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Defining the Emerging Church





Which is it: emerging or emergent? Get an expert's explanation.

Ask what the term emerging church or emergent church means and you're likely to get a variety of responses. Ones such as:

"Sorry, I've never heard of it before."

  • "It's a really refreshing and hopeful movement happening in the church."
  • "It's a dangerous thing—they're throwing out the truth of Scripture."
  • "Isn't it just a trendy thing about adding candles and art to worship? It'll be over soon."
  • "It may be what evangelicalism morphs into over the next decade or so."

    Having been involved in the emerging church community and discussion for more than 10 years, I have heard these types of comments often. I have watched the emerging church develop, change and grow significantly diverse—all of which has understandably added to the confusion surrounding it.

    A few years ago emerging churches were labeled "controversial"; now they're almost commonplace. So what, if anything, has changed? What exactly is the emerging or emergent church now?

    Born in a Gen-X Conversation

    Trying to understand the emerging church requires a brief look back at the history of how it developed. In the early to mid-1990s there was a lot of discussion about baby busters and Generation X. At the time, the church leadership world had saturated itself with studying baby boomers, and the conversation and attention then moved to the growing absence of 18- to 30-year-olds.

    In response, both church planters and existing churches began experimenting with age-focused Gen-X church plants or alternative services within an existing body. Eventually, a group called Leadership Network picked up on the need to connect those focusing on this demographic and hosted a series of events that brought together church leaders with the same heart for rethinking church for future generations.

    Leadership Network's tagline at the time read, "Advance scouts for the emerging church." It wasn't the first time the words emerging and church had been used together. In 1970, Bruce Larson and Ralph Osborne wrote The Emerging Church. A. John Carr penned The Emerging Church in Ephesians a decade later. And in the 1990s, the words were used in New Zealand and England with some experimental churches and alternative worship gatherings. But, given the momentum of the Leadership Network events in the late 1990s, the term emerging church became more commonly used for those trying to reach the 18- to 30-year-old demographic.

    Shifting Targets

    Such demographic exclusivity didn't last long. As leaders connected, we quickly realized that the Gen-X discussion was not just a generational change but a cultural one too. Its effect spanned age groups and target audiences. And in time, the words Gen-X and baby buster shifted to postmodern.

    Because we in church leadership like labeling things, we began holding "postmodern" worship services. Sadly, this became misused and misunderstood, and the term was erroneously equated with a style of music, ministry or worship service rather than a philosophical response to modernism.

    Obviously, most of us involved with this shift were not philosophers. We realized we were in over our heads trying to even explain and fully grasp postmodernism. The words emerging church seemed safer and less age-specific—and that is the term that seemed to catch on.

    The emerging church was originally made up of individual churches that took seriously the evangelistic commands of Jesus to make disciples in our emerging culture. To a degree, all churches take evangelism seriously—or so we would hope. Yet what made the emerging church unique and connected those of us in its circles was this: We were not afraid to rethink how we went about this mission. That meant rethinking what evangelism looked like. It meant rethinking what leadership, community, service and worship gatherings all looked like as well.

    We held a strong commitment to the authority of Scripture and historical orthodox doctrine. But because of the urgency of the mission we were not afraid to—while staying within scriptural guidelines—break free from pre-existing, traditional forms of evangelism, values and expressions of ministry. That was, and still is, what the "emerging church" is to me.

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