What is 'emerging church'?
The phrase ‘emerging church’ will undoubtedly mean different things to different people and I will only offer a tentative definition here, chiefly for the benefit of those to whom it means next to nothing. If you disagree with the points made, by all means add your views below.
1. Emerging church is certainly a reaction against the forms of evangelicalism that have flourished in the West over the last fifty years or so – hence the popularity of the term ‘post-evangelical’. People have reacted in different ways: there has been a range of experiments in alternative forms of worship; groups have decamped from traditional church premises into public venues such as bars, cafÃ©s and leisure centres; and many Christians have simply opted out of organized church altogether (see the review of Alan Jamieson’s book A Churchless Faith).
2. This reaction has been driven largely, I think, by dissatisfaction with evangelical church culture at various levels – a dissatisfaction that has often been explained in terms of a perceived shift in the wider culture from modernism to postmodernism: from objectivism to relativism, from certainty to doubt, from singularity to plurality, from Story to stories. Emerging church is an attempt to replot Christian faith on this new cultural and intellectual terrain.
3. Emerging church is beginning to acquire the coherence of a ‘movement’, but it probably cannot yet be said to have a strong sense of its own identity and certain tensions are apparent. There has been tension, for example, between an inward and an outward dynamic: for some the motivation has been the desire to find more congenial modes of worship and community, whereas others have been attracted by the missional potential of an escape from the cultural dead-end of evangelicalism. There has been a further tension between new ways of doing and new ways of being: do we just do congregational life differently or should we abandon structured religious life altogether in favour of simply being followers of Jesus in the world?
4. Emerging church is characteristically postmodern in its suspicion of the controlling structures of religious life and thought: church hierarchy, dominant cultural forms, doctrinal formulations, and so on. So the life and practice of emerging church are marked by a resistance to these structures, but also by a desire to develop positive alternatives. There has been a good discussion thread on this site, for example, about the nature of ‘emerging authority’.
5. Considerable emphasis is placed on relational paradigms as the basis for all forms of Christian activity. In many instances this has encouraged a shift away from ‘concentric’ or ‘solid’ towards decentred or ‘liquid’ expressions of community (see, for example, the review of Pete Ward’s Liquid Church). This has also led, inevitably, to a blurring of boundaries, both between church traditions and between believers and non-believers. Emerging church is more willing to be ‘inclusive’ (the word obviously needs definition), less concerned with defining and safeguarding the boundaries of membership, than ‘modern’ forms of evangelicalism.
6. In place of what is perceived as the rather narrow agenda of mainstream evangelicalism, emerging church is looking to develop a more holistic spirituality and to pursue a wider engagement in the public sphere. So, on the one hand, we see a willingness to explore different patterns of Christian life and to draw upon a broader spectrum of religious traditions – Celtic Christianity and Eastern Orthodoxy, for example, have had a strong appeal. On the other, we see a new social activism that is both critical and creative: mission is understood to encompass a much wider set of activities than just evangelism.
George Lings: What is ‘emerging church’?