"Sorry, I've never heard of it before."
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.
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.
Which Is It: Emerging or Emergent?
Of course, church history proves that when forms of ecclesiology are messed with, those holding onto traditional ways of ministry will quickly voice their concerns. When the organ was first brought into the church, for instance, people complained loudly. After all, this was a pagan instrument normally used to usher in kings and queens—why would we ever think of employing it in the church? In the same manner, emerging leaders faced mounting criticism when they began changing forms of ministry within the church.
At the same time emerging churches and ministries were being birthed, there was an additional group started by Leadership Network called Terra Nova. This assembly was not only a methodological discussion but, more significantly for the time, a theological discussion as well. Up to that point, the majority of emerging churches addressed ecclesiology and mission. Even when these fellowships were criticized or misunderstood, it was generally about methodology. Of course, all methodology stems from theology; but Terra Nova's focus was more on rethinking theology than simply rethinking methodology.
In 2001, many of those who were part of Terra Nova formed Emergent Village and continued the theological discussions. Because the word emergent was so similar to emerging, the terms began to be used interchangeably. As some in Emergent Village wrote and spoke on various topics such as Scripture, the atonement and hell, the criticism grew harsh, even hostile at times. Because those attacking often used the terms to mean the same thing, soon church culture in general followed suit. Still, there remained a segment who were uncomfortable with some of the theological exploration Emergent Village was doing, which is why some would say, "I am emerging, but not emergent."
What We Know
If you are a pastor who has remained distant from either of these movements, it's easy to feel confused about the emerging church discussions that have been underway. Terms can often cause people to trip up over slight distinctions. Yet one of the most common mistakes people make is to clump the entire emerging church as a single entity, which makes it easy to misunderstand and misjudge. Whatever preconceptions or knowledge you may have, here are a few "summary statements" that may help as you try to understand what the emerging church is.
You may be wondering, "So what makes anything 'emerging' if there is so much diversity?" Remember, the emerging church started out with an evangelism focus on emerging generations. That original meaning has since been shifted and redefined.
On a personal level, I don't use the term emerging church as prominently as I used to simply because of the confusion it can bring. I also try to define the term whenever I do use it, so there is a clear understanding of what I mean. What I think is an emerging church may now mean something completely different to someone else.
With that in mind, there are a few things to keep in mind as you seek to understand more about the emerging church.
1. Don't stereotype the emerging church. I often encounter people who project themselves as knowledgeable about the emerging church and write blogs, articles and even books about it. Yet within a few minutes of reading what they write it becomes apparent that their entire take is based on extreme overgeneralizations.
I have read some bizarre things written about emerging churches and what they do in worship. But these descriptions rarely ever list church names or describe actual visits the writers have made to emerging churches. The assessments are based more on hearsay and urban legend. I've been to many emerging churches and can say that nothing comes close to the caricatures of these churches painted by misinformed "informers." So instead of basing your opinion on hearsay and saying, "All emerging churches are ... " try limiting it to, "This specific church is ..." And before that, make sure what you are saying about a church or leader is actually true.
This does not mean that I think all the criticism is invalid. Because of the diversity of the emerging church there will be theological differences. I personally have concerns when anyone emerging—or for that matter, anyone in the church—strays from the core historical orthodox doctrines of the faith. But when I have those concerns, I address them with specific individuals rather than making generalized statements.
2. Pray for emerging leaders and the future church. There are many leaders who are passionately and prayerfully planting new churches and taking risks in their existing churches—all for the sake of the gospel being known in our emerging culture. The overall statistics in America don't look too good right now for the future church, and many emerging churches are at the forefront of trying, by the strength of the Spirit, to be missionaries in our culture today. Rather than speak poorly of them or question their motives, pray for those who are leading emerging missional churches.
3. Remember, the church is always emerging. Since Jesus left us with the Great Commission and His Holy Spirit, the church has always been emerging. Various expressions of the body at large have "emerged" continually throughout church history and altered the way we function. For this reason, we shouldn't be afraid of change.
In 1970, Larson and Osborne commented on what was emerging in the church at the time. They wrote, "If the church be true to its Lord, it may never properly say it has emerged." Indeed, the church was emerging then, it is emerging now, and it will continue to be emerging years later.
Somewhere in the world right now is a 6-year-old who in 2040 will write another book called The Emerging Church. He'll identify what is emerging in his era and there will probably be critics who don't like change and who will point fingers. Yet may he, along with all the emerging churches and emerging leaders of the future, continue to be passionate about bringing the eternal truth of the gospel of Jesus to the ever-changing emerging cultures of whatever time in which we live.