emerging theologies

Over the course of this last year I’ve transitioned in my terminology. Rather than writing a lot about The Emerging Church, or emerging/missional church, or Emergent, or some such, I’ve increasingly started talking about “emerging theologies”. Terminology is not a very interesting subject, I know, but it is important. People use and abuse terminology for their own ends.

Now, to be sure I have talked a lot about emerging church still, so my transition is less evident on this blog and more evident in my formal studies. There’s a couple big reasons for this move on my part. A big one is the overuse and wrong use of the phrase emerging church. It has become segmented and labeled and boxed up. It has been abused by both people who want to undermine non-hierarchical epressions of church and abused by people who want to disguise their own hierarchical forms of church.

We also have to ask “Which emerging church?” The segment pushed by major publishers? The emergent church as pushed by those involved in official gatherings and conferences? The emergent/missional church as expressed by Dan Kimball and the developing “Origins” movement? All these have similarities, but some rather different emphases and theology. So to say the “emerging church” believes such and such is to right away pick and choose a segment, then use that segment to either approve or tar the whole.

My use of emerging theologies acknowledges the fact there are distinctions in all the various manifestations of emerging/missional/postmodern church. Indeed, it also acknowledges that what might seem cutting edge on the surface often is just repackaged old forms of church, often by leaders who want the cool name of emerging, but the old power and organization.

What are emerging theologies then? I would define these as contemporary expressions of what is really a very ancient drive within the church. Rather than being content with a segmented organization there is a drive to discover a form of theology and church which is holistic in action and spirituality. Rather than emphasizing certain parts of Scripture there is a willingness to take hold of the whole of Scripture, even the hard bits that push less for power and more for sacrifice. There is also in these emerging theologies a very strong awareness of context. The expression of this theology in the context of impoverished sections of South America will look rather different than in the context of upper-middle class neighborhoods of Southern California. At the core, however, are what I see as the pneumatological traits as discussed in the Gibbs and Bolger book Emerging Churches. I showed these traits as being aspects of the Holy Spirit’s work in my book It’s a Dance, and in a more academic fashion in my forthcoming article “An Emerging Pneumatology: Moltmann and the Emerging Church in Conversation” which is going to be published in the next issue of the Journal of Pentecostal Studies.

A key to this, as well, is that emerging theologies don’t only exist in the formally named emerging churches. Which is sort of my point. These expressions can exist in a variety of contexts, with a variety of emphases, with the common traits pushing for different difficulties in different situations. And, indeed, using these traits becomes a way of revealing non-emerging expressions of some so-called emerging churches.

Also, and this is a big one, it takes away the power of definition from the big boys who get pushed by major publishers and show up as speakers at major conferences. For the most part, the emerging church at its core is not the spotlighted forms. Rather, it’s the communities that are forming and gathering on their own, in shared community life, that may or may not be connected to a larger movement or official church.

And as this is happening around the world in different ways it’s a lot more appropriate, I think, to talk about the emerging theologies that are being developed in these contexts rather than get bogged down with whatever the latest guru has written or said, that then gets stamped as being some kind of official stance of the whole movement.

This is a bit of a long-winded explanation of a pretty minor shift in terms, but since I might be using this more and more I thought it important to say that it’s a purposeful shift, meant for specific reasons.

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