Missional Perspectives 02, Emergent Church
Thursday, January 13, 2011 at 3:00PM
Dr. Carlus Gupton in Christian leadership, Christian ministry, Church Leadership, Emergent Church, Evaluating Emergent, Ministry resources, Missional Church, Missional theology, Theology of ministry

Christian Ministry Resources -

Missional Perspectives for Church Leaders 02 - EMERGENT CHURCH


Part of the ministry resources on Missional Church and Church Leadership, Church Health and Renewal. It discusses perspectives that were important to the first edition of the site, and is now part of the site archive that is not updated past 2012.

Emergent and Evaluating-Emergent are two of several Philosophies of Church Leadership and Church Health, which also include Church Growth, Missional, and other Missionally Responsive Trajectories.

This is also part of a larger article on Missional Perspectives. See the index at the bottom of the page for all the articles in the series.

Note: This guide is a convenience duplicate of Church Leadership Foundations, Emergent Philosophy

Key Distinctions

Emergents make relevant use of contemporary culture to contextualize the gospel for the postmodern generation. Most prefer the self-designation of emergent conversation over emergent movement, although some use the terms interchangeably. Some distinguish between emerging and emergent, with emerging referring to the church that is arising in its various forms within the new cultural climate, and emergent being a stronger revisionist bias of what that should look like. Others use emerging to refer to the broad movement as a whole, and emergent to describe the new forms of church life the movement expresses. It is also important to separate emerging (little e) from Emergent (big E), referring to the website, EmergentVillage.com, which expresses a more revisionist perspective of the movement as a whole.

What is the Emergent relationship to Missional? While most Emergents think of themselves as Missional, not all Missionals are as targeted to the younger generation as Emergents, neither do all Missionals accommodate postmodernism to the same degree.

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Defining Emergent Church

Having made these distinctions, how does one define emergent? We may start with the balanced description in Wikipedia. An earlier version of their article (January 2, 2008) offered this definition of the emerging church:

The emerging church (also known as the emerging church movement) is a controversial 21st-century Protestant Christian movement whose participants seek to engage postmodern people, especially the unchurched and post-churched. To accomplish this, “emerging Christians” (also known as “emergents”) deconstruct and reconstruct Christian beliefs, standards, and methods to accommodate postmodern culture. This accommodation is found largely in this movement’s embrace of postmodernism’s postfoundational epistemology, and pluralistic approach to religion and spirituality. Proponents of this movement call it a “conversation” to emphasize its developing and decentralized nature as well as to emphasize interfaith dialogue rather than verbal evangelism. The predominantly young participants in this movement prefer narrative presentations drawn from their own experiences and biblical narratives over propositional, biblicist exposition. Emergents echo postmodern rejection of absolutes and metanarratives. They emphasize the subjective over objective since postmodern epistemology is ultimately destructive of certainty in objective propositions.

Not all participants in the emerging conversation would reflect each aspect of this definition, as we shall see below. But the above is a responsible generalization.

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Is the Emergent Church Viable?

An emergent leader, Tony Jones, traces the span of the emergent movement from 1989-2009, declaring “2009 mark[ed] the year when the emerging church suddenly and decisively ceased to be a radical and controversial movement in global Christianity.”(1) In that respect, he describes “10 types of emerging churches that will not upset your grandfather,” supposedly pointing to how “mainstream” emergent has become.(2) Contrary to popular reports, Jones was not declaring the death of emergence, simply its maturity. Other are less munificent, believing emergents youthful reactionary character (fading as the protestors mature), failures on the evangelistic front, and disdain toward church growth make it impossible for them to achieve critical mass sufficient for lasting influence. This is the contention of church growth consultant and futurist, Bill Easum, in a blogologue on Emergent Village: “I still don’t feel the Emergent movement is going to be the primary shaper of the new Christian world. I think it will be a part of it, but only a small part.” His reasons: “Emergent philosophy doesn’t grow churches nor expand the mission of Jesus like I would like it to do. It appeals too much to the theological intelligentsia and social services sector.”(3) A more optimistic forecast comes from Phyllis Tickle, religion editor for Publisher’s Weekly. In her book, The Great Emergence, she predicts that “it is not unreasonable to assume that by the time the Great Emergence has reached maturity, about 60 percent of practicing American Christians will be emergent or some clear variant thereof.” (139)

At any rate, the emergent spirit lives on in many popular authors, and has taken on so many directions in every major denomination in the United States that its influence will likely remain for some time.

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Emergent Church Paths

As one might expect, there are multiple paths within the emergent category. Four sources offer constructive taxonomies:

McKnight’s insightful “five streams” - Postmodern, Orthopraxy, Missional, Postevangelical, Political - appeals to the theologically and philosophically informed. Also helpful from a sociological angle is Phyllis Tickle’s quadrilateral of Liturgicals, Social Justice Christians, Renewalists, and Conservatives. For the practical purposes of this site, however, Devine and Stetzer are more useful.

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Mark Devine (Evangelicals Engaging Emergent, 4-46) distinguishes two major streams of the emerging movement: “doctrine-friendly and a stream that presents along a range running from doctrine wary to doctrine-averse.” (7-8) Doctrine-friendly means, among other things, those who adhere to the historic Christian faith, uphold the authority of Scripture, and are committed to conversion-seeking evangelism, but who also see the need for the church’s awakening to postmodern realities. They adhere to a so-called “soft” postmodernism, seeing it as an important corrective to the mistakes stemming from the church’s modernistic enculturation, while still embracing a doctrinally conservative core.

The doctrine-wary/averse as Devine describes them, buy into the deeply critical and questioning spirit of “hard” postmodernism. They range from the doctrine-wary who disdain the exclusivism and dogmatism of conservative evangelicals, to the more extreme doctrine-averse who embrace the full force of cultural and religious pluralism, moral relativism, and evangelism aimed toward exchange rather than conversion.

Each of these two streams emphasizes orthopraxy, the robust living out of the Christian faith, over orthodoxy, right thinking and teaching about Christian faith. Both also share some degree of protest against the church’s lack of genuine community and authenticity, unawareness and insensitivity to culture, and marginalization of narrative, mystery, and the arts. Each stream regards itself as missional, but in different senses. Below are lists of authors Devine designates under each category:

Devine’s examples of doctrine-friendly:

Devine’s examples of doctrine-wary/averse:

Books from both groups are listed in the LifeandLeadership.com Ministry Resource Guides, with alignment toward doctrine-friendly. I do not share the revisionist theology and philosophy of the doctrine-averse, but appreciate their passion and accede their awareness of postmodern culture and the modernistic captivity of the church often surpasses those of more conservative orientations.

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Ed Stetzer, like Mark Devine, writes from an evangelical point of view (Evangelicals Engaging Emergent, 47-90) in providing a three-layer classification of what he calls the Emergent/Emerging Church (E/EC). The taxonomy first appeared on the web (4), and the book refines the web post. Below is my conflation of his observations from both sources.

Relevants - These people attempt to contextualize music, worship, and outreach much like the “contemporary church” movement of the 1980s and 1990s. Their methodology may be considered by critics to be progressive. However, their theology is often conservative and evangelical. Many are doctrinally sound, growing, and impacting lostness. Some may not like the newer forms they propose, but can appreciate their maintaining a strong theological core. Examples: Darrin Patrick and Dan Kimball.

Reconstructionists – The reconstructionists think that the current form of church is frequently irrelevant and the structure is unhelpful. Yet, they typically hold to a more orthodox view of the Gospel and Scripture. Therefore, we see an increase in models of church that reject certain organizational models, embracing what are often called “incarnational” or “house” models. They appear to be one step beyond the Relevants, who maintain existing structures while innovating worship and outreach. They are responding to the fact that after decades of trying fresh ideas in innovative churches, North America is less churched, and those that are churched are less committed.

In evaluating this approach, it is important to remember God’s plan is deeply connected with the church (see Ephesians 3:10). God’s Word prescribes much about what a church is. So, if emerging leaders want to think in new ways about the forms (the construct) of church, that’s fine — but any form needs to be reset as a biblical form, not just a rejection of the old form. Don’t want a building, a budget and a program? OK. Don’t want the Bible, scriptural leadership, covenant community? Not OK. Also, we must not forget, if reconstructionists simply rearrange dissatisfied Christians and do not impact lostness, it is hardly a better situation than the current one. Examples: Frank Viola, Neil Cole, Hugh Halter, and Matt Smay.

Revisionists - Most of the harsh critique is reserved for this group. Some in this group have certainly abandoned the strong theological core of Evangelicalism (and that statement would be neither “news” or “offensive” to those in this category.) For this group, both methodology and theology may be revisioned. Some in this category dangerously dispense with important biblical doctrines such as the substitutionary atonement, the reality of hell, views of gender, and the very nature of the gospel. Examples: Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, and Tony Jones.

I see correlation between Stetzer’s categories and Doug Pagitt’s three possibilities for those who wish to engage postmoderns: those who minister to postmoderns (relevants), those who minister with them (reconstructionists), and those who minister as them (revisionists).

Again, the LifeandLeadership.com Ministry Resource Guides include resources from all three. I do not share many of the Revisionist assumptions and viewpoints, yet several of this stripe offer valuable insight into reaching postmoderns.

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Evaluating Emergent Church

As the term suggests, these authors write polemics against the emergent movement, but usually target the doctrine-averse, revisionist stream, and pass over the doctrine-friendly constituency. Some evaluating-emergent authors are part of the Alliance for Confessing Evangelicals, though the Alliance is not fundamentally polemic.

The prime example of the evaluating-emergent perspective would be D. A. Carson’s Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church. Carson characterizes emergence primarily through revisionists Brian McLaren and Steve Chalk. Carson adeptly evaluates McLaren, but an analysis of the emergent movement should honor its wider diversity. R. Scott Smith does this in Truth and the New Kind of Christian. Smith is very familiar with and irenic toward emergent authors. He assesses the works of key Christian postmodernist pastor-theologians such as Stanley Hauerwas, Stanley Grenz, John Franke, and Brad Kallenberg. He then critiques emergent authors, with special emphasis on Brian McLaren and Tony Jones, with Jones writing one of the endorsements. Another fine evaluation of the emergent perspective is William Henard and Adam Greenway, Evangelicals Engaging Emergent, which is quoted extensively above.

Others are not polemics against Revisionist emergent, but still reflect a more conservative approach. An example is The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World, a collaboration of authors such as John Piper, Justin Taylor, David Wells, D. A. Carson, Voddie Baucham, Mark Driscoll, and Tim Keller. They strongly affirm the deity of Christ and the objective and absolute truth of the Gospel (ideas that make some emergents uneasy), with practical suggestions on how to communicate these truths in a postmodern society. Many of the same authors address the issue of evangelism directly in Telling the Truth: Evangelizing Postmoderns.

The LifeandLeadership.com Ministry Resources reference both Emergent and Evaluating-Emergent resources.


(1) See http://tallskinnykiwi.typepad.com/tallskinnykiwi/2009/12/emerging-church-movement-1989—-2009.html, accessed 07-10-2011.

(2) See http://tallskinnykiwi.typepad.com/tallskinnykiwi/2009/12/10-types-of-emerging-church-that-no-longer-upset-your-grandfather.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Tallskinnykiwi+%28TallSkinnyKiwi%29, accessed 07-10-2011.

(3) See http://www.emergentvillage.com/weblog/introducing-an-emergent-blogologue.html, accessed 07-10-2011.

(4) See http://www.baptistpress.org/bpnews.asp?ID=22406, accessed 07-10-2011

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Related Ministry Resources

Other Ministry Resources on Philosophies of Church Leadership:

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Article originally appeared on LifeandLeadership.com, Ministry Resources, Christian Leadership, Church Leadership (http://www.lifeandleadership.com/).
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