Emerging Churches

So, I had another presentation for my ecclesiology class this past Tuesday. it was on a pretty familiar topic, however. I had to present on the book Emerging Churches by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger. I’ve done a fair amount of work with this book already, so the material wasn’t exactly new, but rather than give a standard presentation on the book I took some leaps of theological interpretation, partly as explorations for my dissertation and partly as just enjoying playing with the writing. I like a good turn of theological phrasing, after all. I’m going to post this presentation here in several parts, the first part being (I think) the least interesting. But, like I always say, the beginning is a good place to start.

Emerging Churches

The Background and Context:

The movement which we call the emerging church resists rigid definition, and indeed resists a rigid timeline. The more formally described movement of the emerging church arose in the late 1990s, with the early years of this present century providing the most lively interest in coming to terms with what was increasingly seen as not only a new church growth strategy but indeed a whole new approach to the broader questions of ecclesiology.

Loosely, the emerging church can be described as an ecclesial movement within industrialized nations that on the surface seems to reject accepted standards of ecclesiality. There is a strong tendency to de-emphasize buildings, programs, even ordained leadership. More often than not there is no service on Sunday mornings. This is not to say there is no gathering together at all, or that the emerging churches indeed have no ecclesiology. Quite the opposite, really. For the most part, emerging churches formed out of an almost hyper awareness of contemporary, primarily Evangelical, approaches to church life, approaches which for the most part were more assumed than intentionally considered.

In contemporary society, the assumptions and priorities of the longstanding Christendom approaches became increasingly questioned, especially in light of the contributory cultural changes of our era.

In their book Emerging Churches, Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger seek to more precisely define and examine the movement.[1] Their book is not an attempt to propose a new ecclesiology, but rather it is a descriptive text that derives its content from interviews with emerging church leaders and studies of emerging church communities.

Thus, their book can be best understood as a collection of primary source material which describes the emerging church as it is pursued within the specific emerging church communities. With this, any formal ecclesiology must be distilled from these descriptions, reflecting upon the described practices rather than expecting a clearly delineated systematic theology.

Content and Claims

Gibbs and Bolger define the emerging churches as “missional communities arising from within postmodern culture and consisting of followers of Jesus who are seeking to be faithful in their place and time.”[2] They point to six key cultural changes which help contribute to challenging the assumptions of Christendom and thus the newly assumed ecclesial approaches.[3] These approaches consist of nine core “practices” that can help define the emerging church ecclesiology.[4] There are three key practices which all emerging churches studied by Gibbs and Bolger do exhibit, and from these derive six others.

The first key practice is “identifying with Jesus”. This emphasis pushes the importance of Jesus into more depth than the topic of salvation, with the whole life, work and mission of Jesus seen as a model for continued Christian discipleship in and for this world. “It is this kingdom hope that inspires emerging church leaders as they seek to realize that promise within their communities, striving for them to become servants and signs of that kingdom as they live God’s future, which is both already here and remains to come.”[5]

It is also here that we see what is a key interpretive component of emerging church expression. Much of emerging church emphases can be strongly understood as intentionally reactionary against popular forms of Evangelicalism, especially the revivalist and conservative political aspects that was so strongly expressed in the mega-churches of the 1990s.

As such, the emphasis on Jesus can be seen as primarily about discovering the “already here” more than the “remains to come,” especially at it relates to participation in various social causes and a participation with society, rather than against society.[6] Instead of drawing people in, the emerging churches see the discipleship of Jesus as calling for a sending out. Andrew Jones notes, “Emerging churches should be missional. And by missional, I understand that the emerging church will take shape inside the new culture as a redeeming prophetic influence. The church follows the kingdom, the church happens in their house rather than our house…. The motion is always centrifugal, flowing outward to bring reconciliation and blessing to where it is needed.”[7]

They see their presence in a community as being representative of the real presence of Jesus, “in, with, and under” the culture they are in. The model of the work of Jesus as it is understood by emerging churches is strongly influenced, though often indirectly, by the contributions of NT Wright.[8]

From this core emphasis we find the other two key practices developing. The second is “transforming secular space.” Rather than seeing participation with Jesus, and thus holiness, as a call to separation, emerging churches see the mission of Jesus as bringing the sacred everywhere, with the division between sacred and secular dissolving.

This means there is not an emphasis on standard programs or events, which often bring a linear order to spiritual pursuits. “Postmodern people construct their world in nontextual and nonlinear ways, and the gospel must be embodied and therefore communicated in that same manner to be faithful in mission.”[9] This leads emerging leaders like Tim Morey in Torrance, CA to insist on leaving aside intellectualized arguments that seek convince people of a logical faith. Rather, he argues that a postmodern apologetic must be “experiential, communal, and enacted.”[10]

The church exists within the community, participating in it and with it, living in a way that seeks to bring Christ to others by living like Christ with others in specific, local neighborhoods.

…More to come…


[1] Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005).

[2] Gibbs and Bolger, 28.

[3] Gibbs and Bolger, 18.  They begin with the broad shift from modernity to postmodernity. Second, there is a change from Westernization to globalization. Third, there is an unprecedented change in the ability and variety of communication. Fourth, national and industrial based economies are transitioning to becoming “international, information based, and consumer driven.” Fifth, there are significant breakthroughs in understanding what it means to be human at the biological level. Finally, and with this, there is a renewed convergence of science and religion that is expressed in various degrees of tension and dialogue. These cultural elements coupled with a vast migration from church attendance, especially in Europe but also increasingly in the United States, prompted re-examination of core expressions of what it means to gather together in Christian community. Gibbs and Bolger, 35 write, “Taking postmodernity seriously requires that all church practices come into question. In contrast, Gen-X churches involve simply changes in strategy from what came before… However, to be missional is to go way beyond strategy. It is to look for church practices that can be embodied within a particular culture. In other words, theologies given birth within modernity will not transfer to postmodern cultures.”

[4] Gibbs and Bolger, 43 write, “We use the word practice here in a particular way, similar to the way it is used for medical or a legal practice or the business concept of ‘communities of practice’.

[5] Gibbs and Bolger, 47ff.

[6] Gibbs and Bolger, 63 write, “The kingdom, or the reign of God, is about our life here and now, and it is concerned not just with individual needs and aspirations but also with the well-being and mission of the community of Christ’s representatives. IT is directed beyond the present membership of the body of believers to encompass the world that Jesus came to save from the consequences of its rebellion by turning it in a radically different direction… It is social transformation arising from the presence and permeation of the reign of Christ.”

[7] Quoted in Gibbs and Bolger, 51.

[8] See Jeremy Begbie, “The Shape of Things to Come? Wright Amidst Emerging Ecclesiologies.” Begbie offers a great, succinct perspective on what in Wright has resonated with emerging church leaders, as well as offered great suggestions about what they have missed or ignored. His footnotes offer some excellent cues for continued study of emerging church resources.

[9] Gibbs and Bolger, 71.

[10] Tim Morey, Embodying Our Faith: Becoming a Living, Sharing, Practicing Church (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009), 14.

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