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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.


  • The emerging church is an array of churches that are focused on seeing the gospel impact those in our emerging culture and are not afraid of rethinking tradition or ministry molds for the sake of the mission of Jesus.


  • The emerging church has a wide variety of theology among its different churches. Because it is not a denomination, there are Southern Baptist emerging churches and Episcopalian emerging churches, for example. These can range in theology from conservative to liberal. And this variety is often what creates the most confusion, as it makes it difficult to pinpoint the emerging church. So generalizing the emerging church as entirely liberal or conservative, for instance, indicates a complete lack of understanding.


  • Along the same lines, the emerging church looks different from church to church. Some emerging churches follow the traditional mold in terms of Sunday worship primarily being music and preaching. Others add art, prayer stations and other forms of worshipful expression. Some are large megachurches; others are loose, organic forms of house churches. Obviously, this makes for a diverse church as a whole.

    Definitive Steps

    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.

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