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.
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
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.
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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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.