The emerging church is a diverse, controversial movement within Christianity that arose in the late 20th century as a reaction to the perceived influence of modernism in Western Christianity. Proponents of the emerging church embrace postmodernism and call the movement a "conversation" to emphasize its decentralized nature with contributions from people of a variety of beliefs. The emerging church seeks to deconstruct and reconstruct Christianity, as its mainly Western members live in a postmodern culture.
While practices and even core doctrine vary, many emergers can be recognized by the following values:
All believers are missionaries who are sent to be a blessing to the culture around them through a lifestyle that brings God's kingdom here on earth through verbal evangelism, social activism and however God has gifted the individual.
Narrative presentations of faith and the Bible are emphasized over propositional presentations such as systematic theology which are viewed as reductionism.
An ecumenical understanding of doctrine which attempts to move beyond the conservative versus liberal impasse in Christianity while honoring the beliefs and traditions of premodern, modern and postmodern Christian denominations. This generosity also extends to dialogue with non-Christian religions and non-religious people for some like Brian McLaren but not others, like Mark Driscoll.
A commitment to emulating Jesus' way of living, in particular his loving of God, neighbors and those normally considered enemies. An understanding of the gospel as one centered on Christ that is a message about the Kingdom of God and reconciliation between God, man and creation.
An openness to consider a plurality of interpretations as well as the impact of the reader's cultural context on the act of interpretation in contrast to the primacy of the author's intent and cultural context. The influence of postmodern thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Stanley Fish can be seen in the “emerging church” approach to interpreting Scripture.
Favoring the sharing of experiences and interactions that are personal and sincere such as testimonies over scripted interactions such as propositional, formulaic evangelistic tracts and teaching.
Creating a safe environment for those with different opinions to talk and listen with an attitude of grace when there are disagreements as opposed to the dogmatic proclamation found in historic Christianity.
Emerging Church groups also typically emphasize the following elements:
- A flexible approach to and continual reexamination of theology which causes them to see faith as a journey rather than a destination, and to accept differences in beliefs and morals.
- A belief in creating communities built out of the creativity of those who are a part of each local body.
- A holistic view of the role of the church in society. This can mean anything from a higher degree of emphasis on social action, building relationships with the surrounding community, or Christian outreach.
- Creative approaches to worship and spiritual reflection. This can involve everything from the use of contemporary music and films to liturgy, as well as more ancient customs, with a goal of making the church more appealing to postmodern people.
- Use of the internet is a dominant medium of communication through various blogs, websites and online videos.
My church fits many of the characteristics of an "emergent" church, although nobody I know uses that term. I think most folks would simply prefer "Church," and would emphasize the continuity with what Christians have believed for the past 2,000 years. But when I read that list, I plead "guilty" or "innocent" or whatever the proper plea is to all of the above. Sounds good to me.
I'll note that I have a seminary education, and value theological rigor to a degree. But the degree stops when it gets in the way of loving Jesus and loving others. It's not that one necessarily precludes the other, and when held in the proper balance theological rigor can certainly inform and enrich love of God and love of neighbor. But how much theological rigor is needed to understand the concepts of dying to self and living for God? The concept isn't hard to grasp. It's just hard to live. And I want and need to be surrounded by people who want to live it.
I am also something of a fish out of water in that I come from perhaps the last generation of modernists, and I currently find myself quite comfortably in the postmodern camp. It's not that I doubt propositional truth. But, to quote and slightly mangle the philosopher Pogo, I have met the enemy, and the enemy is me. Knowing propositional truth didn't do squat for me in terms of following God or avoiding the same addictive traps that have snared untold generations in my family. I come from a long and undistinguished line of addicts, and I'd like to break that chain in my generation. But knowing how to dot all my theological i's and cross all my theological t's only led to despair. From what I could tell, I was a good Calvinist who was predestined to go to hell because of my inability to love Jesus more than myself, and my proclivity toward sin. Praise God.
I think there is a common misperception of emergent churches that 1) they either don't care about theology, or 2) they are content to make up the theology as they go. That has not been my experience. What has been my experience is that the theology isn't debated that much. I believe that orthodoxy (with a small "o") is important, but I also believe that it's more important to be known by how I live and what my priorities are and how I spend my time and money. That's what the world sees. And what I want them to see is that I am a part of a church culture that is welcoming. I want non-Christians to show up for church. I want homeless people, drug addicts, homosexuals, porn addicts, prostitutes, and Democrats to show up for church, as well as the regular broken uptight Republican evangelicals. I want all kinds of broken, dysfunctional people to find a home, and a place where Humpty Dumpty can be put back together again. And they do. And I'd rather live with the messiness and the theological fuzziness than to exclude anybody because of their theological understanding, or lack thereof. The theology will sort itself out if people stick around.
I am old enough to have lived through and survived the Jesus movement of the early '70s. It's when and how I became a Christian, and thank God there were people then, too, who thought there were alternatives to stained glass and pipe organs and hardwood pews. But this, whatever this is -- Emergent Church, Third Wave, whatever you want to call it -- is different. I don't see an attempt to reinvent the Church. I don't see the hubris that automatically accompanies any attempt to be "an authentic New Testament Church." I see great respect for Church history and tradition. I see wholesale borrowing from that history and tradition, in fact, often in some strange and challenging mix 'n match ways. But I see it all being subsumed under the greater goal of loving people, including those who are most unlovable. And, in my opinion, that should always trump theology. It's what the evangelical church, as a whole, has done very poorly. We can judge like the experts we are. But we just can't seem to get that part about love down very well. For what it's worth, I'd like to change that in my own life, and I'd like to be a part of a church that wants to play a part in changing that in the culture at large.