The Emerging Church is a movement that claims to be Christian. The term 'Emerging Church' is used to describe a broad, controversial movement that seeks to use culturally sensitive approaches to reach the postmodern, un-churched population with the Christian message. Some Emerging Churches might use props such as candles, statues, and incense along with poems, open mics, and videos, etc. EC services are sometimes extremely informal while others are more formal.
Emerging Churches seek to reach the lost by focusing on relationships and developing a "story," a "journey of life" that is expressed through the "narrative" of learning. These words and others are often used by emerging teachers in describing their religious experience. Other terms sometimes used are "reimagine," "tribe," "story of Jesus," "deconstruction," etc. There is sometimes an ambiguous, feelings-oriented desire to experience God and also share in the lives of people as they seek to find God in their way. Some Emerging Churches are inclusivistic (those outside of Christianity will be saved) while others are not. Some Emerging Churches are environmentally focused while others concentrate on local issues. Some downplay doctrine, reinterpret creeds, and de-emphasize tradition while others hold to them. Obviously, it is difficult to define precisely what is emerging and what is not.
Seeker-sensitive churches are similar to Emerging Churches except that Emerging Churches are sometimes lax doctrinally where seeker-sensitive churches, which sometimes are lax in presenting the Gospel, hold nonetheless to orthodox theology. Seeker-sensitive churches try to meet people's needs through programs where Emerging Churches do this by investing time in people's lives. Seeker churches tend to focus on people in their thirties and up where Emerging Churches tend to reach people in their teens to thirties. But, some areas of the Emerging Church are so similar to seeker-sensitive churches that it is hard to tell the difference. So how do you distinguish between the two? Generally, a church is emerging if it seeks to reach those lost in the post-modern culture, rejects doctrinal absolutes, and, of course, proclaims itself to be emerging.
Emerging Church Characteristics
Following are some of the common traits I have discovered by reading through Emerging Church material. But please understand that not all Emerging Churches adhere to all the points listed.
- An awareness of and attempt to reach those in the changing postmodern culture.
- An attempt to use technology, i.e., video, slide shows, internet.
- A broader approach to worship using candles, icons, images, sounds, smells, etc.
- An inclusive approach to various, sometimes contradictory belief systems.1
- An emphasis on experience and feelings over absolutes.
- Concentration on relationship-building over proclamation of the gospel.
- Shunning stale traditionalism in worship, church seating, music, etc.
- A de-emphasis on absolutes and doctrinal creeds
- A re-evaluation of the place of the Christian church in society.
- A re-examination of the Bible and its teachings.
- A re-evaluation of traditionally-held doctrines.
- A re-evaluation of the place of Christianity in the world.
Hopefully you can see some problems in the list. But, I have to say it again, not all Emerging Church adherents agree with all the points. Emerging Church pastors Mark Driscoll and Dan Kimball both acknowledge the necessity of preaching doctrinal truths which properly define Christianity while others like Brian McLaren are extremely lax when it comes to proclaiming the true biblical faith, so much so that he's been called a false teacher.2
No official Emerging Church or doctrine
There is no official single Emerging Church or Emerging Church doctrine, so there is no unified structure to examine. But, there are a lot of Emerging Church writings. The more I read them, the more concerned I become. It is apparent that the movement as a whole is off-center and is sacrificing time-honored biblical truths for a let's-get-along kind of attitude.
- " . . . the Emerging Church movement is characterized by a fair bit of protest against traditional evangelicalism and, more broadly, against all that it understands by modernism."3
- "They [the emerging generations] are disillusioned with institutionalism and see the church itself as an obstacle to faith."4
- "the Emerging Church is a place where people have felt the freedom to explore questions and experiment with new forms of lifestyle and corporate practice."5
This rejection of traditionalism (regimented service, hymns, organs, a dress code, "we've always done it this way", etc.) has made it easier for those who don't like absolute truth statements, who reject exclusivism (that Jesus is the only way). They are thus drawn to very casual settings where they can also more easily reject traditional doctrines such as the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and his physical resurrection.
"Sit down here next to me in this little restaurant and ask me if Christianity (my version of it, yours, the Pope's, whoever's) is orthodox, meaning true, and here's my honest answer: a little, but not yet. Assuming by Christianity you mean the Christian understanding of the world and God, Christian opinions on soul, text, and culture . . . I'd have to say that we probably have a couple of things right, but a lot of things wrong, and even more sprints before is unseen and unimagined."6
Remember, the Emerging Church is, in part, reacting against the modernistic, absolute structure of stale traditional churches that want people to convert to their style of worship and time-frozen culture. Instead, Emerging Church members believe it is necessary to establish relationships with people, going where they are, meeting them on their level, and then later presenting doctrinal truths after they have become part of their lives. I must admit, this is what Jesus did. He was involved with the lives of the disciples, interacted with them, grew very close to them and taught them by example, not just propositionally.
Even though there are some pastors in the Emerging Church Movement that are true to Scripture, the movement as a whole needs to stick to the essentials of the Christian faith; otherwise, in spite of its proclamation to renew Christianity afresh, it will become stale and heretical. No one, no movement of people should ever be so arrogant as to say that they can't fall into error--even though they seek truth. As I've always said, if you want to mess something up, all you need is two things: people and time. The Emerging Church movement has much good in it, but it also has a good bit of bad already within its doors.
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- 1. Inclusivism is the error that people can be saved without specific knowledge of Jesus Christ and that their general faith in the concept of God and sincerity of heart is sufficient to warrant forgiveness.
- 2. Kimball, Dan, The Emerging Church, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003, p. 14.
- 3. Carson, D. A., Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005, p. 36.
- 4. Gibbs, Eddie and Ryan K. Bolger, Emerging Churches, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005, p. 21.
- 5. Pagitt, Doug and Tony Jones, eds., An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, p. 23.
- 6. McLaren, Brian, A Generous Orthodoxy, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004, p. 296. Italics in the original.