January 27, 2021

The Emerging Movement: Getting the Big Picture

By Chaplain Mike

Series Note: This is the first in a series of posts on the Emerging Church, one of the three “streams” that has come forth from the old evangelical coalition. In future weeks, we will discuss the Ancient-Future movement, and the New Reformed Movement.

Getting a handle on a movement as diverse as “the emerging church” can be a challenge. A helpful overview, however, has been done for us already, making our job much easier.

In this post, I will get our discussion started by summarizing Scot McKnight’s classic article in Christianity Today, “Five Streams of the Emerging Church” from February, 2007.

First, Scot reminds us that, when it comes to defining the emerging church, it is courteous to let those within a movement tell us what it is, rather than simply imposing our own ideas upon it. So, he quotes the definition given by Gibbs and Bolger, Emerging Churches: Creating Community in Postmodern Cultures:

Emerging churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures. This definition encompasses nine practices. Emerging churches (1) identify with the life of Jesus, (2) transform the secular realm, and (3) live highly communal lives. Because of these three activities, they (4) welcome the stranger, (5) serve with generosity, (6) participate as producers, (7) create as created beings, (8) lead as a body, and (9) take part in spiritual activities.

Another important distinction involves the difference between “emerging” and “Emergent.” Whereas the first term is broader, describing the movement as a whole, the second is used as the name of one particular organization within the movement—Emergent Village, directed by Tony Jones.

McKnight sees five themes that characterize the emerging movement:

  1. Prophetic (or at least provocative)
  2. Post-modern
  3. Praxis-oriented
  4. Post-evangelical
  5. Political

Prophetic: Those in the emerging movement are consciously and intentionally provocative. Believing the church must change, they speak and act in ways that challenge the status quo.

Post-modern: Living in a cultural context in which meta-narratives (overarching explanations of life) are no longer trusted or recognized,

  • Some emerging Christians see themselves as ministering to post-moderns, seeking to rescue them from their denial of truth and moral bankruptcy;
  • Others see themselves as ministering with post-moderns, accepting post-modernity as the context in which we must minister;
  • And still others seek to minister as post-moderns, embracing the idea that we cannot know truth absolutely, and expressing nervousness about the idea of propositional truth.

Praxis-oriented: McKnight argues that, although critics tend to focus on the emerging movement’s relationship to post-modern thinking, it is the practice of the faith that is most important to emerging believers. They are chiefly concerned with the renewal of worship, right living, and a missional orientation—a new ecclesiology—rather than with defending orthodoxy.

Post-Evangelical: In the same way that post WWII neo-evangelicalism was a protest movement against fundamentalism, so the emerging movement is a protest against contemporary evangelicalism. Instead of adherence to strict systems of theology, they seek to engage in ongoing conversations about truth. They tend to avoid clearly defining who is “in” and who is “out” with regard to salvation. McKnight points out a genuine weakness in the emerging movement regarding evangelism for this reason.

Political: The emerging movement is post-Religious Right. Those in the movement tend to put social and environmental issues high on their lists of concerns, not just “family values” issues. McKnight warns that they are vulnerable to becoming “social gospel” proponents by failing to keep a proper balance with regard to salvific and ecclesial concerns.

Discussion Questions
McKnight’s article gives us a good overview to start our discussion.

  • What is your understanding of the “emerging church” movement? How does it square with the portrayal McKnight gives here?
  • What have you read that represents this movement? What did you learn and like from your reading? What, if anything, troubled you in your reading and study?
  • Which of the emerging church spokespersons have you most appreciated? Why?
  • What experiences have you had with groups and churches that have been influenced by emerging teachings and practices?
  • What critiques do you have of this movement?


  1. I’ve been involved, in some way, with churches that might be identified with emerging church movement for the last 10 years — including a couple years at Mosaic in L.A. (though, I don’t believe McManus sees himself as part of that movement himself.

    My first church probably took more of the, “ministering to post-moderns, seeking to rescue them from their denial of truth and moral bankruptcy” variety, while my current church is probably more in line with, “ministering with post-moderns, accepting post-modernity as the context in which we must minister.”

    How does that play out? My first church was more overt. It was more about aesthetics. We met in a church, but there was the whole low-lights and candles thing. Our motto was “Not church like you’d expect,” which might have been borrowed from elsewhere. It was very intentional about trying to be different — to be comfortable to the unchurched. Some would criticize it, but it’s the church I came to Christ in — at least partially because of those efforts.

    My current church is less intentional about that sort of thing — and instead more intentional about trying to reach postmodern attitude and mindset: The thirst for the transcendental, the want of social justice, the need for community, the desire for authenticity, etc. Now, we also do this, because it’s who we are as a church too. We are church interested in connection with Jesus and God in a spiritual way — and embracing things like spiritual formation, we are a church concerned with social justice, we are a church that is very community focussed, and we are a church that tried to be real and not put on masks. So it’s not a bait and switch.

    We also embrace the history of Christianity and our part in it. Our pastor frequently quotes Christians from the grave and uses ancient benedictions. We’re generous in our theology while remaining both Evangelical and orthodox.

    Can you tell I love my church? I do. The people, the leaders, the structure, even the denomination.

    • “Can you tell I love my church? I do. The people, the leaders, the structure, even the denomination.”

      Sounds like a great community of believers. Wish a church like that could be found in my vicinity. . .

    • Jonathanblake says

      I second Ahumanoid’s comment

  2. I think the emerging church movement sprung in reaction to many of the same things that Michael Spencer objected to–the culture wars, celebrity pastors, the multi-million dollar Christian subculture, and the prosperity gospel. Many voices recognized that something was wrong with the American evangelical church, and the emerging church stream identified postmodernism as the main issue.

    I had high hopes for the emerging church movement about five years ago. I have since grown disenchanted with it. One of the challenges the movement faced was that it defined itself by what it wasn’t, not what it was. It was difficult to acheive unity and traction since different emerging voices represented varying thoughts and perspectives. Brian McLaren emerged as the loudest voice in the conversation, but the more he offered solutions (rather than just identifying problems), the more conservatives and moderates began to distance themselves from him. McLaren certainly still has a large audience, but I don’t think he can claim to speak for the middle ground any more. With A New Kind of Christianity, he has firmly established himself as a social liberation theologian. (That’s not to say that we shouldn’t listen to him because of that, but that we should recognize the perspective that he brings.)

    I no longer think that postmodernism was the main issue in the tumult of 2000–2009. The neo-reformed seem to have emerged as the strongest stream, and many of them strongly condemn postmodernism. I think Spencer rightly identifies the real issues in Mere Churchianity.

    I appreciate the conversations that the emerging church initiated. My biggest critique is that they weren’t able to generate any group identity or cohesion. There were too many competing voices and personalities. On the other hand, the neo-reformed stream rallied behind Calvinism and anti-McLarenism. Look at how diverse the movement is–Mark Driscoll, John Piper, John MacArthur, Al Mohler–all very different, yet united in their commitments to Calvinism and anti-McLarenism. It looks like they will write the history books about what happened in 2000–2009.

    • If we were going to trace a “rise and fall” of the emerging movement, I would say it rose when Brian McLaren raised a million provocative questions with A New Kind of Christian, and it fell when he answered those questions in A New Kind of Christianity.

      • I don’t think it fell. I think some people will distance themselves from McLaren. Some may even distance themselves from the label, but I think the movement had a big impact on American Evangelicalism.

        I think it made a big impact on making the Evangelical church embrace social justice issues, to be cautious with aligning yourself with a political party, to look at our shared Christian history and experience, to look beyond the Reformation for theological insights, etc.

        While I think the Young and Reformed movement has certainly gained a lot of popularity recently, I think some of the same people (myself included) who were disenchanted with American Evangelicalism before are just a suspicious of the neo-reformed movement.

        • I’m with you on that! I’m not joining the neo-reformed movement any time soon (mostly because they wouldn’t have me).

          I agree that the emerging movement raised some really good questions and reminded us of some important responsibilities, but I think the conversation will be moved forward by others.

        • “I think it made a big impact on making the Evangelical church embrace social justice issues.”

          Definitely. In fact this may be one of the greatest contributions of the emerging movement. Even the more conservative Evangelical congregations now have made global poverty part of their agenda.

      • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

        I don’t think it fell. I think some people will distance themselves from McLaren. Some may even distance themselves from the label, but I think the movement had a big impact on American Evangelicalism

        At the same time, I think the Emerging stream by its very nature resists organization and institutionalization. Which probably means it’ll always be a bit squishy, ecclesiastically speaking. Little home groups here and there, some attempts at “urban monasticism” and whatnot, lots of individuals who don’t really “go” anywhere for church, but agree philosophically speaking, and the odd struggling church that always wrestles with whether or not it should be a church.

  3. Dan Allison says

    There’s an emergent group that rents space from a Methodist Church right down the street from me. I like some of the elements and dislike others. LIKES: These folks brought out about 200 kids for a concert several weeks ago that I attended — fresh, original rock and folk rock. I like the respect for older Christian traditions, their “out-of-the-box” thinking and approach, their ability to attract young people. DISLIKES: I’m suspicious of a great deal of the emergent rhetoric and literature that seems to be just another subterfuge for smuggling into the church the same, hackneyed leftist agenda that’s been floating around since the 1960s.

  4. In light of mentioning McKnight, it might be beneficial to post the recent interview he did with Brian McLaren, one of the originators of the movement. It can be found at the link below.


    The interview is quite telling in regard to how far many of the emergent Churches have gone in their theological foundations.

    • Thank you for pointing me to that interview !

      The guy is so decieving – He believes that everyone will get to God.

      • I haven’t watched the interview, but I just thought I’d point out that Christian universalism isn’t exactly new in Christian thought. Origen (3rd century) believed this, for example.

        • Thanks Kenny – dangerous and unbiblical [heretical] beliefs are never anything new are they…

          Each new wave of error is just old error packaged differently.

        • True, Kenny, and Origen’s beliefs on universal salvation were declared anathema. It’s interesting, though. The church declaring something anathema could mean that the disapproved belief is absolutely, provably untrue. Or it could mean that there is insufficient evidence one way or the other, and what’s anathema is someone declaring a belief as the established doctrine of the church when it is only personal speculation.

          Archbishop Kallistos Ware’s essay, “Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?” is a good discussion of this topic. I read it in his book, “The Inner Kingdom,” but it may be available other places, too.

          • Not right away. In fact, I don’t think anyone challenged Origen on any of his theology for a couple centuries. And his Christian universalism was probably the least controversial.

      • Matthew, would you be upset if everyone got to God?

        • If everybody did then my Lord and Saviour is a liar………that would upset me just as much as it does knowing that millions upon millions of people die and go to hell.

          • “If everybody did then my Lord and Saviour is a liar”

            OR you misunderstood him.

          • the problem I have with your view (as I understand your view any way). is that you only see the original SIN in your fellow man —instead of seeing the Inner LIGHT in your fellow man.
            I believe that God did not create people to be Damned, they may chose to be damned, but that is not God’s desire for them.
            I think the reason Brian McLaren does not speak publicly on his belief in Universalism (of whatever his belief is) is that whatever he says puts him in a box. — I don’t agree with his answer but I understand the problem of rhetoric in the public square ( I believe this problem of rhetoric is one reason Anne Rice has publicly said she is no longer Christian, but still a Christ follower ( she does not want to be put in a box)
            if we want to Love our neighbor — we must believe that God is calling them to his salvation. —–If not,I think we begin to just throw the seed of good news out into soil that is not nurtured — because we leave all the nurturing to God & don’t do our part in the process of evangelism. —peace

          • “If everybody did then my Lord and Saviour is a liar….
            Or you misunderstood him.”

            That would have to be one very massive missunderstanding.

            I don’t think this view prevents us from seeing the “Light” in fellow man, the imago dei. It just rightly recognizes that the imago dei has been severly marred. And I don’t have to go to my fellow man to figure that out. I would have to completely ignore my own love of sin to deny that humanity has chosen idolatry over their God (Rom 1:18-2). And, I would have to reject the meta-narrative of scripture (which mclaren has done) and blatent statements, like “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God…but the righteousness of God has been revealed…through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”

          • you need both —- “all have sinned & fallen short” & “I will draw all men unto me”

          • Thats the trouble with this LIGHT talk……

            Men are born depraved , they are “dead in trespasses and sins” [ephesians 2:1]……

            There is no small flicker of light than needs to be fanned into a flame.

            Man is sinful. And it is only by the grace of God man is made alive……

  5. Whilst the term “emergent / emerging church” is up for debate…..It is the term used now for those of the more “contempary setting”.

    Guys like Brian McLaren – who denies the core and foundational doctrine of penal substituion – Jesus standing in our law place!

    It is a vile thing the ‘Emergent Church movement’ it has a very low view of Scripture.

    • Who wants to worship a God who would kill his own son for the sins of his creation? That is a vile thing, to use that word. It’s like me killing my daughter in order to forgive my dogs for barking all night. Penal substitution is simply pagan blood sacrifice finding its way into modern theology.

      • Then how is somebody forgiven?

        • I agree with your view of the atonement, but there are other models for discussing it that don’t use penal substitution is the main metaphor. The Christus Victor view, esp. as elaborated upon by the church fathers, is a viable option with a very long and worthy history. Its well within the bounds of traditional Christian orthodoxy.

          • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

            Yeah, I think the Christus Victor view should be given some more consideration as far as models for the atonement go. In terms of historicity, it’s the granddaddy. Penal substitution is a Johnny-come-lately by comparison. And it also definitely is a reflection of the Western mindset coming from medieval Europe.

          • David Cornwell says

            Amen to that.

          • Double amen to this….why are we stuck on penal sub. as the metaphor-du-jour (though it’s lasted much longer than a day….but my french is rusty and I couldn’t pull up ‘century’) ?? This might say more about US than a what’s a clear picture of the atonement.

      • Cedric Klein says

        “Penal substitution is simply pagan blood sacrifice finding its way into modern theology.”

        Exactly. That is why it’s true. Every ancient faith, no matter how high-minded & philosophical, knew that indeed “the blood is the life”.

        “Who wants to worship a God who would kill his own son for the sins of his creation?”

        I do…understanding that

        -“Father & Son” are metaphorical terms for the relationship between the Eternally Begetting First Person (The Theos) and the Eternally Begotten Second Person (The Logos Who is With The Theos and Who is Theos) of YHWH Elohim, and that the entirety of the Passion was experienced in all it’s gut-wrenching agony by Father, Son & Spirit- AS both Victimizer AND Victim;

        -for the Father, it was less hurting/killing a “Son” and more “ripping His own heart out”; and…

        -the Atonement as YHWH Elohim taking on Himself full responsibility for the sins that He permits to occur, including the Penalty of Death, Hades & Gehenna.

      • There are different theories/models of the atonement, in no small part because it is a great mystery in many ways. Truth is, we don’t know the entire nature and scope of the transaction that took place, so we put it in terms we can understand, and those vary often speak to a particular culture or time, and none of them capture the entire thing.

        One weakness of the substitionary model is that it tends to de-emphasize or leave out the fact that Jesus suffered willingly and even with a great sense of purpose, self-sacrificially. If you have kids or a spouse, you can probably begin to understand something of that willingness to die and suffer so someone else won’t have to.

    • understanding scripture differently & having “a very low view of scripture ” is 2 different things.

      • do you understand what a low view of Scripture refers to?

        • Matthew, you might want to check out Rick’s comment below. He refers to an article by Ed Stetzer that talks about different types of “emerging” approaches. Your doctrinal concerns apply to the third group, “the Revisionists,” and not the first two, and in his article he agrees with you that we must challenge their view of Scripture and other doctrines such as Substitutionary Atonement.

          • Chaplain Mike,
            I am very deficient when comes to the various theologies & doctrines…have not been able to study the vastness of what is out there. I struggle with cognitive abilities…a part of a long standing illness I must deal with. It is difficult for me to make sense of what the argument is here. Can you put it in very simple terms? I’ve always thought Jesus died in my place…paid my debt…that I might be in right standing with the Father…he left his Holy Spirit as a seal. Forgive me if I seem ignorant in my question. It is an honest one. I do not desire to enter into any debate…I only seek understanding.

        • Yes, it means “your view of scripture is inferior / lesser than / not as good as mine.” I am up here, you are down there. I am high and superior, you are low and inferior. The adjective says more about the person using it than it does about any view of scripture.

    • “who denies the core and foundational doctrine of penal substitution”

      Please understand that there were many, many centuries of “core and foundational” Christian thinking, doctrine and orthodoxy before penal substitution become vogue

  6. I think the emerging movement fizzled out when some Christ followers realized they didn’t need or want another new label. They realized that we’ve created way too many labels that divide already. I joined the conversation a bit late, and people were already discarding the label. They sort of paid attention to some of the leaders in the conversation, but not to the point of saying “I’m going to be a follower of that guy, whatever that guy says I’m in”.

    I think the questions that were raised during the conversation made it clear that it was each of our responsibility to follow Jesus ourselves. Sure following some guys blog is OK, but don’t follow him, follow Christ.

    So we end up with no organized structure, avoid hierarchy, and see where Christ spirit is leading. Hopefully everyone is seeking fellowship with other believers, but good luck counting the numbers or measuring the success. God only knows.

    • PS. I’m still fellowshiping with a bunch of New Reformer brothers… and that’s OK. Just don’t include me in their numbers when you publish your stats. 🙂

    • I agree. I still identify more with the emerging movement than the other two streams, but I’ve grown weary of labels and have much less of a problem with a framework that focuses more on deconstruction than on finding certain answers. In fact, a cohesive theology with no room for ambiguity makes me immediately suspicious. It makes many (particularly those in the neo-reformed movement) quick to label people like me a heretic, but what can you do? It’s either risk being called a heretic, align myself with a system of thought that I don’t actually feel comfortable agreeing with, or leave the faith alltogether because I’ve been told my perspectives and questions don’t fall within the acceptable bounds of orthodox Christianity. I choose to stay (while secretly envying Anne Rice), but know that most other Christians I know would be quick to kick me out if they knew what I really thought 🙂

  7. It seems to me that the emergents fail to trust in “plain vanilla Christianity” that the gospel saves through very ordinary means of the preached gospel, baptism, and sacraments as the sustainers of faith. They don’t trust it. What they validly see though is the failure of moralistic deism to comfort the soul and rescue/sustain. However instead of turning back to the basics they insert a subversive.

  8. I haven’t had any close encounters with the emergent movement, so I don’t consider my opinion fully informed. My impression comes entirely from Brian McLaren’s book, “A Generous Orthodoxy.” I liked the title so much that I bought it without having any clue who Brian was or what an ’emergent’ church is.

    Here’s what I loved about Generous Orthodoxy:

    Brian successfully identified a fair number of issues that young evangelicals are likely to have if they become disconcerted about evangelicalism’s intellectual underpinnings and social witness. He poses some fair questions — or at least timely ones. I am sympathetic, partly because I personally do not believe it is really possible to know truth in the objective, certain way that many evangelicals claim to know things. Another thing I appreciated very much was his openness to ask what evangelicals can learn by looking at the perspectives of a variety of different Christian traditions. Since I study history and have crossed different communities in my own wanderings, that question is often on my mind.

    I also thought the Brian identified very accurately why a certain type of person goes half nuts trying to survive inside the evangelical movement: There are few places in evangelical churches or the evangelical subculture where people with doubts or other nagging problems can fully admit to what they are thinking and work through their questions in an honest, open-ended way. Evangelicals do “apologetics,” laying on of hands, casting out demons, writing workbooks, and holding seminars — you can pick the method, just so long as you finish the evening can demonstrate that in the great spiritual “war” of the “decline” of western culture, you can assure everyone that you’re OK and that you’re pain or doubt is not going to pose a threat. If you are a threat, some kind person may adopt you as a pet project, but no one is going to let you within 10 feet of a Sunday school. All in all, there is little rhetorical, intellectual, or institutional space in which people can express troublesome problems in a way that is fully honest, unscripted or pressure-free.

    Without going into personal stories, the above is probably the one reason I disappeared from the evangelical scene for a few years: it is also why I’d probably enjoy the folks who hang out around the emerging movement.

    That said, left Generous Orthodoxy with a nagging question. McLaren ‘deconstructs’ evangelicalism and throws out some fun ideas, but I wasn’t sure what he wanted to build in its place. I understand that he wants people to operate in an open-ended way, and I agree fully with his emphasis on praxis. I found a way back to an earnest faith by focusing on practice myself. So asking him for the solution is cheating. However, I am also a realist and a historian, so I fear for what happens when you take evangelicals, who are already highly individualistic and prone to continually founding new churches and programs, and encourage those tendencies even further. History teaches us that movements that are creative and open-ended always solidify into a new tradition, so if the emerging church survives it infancy, it will do the same. And so I want to know what sort of thing he thinks will emerge. He also needs to ask whether what will emerge is likely to be any different than a mainline Protestant church or an seeker-friendly, therapeutic church with slightly better book discussion groups.

    Ultimately, I did not look up my closest emerging church group after reaching the final chapter of “A Generous Orthodoxy,” because I don’t want to start a new thing. I want to be connected to an actual, historically rooted community and theological tradition *as* a (post-modern?) person — doubts, pain, and all. I don’t really want a new tradition: I just want to figure out how to have a productive conversation with a very old one. If that is possible.

    Anyway, I’ll be interested to hear about what others have read and experienced, since my own encounter consisted of just one book!

    • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

      Well said. That’s similar to how I felt about the book. I loved the premise. I liked his questions. But he didn’t really have any answers. And it just made me more confident in my decision to become Anglican.

    • Great post, and I think your “tribe” is vast and somewhat underground. Let’s hope ya’ll stay friendly… 🙂

    • A Generous Orthodoxy is McLaren’s finest book, but he seems to have moved from the positions he advocated in that work (or at least redefined what he meant by them). Above, there is a link to an interview Scot McKnight did with BMac at the Q conference, in which McKnight asks him if he has moved from the positions advocated in A Generous Orthodoxy. McLaren’s answer is essentially that his position has always been that as advocated in A New Kind of Christianity and that A Generous Orthodoxy should be read in that light–he insists the two don’t contradict.

  9. Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

    The only book I’ve seriously read from the Emerging stream is McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I Am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-yet-Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished CHRISTIAN. It was written in 2004, several years before the Emerging thing was really on my radar. Listening to McLaren’s most recent interview on Steve Brown, Etc., I think there may have been some movement away from some of the stuff in that book. At any rate, I liked a lot of what he said in A Generous Orthodoxy, though I haven’t been very impressed with what he’s said in interviews about A New Kind of Christian.

    I recently read Soong-Chan Rah’s book, The Next Evangelicalism, in which he argues that Christianity is moving from a “White, Western” cultural model. He pointed out that the Emerging movement is still primarily made up of upper-middle-class white folk coming from a Western cultural perspective. I.e. it’s not really that much of a major change in American Evangelicalism in terms of culture. Or maybe it’s analogous to how the Hippie “counter-culture” in the 60’s and 70’s was just the other side of the coin to white, affluent America.

  10. Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

    Post-Evangelical: In the same way that post WWII neo-evangelicalism was a protest movement against fundamentalism, so the emerging movement is a protest against contemporary evangelicalism. Instead of adherence to strict systems of theology, they seek to engage in ongoing conversations about truth. They tend to avoid clearly defining who is “in” and who is “out” with regard to salvation. McKnight points out a genuine weakness in the emerging movement regarding evangelism for this reason.

    I find this point to be a bit ironic after reading McKnight’s article. It seems that he was saying this “big tent” approach to neo-Evangelicalism ultimately became its Achilles’ heel. I.e. Theology was less important than bringing the Evangelicals together. When that trickled down to the local [mega]church, it weakened Evangelicalism. It seems that this idea of the Emerging stream is starting out at that same place (maybe even more so). I don’t see that being very sustainable in the long term.

  11. I find the emerging church idea fits well with Mennonite & Anabaptist Churches. I’ve heard some call themselves Neo-Anabaptist. The Mennonite USA seems to be trying to connect in someway with the movement, especially with Shane Claiborne.
    I think one important idea that makes these 2 churches connect is the Church & state separation issue. Most of Evangelicals seem to hold a weird Theocracy belief & many Evangelicals are buying Glen Beck books to affirm that belief. Anabaptists & emerging church are not for making America a “Christian Nation” they want America to be a Nation whose citizens practice Christianity by choice. maybe that is left of center politics. peace

  12. Rather than a springboard for lasting Christian institutions, I see the emerging movement more as a context for open and free discussion within Western Christianity — a conversation that the modern church has only lately begun to hold with itself. And while it deals a lot with postmodern issues, I think it also represents the civilized conversation that Christendom failed to have with itself in the years following the Reformation — when both sides tried to resolve the disputed issues with swords rather than with words and with love. Sure, some off-the-wall ideas and questionable theology have and will probably continue to come from this conversation, but, by and large, I think it’s a healthy thing that should not be suppressed. Historically, Christian institutions haven’t been real good about voluntary self-examination and self-correction, and, usually, those seeking change and reform have had no other recourse but to seperate from their mother institution — which has and continues to breed new institutions and denominations. Ideally, I’d like to see the emerging movement continue to serve as both a context for freedom of speech in Christ and a mirror in which the church can examine itself — independent enough that the religous power brokers can’t censor or silence it, and public enough to where they can’t safely ignore what’s being said.

    • You expressed my thoughts much more clearly and articulately than I ever could, which is, really, my favorite kind of comment 🙂

    • Well said!

    • David Cornwell says

      Ron, excellent comment. For a long time portions of the church have been unwilling to engage in such conversation. It’s happening now and is going to continue to do so. Some of the talk may make us uncomfortable, but it will happen. McClaren’s questions need to be asked. We don’t have to agree with all of his answers. Others are starting important conversations also. This blog, for instance.

      • I liked A NEW KIND OF CHRISTIANITY. I didn’t find myself always agreeing with it/McLaren, but I liked engaging with the questions, and he says some interesting things.

        That said, the interview with McKnight seems to confirm the concerns many have about McLaren. McLaren seems to weasel out of answering anything by saying that he thinks the way the question is being asked misses the point. He avoids answering by saying it’s the wrong question or that he can’t get his head around the question. He rambles long enough on each question so McKnight gets to “We only have a minute left on this question” before he starts to say anything, and then it’s time for the next question. Reminds me of many politicians.

        Of course, my positive impression of A NEW KIND OF CHRISTIANITY and negative impression of the interview are based on a single reading and a single viewing. Maybe I’ll have different thoughts if I reread the book and rewatch the video of the interview.

    • Ron,
      Your response resonated so well with me. I read it several times and reflected on it for quite some time. I am impressed how clearly and positively you expressed your view. It provided much food for thought and deserves to be commented on. Thank you!

    • Ron, I think your comment is wise, but I fail to see how your plan can work out as long as we have Protestant presuppositions. The kind of conversation you mention has worked in the Roman Catholic church, because they allow for monastic movements and so on under the “big tent” of the universal church and its central authority. However, Protestantism just seems to continually diversify, without a central authority. You can say it’s the Bible, but without an authorized interpretation, what does that settle? I’m afraid what we will be left with is what we’ve known for 500 years: conversations that turn into arguments that become divisions that lead to the further splintering of the church.

      • I see your point, Mike. More divisions within Pretestantism may very well be the most likely outcome of the emerging movement. Still, I don’t think the avoidance of a potential increase in division is just cause for trying to suppress or ignore or downplay the emerging conversation and its myriad implications. Not that it could be suppressed — not (as you point out) without a central authority to say, “No, you can’t go there.” And, at this point in time, I don’t see the Protestant world coming together under its own version of the papacy or even a ruling religious council. And I certainly don’t see us submitting to Rome.
        So where does that leave us? Adrift in uncharted waters, I fear. And, maybe, forward into unmapped territory is where God is trying to lead us. I honestly don’t know. I just know that Pandora’s box has been opened, and we’re not going to have much luck trying to shut the lid on what’s crawling out into the light of day.
        I guess what I’m hoping for — and this may just be a pipe dream — is that Protestant institutions would develop a little more flexibility, both structurally and theologically, and a little more openness to free, uncensored, two-sided conversation and discussion. And I would love to see a greater willingness to interact, intermingle, and even work together across denominational lines. That is how I would like to see the Western Protestant world react to the challenges and questions being presented by the emerging movement. But, judging from history, it seems far more likely that many or most of the divided camps will simply dig deeper trenches and throw up more barbed wire in response to the percieved threat of the movement.

        • Andrew Zook says

          Ron, I’m with you on that hoping thing… living it out is another thing – but I think individually we can make the conversations and the intermingling happen. You just have to do it no matter what others think.

  13. Although McKnight’s descriptions are good, I like Stetzer’s description of the emerging streams as well.

    Revelants- “leaders who some classify as “emerging” that really are just trying to make their worship, music and outreach more contextual to emerging culture. Ironically, while some may consider them liberal, they are often deeply committed to biblical preaching, male pastoral leadership and other values common in conservative evangelical churches.”

    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.”

    Revisionists- “Revisionists are questioning (and in some cases denying) issues like the nature of the substitutionary atonement, the reality of hell, the complementarian nature of gender, and the nature of the Gospel itself.”


    • Thanks, Rick. Good alternative template for understanding.

    • “Revisionists are questioning (and in some cases denying) issues like the nature of the substitutionary atonement, the reality of hell, the complementarian nature of gender, and the nature of the Gospel itself.”

      The Egalitarians I know are not “questioning…the complementarian nature of gender.” The fact that they use terms like male and female and men and women is proof that they believe the genders are complementary. What they are questioning is the insistence or belief that in the church some positions, functions, gifts, activities, etc., can only be held or done by males. This questioning takes the form of scrutinizing the Patriarchalists’ or Traditionalists’ proof-texts to see if that’s what they really say (exegesis) and/or how they apply today (or even if they apply) (application), as well as the Patriarchal suppositions and presuppositions and arguments about male:female in both the original creation and the New Creation.

      • Good clarification, Eric. Again, though, let’s not take this post down doctrinal side-paths, unless we are relating our comments specifically to an overview of the Emerging Church.

  14. “Which of the emerging church spokespersons have you most appreciated? Why?

    McKnight, Dan Kimball, Andrew (Tall Skinny Kiwi) Jones, Driscoll, McManus, and those like them who told people to recognize the paradigm shift, encourged them to learn and grow from it, yet also reminded people to remain anchored in the historic faith.

  15. Cedric Klein says

    Since I went to bat for Penal Substitutionary Atonement (see below)- now I’ll do the same for HOPEFUL Universalism….

    Christ said the wicked would go into “aionion fire” and “aionion punishment- literally lopping-off, pruning, perhaps even correction”. “Aionion” can mean Eternal, especially when referring to essential attributes of God, such as the life He promises to His faithful ones. However, its primary meaning is “aion-lasting”. And the it is quite possible that the wicked goes into the Aionion Fire which is Punishing & perhaps Corrective, and come out embracing Jesus as Lord & Savior, hence being Eternally Corrected. (Matthew 25:46)

    Paul in Colossians 1 speaks of God by the Blood of Christ reconciling ALL THINGS to Himself. In I Corinthians 15, he explains that Christ will reign until He puts all things under Him, including Death, and delivers His Kingdom to the Father, and thus God becomes All in All.

    Revelation 14 shows the Beast-worshippers enduring the Wrath of Fire & Theoin (Sulfur/Brimstone as Divine Fumigation) IN THE PRESENCE OF THE LAMB AND THE ANGELS, with their Ordeal ascending for the Aions of the Aions. And then those sent to the Lake of Fire in Revelation 20 are shown in Rev 22 outside the Gates of the New Jerusalem. THAT is followed by the Divine Invitation to “Come Drink of the Water of Life”. Is that Invite just directed to us readers OR TO THEM ALSO?

    I believe that all humanity, all creation shall be enveloped in the Embrace of YHWH Elohim- that some even at the Great White Throne might throw themselves before Jesus Christ in love & adoration & be accepted, but that some, perhaps many, may fight & hate & despise Him so that the Glory of His Presence is a tormenting Lake of Fire to them. So I hope for Universal Salvation but believe in the possibility of Eternal Torment.

  16. I consider the premise of the orthodox church and adhering to its core beliefs as necessary to maintain a true connection with the Gospel. The emergent church seems to welcome challenges to this and in my estimation is doing terrible harm by receiving views divergent from what the Scriptures teach.

    It seems various segments of the “church” are more fascinated with analysis and reaction to the culture than they are about truth. Jesus is the truth and is not as ambiguous as say, the emergent church makes him out to be. That’s not to say we don’t have diversity of thought or appearance, but it does mean the emergent church is a very leaky vessel. That’s not to say some of its components don;t illuminate general weaknesses in the evangelical church (e.g. social justice and community), but the problems it has introduced do more harm than good.

  17. This is coming from an agnostic/former evangelical…but I think the emerging church grew out of the problems of evangelcal church. I think there are many disenchanted, frustrated people who know what Jesus says and sees how it IS NOT lived out in many churches today. I would also add that the subjective view of what is sinful, combined with the culture wars all did great harm. I was still going to church when the emerging movement was growing and going full swing and I noticed more and more sermons about key sinful issues such as “homosexuality” and “not tithing” in the church. There are so many sins that are not covered in evangelical churches today because the evengelcial movement is a large, white, upper middle class movement entrenched in surburbia of the American Dream. And for the difficult issues such as sexual sins, or alcohol there are confusing messages sent, and what makes the church so toxic is the total abscence of grace. Evangelicals know about grace (Ephesians 2:8) but they don’t dispense it becuase they are afriad they are going to condone something, hence its total abscene.

    That was my read on the movement before I walked away from church and God. It seems to have gotton uglier, and harder with more lines drawn in the sand.

    • Very good points, and well stated. Now the question is, can the emergent movement or movementS stay afloat when they are primarilyl a reaction AGAINST something. Can they put forward something positively Jesus-shaped, that has theological and tradional substance to it, something that doens’t disgrace 2000+ yrs of church history, and the blood of millions of martyrs to the “one true faith”. We’ll see.

      Praxis is great, but makes for a crappy rudder, IMO.

      Greg R

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Very good points, and well stated. Now the question is, can the emergent movement or movementS stay afloat when they are primarilyl a reaction AGAINST something.

        Protestant Christianity stayed afloat some 450 years and counting…

  18. As I understanding what I’ve read by McLaren, the Emergent movement is a reaction to contemporary evangelicalism, correct?

    Emerging is not coming out against the traditional Christian church service of pews and hymnals and serious preaching and sacraments. That sort of thing has already faded from memory for the post-modern leaders. For them, the status quo is untenable, and there’s no home to return to. So them must go on a search for new ways to worship.

    • I got this impression from my reading of McLaren, but I wasn’t sure exactly how he wanted to reshare worship. Return to sacraments and candles? Seek-friendly format, only remade to be more intensionally postmodern? (TVs and candles?)

      I’m being a little silly, but I’d be curious to know what has been tried. Anyone seen first hand?

  19. Nobody has even mentioned Rod Bell….

  20. linebackeru says

    The emergent movement has a childlike resistance to truth. Things like being saved, hell, ect. are all on the chopping block. Truth is truth and it cannot be less true at a later date or rewritten to be more true. The sun comes up or it doesn’t, man is fallen or he isn’t ect…Things that are a slight mystery are explained away or up for debate in this movement, rather than trusting God . RIP.

  21. I think McKnight’s characterization is generally fair, except maybe the social gospel aspect. Since this article was written 3 years ago, there’s been a lot of healthy discussion as what exactly the “gospel” refers to, discussions that draw in the other two streams as well.

    In maybe the last year, some emergers have said they feel emerging is “over.” And some always lumped in with the group have said they weren’t emerging in the first place. Part of this, I think, is a reaction to how it became another in/out label. But mostly, I think the movement is growing up. Critics had a fair point when they said it was more about tearing down than building up. But rather than an inherent deficiency, I think that was the natural first phase in what is essentially a protest movement. I’d say we have reached or are about to reach a critical mass in which most westerners admit evangelicalism is untenable. So now emerging will turn toward the next natural phase, rebuilding, or it will die out. Also, many (most?) emergers aren’t willing to follow McLaren where some of his latest theological travels have taken him. And if anyone owns the term emerging/emergent, it’s him. So I think there is a distancing going on there as well.

    Not to mention the growing up of its participants. I think emerging started poking its head out in the mid or late 1990s. The 20-somethings who were driving that then are now close to 40. If it’s natural to be something of an iconoclast at 25, I think it’s natural to want to build a legacy at 40.

    The greatest strength of the movement was how it articulated the deficiencies with evangelicalism. And I think a lot of thinkers associated with the movement, even those who would disclaim the label itself, are doing great work building something on that rubble. In fact, though the neoreformed have a ton of antipathy toward emerging, I’d argue that without emerging articulating the problems with evangelicalism, there would have been no vacuum for the neoreformed to step into, and the movement wouldn’t have had near the traction it has.

  22. I could write a very long paper on this. I’ll try to keep it short.

    1. I think Scot’s overview, as an overview, is fair. I picked up on emerging ideas and ideals quite early in their appearance in this country and was positive and hopeful about them for quite a while.

    2. I read lots: McLaren, Tickle, T. Jones, Grenz, Frost & Hirsch, Tomlinson, Pagitt, Mc Neal, others, and numerous blogs. What I learned was that I wasn’t crazy and that many Christians who were concerned about remaining faithful to Jesus, and communicating the reality of his love and life to those around us, had the same questions and concerns. I learned that Christians in England were way ahead of us and usually much more sane about it all. I learned a term that described where I was: post-evangelical. After a while, I became concerned that, though the questions were good, the answers seemed to have to be worked out and realized in community; there wasn’t going to be a sweeping thing going on in this country, largely because of all the acrimonious backlash to even considering talking about these issues. At the same time, as I stepped back from Evangelicalism, I became troubled not so much by emerging church folks, but by much of the Western theological view of who God is and what he is up to. I learned about N.T. Wright – thank God!!

    3. I appreciate Phyllis Tickle, whois incredibly kind, with keen intelligence and terrific historical , big-picture perspective. Jonny Baker in England is very grounded. I wish people could see Pagitt’s heart, at least the little of it that I know. McKnight- he is so even-handed and encouraging and helpful for real discussion; he’s the salt of the earth. At the beginning, McLaren put words to what was going on in my head. I don’t count them or anyone else as “spokespeople” for the emerging church movement; that’s antithetical to it. Some people, by virtue of personality and/or opportunity, have a more public presence.

    4. Very little, and not much in my town, except for the pastor of the Presbyterian church in which I rested for nine years before moving on. I participated in what my pastor initiated, and for a time I helped keep a small food ministry going. I had the opportunity to visit Solomon’s Porch in M’polis. I went to four Zondervan Nat’l Pastors’ Conferences in San Diego just to hear emerging church speakers in person, to try to get a sense of who the person is behind the writing. I was favorably impressed by them all, as people I would like to be friends with. Just very little opportunity where I live to actually wrestle with and move toward some praxis; sadly, most Christians in my town are pretty polarized and happy to remain at their poles.

    5. I think, with very few exceptions, emerging church people have shifted into, or closer toward, another quadrant of Tickle’s “rose”, which means they are going around in circles… This is not necessarily a bad thing, if it is a movement of conscience and not of fashion. I’ve made that move myself. My overall critique is that, whether bringing “new” things to the table or not, emerging-ness is still a 20th century western, enlightenment-driven kind of thing.


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