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Emerging Church 101…

January 21, 2008


I identify my ecclesial context as the Anabaptist stream.  However, several conversations have been a significant part of my ongoing theological process and formation.  I am an associate pastor at Sunnyside Mennonite Church.  Although we are a local expression of the Body of Christ, we are not independent from the Great Christian Tradition.  We are organically connected to Lancaster District, to Lancaster Mennonite Conference, to MCUSA, to the Church throughout time and space. 

I have framed my journey as one that is engaging in conversation with Orthodoxy and the Emergent movement from within an Anabaptist context.  The conversation with Orthodoxy is sustained through a monthly meeting involving Mennonite pastors/lay persons and Orthodox priests.  It is stoked through reading, through public dialogues, through face to face conversations.  It has been informed by participation (only two times that I can remember) in Orthodox worship services. 

The conversation with things Emergent probably began before the movement had a defined expression or identity.  Mostly through reading Brian McLaren (Leonard Sweet, Stanley Grenz, etc.), but certainly through other points of engagement.  Thinking about the postmodern shift.  The state of the establishment church.  The cultural entrenchment of many church expressions.  The antagonism toward culture expressed in the “cultural wars” vis a vis the political arena. 

In the Emergent stream I have found voices asking questions that resonated with my own.  I saw a healthy impulse to re-discover a missional footing for the Church in a post-Christendom world.  I saw healthy attempts to rediscover Church as an alternative community incarnating the Gospel.  The Church situated in the real world, living missionally–making visible the Kingdom of God.  All this and more has been a part of the conversation with the Emergent stream.  The Emergent church, however, is not a monolithic movement. 

I am sometimes asked what I think about the Emergent stream.  In this post I offer several resources which provide a helpful orientation to the Emergent stream.  For those who have not been reading McLaren, this may be too much information all at once.  I think I have blogged about this before, but here is a condensed annotated bibliography which is necessary reading for those who are wanting to understand the Emergent movement. 

1.  Five Streams of the Emerging Church, Scot McKnight.  McKnight identifies these streams as…


 2.  Four Models of Emerging Church, C. Wess Daniels.  Wess does a great job of working toward a descriptive typology of the Emergent movement.  He provides some helpful differences in terms of the underlying theological/philosophical framework (and theologians that would be informing the beliefs and practices of these communities).  He offers names of contemporary individuals/communities which are representative of each stream. 

a.)  Deconstructionist Model

b.)  Pre-modern/Augustinian Model

c.)  Emerging Peace Church Model

d.)  Foundationalist Model

My own engagement with the Emergent stream has primarily been with #1 and #3.  The way I have engaged in this conversation has been significantly influenced by my conversation with Orthodoxy as well.  The engagement with Orthodoxy has led me to raise questions as to the sometimes fluffy ecclesiology that I see expressed within the Emergent stream–particularly in #1. 

3.  Should the Emerging Church Settle, Mike Clawson

I resonate with the way Mike frames the movement as a sign of the Holy Spirit at work throughout the Church. 

6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 21, 2008 3:04 pm

    I must confess that I have been a bit lazy in my research of the Emerging movement. I have let the opinions of trusted people form my opinion. However, I have read a few books recently in an attempt to understand what defines the movement and what motivates and informs the beliefs of it’s adherents. Most recently, I read McLaren’s Generous Orthodoxy.

    I’m still a little unclear about a few things. Maybe you can shed some light on one of them.

    When using the term postmodern to describe themselves? What exactly do they mean? I didn’t get the impression that McLaren was denying the existence of a Metanarrative… so in what way is the movement a postmodern movement? The closest he came to being postmodern was his reluctance to be dogmatic about truth. Despite this however, he does appear to be dogmatic enough to be able to establish a framework for his thoughts.

    Am I just reading the wrong books?

  2. just an apprentice permalink
    January 21, 2008 5:18 pm

    @ teleia philia: Both McKnight and Daniels identify postmodern as an important descriptor of something expressed in the Emerging church. I believe you are correct in saying that McLaren does not reject a Metanarrative (“the Story we find ourselves in”).

    McKight affirms that the Emerging ethos “upholds faith seeking understanding, and trust preceding the apprehension or comprehension of gospel truths.”

    So Emerging types affirm the existence of God (meta-narrative), but are more cautious (more honest ?!?) about assumptions–foundations that underlye their use of language even in offering a confessional stance. More cautious (epistemic humility, critical realism) about the ability of language systems to fully contain or describe the mystery of God, and the revelation of God in history (systematic theology attempts to do this). Finite language, as a humanly constructed symbol system, falls short of fully grasping the truly infinite God we profess in the Christian faith. A postmodern epistemology acknowledges this.

    Emergent types accept this “chastened epistemology.” McKight expresses this so well: “Hence, a trademark feature of the emerging movement is that we believe all theology will remain a conversation about the Truth who is God in Christ through the Spirit, and about God’s story of redemption at work in the church. No systematic theeology can be final.

    This is where the foundationalist types (D.A. Carson et. al) get their dander up and respond with sharp attacks of the Emerging church movement. It is not as much a difference of confessional stances (Trinity, Scripture, etc.), as it is epistemilogical differences that translate into a different manner of voicecasting in the world.

  3. January 21, 2008 6:06 pm

    i appreciate the history lesson brian. i always find it important to tell people that although born and raised in the mennonite church that i found my anabaptist roots in the emerging church movement.

  4. January 22, 2008 2:09 am

    Now this is a very interesting piece of revelation for me… it almost sounds like a re-emergence (or maybe a correction) of neo-orthodoxy. Almost like Karl Barth meets Jurgen Moltmann (The mystery of God and the adventure of theological ideas).

    Again, I’ve only read a few emerging authors so I am no authority by any means… but I have not yet read anything that would indicate that their beliefs are unorthodox. I can see how the intricate vocabulary can cause some to question this though. In reading McLaren, I had to discipline myself to not read my own understanding of certain terms into his narrative. I had to constantly remind myself in which sense he was using a word, and then re-read a sentence in light of the definitions he provided. It made an otherwise simple book very difficult to read at times.

  5. pistolpete permalink
    January 22, 2008 5:42 am

    This is a very helpful summary of a difficult-to-pin-down movement. Thanks for the post.

  6. January 22, 2008 6:52 pm

    teleia – McLaren is an evangelical speaking to evangelicals/post evangelicals primarily. Those from other traditions might find some of his words and definitions confusing but most of us from the same tradition seem to be able to resonate with it.

    and actually, emerging folks tend to like neo-orthodoxy. Barth and Moltmann are familiar voices in the emerging/emergent conversation

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