by Rassaphore Monk Angelos

This arti­cle con­sti­tutes the first install­ment in a series adapt­ed from the author’s under­grad­u­ate the­sis, An Ancient Future Church?: An Ortho­dox Exam­i­na­tion of the Post-mod­ern Chris­tian­i­ty of the Emerg­ing Church Move­ment

Introduction

What is presented here is the zeitgeist of twenty-first century religion.

As West­ern Chris­tian­i­ty entered the 21st cen­tu­ry, the word emerg­ing became com­mon­place across its broad spec­trum, from Roman Catholic pub­li­ca­tions to evan­gel­i­cal con­fer­ences and sem­i­nars. Some used it pos­i­tive­ly, allud­ing to new ways of liv­ing and think­ing as a Chris­t­ian, while oth­ers used it to name the heresy of our time. In almost all cas­es, how­ev­er, it ref­er­enced what has become known as the Emerg­ing Church Move­ment.

What is the ‘Emerg­ing Church’? We can say that it is a move­ment so ambigu­ous that the only attempt, thus far, by an Ortho­dox writer to suc­cinct­ly describe its tenets and doc­trines suc­ceeds only in man­ag­ing to artic­u­late the fact that it is near­ly impos­si­ble to do so. Fr Andrew Stephen Dam­ick, in his hand­book of com­par­a­tive reli­gion, Ortho­doxy & Het­ero­doxy, sums up the move­ment quite accu­rate­ly:

It is dif­fi­cult to pin down what emer­gents believe and do, and this is large­ly by design. There is no uni­fied the­o­log­i­cal vision that goes along with this label. Even when look­ing at the writ­ings of indi­vid­ual believ­ers, it is almost impos­si­ble to fig­ure out what each per­son believes.1

I do not intend to con­tra­dict Fr Andrew’s astute analy­sis of the move­ment. Rather, In the first few install­ments of this series, I will present an overview of the Emerg­ing Church by exam­in­ing a vari­ety of pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary sources that allow us to devel­op a broad view of the move­ment and build a gen­er­al assess­ment of its the­o­log­i­cal direction(s), high­light­ing the unique fac­tors and com­mon themes that unite the var­i­ous streams of the Emerg­ing Church and iden­ti­fy­ing the var­i­ous issues of impor­tance that the movement’s lead­ers focus on. Lat­er, I will use a selec­tion of Ortho­dox writ­ings, com­pared and con­trast­ed with var­i­ous works on Emerg­ing Church teach­ings to show how and where the Emerg­ing Church Move­ment con­tra­dicts Ortho­dox teach­ing as well as how and where they have (per­haps sur­pris­ing­ly) come clos­er to us.

Some of the themes I will ana­lyze from an Ortho­dox per­spec­tive in this lat­er part will include: the eccle­si­ol­o­gy of the Emerg­ing Church and its anti-hier­ar­chi­cal nature; the spir­i­tu­al­i­ty of the Emerg­ing Church and its influ­ences; the wor­ship of the Emerg­ing Church and its vari­ety of forms; the ded­i­ca­tion of the move­ment to social jus­tice issues and the detri­men­tal effect this some­times has on doc­tri­nal ques­tions; the ‘New Monas­tic’ move­ment. Although not con­sid­ered to be a con­stituent part of the Emerg­ing Church Move­ment, there are con­sid­er­able areas of over­lap between ‘New Monas­ti­cism’ and the Emerg­ing Church which make it wor­thy of exam­in­ing briefly.

In order to devel­op a more com­pre­hen­sive view of the move­ment, I will also incor­po­rate analy­sis by oth­er, non-Emerg­ing, writ­ers, who will be able to present a more nuanced per­spec­tive from a (gen­er­al­ly) con­ser­v­a­tive evan­gel­i­cal posi­tion. Although my hope is to be as com­pre­hen­sive as pos­si­ble, this series will not be exhaus­tive; as has been men­tioned, the Emerg­ing Church is a seem­ing­ly bot­tom­less abyss of the­o­log­i­cal opin­ions and out­looks, and an exhaus­tive analy­sis of this would be beyond the scope of this the­sis and the abil­i­ties of the writer. Instead, by cov­er­ing the main themes and trends, I hope to cov­er the essen­tials of the move­ment to present an idea of how a broad base of ‘emer­gents’ of var­i­ous stripes think.

The read­er should be aware that every­thing that I write about the Emerg­ing Church move­ment can be inter­pret­ed in either present or past tense. As will be cov­ered in lat­er sec­tions, there are some (for­mer­ly) with­in the move­ment who con­sid­er it to have end­ed sev­er­al years ago. This posi­tion has been dis­put­ed by oth­ers, so for the pur­pos­es of this the­sis I will advo­cate nei­ther posi­tion but will how­ev­er write in the present tense.

As will be explored in the the­sis, the ter­mi­nol­o­gy sur­round­ing the Emerg­ing Church move­ment is flu­id and elas­tic. Even tra­di­tion­al the­o­log­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal terms are being rede­fined by the movement’s pro­po­nents, who have col­lab­o­rat­ed on a book out­lin­ing the ‘new ter­mi­nol­o­gy’ of the emer­gents, or the ‘vocab­u­lary of tomor­row.’ I have used the most com­mon terms in my analy­sis and will attempt to point out any dis­tinc­tive uses by any of my sources.

Identifying and Analyzing the Emerging Church Movement

In this first install­ment, I will use a num­ber of pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary sources, includ­ing oth­er authors’ analy­ses, to iden­ti­fy how and from where the Emerg­ing Church Move­ment (ECM) emerged, place it into a wider socio-his­tor­i­cal con­text, demon­strate the doc­tri­nal and ide­o­log­i­cal diver­si­ty of the ECM, and estab­lish its main aims.

By using a pro­gres­sive and over­lap­ping aspect-by-aspect approach, I aim to demon­strate the inter­con­nect­ed­ness of each facet of the move­ment and how they each con­tribute to a cohe­sive whole, with­out tak­ing any­thing away from the ECM’s neb­u­lous nature — illus­tra­tive of the movement’s com­pre­hen­sive ambi­gu­i­ty. If this sounds con­tra­dic­to­ry, don’t wor­ry — it’s meant to.

A Brief History of ECM

Most com­men­ta­tors place the roots of the move­ment in the late 1980s and ear­ly 1990s, with sep­a­rate devel­op­ments on both sides of the Atlantic even­tu­al­ly, by the late 1990s, coa­lesc­ing into a sin­gle, non-cen­tral­ized move­ment by the late 1990’s.2

Christian rock concert stage.

Typ­i­cal scene of an “alter­na­tive wor­ship” ser­vice

One of the main com­po­nents in the ear­ly days of ECM was the ‘alter­na­tive wor­ship’ move­ment of the 1980’s that devel­oped in the Unit­ed King­dom, as many younger Chris­tians began to incor­po­rate con­tem­po­rary forms of music and art into their wor­ship, par­al­lel­ing the devel­op­ment of the so-called club cul­ture at that time. This became most promi­nent through the work of the Nine O’Clock Ser­vice in Sheffield, an out­reach devel­oped with­in the Church of Eng­land that sought to reach unchurched youth from among the club­bers. Oth­er, sim­i­lar ven­tures include the Late Late Ser­vice in Glas­gow, Scot­land. Due to the high­ly sec­u­lar­ized soci­ety of the Unit­ed King­dom, many of the ear­ly pro­to-emer­gent con­gre­ga­tions were infor­mal, inde­pen­dent groups focused on mis­sion and reach­ing the unchurched, some of which even­tu­al­ly influ­enced or merged with estab­lished denom­i­na­tions. One influ­en­tial prac­tice asso­ci­at­ed with ear­ly emer­gent con­gre­ga­tions was the pub church mod­el, which has since spread all over the world and become a core com­po­nent of many emer­gent con­gre­ga­tions.

On the oth­er side of the Atlantic, where the advance of sec­u­lar­iza­tion took hold more slow­ly, the ear­ly move­ment was less mis­sion­ary and more focused on cri­tiquing and updat­ing con­tem­po­rary Protes­tantism with­in the chang­ing cul­ture. By the mid-1990s, the Young Lead­ers’ Con­fer­ence had been formed, con­sist­ing of up-and-com­ing pas­tors and writ­ers with a dif­fer­ent approach to min­istry. A con­sid­er­able num­ber of the most well-known thinkers in ECM came out of this ear­ly group. Some, such as Bri­an McLaren, Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, and Rob Bell, embraced a mix­ture of clas­si­cal lib­er­al ideas and post-mod­ern thought whilst chang­ing how they “did church” to attract the new, post-mod­ern gen­er­a­tion; oth­ers (e.g. Mark Driscoll, Dan Kim­ball, and Scot McK­night) main­tained tra­di­tion­al Protes­tant the­ol­o­gy but adapt­ed their approach to mis­sion and out­reach to fit with the new era. 

By the end of the 1990s and ear­ly 2000s, and with the advent of wide­spread inter­net use, ECM’s influ­ence had become more far-reach­ing and its pro­po­nents more well-known, with mul­ti­ple inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ences being held, infor­mal net­works orga­nized, and semi-offi­cial orga­ni­za­tions, such as Emer­gent Vil­lage, being formed to rep­re­sent sev­er­al of the most well-known writ­ers and speak­ers. Sev­er­al of the fig­ures asso­ci­at­ed with ECM pio­neered the use of new media, such as online blogs and social media, not only for spread­ing ideas and facil­i­tat­ing dis­cus­sions, but also for build­ing com­mu­ni­ties of fel­low emer­gents.

Due to the con­tro­ver­sial opin­ions of some of the more the­o­log­i­cal­ly left-lean­ing mem­bers of the Emer­gent Vil­lage group, there was con­sid­er­able resis­tance to emerg­ing ideas amongst con­ser­v­a­tive Protes­tant cir­cles, while more lib­er­al denom­i­na­tions, like the Epis­co­pal Church in the USA and the Evan­gel­i­cal Luther­an Church of Amer­i­ca, adopt­ed whole­sale many of the trends orig­i­nat­ing with­in ECM. By the ear­ly 2010s, this resis­tance had led a num­ber of the more con­ser­v­a­tive emer­gents to make a break with the vis­i­ble ECM.

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At this point, it should be point­ed out that con­fu­sion can result over the use of the terms emerg­ing and emer­gent. It is gen­er­al­ly accept­ed that ‘emerg­ing’ refers to the entire infor­mal glob­al move­ment, with its adher­ents being known as ‘emer­gents,’ where­as the cap­i­talised ‘Emer­gent’ refers to a spe­cif­ic, for­mal orga­ni­za­tion asso­ci­at­ed with a hand­ful of ECM the­olo­gians.

What is the Emerging Church?

The Emerg­ing (or Emer­gent) Church Move­ment arose par­tic­u­lar­ly with­in the Evan­gel­i­cal Protes­tant world, but also among oth­er non-tra­di­tion­al Chris­t­ian groups and, to a less­er extent, the Roman Catholic Church. Of note is the agree­ment among schol­ars of ECM that the move­ment is incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to define, giv­en the vari­ance in doc­tri­nal posi­tions, social out­looks, wor­ship styles, lead­er­ship styles, and mis­sion­ary prac­tices. As men­tioned above, even the tra­di­tion­al ter­mi­nol­o­gy of these words is up for debate. Dr Tony Jones, him­self a cen­tral fig­ure amongst emer­gents, believes that the finest descrip­tion of ECM is as fol­lows:

The emerg­ing church move­ment is a loose­ly aligned con­ver­sa­tion among Chris­tians who seek to re-imag­ine the pri­or­i­ties, val­ues and the­ol­o­gy expressed by the local church as it seeks to live out its faith in post­mod­ern soci­ety. It is an attempt to replot Chris­t­ian faith on a new cul­tur­al and intel­lec­tu­al ter­rain.3

The key words from this pas­sage are “con­ver­sa­tion” and “re-imag­ine.” Due to ECM hav­ing no cen­tral fig­ure­head, offi­cial lead­er­ship, or agreed doc­trine, those involved in ECM often refer to it as a “con­ver­sa­tion,” as opposed to move­ment or, espe­cial­ly, denom­i­na­tion. The desire to “re-imag­ine” the Chris­t­ian faith is the real dri­ving force behind much Emerg­ing thought. “Re-imag­ine” is a heav­i­ly loaded term for any­one famil­iar with move­ments with­in lib­er­al Chris­tian­i­ty and imme­di­ate­ly brings to mind the ReImag­in­ing con­fer­ences of the ear­ly 1990s. Although less sub­ver­sive, icon­o­clas­tic and doc­tri­nal­ly rad­i­cal than the orga­ni­za­tion respon­si­ble for these con­fer­ences, sim­i­lar­i­ties can be detect­ed in the cul­tur­al­ly icon­o­clas­tic themes of many Emer­gent writ­ers, the anti-author­i­tar­i­an nature of much of ECM’s eccle­si­ol­o­gy and the unfor­tu­nate drift into reli­gious rel­a­tivism found in some of the movement’s more rad­i­cal thinkers. Nonethe­less, as a gen­er­al rule ECM finds itself more with­in the scope of ref­or­ma­tion, in the tra­di­tion of the clas­si­cal reform­ers, than in a state of rev­o­lu­tion.

Anoth­er help­ful def­i­n­i­tion of ECM comes from one of the most thor­ough schol­ar­ly works on the move­ment:

Emerg­ing church­es are com­mu­ni­ties that prac­tice the way of Jesus with­in post­mod­ern cul­tures. This def­i­n­i­tion encom­pass­es nine prac­tices. Emerg­ing church­es (1) iden­ti­fy with the life of Jesus, (2) trans­form the sec­u­lar realm, and (3) live high­ly com­mu­nal lives. Because of these three activ­i­ties, they (4) wel­come the stranger, (5) serve with gen­eros­i­ty, (6) par­tic­i­pate as pro­duc­ers, (7) cre­ate as cre­at­ed beings, (8) lead as a body, and (9) take part in spir­i­tu­al activ­i­ties.4

 This pas­sage almost serves as a man­i­festo for ECM. It encap­su­lates ECM’s basis in evan­gel­i­cal­ism (point 1), as well as its com­mit­ment to a lived faith, or ortho­praxy (points 2 and 3), com­mit­ment to social issues (points 4 and 5), and their devel­op­ment of “new ways” of church and wor­ship (points 6, 7, 8, and 9). All of these aspects of ECM will be explored as we progress in our eval­u­a­tion of the move­ment and its tenets.

An out­sider to the move­ment and evan­gel­i­cal apol­o­gist, Matt Slick, has also com­piled his own list of char­ac­ter­is­tics of ECM, based on his exten­sive research, which, although not uni­ver­sal­ly applic­a­ble through­out ECM, pro­vides a sound intro­duc­tion to some of the most com­mon themes in emerg­ing thought and prax­is:

1.     An aware­ness of and attempt to reach those in the chang­ing post­mod­ern cul­ture.

2.     An attempt to use tech­nol­o­gy, i.e., video, slide shows, inter­net.

3.     A broad­er approach to wor­ship using can­dles, icons, images, sounds, smells, etc.

4.     An inclu­sive approach to var­i­ous, some­times con­tra­dic­to­ry, belief sys­tems.

5.     An empha­sis on expe­ri­ence and feel­ings over absolutes.

6.     Con­cen­tra­tion on rela­tion­ship-build­ing over procla­ma­tion of the Gospel.

7.     Shun­ning stale tra­di­tion­al­ism in wor­ship, church seat­ing, music, etc.

8.     A de-empha­sis on absolutes and doc­tri­nal creeds.

9.     A re-eval­u­a­tion of the place of the Chris­t­ian church in soci­ety.

10.  A re-exam­i­na­tion of the Bible and its teach­ings.

11.  A re-eval­u­a­tion of tra­di­tion­al­ly held doc­trines.

12.  A re-eval­u­a­tion of the place of Chris­tian­i­ty in the world.5

Is ECM A Protest Movement?

A com­mon theme encoun­tered in the writ­ings of those who study ECM is that the move­ment is strong­ly char­ac­ter­ized by its nature of protest. The respect­ed Protes­tant schol­ar D.A. Car­son empha­sizes this in his intro­duc­tion to ECM. He shows, using the auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal writ­ings of some of ECM’s most influ­en­tial writ­ers, that the uni­fy­ing fac­tor for many of them is protest against one form of church or oth­er. As he writes:

It is dif­fi­cult to gain a full appre­ci­a­tion of the dis­tinc­tives of the move­ment with­out lis­ten­ing atten­tive­ly to the life-sto­ries of its lead­ers. Many of them have come from con­ser­v­a­tive, tra­di­tion­al, evan­gel­i­cal church­es, some­times with a fun­da­men­tal­ist streak. Thus the reforms that the move­ment encour­ages mir­ror the protests of the lives of many of its lead­ers.6

In this con­text, Car­son gives three defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of ECM: Protest, Protest Against Mod­ernism, and Protest­ing on Three Fronts. It can be plain­ly seen that, although ECM is con­sid­ered a new move­ment by the protes­tant schol­ars who ana­lyze it, it is noth­ing more than a con­tin­u­a­tion of the protest inate even to the name Protes­tantism, updat­ed and in con­for­mi­ty with con­tem­po­rary ways of think­ing. Car­son goes on to elab­o­rate on these three points. He quotes sev­er­al pas­sages from a vari­ety of emer­gent writ­ers who describe their emerg­ing from tra­di­tion­al evan­gel­i­cal Protes­tantism. Most of the sto­ries have a shared vex­a­tion with the state of con­tem­po­rary, sub­ur­ban, evan­gel­i­cal­ism and a tran­si­tion into a more reflec­tive and con­tem­pla­tive min­istry, less focused on absolute truth and more on con­ver­sa­tion and dia­logue. They share a desire for authen­tic­i­ty, as opposed to the per­ceived shal­low­ness and rigid­i­ty of con­ser­v­a­tive forms of reli­gion. What is inter­est­ing is that a good many emer­gent lead­ers speak about their dis­cov­ery of writ­ers such as Thomas Mer­ton, Hen­ri Nouwen, John of the Cross, and Tere­sa of Avi­la as part of their search for authen­tic­i­ty. These authors, all mys­ti­cal Roman Catholics, are essen­tial­ly for­bid­den fruit for more con­ser­v­a­tive Protes­tants. This attrac­tion to Catholic mys­ti­cism could be seen as part and par­cel with these lead­ers’ reac­tion against con­ser­v­a­tive Evan­gel­i­cal­ism.

To define the sec­ond point is more dif­fi­cult, as the pre­cise mean­ing of both mod­ernism and post-mod­ernism are for­ev­er being debat­ed. In a lengthy pas­sage, he sums up ECM’s anti-mod­ernism as a ques­tion of epis­te­mol­o­gy:

Mod­ernism is often pic­tured as pur­su­ing truth, abso­lutism, lin­ear think­ing, ratio­nal­ism, cer­tain­ty, the cere­bral as opposed to the affec­tive – which in turn breeds arro­gance, inflex­i­bil­i­ty, a lust to be right, the desire to con­trol. Post­mod­ernism, by con­trast, rec­og­nizes much of what we “know” is shaped by cul­ture in which we live, is con­trolled by emo­tions and aes­thet­ics and her­itage, and in fact can only be intel­li­gent­ly held as part of a com­mon tra­di­tion, with­out over­bear­ing claims to be true or right. Mod­ernism tries to find unques­tioned foun­da­tions on which to build the edi­fice of knowl­edge and then pro­ceeds with method­olog­i­cal rig­or; post­mod­ernism denies that such foun­da­tions exist (it is “antifoun­da­tion­al”) and insists that we come to “know” things in many ways, not a few of them lack­ing in rig­or. Mod­ernism is hard-edged and, in the domain of reli­gion, focus­es on truth ver­sus error, right belief, con­fes­sion­al­ism; post­mod­ernism is gen­tle and, in the domain of reli­gion, focus­es on rela­tion­ships, love, shared tra­di­tion, integri­ty in dis­cus­sion.7

There is much that can be tak­en from this state­ment and unpacked from the Ortho­dox Church’s per­spec­tive  and I will return to this issue lat­er in the series. Car­son sums up the end result of this out­look thus:

For almost every­one with­in the move­ment, this works out in an empha­sis on feel­ings and affec­tions over against lin­ear thought and ratio­nal­i­ty; on expe­ri­ence over against truth; on inclu­sion over against exclu­sion; on par­tic­i­pa­tion over against indi­vid­u­al­ism and the hero­ic lon­er. For some, this means a move from the absolute to the authen­tic. It means tak­ing into account con­tem­po­rary emphases on tol­er­ance; it means not telling oth­ers they are wrong. It under­scores the impor­tance of nar­ra­tive – both life-nar­ra­tive (as believ­ers and unbe­liev­ers alike tell their sto­ries) and in Bible study and preach­ing.8

What is pre­sent­ed here is the zeit­geist of twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry reli­gion. What ECM’s pro­po­nents would make of the Syn­odikon of Ortho­doxy, with its anath­e­mas against false teach­ings, would cer­tain­ly be an inter­est­ing read. In Carson’s descrip­tion of his third point, he high­lights that this final form of protest is most­ly aimed against the seek­er-sen­si­tive church­es of modern(ist) evan­gel­i­cal­ism, or the megachurch expe­ri­ence. Car­son uses the writ­ings of Dan Kim­ball, a note­wor­thy and emi­nent emer­gent pas­tor, to illus­trate that ECM believes itself to be mov­ing beyond the seek­er-sen­si­tive tra­di­tion, but also a direct con­tin­u­a­tion of it. In essence, ECM is a com­plete over­haul of seek­er-sen­si­tive church, espe­cial­ly in terms of wor­ship. Com­pil­ing Kimball’s thoughts, he describes the ECM approach: “it accepts plu­ral­ism, embraces the expe­ri­en­tial, delights in the mys­ti­cal, and is com­fort­able with nar­ra­tive, with what is flu­id, glob­al, communal/tribal, and so forth.”9 Using Leonard Sweet, Car­son shows that one opin­ion of ECM is that min­istry should be “expe­ri­en­tial, par­tic­i­pa­to­ry, image-dri­ven, and con­nect­ed”10, con­trast­ed to the seek­er-sen­si­tive church­es’ man-cen­tered hom­i­lies and homi­ly-cen­tric wor­ship.

Like the first ‘protests’ of the Ref­or­ma­tion, ECM is a reac­tion to the neg­a­tive ele­ments of the con­tem­po­rary forms of Chris­tian­i­ty abound­ing in the West. In con­ti­nu­ity with their fif­teenth-cen­tu­ry fore­bears, ECM is pro­pelled by charis­mat­ic lead­ers who do not always share the same emphases in their thought. Despite this, com­mon­al­i­ty does exist, based on some shared pre­sup­po­si­tions and dri­ven by social, polit­i­cal, and, of course, the­o­log­i­cal trends. The next install­ment of our series will delve deep­er into these shared char­ac­ter­is­tics and the var­i­ous ways these emer­gents see them­selves.


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About the Author

Ras­s­aphor Monk Ange­los is a native of Scot­land and a mem­ber of the broth­er­hood of Holy Trin­i­ty Monastery. He recent­ly grad­u­at­ed from Holy Trin­i­ty Ortho­dox Sem­i­nary.