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.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=”36″]This nebulous theological stance has opened up ECM to not-unfounded accusations of relativism and universalism.[/perfectpullquote]

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

[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=”36″]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.[/perfectpullquote]

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.