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Analysis: What is the “Emerging Church Movement?” August 24, 2006

Posted by peterong in Emergent, Uncategorized.

an interesting summary of some of the major points of emergent church by a Baptist State consultant…fair and summarily gives some points…take a read. Petery

By Chad Hall

BSC Communications

Read any number of ministry magazines, web sites or books these days and you’re likely to come across the terms like emerging church, emerging leaders, emerging ministry, emergent, and other strains of the word “emerging.”

Some people hail the emerging church movement as the second-coming of the Protestant Reformation, while others rail against it as a form of liberalism and watered-down Christianity in an age of anything goes. Still others see it as a passing fad or the reincarnation of the Jesus Movement of the 1960’s. People all around the world, including N.C. Baptists, are responding to, participating in, and reacting against this movement that cannot be easily described.

So what is all the fuss about? As a Baptist State Convention consultant who works with innovative and emerging issues, I’ve been watching the emerging church movement for six or seven years. As the moniker implies, the movement is constantly morphing, showing different sides of itself, and taking on new faces and voices. Following are a few snapshots of the emerging church movement that might help you know and understand it a bit better.

The movement is chaotic

The old phrase about “herding cats” applies to the emerging church. The movement is discernable, but barely describable; it is considerable, but not containable. It means different things to different people on different days. While this chaotic character may sound like a good reason to dismiss the movement, remember the same things could be said about the Civil Rights Movement, or the Temperance Movement, or even the beginnings of Baptist churches.

What can be discerned is that proponents of the emerging church movement tend to hold to three general beliefs:

First, they believe the thought and practice of Christianity is not static, but is constantly changing. The changes in Christian thought come from us knowing more and more about God through study, reflection and experience. Meanwhile, the changes in Christian practice stem from putting these new thoughts about God into action as well from a desire to communicate the gospel to a changing culture.

Second, they believe the movement is more a “conversation” than anything else. The conversation about the thought and practice of Christianity occurs via books, articles, weblogs, conferences and small gatherings. The desire is not to decide or determine anything, but to facilitate conversation and provoke thought. The hope is to include many voices (sometimes in disagreement with one another), spurring one another to understand and live out the gospel more fully. But any decisions or determinations that result from the conversation are on the personal or local church level.

Third, they believe certain elements of modern thinking need to be rejected (including some Christian thought and practices that rely on Enlightenment thinking). These modern elements need to be replaced or modified with postmodern or even pre-modern elements. Emerging church folks believe that by understanding how a thought or practice came into being, the thought or practice can be examined more fairly and its value for current ministry determined more clearly.

Positive contributions

In my opinion, the emerging church movement has some positive traits and offers several helpful contributions to Christians living and ministering in the 21st century. Among the positive contributions are:

Refusal to allow Christianity to be equated with “modern” thought alone. It is helpful to realize many current thoughts and practices in our churches came about within only the past 100 years or so. Emerging church folks remind us often, on a range of topics, that Christians have not always believed or practiced the way we do now. This frees us to reclaim and adopt some previously discarded thoughts and practices as well as to formulate newer thoughts and practices.

Claiming Christianity’s distant heritage. The best emerging thinkers draw from scripture, ancient Christian writers and quality historical research. They also draw from Christians in non-western parts of today’s world, reminding us that Christian thought and practice isn’t limited to white folks in Europe and North America.

Providing new wineskins. The emerging ministers are developing new practices to match the new thoughts. They are making use of technologies and methods of communicating the gospel that help the kingdom grow and serve as a blessing. Some of these new practices are proving effective in sharing Christ.

A sense of humility (among the best). The very best emerging thinkers admit they may be wrong. And they do so not as a rhetorical technique or means of avoiding an issue. There is a genuine humility among many emerging church leaders.

Ugly shadow sides

In my opinion, the emerging church movement also has a dark side. Or, given the multi-faceted nature of the movement, perhaps I should say dark sides. Here are some of the most disturbing aspects I have noticed:

Playing fast and loose with doctrine. All emerging church thinkers aim to take out the jewels of Christian doctrine and look at them afresh. But while the best emerging thinkers take doctrine seriously and want to avoid heresy, others wear “heretic” as a badge of honor. These folks take too much liberty with what Christians have believed for a very long time, and in doing so, they teeter on the edge of what it means even to be Christian. While it is helpful to re-examine and find value in doctrines such as trinity, rejecting or overhauling such doctrine misses the truth that as believers we are to be shaped by doctrine, not vice versa.

Talk without much meaningful action. The conversation aspect of the movement keeps it in the theoretical and conceptual realm, which is not always very helpful for the practice of ministry. Among emerging folks there is a lot of concern for very important issues (such as poverty, disease, missions and worship), but the conversation often feels like a bunch of college students sitting in a dorm room dreaming, bemoaning and hypothesizing. In my opinion, the criticisms and dreams offered by emerging church folks would carry much more weight if they were offered in the form of action in place of (or at least prior to) words. It might be better to do something constructive and then talk about it, rather than talk first (or only talk).

Loyalty to the personal and/or the novel. Some emerging folks feel the need to put their own stamp on any thought or practice. A friend of mine told about a ministry workshop he attended where attendees were asked to define the gospel. He said some of the definitions were almost comical because the attendees were unwilling to use simple, straightforward or traditional phrases. The mantra of some emerging church folks seems to be “If our parents and grandparents did it, said it, or believed it, it needs to rejected or repackaged or restated.”

Hijacking ancient beliefs and practices. One of the biggest complaints about emerging worship is that it’s just contemporary worship with candles and incense. There is some truth in that. Some emerging church folks recklessly adopt and adapt ancient forms of liturgy, the words of ancient theologians, and the trappings of ancient faith. In my opinion, this is akin to Madonna (the singer) wearing a crucifix. It’s more of a fashion statement or a way of being “cool” than a true understanding of and application of that which has stood the test of time. Using the words or symbols of Christian heritage and assigning new meanings is destructive.

A sense of hubris (among the worst). The least helpful emerging church thinkers seem to think they have finally figured out what the kingdom is all about and that it is their duty to let the rest of us in on the news. This kind of over-the-top pride is seen in the minority, but it is a growing minority that disregards the rest of the Christian witness available today.


With all the hubbub surrounding emerging church, there are a number of misunderstandings, often based on over-generalizations or inappropriate suspicion of anything new. Here are some of the more prominent misunderstandings:

Liberal. Emerging thinkers like Brian McLaren are often accused of having liberal theologies, such as being a universalist (believing all people will eventually be saved) or being soft on the doctrine of hell, or somehow supporting homosexuality. Undoubtedly, some emerging thinkers are liberal in the classical or even heretical sense. But the label is often misapplied to the movement as a whole. The misunderstanding stems from the emerging folks’ attempts to unpack (or “deconstruct”) thoughts in an unbiased way. In other words, emergents are often strong in describing all sides of an issue, but weak in stating their own stance. The result is that their description of a particular stance is often mistaken as being their own stance. This is precisely what happened with McLaren’s book, The Last Word and the Word After That, in which he unpacks the varying notions of heaven/hell/afterlife. To the chagrin of many readers, McLaren never really says what he believes about these important matters, since he wishes to let the reader decide. But without clearly stating his position, McLaren also leaves himself open to charges that he is theologically unsound.

New Age. The incredibly personalized aspect of some emerging thinkers results in some of them urging contemplative practices such as meditation or even yoga. Also, the flexible theology of some can result in the adoption of some new age aspects, such as elevating the Imago Dei theology (the truth that we are created in the image of God) to believe we inherently have God inside of us or available to us and do not need a savior. Again, while some emerging thinkers might slip into this kind of heresy, the movement as a whole is not marked by it.

Young. On a lighter note, the emerging movement is not just a bunch of young people. The movement includes young and old, men and women (but mostly men), and all races (but mostly white). Confusion can occur because some people use the term “emerging” in the generic sense to describe leaders, ministries or churches that are new, young or immature. But “emerging” in terms of the movement carries a particular (albeit murky) meaning.

Contemporary. The emerging church movement is also distinct from the contemporary church movement. The similarity lies in that both look for new forms of Christian practice. The important distinction is that the contemporary church movement (represented by congregations such as Willow Creek Church in Chicago or North Pointe Church in Atlanta) does not seek new forms of Christian thought.


Baptists are right in the mix of the emerging church movement – as participants, critics and interested bystanders. Some of the leading emergent thinkers come from Baptist circles (such as Chris Seay, the late Kyle Lake and Stanley Grenz) as do some of the best critics (such as Millard Erickson and Ed Stetzer).

In my opinion, Baptists stand to gain and lose much from the emerging church movement. Our high emphasis on local church autonomy means we are flexible, adaptable and somewhat susceptible. My hope is that some of the movement’s best characteristics can be adopted by Baptists and put to use for the good of the kingdom. As a friend recently put it, we need to “eat the chicken and spit out the bones.” I do hope we can do that. Alas, I have two fears. My first fear is that some Baptists will swallow the chicken, bones and all, and choke. My other fear is that Baptists will completely reject the emerging church movement simply because it is a large bird in which some unsavory “bones” exist.

For me, the way forward seems to be to take a critical, but not polemic, attitude toward the movement. Such an attitude requires prayer, a commitment to Christ as revealed in the written word of scripture, and an ability to suspend judgment in order to understand first and critique later.

To help understand the emerging church movement more fully, you might carefully consider the following resources:


Any number of books and web sites by McLaren (who is seen as sort of the godfather of the movement), Scott McKnight (including his blog, JesusCreed), Dan Kimball, or Tony Jones.

christianitytoday/outofur – Leadership Journal’s moderated blog often deals with emerging church issues. Posts and responses cross the spectrum from pro- to anti-emerging.

D.A. Carson’s book Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church. Folks within the emerging church movement have some important counter-criticisms of this book, but it contains thoughtful and substantial descriptions and critiques of the emerging movement.

http://theresurgence.com/ – a site and blog with thoughts from folks like Mark Driscoll and Ed Stetzer, who are often somewhat critical of the emerging church while wrestling well with the issues of changing culture and ministry.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Chad Hall is an innovative church consultant with the Baptist State Convention and senior coach with the Lake Hickory Learning Communities.)


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