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The Emerging Church Explained

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Editor's Note: We’ve received several emails concerning a movement known as the emerging church. readers have been inquiring about the details of movement, how it started, who its leaders are and, most importantly, is it a trend that they should be concerned about.

To best understand the emerging movement, it’s important to first understand that though there are churches, pastors and structured organizations (including Emergent Village—a group of writers, pastors and thinkers that operate under the same organizational umbrella) that maintain their own beliefs, the “emerging” (lowercase “e”) movement has a huge number of facets, and isn’t easy to clearly define—but in an effort to breakdown what the emerging church is all about, here’s an abbreviated history and explanation of its common beliefs.

As its name suggests, the emerging church largely consists of Christians involved (or previously involved) in mainstream evangelical churches that have “emerged” from preexisting ideologies and church structures.

Though its current form most likely dates back about 10 years, beginning with a series of leadership conferences and books that were released around that time, the roots of a Christian movement with an emphasis on community, redefining the church experience, cultural application of faith and general discontentment with the evangelical status-quo have even been traced back to the Jesus Movement of 1970s.

But the emerging church, as it is known today, first began to surface once again on the mainstream radar after several memoir-style books started garnering attention in the late ‘90s.

In A New Kind of Christian, a book that many consider one of the primary writings in the current movement, Brian McLaren constructs a fictional conversation between a traditional, conservative pastor and a more liberal college professor which leads to a conclusion about what Jesus’ life would look like in a postmodern context—if Jesus were on earth today, would He really be “doing church” like we are?

The book, and McLaren’s The Secret Message of Jesus, led to controversy and conversation between traditional leaders and Christians who were interested in McLaren’s picture of a postmodern faith. In The Secret Message of Jesus, another hallmark work of the emerging church, McLaren says that the modern trend of focusing heavily on evangelism and going to heaven after we die may be missing much of what Christ focused on. 

“If enough of us see the Kingdom [His version]—and seeing it, rethink our lives, and rethinking our lives, believe that the impossible is possible—everything could change,” he said in the book.

McLaren suggested that Christians should be more focused the prayer of “thy Kingdom come”—bringing God’s Kingdom to earth through caring for the poor, loving our neighbors and encouraging fellow Christians to grow deeper in their faith, a line of thinking associated with thinkers like Dallas Willard, Tony Campolo and other emerging leaders.

The premise of McLaren’s teachings caused a rift in some conservative churches who questioned his theology. But along with the controversy, a conversation was beginning to develop.

“Conversation” is one of the emerging church’s most well-known buzzwords. Like-minded leaders began to engage other churches and leaders in topics like those McLaren had been writing about. Pastors like Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones and Rob Bell started putting the ideas—the importance of community, “missonal” living (another emerging buzzword that describes the act of using people’s cultural understanding to reach them with the gospel) and open discussion—into practice.

But instead of uniting the traditional conservative leaders and the widening circle of emerging leaders, the groups became divided when radical ideas mixed openly with fresh perspectives about faith. Mark Driscoll, a high-profile pastor initially associated with the movement, distanced himself from the emerging church (and later became a vocal critic of it), and critics began addressing their own concerns about maintaining such an open discussion about theology.

As new voices and new ideas continued to enter the dialogue, formal groups started to organize. Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt and other rising leaders formed the influential Emergent Village.

The group (which maintains a blog, publishes books and organizes conferences), says on their official site, “We began meeting because many of us were disillusioned and disenfranchised by the conventional ecclesial institutions of the late 20th century.”

Though not all the leaders associated with the emerging church are directly part of Emergent Village, the group has served as a semi-official mouthpiece for the emerging church with the mission that includes this idea: “Along with us, the ‘emerging church’ movement has been growing, and we in Emergent Village endeavor to fund the theological imaginations and spiritual lives of all who consider themselves a part of this broader movement.”

Unofficial members and emerging churches began fostering outlets to put the ideas into action, encouraging house church meetings, creating an emphasis on humanitarian causes and teaching “narrative theology.” (The theological idea encourages believers to look at the story God has told through His Word and examine how God is using their personal life to construct a new story that will further His Kingdom.)

Many of the churches actually began encouraging dialogue and conversations about faith within the church and started to re-think what the role of a pastor looked like in some Sunday morning settings.

“I really got into the heavy level of participation because I wanted to devalue the role of the pastor a bit,” influential pastor of Solomon’s Porch Doug Pagitt said in an interview with “I was trying to change that paradigm and figure out if I can personally and authentically be a pastor without having to dominate a group of people.” Churches like his started holding services that featured Q&As, discussion groups and forums for artists to express spiritual ideas through art and music.

And even though buzzwords like “missional”, “holistic”, “narrative” and “conversation” are easy to identify, one thing that isn’t clearly pegged down (at least by Emergent Village) is a formal statement of beliefs.

Since many of the authors and pastors that are associated with emerging movements have continued to gain notoriety, criticisms about the emerging church have escalated. And without a statement of beliefs or official doctrinal statement, Emergent Village has done little to quiet its critics. Because the emerging church has no organizational structure and is an incredibly loose collection of Christians, the conversations that are taking place in churches and coffee shops around the country have begun to raise even more eyebrows of concerned pastors, who question the theological safety of such an open discussion, the alignment some were starting to show with traditionally liberal political groups and the abandonment some churches began to show to formal leadership structures.

Tony Jones, though, says that before you criticize individuals or the emerging church in general, it’s important to first see for yourself what is being said (and what is not being said) from the people actually in the movement.

“I run into lots of people who say they’re real worried about the direction of the emergent church, and when I ask what they’ve read, they say ‘nothing’,” Tony Jones said in an interview with writer Jake Bouma about his book The New Christians. “They’ve heard ‘things’. Or they’ve read a blog post about emergent.”

Jones’ statement may offer the best resolution to the conflict that many Christians may face over the emerging church movement. Because it is such an informal and multi-faceted group, the best way to exercise discernment and be informed about why you do or don’t support what individuals believe, is to understand what they are saying.

Undoubtedly, many Christians will find elements of the emerging church’s writings and ministries encouraging; other may find areas that they are concerned with and take issue on—but like any discussion about faith, the best way to make up your own mind is to stay informed as to what people are actually saying and by holding every truth to the biblical standard. That’s the place where the real discussion begins.




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About The Author


Jesse Carey is a contributing writer for and has a background in entertainment and pop-culture writing. He offers his insight on music, movies, TV, trends and current events from a unique perspective that examines what implications the latest news has on Christians.