What is an Emergent or Emerging Church?

Although some people make a distinction between Emergent and emerging, they are broadly the same, so we’ll treat these two terms as synonymous. So what is an Emergent Church?

One of the things about the Emergent Church movement is that they don’t claim to have leaders or ­doctrinal statements and there is a very large range of differing thought. Perhaps your experiences with Emergent churches will sound different than what I’m describing. We’ll discuss this aspect in a bit, but until then, realize that as always, I must speak in generalizations, and there are always exceptions.

Emergent Churches are typically churches that start from a base of Evangelical Christianity, but make some changes. To explain the first change, let me describe a concept that is accepted as orthodox among Evangelical churches.

When we read about God in the Bible, God often refers to himself in anthropomorphism – In Genesis 6:8, we read that “Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD” and in Psalm 34:15 it says “The eyes of the LORD are upon the righteous, and his ears are open unto their cry.”

Evangelicals read these verses through the lens of John 4:24,  “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” And Numbers 23:19 “God is not a man, that he should lie…” and we recognize that God is not literally saying he has eyes or ears, or that God is a human, but instead that God is speaking in human terms so that we understand something about the infinite God in a way that we as finite humans would recognize – after all, we know what the human form is.

Likewise, the Bible says that God is a Jealous God and that God is angry, but we understand that the jealousy and anger of God are different than the jealousy and anger we have.

The emergent church movement takes this statement made by Evangelicals and goes a bit further. Because of the truth of God’s transcendence – that his mind is beyond our understanding, they question whether we can have any solid, certain knowledge about God at all. Since God’s ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts than our thoughts, who are we to develop some orthodoxy around acceptable views of God when we can’t even fully understand him?

This view turns all theologies into heresies, because theology is trying to state some transcendent truth about God through limited, distorted human language and knowledge.

This thinking about God is one mark of an Emergent church.

A very related mark of the emergent church is taking this thinking about God and then extending it to nearly everything else. If we can’t fully know God, we also get a different view of scripture.

Dave Tomlinson says this:

“To say Scripture is the Word of God is to employ a metaphor. God cannot be thought of as literally speaking words, since they are entirely a human phenomenon that could never prove adequate as a medium for the speech of an infinite God.”

This line of thinking puts a cloud of mystery over the whole Bible. Perhaps we think it’s one way, but are we claiming to know what God really meant? And who are we to do so?

And so the second mark of the emergent church is embracing of uncertainty. Things that traditional Evangelicals have held to be unambiguous – such as the sinfulness of homosexuality – are considered uncertain in the Emergent church. Some emergent churches may come down on one side or the other of the issue, but many Emergent churches are happy to leave the issue unresolved. Maybe homosexuality is sinful, maybe it isn’t. Let’s have a dialogue. Emergent influencer Brian McLaren has this to say:

“Frankly, many of us don’t know what we should think about homosexuality. We’ve heard all sides but no position has yet won our confidence so that we can say “it seems good to the Holy Spirit and us.” That alienates us from both the liberals and conservatives who seem to know exactly what we should think. Even if we are convinced that all homosexual behavior is always sinful, we still want to treat gay and lesbian people with more dignity, gentleness, and respect than our colleagues do. If we think that there may actually be a legitimate context for some homosexual relationships, we know that the biblical arguments are nuanced and multilayered, and the pastoral ramifications are staggeringly complex. We aren’t sure if or where lines are to be drawn, nor do we know how to enforce with fairness whatever lines are drawn.”

The emergent church very much likes dialogue on questions that have been seemingly settled in orthodoxy in the past. They reject the idea that they are “liberal” in their theology. They haven’t settled on the liberal position after all. Instead, they just want to be able to openly discuss and debate the position.

McLaren takes on those who reject the emergent challenges to orthodoxy, saying:

“In Christian theology, this anti-emergent thinking is expressed in systematic theologies that claim (overtly, covertly, or unconsciously) to have final orthodoxy nailed down, freeze-dried and shrink-wrapped forever.”

Leaders of emergent churches aren’t afraid of being wrong or undecided. They embrace uncertainty. Where Evangelicals try to learn theology and have their leaders know the truth so they can teach it, Emergent leaders like to question their own beliefs and everyone else’s, and do so publicly. Then the entire church can watch the “faith journey” of their leader, as they lean one way or another. This makes church interesting, no doubt – “what orthodox position will be questioned this Sunday?”, but it’s very different from Evangelical and even Mainline Church practice.

Emergent churches make doubt into a virtue. Tomlinson says

“Post-evangelicals also want room to express doubt without having someone rush around in a mad panic trying to ‘deliver’ them from unbelief. Far too often doubt is portrayed simply as an enemy rather than a potential friend; as something mature Christians should not suffer from, rather than a vital means by which Christians mature.”

In the emergent movement, instead of presenting answers, leaders like to ask questions, and prompt their congregations to ask questions. Everyone is asking questions, and sometimes positing possible solutions, but never solidly coming to a conclusion. Searching for God is cool, but finding him is not.

Here’s what Kristen Bell, the wife of Emergent influencer Rob Bell says about scripture:

“I grew up thinking we’ve figured out the Bible, that we knew what it means. Now I have no idea what most of it means. And yet I feel like life is big again—like life used to be black and white, and now it’s in color.”

To the emergent church, all we have are interpretations of scripture. God’s view is the truth, but none of us can claim to know it for sure, so all we can do is discus our views un-dogmatically and listen to others’ views with an open mind.

The emergent movement has a problem with the Evangelical view of the Bible as an answer book or a book of truths to be found. The goal is not to get to the truth, but to enjoy the journey. They often will say that “Christianity is a relationship, not accepting a set of propositions.” Because of this view, they don’t really care about the question of biblical inerrancy. Biblical inerrancy is one of the major dividing lines between Evangelicals and Theologically liberal Christianity. But when you’re not using the Bible so much to look for truth as to embrace its mystery, the question of whether it is inerrant or not is considered little more than a distraction.

Despite all of this, emergent leaders will frequently make statements on what the Bible means, and posit actual truths. The theme of “all we have are opinions” and “we can’t know for sure” are used when questioning orthodoxy. But emergent church leaders aren’t as hesitant to be wishy-washy when making statements of fact that challenge the orthodox establishment.

In Emergent churches you are less likely to find the solid statement that “the Bible is the Word of God” and instead find that the Bible “becomes the Word of God” as God speaks through the text to the individual. In that understanding, the Bible is only derivatively the Word of God.

Certain so-called orthodox views that Evangelicals hold to are more likely than others to be discarded by Emergent churches. The wrath of God is not something to be spoken of. Hell, for example, is commonly viewed more broadly as being “a situation absent of how God desires things to be.” (Rob Bell) This is in contrast to the view of hell as a literal location, one of two possible locations a person will be in the afterlife, as viewed by Christian Evangelicalism. Brian McLaren, among other emergent leaders, has taken on the doctrine of penal substitution, that Christ died as a penalty for sin, and as our substitute, describing it as “divine Child abuse.” Other doctrines considered fundamentals are now unimportant. Tomlinson wrote:

“Ultimately, our church pedigrees, spiritual experiences, or creedal affirmations do not impress God. St. Peter will not be asking us at the pearly gates which church we belonged to, or if we believed in the virgin birth.”

If you’ve studied post-modernism, you may notice a trend in the emergent church to the same “no absolute truth” and “question everything” mindset. You would be right. Emergent teachers embrace contradictory or paradoxical statements, like this one from Barry Taylor:

“God is nowhere. God is now here. God is present; God is absent. The future of faith rests in the tension between these words, and it is form this place of discomfort and complexity that new life emerges.”

Emergent thinking can be a repackaging of the ideas of theological liberalism, as seen in mainline denominations. The main idea that unites the two is that right living is more important than right belief. Instead of salvation, mainline churches and emergent ones invite us to a Jesus way of living, which is, in the end, a works path to salvation, in contrast to Evangelicalism’s message that Christ’s death and blood was the payment for our sin.

In fact, some in the Emergent movement really don’t like that view of Christ at all. Brian McLaren wrote the foreword to Spencer Burke’s book “A heretic’s guide to Eternity”, in which Burke positively quotes Journalist Polly Toynbee in saying:

“Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to?”

Even more, perhaps, than mainline churches, Emergent churches reject separation from heterodoxy. Burke says :

“When I say I’m a universalist, what I really mean is that I don’t believe you have to convert to any particular religion to find God.”

Tony Jones, a leading figure in the emerging church movement, said “we haven’t yet found that there’s anything that justifies us breaking fellowship with somebody else who loves and is trying to follow Jesus.”

In the early 1900s, a fundamentalist-modernist controversy broke out, mainly among Presbyterians and Baptists. The “Modernists” that the Fundamentalists were attacking were the theological liberals.

The Emergent Church sees itself as being in a fight against modernism, but the modernism it is fighting is mainly in Evangelicalism. And it’s not about the specifics of doctrine. The Emergent church views systemic theology, dogmatism on doctrine, separation, and enforcing of theological orthodoxy as modernism. They feel that Christ and early churches didn’t behave in such a way. Jones says:

“Statements of faith are about drawing borders, which means you have to load your weapons and place soldiers at those borders. You have to check people’s passports when they pass at those borders. It becomes an obsession – guarding the borders. That is simply not the ministry of Jesus.”

The Emergent church views preaching where truth is explained in absolutes, commands are given, and certain beliefs are argued to be “right” as another of these modern views, however, historical study will show that these are not modern concepts. As Kevin DeYoung puts it, in the book “Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be)”,

“For all their chastisement of all things modern, they are in most ways thoroughly modern. Many of the leading books display a familiar combination of social gospel liberalism, a neoorthodox view of Scripture, and a post-Enlightenment disdain for hell, the wrath of God, propositional revelation, propitiation, and anything more than a vague moralistic, warmhearted, adoctrinal Christianity.”

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