a guidebook on how to live a moral life or grow successful churches. Nor is it a roadmap from our world to God’s heaven: one may not use it as if were the user’s manual for an iPod. While the Bible does contain key propositional truths, it first relates a story: God created the world and its people for his own enjoyment. The creation fell. In Israel, God called together a people for himself, through which he would save the entire world. This plan has culminated in Christ and his Church. Through us, God is bringing his redemption to bear upon the world.

This basic story has been lost to the prevalent religious culture, which has little concept of how to practice it. The stories we tell ourselves now, of church growth, of the things mistaken for evangelism, of what “relevance” means, and about which side Jesus takes in the culture wars – all of these must be stripped away so that we can re-learn discipleship to Jesus. This rediscovery of orthodoxy is the constructive work the Holy Spirit is doing in us: we are again choosing to be intentional about sharing a new life as the Body of Christ, “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Eph 1:23). Understanding that we will be known as his disciples by the way we love one another (John 13:34-35), we’ve stopped asking questions about what it means to be an efficient, successful church or how to attract people to our religious activities. Instead, we are learning to share friendship and love one another well. We are sitting prayerfully with the scriptures and re-learning our history, asking Jesus to show us how to be faithful, and releasing our former “churchy” goals as the idols they are.

We aren’t seeking, necessarily, to be “relevant to the culture,” nor are we searching for a better “worship experience.” We are letting go of the search for the big fix, the next spiritual fad that will somehow make Christianity “work for us” or make it easier. We are called to dedicate ourselves to one another, and to learn discipline: to do the same right things for the long haul. In doing this, we will be agents of redemption and change in one another’s lives, as well as the life of the world. We will love recklessly and inefficiently. Being together as a people that does that, who are blessed to be a blessing, is the great work for God that we are called to do.

(This article originally appeared in the Wednesday, April 14 2005 edition of the Georgetonian.)


David said...

Forgive my tardiness; I know this post has grown cold by now, but I have to comment on your post. Your take on the emerging church reinvigorates my hope in the movement. What I've seen and read about has given me little to give it much credence, but I identify with your approach. I only wish I could find an intentional community like yours in my area. Thanks for your thoughts. I'll be back often.

Kyle said...

Thanks for the post and the kind words, David. Lots of people in my position are pretty confused right now, and are looking for ways to live faithfully as disciples. They go down a few wrong paths, maybe trying to be cool or post-modern or something, and it's not going to work.

We need to give one another grace to figure that out; it's God's Church, after all. And I say that for my own benefit, as I certainly share your frustration.

James Church said...

It is not often that I find a post I can totally identify with but I can completely agree with this take on the emerging conversation. I am concerned however with emerging leaders who increasingly talk in terms of a movement and imply a common understanding. Personally, I find the ongoing conversation refreshing and that distinct theological/missiological teams may develop from this conversation helpful.

It also alarms me that this understanding is often based upon a postmodern rather than post-christendom approach to narratives of emergence. i.e. a revisioning of Christian faith in response to the rise of postmodernity rather than the re-emergence of the church from Christendom complacency (recognising that this includes a response to modernity and postmodernity as philosophies that would compromise the gospel). I wonder what you think about this?

Kyle said...

Hiya, James. I think your point about is well made, and I agree that the conversation needs to be about specific issues in theology, mission and ecclesiology. Ha, maybe the "Emerging Church conversation" needs to be very minimally about the "emerging church" and entirely about theology, mission, and ecclesiology.

Oh yeah, and sacraments. :0)

And for the second point, yes! Post-modernity is only a crisis because of the entrenching of the Church in modernity - Christendom. Am I reading you rightly?


James Church said...


In fact, that was my BA dissertation thesis. I opened with a chapter on narratives of emergence (focusing on generational, protest, post-modern, and post-Christendom) caricatured rather crudely (but I hope still helpfully), engaged with the debate in the second chapter considering various theological teams / positions (Frost and Hirsch, Murray, McLaren et al, and Ward) certainly not a conclusive list but I read more widely, and I closed with a chapter on the future debate (and the need for that debate). It alarms me how many people are engaging in empirical (inc. me) research as it seems to be by passing theology and it threatens to go stale.