Emerging vs. Emergent Churches: Clearing up the Confusion<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
By Jason Carlson
What is the difference between the "emerging" church and the "emergent" church? In recent years these two terms, often used interchangeably, have raised much confusion, consternation, and debate within the Christian community. Are these terms synonymous? Should we differentiate them? And should the movements they represent concern us?
To answer these questions I would like to briefly describe some of the key differences, as I see them, between these two terms- "emerging" and "emergent". I will propose that distinctions can and should be made between these two terms and I will attempt to make these clear in this article. I will also share with you some of my personal thoughts in regards to the positives and negatives of both of these terms and the movements that they describe.
And just a brief disclaimer at the outset The descriptions I will give below are meant to provide a broad and general overview of these two movements. These descriptions are based solely upon my personal interaction and experience with a number of emerging and emergent churches. I am fully aware that exceptions to these portrayals do exist.
What is the emerging church?
The "emerging" church movement is basically a generic term. It typically refers to any church or organization that sees as its primary mission reaching today's postmodern culture with the gospel of Jesus Christ. There are thousands of these emerging churches in our country today and they span a multitude of denominations.
Churches and organizations that would describe themselves as part of the emerging church generally have evangelical tendencies. They tend to hold to and defend theological positions that have been widely accepted and embraced by the wider evangelical community. Emerging churches generally recognize the reality of absolute truth, many have a high regard for the authority of Scripture, and most will unashamedly proclaim the gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone.
Socially and politically, people who attend these emerging churches will come from a diversity of backgrounds. Culturally, however, it is no stretch to say that the majority of emerging churches would tend to be predominantly white and suburban. At the same time though, many of these emerging churches place a high value on social activism and concern for the urban poor.
Where these emerging churches most differ from their more traditional, evangelical counterparts is typically in their methodology. They generally are more cutting-edge in their use of music, media, and other art forms as tools for communicating the message of the gospel. They may meet in traditional church sanctuaries, but often times you will find them in settings that are better suited for a multi-sensory worship experience, settings such as coffee houses or night clubs.
What is the emergent church?
The "emergent" church movement, on the other hand, is a much more specific term. It refers to those churches and organizations that align themselves, whether formally or informally, with the vision and philosophy of an organization officially named Emergent. The Emergent organization can be found online at www.emergentvillage.com. Emergent identifies itself as, "a growing, generative friendship among missional Christians seeking to love our world in the Spirit of Jesus Christ". This organization was founded and is led by prominent spokesmen like Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt and others.
Churches and organizations that would fall under the emergent label come from a diversity of Christian traditions. Many of these churches have evangelical roots, but you will also find Catholic, Orthodox and Mainline protestant denominations allied with the Emergent group. Accordingly, the theologies found within the emergent church are as diverse as the traditions that make it up. This theological diversity is widely celebrated within the movement and is the primary reason behind the emergent church's disinterest in producing statements of faith, which are viewed as constricting and limiting to ongoing dialogue and theological imagination.
Socially and politically, the emergent church is also a diverse group. However, most commentators point out a greater propensity towards liberal interests and causes. Emergent churches also tend to be predominantly white. At the same time, while not necessarily a rule, emergent churches are often found in urban settings. Emergent churches also place a high value on social activism and concern for the urban poor.
As for the style and methodology of the emergent churches, you will find a tremendous amount of diversity here. Again, reflecting the diversity of traditions that make up Emergent's "generative friendship". Some of these emergent churches will resemble settings like coffee houses or nightclubs, settings geared towards a multi-sensory worship experience. But others will take the opposite approach, favoring a more contemplative or liturgical feel in their worship gatherings. And some will blend both.
Reflections on the emerging and emergent church
While I would never offer a blanket endorsement of all things "emerging", the evangelically inclined emerging church movement can generally be viewed as a positive force within the church. Wherever we find emerging churches remaining faithful to the authority and truths of Scripture, the wider evangelical community should embrace and support them as co-laborers for the Kingdom. The goal of spreading the gospel to the entire world, including the postmodern world, is a clear biblical mandate and the emerging church movement is helping to carryout this task.
The church must recognize that throughout history the tactics we've used in communicating the gospel message have regularly changed. The medium for delivering the message, as long as it does not clearly violate biblical norms, should not be our primary concern. Rather, the advancement of the message of the gospel should be paramount. When sharing this goal, the emerging church movement can be viewed as an ally of traditional evangelicalism.
The emergent church movement, on the other hand, has given traditional evangelicals more cause for concern. As I have observed the evolution of the emergent church over the past few years, I have noticed an increasing trend towards theological revisionism, theological liberalism, and an open embrace of postmodern philosophy.
The emergent church has moved beyond the practice of simply adapting the methods we use in order to reach the postmodern world for Jesus Christ. By and large the emergent church has adopted an uncritical embrace of the postmodern worldview. And postmodernism is a worldview that in many regards is antithetical to biblical Christianity. Prominent leaders within the emergent church are on record denying objective truth, promoting relativism, and questioning a number of the core doctrines of biblical Christianity. All of these facts greatly disturb me and should concern all discerning believers.
One last thought regarding the more evangelically inclined emerging church. I would encourage any evangelical church or organizations currently identifying with the label of "emerging church" to strongly consider dropping the use of this term. As I stated above, having a ministry focused towards reaching the postmodern world for Jesus Christ is an awesome goal. However, why not simply focus on being the church? Why "emerging"?
Why would evangelically inclined churches or organizations want to associate themselves with a term that is so easily confused today with a movement (Emergent) that is causing so much concern within evangelical circles? Are the confusions, false labeling, and attacks associated with calling yourself an emerging church worth it?
For example, it's like when you're throwing a party you don't send out invitations that say, "Come to my gay party". You might be throwing the happiest, most joyous party in the history of the world, but in today's culture you just don't use certain terms because of their baggage.
Not only is the use of the term "emerging" confusing and for many people loaded with negative connotations, it's also just plain cheesy. When are we evangelicals going to get over our penchant for jumping on the bandwagon of the latest fad movement to come along? We've got seeker-sensitive churches, purpose-driven churches and now Emergent comes along and suddenly everybody wants to be an emerging church. It's getting ridiculous.
Again, if you want to focus on ministering to postmoderns that's great, do it. But just be the church to them. We've got enough labels to explain to non-believers already, we don't need to add another one into the mix.
In conclusion, I trust that the descriptions and distinctions offered in this article have proven helpful in terms of understanding the "emerging" and "emergent" churches. At the same time, if you would like to explore these matters further, let me encourage you to visit our ministry's website and check out our video and audio resources for more information on postmodernity and the emergent church (www.jude3.com).
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