Theology and the “Emerging Church”

Patrick Oden

My first exposure to what became known as the emerging church occurred during my senior year of high school in late 1991 when I started attending NewSong in Covina, California.

They met in a junior high school gym. They had dynamic music performed by capable musicians. The message was approachable and inviting, without being shallow, leading us through scriptural themes. Dieter Zander started NewSong as a Bible study in his home that grew into a church, snowballing until they outgrew a succession of meeting places. By the time I joined them they were well over a thousand regular attenders. Almost everyone was under 30, and a great majority were single and in their early twenties, including a fair amount of the leadership. NewSong was the first Gen-X church, proudly proclaiming itself as “The Flock that Rocks.” What made it Gen-X in orientation wasn’t just the music or the style of preaching, rather it was the fact everyone was involved. Instead of being ministered to, people were invited to minister with each other. People entered into the life of the church by being welcomed and the church grew in numbers and expression, changed as people shaped it according to their passions and interests and gifting. The church took on the characteristics of its context, speaking out of and back into a generation.

As a participant, I saw what was going on from the inside, and even as an eighteen-year-old it struck me as going beyond simply using popular forms of entertainment for church growth purposes. There were significant ecclesial and even theological moves that drew young women and men to the life of the church and continued to resonate with me in my own spiritual development.

In the late 1990s, two church plants in Pomona and Pasadena emerged from NewSong that reflected characteristics that still mark emerging churches. Such expressions were popping up throughout the nation and indeed throughout the world, though generally without direct connection with each other. In the early 2000s, following the lead of Karen Ward and Dan Kimball, those involved in such communities began to regularly use the term “emerging church” to describe what was happening. Though relatively isolated, through the burgeoning internet they learned about and from each other. They sought a renewal of ecclesial life in the context of postmodern society, and while they didn’t know exactly what that would look like, they pressed on in experiments and explorations. Failing in part, succeeding in part.

The goal of this brief essay is to talk about their theology as it currently stands. Because the term has lost meaning over the last ten years, I will describe what I mean by the term emerging church. Next, I will talk about theological method, which while mostly instinctive in development does seem to be consistent and thoughtful, if you know what to look for. Third, I will highlight a few theological emphases that stand out to me both due to their priority for such churches and in the way they are contributing to theological discussion in both the church and the academy. The emerging church began as a renewal movement within the church, a critical and expressive ecclesiology developed out of praxis, and those who continue the trend offer theological insights that resonate for the broader church and academy.

“Emerging Church”

The term “emerging church” was coopted relatively early on in its usage, thus creating multiple versions of its origins and development. Though some like Tony Jones, Brian McClaren, and Doug Pagitt are occasionally mentioned as supposed founders, they served more in the role of popularizers, finding attention in books and conferences, even as developments predate them and extended well outside their influence. Power-players increasingly dominated public statements and gained influence over the direction of advertised emerging church discussions, precisely the opposite of what the core emerging church developments emphasized. Emerging became Emergent, and tended to reflect the particular interests and drives of those who connected to the movement through the Young Leaders Network, which were only a small part of a broader developing ecclesiology.

Brad Sargent calls the co-opting of the movement the “Emergent Industrial Complex” and while it burned bright for a few years, it burned out and burned over many who were early contributors. As the popularizers continued their own shifts and moved into theological controversies that had little direct relevance to the initial emerging church impulses and engaged in questionable personal behavior, those who first expressed and exemplified the core themes distanced themselves from the term “emerging.” Andrew Jones declared the term dead in a blog post in 2008, and early leaders like Dan Kimball and others stated they no longer would use the label. Sargent’s website offers great insight into this shift and the scandals that came alongside, creating deepening rifts. The core movement was still small scale and neighborhood focused, however, continuing with consistent expression as the terminology changed around them.

For me, as an early participant and continued explorer in both ecclesial and theological ways, the best resource to understand the movement and impulses that led to it and continue to drive it, is still the book Emerging Churches by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger (Baker Academic, 2005). They define emerging churches as “missional communities arising from within postmodern culture and consisting of followers of Jesus who are seeking to be faithful in their place and time” (28). This missional element derives from the earlier, and fuller, missional conversation that arose from the writings of Leslie Newbiggin. Their definition developed out of extended interviews with a broad range of early emerging church communities and in the book they describe nine overlapping characteristics (44-45):

Emerging churches (1) identify with the life of Jesus, (2) transform the secular realm, and (3) live highly communal lives. Because of these three activities, they (4) welcome the stranger, (5) serve with generosity, (6) participate as producers, (7) create as created beings, (8) lead as a body, and (9) take part in spiritual activities.”

This last element involves drawing from the resources of different Christian traditions, eras, and movements. As such, although the underlying ecclesiology and priority of equality and engagement is reminiscent of Quaker ecclesiology, the interest in worship, prayer, liturgy, monastic rhythms, and other elements lends more of a high church element.

Doing Theology

The term “emerging church” suggests movement and development, but indicates neither what it was emerging out of nor what it is emerging into. Even though the former has been well-discussed in light of the early, often angst-ridden discontent evident in early emerging church expressions (as well as those new to the movement at any given point), the direction of renewal is increasingly taking shape, leading to terminology that may be more descriptive. It is in light of this that in my recent book, I utilized both older and newer expressions under the term “transformative churches” as a way of describing the orthopraxic impulses that brings coherence to the underlying movement (The Transformative Church [Fortress, 2015]). There are two fundamental expressions of this transformative impulse that form, essentially, two sides within the current emerging models, each loosely connected to the ecclesial interests of an influential theologian.

The first reflects the approach of Stanley Hauerwas and tends to be consciously Anabaptist in ethics and theology. The key element is the church itself: the testimony of Christ becomes fullest when the church is fully the church. The primary goal of the ecclesial community is to show the world what the world should be. In being fully realized as the church, the fullness of the gospel is most evident as it reaches into all parts of life in orienting and transforming a holistic community. The church may even be understood as the primary expression of the kingdom. Such an approach is “emerging” in the radical shift away from authoritarian leadership and conventional church patterns that relegate the religious system to a narrow set of meetings and programs. The writings of David Fitch and Scot McKnight exemplify this strand.

Another strand reflects the approach of Jürgen Moltmann, though not always intentionally so. This is an “embedded” ecclesiology, in which the church is not a sign to the world, but rather a participant in it. The church is part of the kingdom but the kingdom is more than the church. Those within the church are participants with each other and their broader context in pursuing holistic transformation – a fractal community of participants, each of whom actively engages the surrounding context. Leaders include Dan Kimball of Santa Cruz, Jon Huckins of San Diego, Danielle Shroyer of Dallas, and Sean Gladding of Lexington. The related missional movement tends to also reflect this embedded goal, building the discussion through missiological study and intentionally developed ecclesiology. Alan and Debra Hirsch, who developed their ecclesial approach in Australia and now live in Los Angeles, have helped popularize this approach through their church leadership, writings, and ecclesial network Forge.

These shared priorities and emphases tend to emphasize a centered set rather than a bounded set in conceiving the church, so even those with different perceptions of the overall role of the church emphasize commonalities rather than differences. As the emphasis is on a centered set, there is less emphasis on policing the boundaries through rigid and often narrowly construed doctrines. This does not mean a rejection of core Christian beliefs as some have suggested. Being missional tends to bring people together while still emphasizing the distinctives of the Christian faith. With this, emerging churches tend to engage those who have left Christianity or have a distaste for it, those the conventional churches have left behind, and so try to avoid the conventional religious arguments.

Some Emphases

Rather than trying to define and defend positions on a broad range of theological topics, however, those in the transformative churches are more interested in the places of friction, friction between church and society and places of friction between churches and their own theological and organizational positions. Such frictions lead to practical and theological questions. How does proclamation of Jesus as Lord call us to live in the midst of our society? How as a church do we reflect this and how as a church do our expressions contrast with such a claim?

Answers to these questions develop from an ecclesiology “from below” rather than from a position of power and authoritarian control. They seek answers in a community setting. They seek to discover where God is working instead of declaring where and how God must work, inviting rather than cajoling. This involves an understanding of God’s involvement in this world he so loves, with a narrative understanding of Scripture as the telling of a grand story rather than Scripture as a source book of bullet-pointed declarations. In their critique of the often rigid patterns that characterize much of evangelicalism, emerging churches risk antinomianism, but it is a misnomer to assume they lack a firm grounding. There is generally a radical devotion to Christ and openness to the creative power of the Spirit. They pursue the kingdom in specific ways among specific neighborhoods and with specific neighbors. Holiness is expressed in a non-legalistic way, incarnationally, involving engaged participation rather than isolated legalism.

Rather than critiquing people, labeling, and classifying in ways that instantiate an insider/outsider perspective, the tendency is to be critical of oppressive and alienating systems while inviting and encouraging people to find a new way of life together no matter their starting place. As Debra Hirsch puts it in her recent book on sexuality, “We must lead with our embrace, not our theology” (Redeeming Sex [Forge Partnership, 2015], 145). With this, such churches seek a reshaping of desire rather than mere adoption of particular doctrines and liturgies. Theology is important but theology begins with love. It is love that ultimately transforms.

What does it mean to actively love one’s neighbors in the context of a neighborhood? The answers to this question are always particular, sharing similar priorities but with different expressions in different places. There is interest in discovering what the Spirit is doing in and through a particular group of people in a specific setting. This interest insists on an embrace of complexity. Instead of emphasizing established binaries, or simplistic scripts, emerging churches are open to God’s holistic work even as this stretches religious comfort. There is even increased interest in understanding God’s work in other religions, which includes those who categorize themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” It is important to not see this as a general wishy-washiness in regards to truth but an openness to discovery in where God’s work might be leading people out of dysfunctional systems and into greater awareness and renewal.

At the core, the present representatives of that which became known as the emerging church are engaged in active missional involvement within specific contexts and are interested in how the truth of Christ calls each person to radical renewal in their own desires and behaviors that is expressed in radical engagement with and for their neighbors. The hope is in the power of the Spirit to bring real and substantive change to individuals and to the ecclesial community and to resonate this transformation in specific times and places.

Posted Feb 24, 2016