Church Leadership Foundations, Emergent Church

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Part of the following Ministry Resource Guides: Missional Resources and Church Leadership, Philosophical Foundations. It discusses perspectives that were important to the first edition of the site, and is now part of the site archive.

When the first edition of the site was published in 2012, Emergent and Evaluating-Emergent were two of several Philosophies of Church Leadership and Renewal, which also included Church Growth, Missional, and other Missionally Responsive Trajectories. This was 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 Missional Perspectives 02, Emergent.

Key Distinctions

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

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 reflected each aspect of this definition, as we shall see below. But the above was a responsible generalization.

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Is the Emergent Church Viable?

An emergent leader, Tony Jones, traced 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 described “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 were less munificent, believing emergents youthful reactionary character (fading as the protestors mature), failure on the evangelistic front and disdain toward church growth made it impossible for them to achieve critical mass sufficient for lasting influence. This was the contention of church growth consultant and futurist, Bill Easum, in a blog 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 came from Phyllis Tickle, religion editor for Publisher’s Weekly. In her book, The Great Emergence, she predicteds 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, aspects of the emergent spirit still appear in many popular authors and have taken so many directions in every major denomination in the United States that its influence will be felt for some time.

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Emergent Church Paths

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

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

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Mark Devine (Evangelicals Engaging Emergent, 4-46) distinguished 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 adhered 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 adhered 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 described them, bought into the deeply critical and questioning spirit of “hard” postmodernism. They ranged from the doctrine-wary who disdained the exclusivism and dogmatism of conservative evangelicals, to the more extreme doctrine-averse who embraced the full force of cultural and religious pluralism, moral relativism, and evangelism aimed toward exchange rather than conversion.

Each of these two streams emphasized orthopraxy, the robust living out of the Christian faith, over orthodoxy, right thinking and teaching about Christian faith. Both also shared 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 regarded itself as missional, but in different senses. Below are lists of authors Devine designated under each category:

Devine’s examples of doctrine-friendly:

  • Mark Driscoll
  • Acts 29 Network
  • Tim Keller
  • Darrin Patrick
  • Ed Stetzer
  • Matt Chandler
  • Erwin Rafael McManus

Devine’s examples of doctrine-wary/averse:

  • Brian McLaren
  • Doug Pagitt
  • Tony Jones
  • Eddie Gibbs
  • Ryan Bolger

Books from both groups are listed in the Ministry Resource Guides, with alignment toward doctrine-friendly. I did not/do not share the revisionist theology and philosophy of the doctrine-averse, but appreciated their passion and awareness of postmodern culture and the modernistic captivity of the church.

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

Relevants – These people attempted to contextualize music, worship, and outreach much like the “contemporary church” movement of the 1980s and 1990s. Their methodology may be considereded by critics to be progressive. However, their theology was often conservative and evangelical. Many were doctrinally sound, growing, and impacting lostness. Some may not have liked the newer forms they proposed, but could appreciate their maintaining a strong theological core. Examples: Mark Driscoll, Darrin Patrick, and Dan Kimball.

Reconstructionists — The reconstructionists thought that the current form of church was frequently irrelevant and the structure was unhelpful. Yet, they typically held to a more orthodox view of the Gospel and Scripture. There was an increase in models of church that rejected certain organizational models, embracing what are often called “incarnational” or “house” models. They appeared to be one step beyond the Relevants, who maintained existing structures while innovating worship and outreach. They were responding to the fact that after decades of trying fresh ideas in innovative churches, North America was less churched, and those that were churched were less committed. Examples: Frank Viola, Neil Cole, Hugh Halter, and Matt Smay.

Revisionists – Most of the harsh critique was reserved for this group. Some in this group certainly abandoneded the strong theological core of Evangelicalism (and that statement would be neither “news” nor “offensive” to those in this category). This group attempted to revise both methodology and theology. Some in this category dangerously dispensed with important biblical doctrines such as the substitutionary atonement, the reality of hell, gender distinction, 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).

In evaluating this approach, I agree with Stetzer (again, borrowing from his analysis in Evangelicals Engaging Emergent) that it is important to remember the church is deeply embedded in God’s economy (see Ephesians 3:10-21). Scripture prescribes much about what a church is. Emergent desire to think in new ways about the forms (the construct) of church was helpful, but any form needs to be reset as a biblical form, not just a rejection of the old form. Rejection of buildings, budgets, and programs is one thing, but rejection of the authority of Scripture, biblically appointed leadership, and community that is theologically and morally accountable is another. Also, we must not forget, if we simply rearrange dissatisfied Christians without reaching the lost (a concept upheld by Jesus himself, see article on Evangelism), it is hardly a better situation than the current one.

Again, the 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 wrote polemics against the emergent movement, but usually targeted the doctrine-averse, revisionist stream, and passed over the doctrine-friendly constituency. There was some association here with the The Gospel Coalition (TGC), and some evaluating-emergent authors were part of the Alliance for Confessing Evangelicals. Yet TGC and the Alliance are not fundamentally polemic.

The prime example of the evaluating-emergent perspective was D. A. Carson’s Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church. Carson characterizeds emergence primarily through revisionists Brian McLaren and Steve Chalk. Carson adeptly evaluated McLaren. R. Scott Smith addressed a wider strain of Emergent in Truth and the New Kind of Christian. Smith was very familiar with and irenic toward emergent authors. He assessed the works of key Christian postmodernist pastor-theologians such as Stanley Hauerwas, Stanley Grenz, John Franke, and Brad Kallenberg. He then critiqued emergent authors, with special emphasis on Brian McLaren and Tony Jones, with Jones writing one of the endorsements. Another evaluation of the emergent perspective was William Henard and Adam Greenway, Evangelicals Engaging Emergent, which is quoted extensively above.

Others were not polemical against Revisionist emergent, but still reflected 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 affirmed 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 addressed the issue of evangelism directly in Telling the Truth: Evangelizing Postmoderns.

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

(1) See–2009, accessed 07-10-2011.

(2) See, accessed 07-10-2011.

(3) See, accessed 07-10-2011.

(4) See, accessed 07-10-2011

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Related Ministry Resources

Other Ministry Resources on Philosophies of Church Leadership:

See Resources on Over 100 Areas of Christian Ministry:

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