Mark Driscoll preaching on the Ten Commandments at Mars Hill Church

Five Streams of Self-Identity in the Emergent Church Movement

by Rassaphore Monk Angelos

This arti­cle con­sti­tutes the sec­ond 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. The intro­duc­to­ry install­ment may be read here.

Within ECM, some have sought to iden­ti­fy the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the Emerg­ing Church Move­ment (ECM). One self-iden­ti­fied emer­gent, Scot McK­night, seek­ing to “under­mine the urban leg­ends and pro­vide a more accu­rate descrip­tion of the emerg­ing move­ment,” which he con­sid­ers to be one of “the most con­tro­ver­sial and mis­un­der­stood … today”1 iden­ti­fies five “streams flow­ing into the emerg­ing lake”2 that serve as the char­ac­ter­is­tic traits of ECM, although he admits that they are not exclu­sive to ECM. In his arti­cle, he iden­ti­fies these five streams as: 1) Prophet­ic, 2) Post­mod­ern, 3) Prax­is-Ori­ent­ed, 4) Post-Evan­gel­i­cal, and 5) Political.

This nebulous theological stance has opened up ECM to not-unfounded accusations of relativism and universalism.

Post-modernism as an Integral Part of the Emergent Movement

When elab­o­rat­ing on the first point, McK­night points out that “the emer­gent move­ment is con­scious­ly and delib­er­ate­ly provoca­tive. Emerg­ing Chris­tians believe the Church needs to change, and they are begin­ning to live as if that change had already occurred.”3 It is true that one can find some very provoca­tive state­ments in the writ­ings and hom­i­lies of emer­gents. Although McK­night tries to show that there is a cer­tain ele­ment of hyper­bole in the rhetoric of Emer­gent lead­ers, some of the incred­i­bly icon­o­clas­tic and the­o­log­i­cal­ly trou­bling state­ments attrib­uted to Bri­an McLaren and oth­ers has been a cause for con­cern for many of ECM’s critics.

On the sub­ject of post-mod­ernism, McK­night is quick to point out that “post­moder­ni­ty can­not be reduced to the denial of truth”4 but admits that some emer­gent lead­ers have embraced this neg­a­tive aspect of post-moder­ni­ty, receiv­ing in response heavy crit­i­cism from more evan­gel­i­cal­ly-ori­ent­ed emer­gent lead­ers. He writes that, among the three ways of liv­ing as a Chris­t­ian in a post-mod­ern milieu (i.e., min­is­ter­ing to post-mod­erns, min­is­ter­ing with post-mod­erns, and min­is­ter­ing as post-mod­erns), it is the third which often leads to prob­lems. Nonethe­less, he main­tains that the major­i­ty of emer­gents fall with­in the first two cat­e­gories, the first believ­ing that the post-mod­erns need to be res­cued from “moral rel­a­tivism and epis­te­mo­log­i­cal bank­rupt­cy”5 and the sec­ond believ­ing that post-moder­ni­ty is the “present con­di­tion into which we are called to pro­claim and live out the gospel.”6

Orthopraxis in the Emergent Movement

McK­night believes that his third “stream” is the most defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of ECM; as Ortho­dox Chris­tians, this prax­is-ori­ent­ed char­ac­ter­is­tic should elic­it great inter­est. He defines emer­gent prax­is as “how the faith is lived out. At its core, the emerg­ing move­ment is an attempt to fash­ion a new eccle­si­ol­o­gy. Its dis­tinc­tive emphases can be seen in its wor­ship, its con­cern with ortho­praxy, and its mis­sion­al ori­en­ta­tion.”7 He goes on to divide prax­is into wor­ship, ortho­praxy, and mis­sion­al.8

ECM’s emphasis on orthopraxy leads to what has been termed Kingdom living, which in the movement's view is dichotomously opposed to a focus on doctrine.

It is of inter­est to Ortho­dox Chris­tians that his descrip­tion of emer­gent wor­ship leans heav­i­ly in favor of litur­gi­cal wor­ship and aes­thet­ics, as opposed to the tra­di­tion­al aus­ter­i­ty of Evan­gel­i­cal wor­ship and church­es. In line with emer­gent wor­ship’s rep­u­ta­tion as being “cre­ative, expe­ri­en­tial, and sen­so­ry,”9 the move­ment has been known to incor­po­rate rites and rit­u­als from the whole spec­trum of litur­gi­cal tra­di­tions. He writes that “evan­gel­i­cals some­times for­get that God cares about sacred space and rit­u­al” before rhetor­i­cal­ly asking:

Is the ser­mon the most impor­tant thing on Sun­day morn­ing? If we sat in a cir­cle would we fos­ter a dif­fer­ent the­ol­o­gy and prax­is? If we lit incense, would we prac­tice our prayers dif­fer­ent­ly? If we put the preach­er on the same lev­el as the con­gre­ga­tion, would we cre­ate a clear­er sense of the priest­hood of all believ­ers? If we act­ed out what we believe, would we encounter more emphat­i­cal­ly the Incar­na­tion?10

As Protes­tants, an aware­ness of the sanc­ti­ty and neces­si­ty of litur­gi­cal wor­ship is a shift in the right direc­tion for ECM, although their ten­den­cy to indis­crim­i­nate­ly exper­i­ment can lead them into some high­ly ques­tion­able prac­tices, as will be explored fur­ther on.

Prayer circle
Prayer cir­cle

ECM’s empha­sis on ortho­praxy leads to what has been termed King­dom liv­ing, which in the move­men­t’s view is dichoto­mous­ly opposed to a focus on doc­trine. McK­night writes that many with­in ECM would dis­pute that ortho­doxy leads to ortho­praxy and offers “an emerg­ing, provoca­tive way of say­ing it: ‘By their fruits [not their the­ol­o­gy] you will know them.’”11 Although he denies that ECM deem­pha­sis­es doc­trine, he main­tains that a par­a­digm shift has tak­en place, and that prac­tic­ing the way of Jesus is paramount.

The Emergent Mission

The mis­sion­al aspect of emer­gent prax­is is the man­i­fes­ta­tion of their ortho­praxy in the com­mu­ni­ty, par­tic­u­lar­ly in rec­on­cil­i­a­tion min­istry, social jus­tice min­istry, and “par­tic­i­pat­ing in the holis­tic redemp­tive work of God in the world.”12

In agree­ment with what we not­ed in the first install­ment of this series, McK­night suc­cinct­ly and accu­rate­ly defines the fourth point: “The emerg­ing move­ment is a protest against much of evan­gel­i­cal­ism as cur­rent­ly prac­ticed… This stream flows from the con­vic­tion that the church must always be reform­ing itself.”13 Despite main­tain­ing that the major­i­ty of emer­gents are the­o­log­i­cal­ly evan­gel­i­cal, he iden­ti­fies two main ways in which the move­ment is post-evan­gel­i­cal: a rejec­tion of sys­tem­at­ic the­ol­o­gy and skep­ti­cism over the exclu­sive “in or out” men­tal­i­ty of evan­gel­i­cal­ism (and, it should be added, much of his­tor­i­cal Chris­tian­i­ty). Sys­tem­at­ics are reject­ed, in McKnight’s words, “because of the diver­si­ty of the­olo­gies.”14 It is from this posi­tion that he devel­ops the emer­gent the­o­ry of nar­ra­tive and storytelling:

God didn’t reveal a sys­tem­at­ic the­ol­o­gy but a sto­ried nar­ra­tive, and no lan­guage is capa­ble of cap­tur­ing the Absolute Truth who alone is God. Frankly, the emerg­ing move­ment loves ideas and the­ol­o­gy. It just doesn’t have an air­tight sys­tem or state­ment of faith. We believe the Great Tra­di­tion offers var­i­ous ways for telling the truth about God’s redemp­tion in Christ, but we don’t believe any one the­ol­o­gy gets it absolute­ly right.15

This sum­ma­tion of emer­gent the­ol­o­gy is eye-open­ing as to the direc­tion in which the move­ment is head­ing. This neb­u­lous the­o­log­i­cal stance has opened up ECM to not-unfound­ed accu­sa­tions of rel­a­tivism and uni­ver­sal­ism, which have since come to a head over the writ­ings of Rob Bell.16 This aspect of ECM will be explored in more detail fur­ther on, with an analy­sis of Bri­an McLaren and Alan Jones.

The lat­ter aspect of post-evan­gel­i­cal­ism, direct­ly relat­ed to the pre­vi­ous, is equal­ly trou­bling. McK­night writes:

An admit­ted­ly con­tro­ver­sial ele­ment of post-evan­gel­i­cal­ism is that many in the emerg­ing move­ment are skep­ti­cal about the “in ver­sus out” men­tal­i­ty of much of evan­gel­i­cal­ism. Even if one is an exclu­sivist (believ­ing that there is a divid­ing line between Chris­tians and non-Chris­tians), the issue of who is out pains the emerg­ing gen­er­a­tion.17

It seems that, in their attempt to fash­ion a new eccle­si­ol­o­gy, ECM has become mired in this most ugly of the­o­log­i­cal con­tro­ver­sies. The post-mod­ern lean­ings of much of ECM have undoubt­ed­ly influ­enced the uni­ver­sal­ist approach that some have tak­en up. To his cred­it, McK­night is opposed to this posi­tion and admits that it cre­ates a seri­ous prob­lem for evangelism.

Political and Historic Frictions

Detail from "The Marburg Colloquy" by August Noack, 1529
The Mar­burg Col­lo­quy was a meet­ing at Mar­burg Cas­tle, Ger­many con­voked in 1529 to resolve a dis­pute between Luther and Zwingli over the Real Pres­ence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.

McKnight’s final stream is a def­i­n­i­tion of ECM’s ded­i­ca­tion to the social gospel and social jus­tice move­ments. He main­tains that, although much of ECM is left-lean­ing, it still holds the tra­di­tion­al line on moral issues:

I don’t think the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty is worth a hoot, but its his­toric com­mit­ment to the poor and to cen­tral­iz­ing gov­ern­ment for social jus­tice is what I think gov­ern­ment should do. I don’t sup­port abor­tion – in fact, I think it is immoral. I believe in civ­il rights, but I don’t believe homo­sex­u­al­i­ty is God’s design. And, like many in the emerg­ing move­ment, I think that the Reli­gious Right doesn’t see what it is doing.18

Again, the last sen­tence is what is most telling. Although ECM is def­i­nite­ly not left for being left’s sake, and much of their stance on social issues is root­ed in gen­uine con­cern, there is that ever-present ele­ment of protest and reac­tion, this time against the Reli­gious Right. McK­night takes a bal­anced posi­tion on the social gospel and encour­ages oth­er emer­gents to do like­wise, lest imbal­ance ruins their movement.

McKnight’s five streams analy­sis shows that, with­in ECM, there is a fric­tion between more con­ser­v­a­tive and more rad­i­cal ele­ments, which mir­rors the con­flict that emerged between the Mag­is­te­r­i­al Ref­or­ma­tion and the Rad­i­cal Ref­or­ma­tion in 16th-cen­tu­ry Europe. Our next install­ment will explore in more detail this re-emer­gence of the clas­sic Protes­tant fault lines.

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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.