The emerging church is a challenging "movement" to define. In fact, most involved in what is labeled as "emerging" would argue that it is not a movement at all, but simply a conversation. Add to this the organization "Emergent", which has become a prominent voice in the conversation because of their published works, speaking engagements, etc. and the emerging church remains elusive to anyone seeking a nice, neat label.
Scot McKnight is a professor of religious studies at North Park Theological Seminary, the author of several books, and one of the most widely read bloggers in the emerging church. He self-identifies with the emerging church, but admittedly struggles at times to maintain his evangelical identity in the midst of that which is emerging. In this article, McKnight identifies what he calls "Five Streams of the Emerging Movement"
- PROPHETIC (OR AT LEAST PROVOCATIVE) – This stream, according to McKnight, believes that things in the church need to change and they live like they already have. He also admits this stream has a tendency to exaggerate to make a point. For example, Peter Rollins (author of How Not to Speak of God) says, "Thus, orthodoxy is no longer (mis)understood as the opposite of heresy but rather is understood as a term that signals a way of being in the world rather than a means of believing things about the world." This kind of statement, McKnight says, "makes its point, but it sometimes divides."
- POSTMODERN – McKnight describes this stream first by defining postmodernism, no simply as a denial of truth, but as, "the collapse of metanarratives (overarching explanations of life) like those of science and Marxism." It is not as much, as some believe, that postmoderns do not believe in absolute truth, rather that thruth cannot be known absolutely. This stream can be further subdivided into categories defined by Doug Pagitt: 1) Those who will minister to postmoderns, 2) Those who will minister with postmoderns, and 3) Those who will minister as postmoderns. The distinctions are subtle, but important. The first two categories imply that postmodernism is something to be opposed and ministered to… like an affliction of sorts. The third category does not seek to change/cure a person of their postmodernity, rather it accepts it as an acceptable existance and asks the question of how to live faithfully as a postmodern.
- PRAXIS ORIENTED – Simply described, this stream is mostly concerned with how the faith is being lived out. While other streams are challenging long-standing theological understandings, the praxis oriented stream is primarily concerned with authentic faith being represented in it worship, orthopraxy, and missional orientation.
- POST-EVANGELICAL – This stream is , "a protest against much of evangelicalism as currently practiced…This stream flows from the conviction that the church must always be reforming itself." McKnight further identifies this stream as 1)Post-systematic theology, meaning that god did not offer a systematic theology to capture who God is, but a "storied narrative." 2) Post-In Versus Out. Emerging churches tend to be less interested in separating the "sheep from the goats", per se. McKnight sees this as a weakness. He says, "This emerging ambivalence about who is in and who is out creates a serious problem for evangelism."
- POLITICAL – The emerging movement often gets labled as "left-wing" politcally because of its strong emphasis on social justice issues. Emerging leaders/churches have been active in politics, garnering significant criticism from those who say that the church should not be involoved in politics. McKnight, simply calls for a proper balance, maintaining a distinction between the social gospel and the spiritual gospel.
This article identifies some helpful markers of the emerging movement, but in all I'm not sure that the categories are particularly helpful. Most of my experience has been that those in the emerging movement do not fit exclusively into any one of these streams, but are a mixture (sometimes changing) of all of the above. This article was yet another attempt at the elusive defninition the emerging church that makes some helpful points, but doesn't quite get there.
McKnight, Scot; Christianity Today; Feb 2007, Vol. 51 Issue 2, p 34-39