Five Streams of the Emerging Church
It is said that emerging Christians confess their faith like mainlinersmeaning they say things publicly they don't really believe. They drink like Southern Baptistsmeaning, to adapt some words from Mark Twain, they are teetotalers when it is judicious. They talk like Catholicsmeaning they cuss and use naughty words. They evangelize and theologize like the Reformedmeaning they rarely evangelize, yet theologize all the time. They worship like charismaticsmeaning with their whole bodies, some parts tattooed. They vote like Episcopaliansmeaning they eat, drink, and sleep on their left side. And, they deny the truthmeaning they've got a latte-soaked copy of Derrida in their smoke- and beer-stained backpacks.
Along with unfair stereotypes of other traditions, such are the urban legends surrounding the emerging churchone of the most controversial and misunderstood movements today. As a theologian, I have studied the movement and interacted with its key leaders for yearseven more, I happily consider myself part of this movement or "conversation." As an evangelical, I've had my concerns, but overall I think what emerging Christians bring to the table is vital for the overall health of the church.
In this article, I want to undermine the urban legends and provide a more accurate description of the emerging movement. Though the movement has an international dimension, I will focus on the North American scene.
To define a movement, we must, as a courtesy, let it say what it is. Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger, in their book, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Baker Academic, 2005) define emerging in this way:
Emerging churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures. This definition encompasses nine practices. Emerging churches (1) identify with the life of Jesus, (2) transform the secular realm, and (3) live highly communal lives. Because of these three activities, they (4) welcome the stranger, (5) serve with generosity, (6) participate as producers, (7) create as created beings, (8) lead as a body, and (9) take part in spiritual activities.
This definition is both descriptive and analytical. D. A. Carson's Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Zondervan, 2005) is not alone in pointing to the problems in the emerging movement, and I shall point out a few myself in what follows. But as a description of the movement, Carson's book lacks firsthand awareness and suffers from an overly narrow focuson Brian McLaren and postmodern epistemology.
To prevent confusion, a distinction needs to be made between "emerging" and "Emergent." Emerging is the wider, informal, global, ecclesial (church-centered) focus of the movement, while Emergent is an official organization in the U.S. and the U.K. Emergent Village, the organization, is directed by Tony Jones, a Ph.D. student at Princeton Theological Seminary and a world traveler on behalf of all things both Emergent and emerging. Other names connected with Emergent Village include Doug Pagitt, Chris Seay, Tim Keel, Karen Ward, Ivy Beckwith, Brian McLaren, and Mark Oestreicher. Emergent U.K. is directed by Jason Clark. While Emergent is the intellectual and philosophical network of the emerging movement, it is a mistake to narrow all of emerging to the Emergent Village.
Emerging catches into one term the global reshaping of how to "do church" in postmodern culture. It has no central offices, and it is as varied as evangelicalism itself. If I were to point to one centrist expression of the emerging movement in the U.S., it would be Dan Kimball's Vintage Church in Santa Cruz, California. His U.K. counterpart is Andrew Jones, known on the internet as Tall Skinny Kiwi. Jones is a world-traveling speaker, teacher, and activist for simple churches, house churches, and churches without worship services.