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Emergent Church - Timeline Movement

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The Emergent Church, or "Emerging Church," is a trans-denominational Christian movement that seeks to reconfigure the Church in light of the cultural and intellectual shift from modernity to postmodernity. An outgrowth of the 1970s church growth movement, the Emergent movement and its leaders seek to evangelize by engaging with experimental worship styles (e.g., incense lighting or liturgical chanting) and wrestling with postmodern ideas, like the existence of absolute truths. These experimental methods sometimes elicit criticism from more conservative Christians.

The social characteristics of the Emergent Movement vary depending on the congregation. Some of the churches are theologically progressive and perhaps more controversial in their use of postmodern philosophy, while others are theologically conservative. In most cases, most of the laity and pastors are young urban adults seeking a more "relevant" faith in today’s world.

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The Emergent Church is a trans-denominational, praxis-oriented, noncentralized movement that seeks to reconfigure, to varying degrees, the theology, worship, biblical hermeneutics, and social engagement of the Church, in light of the cultural and intellectual shift from modernity to postmodernity. Though the movement originally comprised those who had become dissatisfied with conservative evangelicalism, it soon grew to include members of mainline Protestant churches. One can properly distinguish the terms "Emerging" and "Emergent" by remembering that there is a wide variety of theological traditions and liturgical expressions within the broad phenomenon of the Emerging churches, whereas the term "Emergent" is a more precise term, often associated with particular publications produced by the Zondervan publishing house and with three thinkers: Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, and Tony Jones.

Distinctive Features

The Emerging Church is difficult to define because, as its very name indicates, it is a movement that is in the process of forming new expressions of congregational life. Nevertheless, one can discern several themes that characterize the movement. For one, Emerging churches seek to offer a variety of creative, and sometimes boldly experimental approaches to worship and community outreach. This can involve both using new technologies in worship and might include re-appropriating ancient practices, like lighting incense or liturgical chanting. Emerging churches, whether of the more radical or theologically conservative forms, take their mission within postmodern culture seriously. Many of the churches involved are willing and able to wrestle with -- and selectively apply -- postmodern philosophy itself. Some participants in the movement, such as Scot McKnight, prefer to describe themselves as "soft-postmodern" or "critical realist" in their perspectives, indicating an emphasis on intellectual humility and the tentative nature of theoretical formulations rather than an all-out embrace of Continental philosophy for the teaching and practice of the church.

Politically, Emerging churches tend to agree that the Church in the United States has failed to maintain its relevance and prophetic voice, turning instead to awkward attempts to maintain Christianity’s former cultural empowerment; many are concerned to detach the agenda of U.S. evangelicalism from that of the Republican party and political conservatism. Accordingly, they seek to find ways to practically apply their faith to the concrete needs of their local communities, sometimes in the form of so-called Neo-monasticism. Unlike the tendency for megachurches to form in affluent suburban contexts, Emergent churches tend to begin in or even move to urban neighborhoods. In all of this, they tend to disregard denominational or hierarchical control.

Perhaps the easiest way to identify Emerging churches is by noting the following operational markers, as identified in a 2012 article entitled "Off the Map" by sociologist Jason Wollschleger:

a) focus on reaching a young adult demographic
b) host theology pub nights
c) call pastors who are in touch with pop culture
d) foster creative ancient-future worship experiences
e) emphasize local service projects
f) offer well-designed websites for congregational communication and interaction
g) have relatively young clergy

Beyond these typical practices, Wollschleger is able to identify three basic types of Emerging churches. First, he identifies "Emerging" congregations: these have their own moral worldview, typically more progressive than the average American evangelical congregation. The second type are "Relevant" congregations: these are theologically conservative and culturally evangelical groups who focus on engaging a hip, young adult demographic. Third, there exist several "Wilderness" congregations: these are caught in the middle, with edgy leadership trying to encourage congregations with conservative roots to become something new in their communities.

The sociological approach to identifying the movement is helpful because it avoids tying the movement to personalities and congregations that remain in flux. Early on in the movement, one could point to web communities like or as examples of Emerging intellectual epicenters, but both are now no longer active online sites. Likewise, some of the noteworthy congregations from the movement experienced shifts in leadership or have overhauled the nature of their ministries in recent years.

Significant Contributions to Christianity in the United States

The Emergent Church is arguably both an outgrowth of and rejection of the church growth movement. On the one hand, they typically carry on the church growth movement’s interest in redesigning church worship and practices to make them accessible and relevant to a new generation of people who had become detached from and dissatisfied with their parents’ style of church. On the other hand, the Emergent Church is a rejection of the church growth movement to the extent that the Emergent movement typically comprises younger evangelicals who are dissatisfied with the ethos and methodology of larger evangelical, nondenominational churches. In particular, they tend to be dissatisfied with the consumerism, slick style and marketing emphasis they detect in the megachurches that arose during the heyday of the church growth movement. Aesthetically, therefore, they value authenticity and a more independent, occasionally "hipster" style of dress and worship space design. Spiritual practices often find a place in their communities, and worship tends to take the form of what the late Robert Webber called “ancient-future worship,” often employing practices such as lectio divina and Taize. They prefer smaller gatherings and emphasize directing congregational financial support of local and global benevolence work rather than the construction of new worship spaces.

The Emerging Church movement has its critics and criticisms. First, as much as Emergent churches seek to attend to the needs of diverse neighborhoods, actual members and leaders of these congregations often remain culturally homogenous and affluent. Second, as much as they tend to reject the marketing focus of the church growth movement, they often slip into extreme emphasis on image and accommodating the culture of a new generation, this time that of the so-called millennials. Third, as much as they are interested in subverting the old hierarchies, several of their congregations have been negatively affected by authoritarian personalities who have arguably resisted accountability and constructive criticism. Fourth, despite the movement’s ostensible interest in the riches of the ancient church and tradition in general, its leaders occasionally have jettisoned or reworked major elements of Christian orthodoxy, leading some conservative observers to accuse the Emerging Church as doing little more than adopting the ideas of old Protestant liberalism with updated packaging. Such criticisms, however, especially from conservative commentators like D. A. Carson, might apply a particular author or local expression of the movement, but cannot apply to all forms of the movement. In any case, to the extent that the Emerging Church has challenged some of the frustrations young evangelicals voice about modern American Christianity, and to the extent that it has enabled young evangelicals to explore elements of the Christian tradition that were de-emphasized within the church growth movement of the late 20th century, it likely will prove to be a significant development in the history of contemporary Christianity, even if names, allegiances, and nomenclature should change.

Related Dictionary Terms

Christianity, Church, Congregation, Laity, Pastor, Worship (Christianity)


Brian McLaren preaching at 'Genesis', an emergent Eucharist- Flickr- photo by scottgunn (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Brian McLaren preaching at 'Genesis', an emergent Eucharist- Flickr- photo by scottgunn (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Mark and Grace Driscoll- Flickr- photo by Keith Ingram (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Mark and Grace Driscoll- Flickr- photo by Keith Ingram (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Brian McLaren and Tony Jones- Flickr- photo by knowtown (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Brian McLaren and Tony Jones- Flickr- photo by knowtown (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Doug Pagitt- Flickr- photo by theexileinny (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Doug Pagitt- Flickr- photo by theexileinny (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Book/Journal Source(s)

Kurian, George Thomas, and Mark Lamport (Eds.), 2016. The Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Web Source(s)
If you enjoyed reading this entry, please buy the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States at the link above.

Web Page Contributor

Jeff Mallinson

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