An Emerging Foray (part 2 – terms)

Emerging Sources of Theology
At this point it may be helpful to better define the terminology involved. The emerging church should be understood as a broad movement of communities and individuals who share common emphases and priorities. This movement, for the most part, arose independently in many different locations, with it gaining more formal definition as various leaders and participants began to realize there were others in this world who shared the same frustrations and much of the same response. As it began broadly it remains a broad, fluid movement. Indeed, a simple definition that gathers in all expressions might be quite difficult. If I had to do so, however, I would suggest that emerging churches are nonaligned communities of Christian faith, with little or no direct connection to any denomination or traditional church, who meet outside of conventional church settings. With the breakdown of denominational control and the increase in people who reject the church while remaining committed to Christ, there must be a term for how such people voluntarily gather in a communal way.  I think emerging church is a useful one, as it points to a more dynamic response to developing trends of the Spirit.

The related term emergent can be applied to this movement as well, however, this may lead to some confusion.

More formally, Emergent Village is an organization that brought together some early key leaders and provided a more centralized context of discovery and contribution. As an organization they have been responsible for many influential conferences, books, and leadership guidance. Because they are often the more organized face of the emerging movement, there is sometimes an assumption the two—the movement and the organization—are identical. However, while Emergent Village is emerging, it is very much not the case that all that is emerging is connected with Emergent Village. As such, the term Emergent is increasingly applied to the formal organization while the term emerging is applied to the movement as a whole.

In discussing the emerging church it is common to refer to the emerging church “conversation.” For some this might imply a wishy-washy, non-specific, over-generalized attempt to evade specific doctrinal positions. However, rather than a dodge or imprecision, for those of us who have been involved in the emerging church movement the idea of an emerging church conversation is probably the best way of understanding the emerging church theological method. In misunderstanding this method, there is significant distortion of what the emerging church is attempting and how the emerging church is best understood as a movement.

Rather than beginning with either a central founder or leader, who asserts new positions on classic systematic points of doctrine, then forms around him or her disciples who codify and transmit these doctrines, the emerging church is a bottom up movement, whose emphases were formed in individual congregations, which came together in a loose bond after realizing there were other communities sharing the same values and priorities. Those in this movement thus see the developments as continuing to be a community task, with many men and women bringing their passions, and gifts, and insights to bear on any given topic.

Finally, the term missional is often used in regards to emerging church thought. These are not, however, equivalent. The concept of “missional” derives from the work of Leslie Newbiggin and Darrel Guder as well as others.[1] In essence, it is a perspective on the church in the culture, arguing that our Western societies have become so non-Christian following the last fifty years that our evangelistic and church growth models must adopt the attitude of missionary rather than Christendom assumptions.

It is an evangelistic attitude which shares many of the same key goals of the emerging church. However, not all missional oriented communities are emerging churches, and it is conceivable that not all emerging churches exhibit a strong missional drive.[2]


[1] See especially Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1989) and Darrell L. Guder, The Continuing Conversion of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000). Cf. George R. Hunsberger and Craig Van Gelder, eds., The Church between Gospel and Culture: The Emerging Mission in North America (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans 1996).

[2] They might, for instance, be more focused on community development, spiritual growth, or neo-monastic pursuits.

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