What does the so-called “Emerging Church” really bring to the whole Church taking the whole gospel to the whole world? How do we critique it meaningfully, without overstating the good or bad within it? What can we learn from it? And can we assist its formation in effective mission?
Some say that the term “Emerging Church” (EC) refers to new kinds of church “emerging from the field,” groups that have emerged from the grassroots level up instead of training from the top down. Indeed, emerging church personnel often report that they thought they were a lone voice until they suddenly met others on the same path. So it is largely true to say that the phenomena “emerged” from the interfaces between church and the changing cultures of postmodern times. In that way, the EC movement does arise from both missionary exchanges and dissatisfaction with established churches’ abilities to meet those exchanges.
It is generally a good impulse to “live with the natives” and let indigenous forms of church emerge, similar to the ministry of Hudson Taylor (whom we now hail as a father of modern mission) in China.
Taylor’s actions, however, scandalized the “compound” missionary model of his day, which enabled missionaries to be in proximity enough to “communicate to” the Chinese, but allowed them to retreat to their little piece of Britain each day. When Taylor “went native,” the compound missionaries quickly criticized his audacity. They gave many warnings: “You will syncretize. You will not preach the gospel. You will lose your distinctiveness. You will lose the great traditions of the Church. You will not be nourished. You will become theologically lazy.”
One should never dismiss a new movement out of fear of what might happen. Perhaps these opponents of Taylor were so personally invested in the compound as “the right way” that they could no longer imagine other ways.
Since Alvin Toffler’s 1970 book Future Shock, we have known that Western cultures have shifted far from church culture. They are now foreign, just as Chinese culture was foreign to British compounds. This is precisely why emerging churches often do not have the “compounds” of church buildings, structures, salaries, music, services and sermons as we know them. Could it be that some emerging churches hold the seeds for a new missionary movement for our challenging day?
In 1998 I traveled to the United States and the United Kingdom to research “churches that don’t look like church.” I talked with thirty founders of this as yet un-named movement. Just like the established Church, the Emerging Church has numerous subsets. For example, I found that churches emerge from the following streams:
- In Europe, from the simple, house church movement (i.e., The 24/7 church led by Wolfgang Simpson)
- In North America, from conscious engagement with postmodernism (i.e., Mars Hill church led by Mark Driscoll)
- In Britain, from a need to find alternative worship expressions (i.e., Third Sunday Service led by Paul Roberts and The Late Late Service)
- In Australia, from a community-oriented outreach impulse (i.e., the Forge network)
- Globally, from the experiences of cross-cultural missionaries overseas (i.e., Thom Wolf, then at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in San Francisco, California, USA, and Andrew Jones at tallskinnykiwi.blogspot.com)
- Globally, from contemplative traditions and a neo-monasticism with social activist traditions (i.e., Peace Tree led by Harry Wykman; and Rob Moll's article “The New Monasticism“)
On every continent there is increasing diversity as EC pioneers exchange insights and experiences. Still, it remains important to know the applicable streams of influence upon a particular EC in order to interpret its core principles and practices. There are two focuses.
- A “postmodern-focused” EC may be using postmodern forms to attract postmodern people, much like the marketing-based church-growth movement of the 1980s. But its core method is still “come to us,” and “we set the methodological tone.”
- A “people-focused” EC might not set up a church at all, going instead with a very boiled-down core, relating and sharing life until the people can express their newfound faith in their own culturally meaningful (and often simplified) ways. Those church forms then emerge from the people.
Both ECs may look similar on the surface, but they are in fact quite different.
All of the different EC streams listed above have intersections with the rise of postmodernism: questioning and deconstructing the establishment; retreating from one-size-fits-all; simplifying; searching for integrity; returning to the roots (radical-izing); appreciating the individual’s perspectives; and longing for community, belonging and experience (being a part of something bigger). These descriptors apply to both “postmodernism” and “emerging church.” So whether or not they consciously tailor themselves for postmodern cultures, there is a happy convergence that makes ECs more suited to postmodern minds.
Church responses to postmodernism have included:
- Disapproving of the whole movement and retreating to the cultural compound with self-righteous zeal. This is legalistic fundamentalism.
- Accepting postmodernism completely and syncretizing it with the gospel. This is liberalism.
- Taking the good and leaving the bad. This is mainstream thought. Note: Many people begin to feel an arbitrary kind of “judgmental acceptance” from this approach.
- Going to live within the new world and loving people without the safety-net of an established compound. The results are varied, and many are considered part of the Emerging Church.
It is important to note that many ECs do not target postmodernism.
For example, at “Cheers,” the local EC of which I am a part, we want to be faithful to the way of Jesus in the world (John 17:18). Here we can look at the example of the Apostle Paul. In one location, he could debate in the synagogue, reason with the Greeks and mix with the sailors. In a multicultural world we adapt with the people we meet. A Chinese person can be married to an Anglo, have postmodern kids and have a traditional grandfather. We become fluid, not merely postmodern.
Emerging Churches Here to Stay
ECs generally fit into David Barrett, George Kurian and Todd Johnson’s “Independents” grouping. According to the authors, “For mid-2000, neo-apostolics (also termed Independents or Postdenominationalists) were in over twenty-two thousand networks with 386 million members total. (In 2000, Protestants were in nine thousand denominations or networks with 342 million members). By 2025, it is projected that neo-apostolics will outnumber Protestants, 582 million to 469 million.”1
While most Independents would not consider themselves part of the EC, there are enough similarities to make them part of this family grouping. This group is not a mere sideline; they will not simply disappear (the Chinese Church is in this group). Nor will they necessarily conform and become institutional like everyone else (Note: The early Church did not institutionalize until the fourth century, and even then not all of them did.)
These Independents reject overbearing, centralized authority, and seek a more effective missionary lifestyle.2 These outward characteristics are worthy of support, not fear. One should be impressed that so many in this generation are rising to the challenge of mission.
A Little Help?
ECs need support. Many of those involved in the neo-mission field are inexperienced and untrained. They can be theologically flaky if not given assistance. They can be unwise in the ways of administration and insurance if left unaided. They can be clumsy, scathing, shallow, legalistic, syncretistic or victims to any other hazards that face new missionaries.
Perhaps many of the established churches cannot help these new missionaries because they are themselves ill-equipped for culturally-sensitive mission. Some established churches seem to assume that the ECs do not have core elements of church simply because those elements do not appear in the forms their compounds recognize. If they cannot see what already exists in an EC, they probably cannot help its formation.
Below is a double-edged checklist for self-examination of both emerging and established churches:
- Absence of singing does not equal absence of worship.
- Absence of certain miracles does not mean they do not see God at work.
- A focus beyond the assembly does not negate care within the assembly.
- Absence of preaching does not equal absence of learning or of the ministry of the word.
- Interactive learning does not equal theological shallowness.
- Absence of traditional liturgy does not equal a piece-meal approach to God’s grand narrative.
- Living with the people in the harvest does not equal syncretism.
- Missiological flexibility does not equal theological looseness at the core.
- Respect for individual autonomy does not equal individualistic formation.
- Absence of tithing does not equal absence of stewardship.
- Absence of external structures does not equal absence of internal structure.
- Absence of denominational control does not equal absence of accountability.
- Absence of big meetings does not mean the church is small.
- Small does not equal ineffective.
- Temporary does not equal ineffective
- Empowering others to initiate does not equal chaos.
- One method or another does not equal righteousness.
Allies in the Field
A widespread feature of emerging churches is flexibility and adaptability. By operating through relationships, with fewer external structures, ECs can not only flex culturally, they can do it quickly, and even simultaneously. They tend to find low-cost, highly efficient, cross-cultural ways to help others flesh out the core faith. At their best, this speed and understanding can breed mutual appreciation between cultural groups by helping people find numerous “right ways” to express the core faith.
As an itinerant outreach specialist, I meet many people who ask what I do and what “Cheers” is. The quickest people to understand those involved in ECs are older, cross-cultural missionaries. They are the most supportive, and I suspect will continue to be most helpful at keeping ECs both theologically sound and missiologically effective. That endorsement is telling.
The second quickest to understand those involved with ECs are people with no church background. The third quickest are churched people. The slowest ones are leaders of established churches with the most personal investment in those established forms.3
And yet established churches could not only cooperate, but even incorporate some of the EC’s best-practices emerging from the field. A good test of an EC is looking at the core beliefs and practices. We then must ask how we can best enable these people to express them in their cultures.
Of course, if an EC compromises the core faith, established churches could gently seek to hold up a mirror of understanding. In the same way that we try to understand where a friend went wrong in order to help them find his or her way back, established churches will need to understand the streams and dreams of local ECs if they are to help them find their theological and missionary feet. Understanding their missionary impulse, their methods and their story thus far is a good first step toward helping.
Among friends, the possibilities are endless. My wife and I came from a larger, traditional church to start “Cheers.” Our old church provides eldership accountability for us, but also asks for reports from which they can learn and be stimulated. Other friends work for a para-church agency, which now holds our bank account, auditing, insurance and ensures best practice in duty-of-care. Another friend coaches us. At a more local Baptist church, another group of friends put us on their books like overseas missionaries. So we benefit from four lines of accountability and support.4
As emerging churches continue to infiltrate culture, may they do so within the parameters of scripture and the unity and fellowship of the wider Church.
1. David Barrett, George Kurian and Todd Johnson. 2001. World Christian Encyclopedia, 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Press. 4, 16-18.
2. Ibid. 28.
3. Not all church leaders are slow. Theologians are careful at first, but once they have their questions answered, they tend to be more like the missionary group. This underscores the importance of a sound theological base from which to launch missiological experiments.
4. A fifth accountability is to other EC friends. One example is Forge, an Australian network that exists to “help birth and nurture the emerging missional Church.”