What Is the "Emerging Church"?

What is the "emerging church"?

"Emerging" and "emergent" are sometimes distinguished.

Emergent seems to be a reaction—among younger believers primarily, 20- and 30-somethings—to several things. In my judgment it's not a very healthy reaction, though I can understand why it might happen.

On one hand it seems to be a reaction against the large, plastic, mega-church phenomenon where relationships are not paramount. The emphasis on bigness, success, slick marketing, and super-duper high-powered worship services all feels very plastic, commercial, and not real, poetic, gutsy and down-to-earth. So there is a reaction against that.

On the other hand it's a reaction to formalized doctrinal statements. The emergent church tends to find creative ways of coming together, like sitting on sofas, using candles for lighting, painting the walls—strange and different things like that—because it's fresh and new and it gives release to different peoples' expressions, and so on. And if you try to push them on what they believe they don't like to tell you.

If you Google the emergent church you'll find some emergent websites. You'll notice that they don't like statements of faith. They don't like them because they say that they alienate people. They push people apart instead of relationally nurturing people to come together.

So that's the flavor. It's not defined. There is no list on "this is what it means to be emergent." It's just kind of a general reactionary movement.

What concerns you most about the emergent church?

The single greatest concern for me is their attitude towards doctrine. Stylistic things are neither here nor there. They come and go: whether you meet in a home or meet in a church, sit in a circle or sit in rows, paint on the walls or not—they're all just peripheral issues. They're the wineskins, not the wine.

The issue is their attitude towards truth. I'm deeply concerned about it, and I think that it will be the undoing of the emergent church as it has come to be. They don't believe that truth itself is an objective propositional thing that has a yes and a no. Nothing is ever either/or, good or bad, right or wrong, ugly or beautiful. It's all vague.

I've talked with some emergent types and tried to understand even their concept of truth, and you can't get your hand around it.

Here's a typical kind of response. One person made an accusation that the emergent church's view of doctrine is like trying to nail Jello to the wall. I mentioned that to one of them and his response to me was, "Why would you want to nail Jello to the wall?" That's clever, right? Yes it is, but it shows that that Jello is there. You just don't nail it to the wall. You eat jello. You cut it in cubes, etc. But you don't nail it to the wall.

So all of this "nailing to the wall" of theses—doctrines that you would subscribe to—they're not at home with that kind of talk. They regard their position here as a virtue, I think, but I regard it as the undoing of their movement.

Now let me clarify one other thing. I said earlier that emergent and emerging aren't necessarily the same.

Emerging might be used by some people—like Mark Driscoll—to describe a proper reaction that is taking place against some of the negative things going on in the church, but a reaction that doesn't throw away the doctrines.

So Mark is a very vigilantly biblical, reformed person when it comes to what we ought to believe. And he would want to stress that a big piece of that emerging church is not just its reaction to certain unreal things in middle class Christianity but also a very intentional mission orientation. The word "missional" is kind of the "in" word today. And a church that is missional tends to be a church where everything is thought about in terms of making an impact on people around the church who are not Christians. You design everything to think that way. And I think that is a good thing.

So be careful, when you're talking emerging or emergent, to know which group you're talking about. The Mark Driscoll "emerging" type would put a very high premium on biblical faithfulness, truth, doctrine and propositions. But the emergent types would not put premium on that, but would explicitly say on their websites that they regard that kind of emphasis as harmful.