A look back at the controversial movement’s history—and forward to its uncertain future.
After nearly two decades of the emergent dialogue, it seems to draw no less criticism. The movement started as a conversation on the most effective ways to do evangelism to a postmodern generation. As one of its pioneers, Brian McLaren, says, it had its genesis in a desire to share the Gospel in a changing social climate.
“Among English-speaking people, something significant began happening in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s,” McLaren says. “People began to realize the West was, in many ways, as much a mission field as anywhere else.”
Then there was the reality of a new, rising generation that viewed the world through a different lens than their forebears. Generation X, along with the burgeoning Millennial generation, had little in common with their baby boomer parents. As a result, the early brain trust of the emerging conversation sought new ideas for presenting Christianity in a context these generations would understand.
“In the U.S., in the ‘90s people started realizing younger generations were not being recruited through the church growth movement,” McLaren says. “And so people (mostly boomers) started talking about reaching Gen X. When they started listening to Gen X folks themselves, they said—rightly, I believe—‘This isn’t about generational styles. This is about something deeper, a profound shift from a modern, colonial, industrial, organizational world to a postmodern, postcolonial, postindustrial, ecological world.’ People started talking about a number of issues as a result—evangelism, leadership, worship, spiritual formation, theology.”
Thus, the emergent conversation was born—conversation being perhaps the key word.
A shifting focus
Even though the emergent conversation may have begun as a cross-cultural communication trying to share the Gospel, a particular theology did start to take shape around it. Critics began to accuse it of abandoning orthodox Christianity and creating a new theology. And recently, concerns have been growing even among those who don’t view the emergent church as a departure from orthodox ideals. In fact, some critiques are coming from those who helped found the movement.
Author and pastor Dan Kimball feels the emergent conversation has begun to deviate from its original purpose. “When the whole emerging church discussion began, it was primarily about evangelism and mission to emerging generations,” Kimball says. “That’s why I got into it, and it was fun and a thrill to be part of.”
However, Kimball feels the discussion has shifted to a more insular examination of theology rather than emergent’s original missional focus. “After a while, some within it began focusing more on theology and even some core issues of theology—which is needed as theology is very important,” Kimball says. “But the whole central focus of evangelism to emerging generations was lost, in my opinion.”
McLaren also recognizes a shift in the conversation. “Like any good conversation, we’ve moved from topic to topic,” he says. “For a while, it was all about doing church. Then we focused a lot more on doing theology. Lately, we’ve been focusing more on justice. I think there’s an important conversation brewing about being disciples, too.”
However, McLaren doesn’t feel the desire for a missional mindset has been lost. “I do think evangelism remains a high concern for many of us,” he says. The change, he feels, is in the way evangelism is viewed and how it’s executed. First and foremost, McLaren says, evangelism requires a reexamination of the health of the Church.
“If evangelism is about helping sick or wounded people make it to a hospital so they can become healthy enough to then heal others, what do you do when the hospital is dysfunctional and filled with its own infections?” he says. “We have to pay attention to the health of churches if we want to help more people become healthy disciples. And the health of churches means many things—liturgical health, theological health, social health and so on.”
But the question many are asking is: Is the emergent conversation focusing unduly on theology? Though theology and evangelism may be intertwined, the movement set out to couch theology in a new cultural context rather than redefine theology itself. As it’s progressed, the conversation has admittedly begun to deconstruct and examine orthodox evangelical theology. “I actually think a beautiful and coherent theology is in the early stages of emerging, but it won’t be held in the pocket of any single group,” McLaren says. “I think it will be a coherent, narrative, ecumenical, conversational and intentionally in-process theology … that seeks to learn and keep learning rather than settle everything and market a prepackaged product.”
Kimball feels the theology developing in the emergent conversation is nothing new at all, but rather a recasting of earlier liberal theologies. “A lot of the things discussed and then even becoming beliefs is pretty liberal theology. My concern is seeing younger Christians especially who don’t know these theological issues were discussed before and the results of the discussions throughout Church history get caught up in thinking this is a new expression of Christianity when it is pretty much classical extreme liberalism in a new, cooler wrapper,” Kimball says. “We need to look back at the discussions the Church has had throughout Church history to understand some of the discussions happening today.”
A future “without” emergent
The litmus test for the continued health of the emergent conversation, according to McLaren, is not that its ideas become rigidly defined and institutionalized, but rather that they become part of the collective unconscious—ideas that seemed so radical in this generation would become mere second nature to future generations. In doing so, emergent would have the opposite fate of so many movements that became unshakable status quo behemo
ths. It would merely melt into the common ideals of Christianity. “I suppose the greatest sign of success would be that the ideas and values we have been pursuing would become such an unspoken part of Christian identity that nobody needed to use a term like ‘emergent village’ again,” he says. “But, from the looks of things, we’ve still got a long way to go for that to happen.”
When the “emerging church conversation” first began I was deeply interested, primarily because the catalyst behind the conversation was mission. Unfortunately what happened (as is what too often happens to good things in the church) the term “emerging church” was co-opted by people on all sides. For some it meant new style of worship (that was actually more of return to the old). For others it became a platform for liberal theology (although this term has its own issues). For some it was, as a friend of mine once proudly stated, “an expression of the Church for people who hate church”. There was/is the organization “Emergent”, which further confused things… not because they themselves were/are confusing, but because people did the same thing with the term “Emergent.”
Here’s what I think (in a nutshell). At the heart of God’s mission in this world is a Church that is now — and will be until Christ returns — emerging. The emerging Church is not a style or a theology or a particular doctrinal understanding or even (dare I say it) a conversation. The emerging Church is the ongoing pursuit of God’s people to become the Church that Jesus envisioned and initiated, joining with him in God’s mission in the world. Emergent may go away as an organization… or they may lose their influence. In many ways that has already happened/is happening. But the Church will continue to emerge. I think much of what Emergent and the emerging Church conversation has succeeded in doing has been healthy for the Church — at least in my own context. Those engaged in the conversation have challenged the norm and, like it or not, exposed weaknesses in some long-standing traditions and theological understandings of the church.
“The Movement” may be ending… at least in the way the evangelical church in large has understood it, but in my suspicion, that will actually clear the way for the real movement of the Church to begin. In fact, it already has. It began 2000 years ago and will continue as long as God as alive and at work in this world.