A Foray into Emerging Church Theology (part 1)

Last week, I presented a paper at the Society of Pentecostal Studies annual meeting. I was joined by Kyle Bennett and Kutter Callaway in our own session on the topic of a constructive emerging church theology. Indeed, their papers were more constructive than my own, and I’m encouraging them both to seek further publication of their papers. Mine was more introduction and background on the emerging church and the shape a developing emerging church theology could take. As such, I’m probably not going to do more with it, as I have other projects much more interesting to send out.

So, here is part 1:

Following the model Jürgen Moltmann has pursued in his various contributions to theology, I want to begin our exploration of emerging church theology with a story, my story of how I come to ask the questions of theology that led me towards a continuing interest in what is going on in the emerging churches. I was baptized in a Wesleyan church not long before I turned five years old. When I was about eight, my parents began participating in local charismatic fellowships and soon after we began regularly attending an Assemblies of God church.

I do not remember the exact date that what can be called a further baptism of the Spirit occurred in my life, though I do have strong memories of speaking in tongues in a Mario Murillo led service when I was about ten. The gifts of the Spirit and an active participation in the life of the church with these gifts marks my memories throughout my life, shaping my hopes and dreams, no doubt being a key part of what I felt was a call to ministry when I was about eleven years old.

Active participation continued through high school at a Four Square church. I greatly value the strong emphasis on prayer and the pursuit of God I found there. This spirituality was coupled with a trust in those of us who took the full Gospel seriously. We were not looked down upon, or kept off to the side while others did the so-called real ministry. Rather, as we were gifted and called we were given space to participate and lead. In the embrace of the Spirit’s work in this church there was a realization that the Spirit worked through each of those who attended, and there was both a respect and interest in this work, no matter one’s age or economic background or education.

Even before finishing high school, however, I began to feel there was yet more to this life with God than what I was experiencing in this small Four Square church. My older brother began attending what was considered a cutting edge church designed from the ground up to minister to Generation-X, and I started attending their Sunday services with him my senior year.
The pastor, Dieter Zander, was a dynamic speaker and leader who radically transformed what was meant by a church service and church community. It was a church for young, mostly single twenty-somethings, led mostly by young, single twenty-somethings. Here, there was a dynamic, holistic ministry approach which embraced broad participation and leadership.

This church is now seen as one of the key proto-emerging church communities, which while not entirely reflecting the direction of the later movement that sprang more fully to life in the late 1990s, did assert a new pattern of ministry for a postmodern society. Indeed, two more properly understand emerging churches, one in Pasadena and the other in Pomona, were planted by NewSong as a reflection of its developing understanding of mission in Southern California.

When I began to attend this church on Sunday mornings I was not in any way rejecting what had become vital Pentecostal influences in my life. Indeed, while I have not regularly attended a Pentecostal or Charismatic church since the end of my high school days over fifteen years ago, I have continually reflected upon the values and priorities and experiences I gained during my Pentecostal involvement, and these reflections have been an almost constant guide in my further ministry and theological development.

As I began my PhD studies at Fuller Seminary, I soon realized there were others in my program who were pursuing advanced theological topics and had a background in the emerging churches. While we, in many cases, seemed to come out of different theological traditions, and indeed had differing pursuits in our field of studies, there was a common, shared set of values that reflect emerging church priorities.

In discussing this shared reality, we increasingly realized that the nascent theology of the emerging churches was very influential and yet at the same time radically unformed. It our hope, our proposal, that emerging church theology can be more thoroughly expressed. As a beginning to this effort, I would like to first offer an overview of the shape of current emerging church values and thought. I will briefly lay out what we can consider as the key elements defining the emerging churches and suggest a method in which a theology from this movement can be developed.

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