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What Do You Think Happened to the Emerging Church?

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It has been years sense I have seen a book or a blog on the Emerging Church. Last week, I asked a large group of people at the Credo House both young and old, “Who has heard of the Emerging Church”? Some of the older people raised their hands and virtually none of the younger people did.

It was just about a decade ago that the evangelical world was ablaze with this issue. Blog were started with with this, thousands of articles were written about it, book publishers were looking for anyone to write on the subject, and emerging seminars were being held all over about it. Names like Doug Pagitt, Brian McLaren, Mark Driscoll, Tony Jones, Dan Kimball, Pyllis Tickle, Andrew Jones (the “Tall Skinny Kiwi”) and others made their names during this era. Except for a few, none of them are heard of much (except in their own respective choirs).

Death Announced Many Years Ago

Its death was announce in the late 2000s by many. Url Scaramanga wrote an R.I.P. on the Emerging Church in 2008, Anthony Bradley wrote a “Farewell to the Emerging Church”  in 2010, Susan Gosselin writes that it was an eleven year movement, John Piper said that the emerging church “is a fading reality” in 2010, and even Tony Jones had to explain its demise back in 2013.

I wrote an obituary to the emerging church in 2009. In it a few angry emergers told me to rethink my position and to consider the emerging conferences that are still going on and the works of the emergers that still have growing influence. I did not see it then, and I don’t see it now.

One thing is for sure, at least the “name” emerging church is no longer a threat to conservative evangelicals and no one is publishing anymore about it. This is to say that the emerging church as a “movement” has passed.

Why is that? What happened to the emerging church? Let me give you a few reasons why I think it has passed:

1. Most Prolific Leaders Lacked Tact

I remember learning in seminary that when one pastor replaces another, the new pastor must be very careful not to attempt change too quickly. One thing at a time. Work with wisdom. Slowly, slowly, slowly. Don’t come in and beat up the old way of doing things thinking that your passion and belief in the necessity of change with be shared by others. It won’t. In fact, your demand for change will solidify people in their own places. You will be politely asked to leave. Most of the Emerging Church seemed to lack tact. It never gained the ear of the home base. Movements such as this need to be changed from the inside out, not the outside in. That is unless you are willing to go all the way and break more decisively from the home base (e.g. the Reformation).

[Tweet “The emerging church seemed to lack tact. It never gained the ear of the home base.”]

A great book on understanding the Emerging Church: Emerging Christianity

2. Some Were Unnecessarily Offensive

The coup did not work. The elephant in the room (the Emerging Church) was forced out. They assumed that Evangelicals would listen and exit the building with them. But what happened was not unlike a disrespectful teenager who thought that he suddenly had it all figured out through a series of unadulterated epiphanies. He tugged on the shirt of his parents letting them know how much more he knew than them and he was blown off because of arrogance. “Tsk, tsk” was the reply, “I remember when I thought I knew it all.” While the Emerging Church, as well as teenagers, do have some very good things to say and should be listened to (as Bono says, “Pity the nation that won’t listen to its boys and girls”), it is the (almost total) disregard of Evangelicalism’s values that caused them to lose their audience. Evangelicals were offended.

[Tweet “The Emerging Church was not unlike a teenager who thought that he suddenly had it all figured out.”]

3. They Failed to Identify with Evangelicals

It certainly is the case that Evangelicalism needs to reform. In fact, one of the Evangelical principles is that we are always reforming (semper reformanda). In principle, Evangelicals should not be scared of change. When this principle is denied, it is no longer Evangelicalism, but some form of Fundamentalism. Most emergers failed to realize the shared DNA with Evangelicals and belittled them instead. They, most of whom were former Fundamentalists (not Evangelicals), mistakenly identified all Evangelicals with neo-Fundamentalists. Therefore, their cries of change, their proclamations of enlightenment, served only to belittle Evangelicals. Ironically, their judgmental spirit of Evangelicalism backfired and caused them to look more like bitter Fundamentalists than than those whom they criticized. It was a Fundamentalism of a different kind, but the attitude was the same. Grace and mercy for their own family left the emerging building.

[Tweet “Grace and mercy for their own family left the emerging building.”]

4. Tolerance of Heterodox Theology

[Tweet “The Emerging church, it seemed, refused to really stand up for anything traditionally Protestant.”]

The Emerging church, it seemed, refused to really stand up for anything traditionally Protestant. It eventually ran out of Protestant fuel. It called on everyone to leave their theological base and fly with them. Many of us came along for the ride in the spirit of consideration, noticing the growing problems in Evangelicalism. The problem is they never landed anywhere. They just flew and flew. They wanted to wait five or ten years to decide on everything. In the meantime, the fuel began to run out. They did eventually land and it was (mostly) not on friendly ground. From there they definitively cried out against much of Protestant Christian orthodoxy, kicking us in the most sensitive areas: Abortion, Atonement, Justification, the Exclusivity of Christ, Homosexuality, Objectivism, and Eternal Punishment. They quickly moved from an insightful teen who might have some good things to say to crowd of disconnected enemies on the attack.

Of course, as I said, there were many of us (including myself) who flew these skies with them. Some even (including myself) identified with the movement believing it had many insights. But soon, most began to parachute out. One after the other, people jumped. When its most prolific insiders jumped (including many of the original emergers—Dan Kimball and Mark Driscoll come to mind), it was over. We parachuted down and acted as if it never happened. “Emerger who? Never heard of him.” And we all pulled our hats down over our eyes and moved on.

5. No Unified Leadership

There were some wonderful, more academic, advocates of the emerging church at first. I think of Scot McKnight, Dallas Willard, Robert Webber, Richard Foster, and Stanley Grenz. They (though many of them deceased), provided a scholarly and theological backbone to the emerging church. But when the popularity of the more unorthodox emergers like Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones and Rob Bell began to overshadow everything, some of these scholars reached out to help, but they did not seem to listen.

And there were many who were wanting to “emerge” in good ways (politically, socially, ecclesiastically, epistemically (let’s get away from Cartesian indubidibility)) who did not want to be identified with these more radical emergers. And as with Luther and Melanchthon, no Marburg dispute round table could bring these two factions (the orthodox emergers and the unorthodox emergers) together. For a while they tried to separate the “Emergers” from the “Emergent” (the former being theologically stable the latter all over the place), but this did not work. The name had been tainted and the “leadership” fell apart.

In truth, there never really was a leadership. There never was a creed. There never was a confession. And there never was a “movement.” Therefore, it fell.

6. Evangelical Leadership that Never Sought to Understand

Just about everything I read from evangelicals about the Emerging Church over the years never really gave it a chance. From John MacArthur’s Truth Wars to D.A. Carson’s Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, both highly influential in people’s opinions about the Emerging Church, it does not seem that any of them knew what they were really talking about. And it did not seem that any of them sat down with any emerger and tried to get their side, becoming conversant with them.

However, from books to blogs, the basic ideas of the Emerging Church did not have much of a chance. The more orthodox have retreated back into Evangelicalism while the others are not much different than liberal Christians.

I am not saying things would have been a lot different had some of the more key leaders sought to understand (and I am not saying that many of us did not seek to understand), I am just saying that when you don’t dialogue with the parties extensively, I am not too sure you have any business speaking on the issue with any degree of authority.

[Tweet “When you don’t dialogue with the parties, I am not too sure you have any business speaking on the issue.”]

See the Theology Unplugged series on the Emerging Church on iTunes for a good balanced overview (scroll way down).

But the Spirit of the Emerging Church Lives On

There will always be reformers needed in the church. In fact, the Great Reformers said that the church is reformed and “always reforming” (semper reformanda). Every one of us must go through a deconstructing process, questioning our most basic beliefs. This can do nothing but make us more real to a world who believes we are fakes. Therefore, in some sense, many in the emerging church were reformers who served the church well. Others were part of a more radical reformation and suffered from their complete detachment from the historic Christian faith.

But certian aspects of the ethos of the emerging church should be within all of us. We should never be satisfied with the status quo. We should always be asking questions and bringing to account our most fundamental beliefs, practices, and lingo. We need to identify with the culture at the same time as we hold on to the past. I believe Robert Webber, though never really called an emerger, was a good representative of our continued need to reform. His Ancient-Future Faith was a great example of how we can hold on to, respect, learn from, and identify with our past, yet push forward into an exciting future. Everyone needs to read this book.

The name “emerging” became tainted by the radical reformers associated with the movement. But the “best-of” the emerging church lives on and needs to. Indeed, the ethos of the emerging church never dies, as the church is reformed and always reforming.

Find out more about the emerging church in an article I wrote about it some years ago.

So, what do you think happened to the Emerging Church?

27 Responses to “What Do You Think Happened to the Emerging Church?”

  1. I completely agree. I was just thinking about this the other day. All of the big-leaders have faded into the past with nothing to speak of. I believe a major factor was the resurgence of calvinism in new-calvinism (as defined by soteriologically reformed, typically continuationist, etc and as typified in Piper, Chandler, Driscoll, etc). This, I believe, allowed many who were looking for more and more history from their roots, were able to find this and LAND instead of continually flying.

    Mr. Patton, do you believe to be a factor in this depletion of the emergent church movement as well?

  2. Keith Crosby 2015-07-11 at 4:24 pm

    I think you may have inadvertently glossed over their key issue. They were irrelevant because they were largely a group of self-important neo 19th-century theological liberals repackaged in hip poses, clothing, and self-conscious posturing. They could never explain what they believed for and were consistently intellectually dishonest. The only thing they were certain of was doubt and their most visible or audible voices Bell, McLaren, et al eventually revealed themselves to be would-be Oprahs and Universalists. I read Doug Pagitt’s novella on re-imagining preaching, one word describes his book: inane.

    Clearly you have some sympathy for them. That’s something for you to work through. Carson and MacArthur seem to have understood them better than most.

    • I agree with you, Keith. Well said!

    • Well said.

    • Angela Hogan 2015-07-12 at 11:59 am

      Yes, I have to agree with Keith as well.

    • Keith summed it up well. Carson and MacArthur and Witmer and DeYoung, et. al., understood sound theology well-enough that they didn’t need to have a conversation with Emergers. If Emergers wanted a hearing about reforming the church (as if that wasn’t happening at light speed in the ’90s, and mostly not good), then they needed to start with sound theology and work outward.

  3. I was very involved in the Emerging Church, years ago- under Kimball and then, church-planting.

    Fortunately, the Lord has faithfully shepherded me to understand His Word and the real heritage we have, which I do not believe Emergents understood at all, nor Webber. Picking and choosing from Patristics is not faithfulness to our heritage – it’s the very thing the Reformers contended against Rome.

    In short, the Emerging Church did not understand semper reformanda – nor am I persuaded you do in this article. It is not the Christian equivalent to “Question Everything.” Please see Clark’s article: http://heidelblog.net/2014/11/always-abusing-semper-reformanda/

  4. Jeremy Edgar 2015-07-11 at 8:43 pm

    The emerging church died because it was just a reinvention of yesteryears liberalism, which will resurface again down the road with a new name.

    It did little to influence true Christianity; rather it’s effects were mostly with young people who were already on the fence about their faith, who eventually either rejected it for orthodoxy or continued down the path to its logical conclusion, which looks nothing like Christianity at all (case in point, Rob Bell).

    One problem was the emergent claim that “we want to start a conversation”. Nothing wrong with that, but emergents never wanted to end the conversation, because that meant drawing conclusions. They just want to question everything but not really find answers, not much unlike postmodernism.

    On a side note, I’m surprised that you mention Driscoll as a key leader. He jumped off the movement while it was still in infancy. No one really considers him to have been emergent. If anything he would be more identified with the young, restless, reformed… Though maybe not so much anymore.

    • Stephen-
      I recall your writings in those early days, including your interview(s) with McLaren.

  5. Michael,

    Good summary observations. One might add (under #2) the failed moral leadership aspect. With the widely publicized abusive, dysfunctional, authoritarian and hyper-complementarian ( ie misogynist) leadership of the likes of Mars Hill (aka, Mark Driscoll) and now in his footsteps, his own brain-child the scandal surrounding Acts 29 and Matt Chandler. Many of the problems here stem from a lack of any meaningful accountability!

  6. Well played, Keith, well played.

  7. The first problem with the Emerging Church was that they lack clarity, not is story telling (they were good engaging writers) but in their narritive . This is not surprising since it is a common complaint of continental philosophy of which they seem to draw deeply. Here is a blog post from 2007 from an secular analytic philospher stating this very problem (http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/2007/04/clarity-continental-philosophy-and.html). The emerging church is alive and well just the leadership has been democratized look at the Progressive Christianity Blogs on Patheos, the religion writers at the Huffington Post, or the old mainline denominations (which is proof that it was nothing new at all). They had something to say and sometimes it was worthwhile but I always thought this was one of the most astute evaluations of the emergent church movement and it was done by someone that they might have considered their own. This is Leonard Sweet from Relevant Magazine in 2006:

    1. It is prone to cause political ruckus when it should be rocking the world for Christ;
    2. It is missing a hunger and longing for the salvation of others, a passion for others to fall
    in love with Jesus and the sense that there are things at stake here that have both earthly
    and eternal consequences . . .
    3. It appears more and more to be a new evangelical form of the old 70s liberation theology
    4. It makes the mistake of separating the Person of Jesus from His teachings
    5. It deconstructs everything, including the historic creeds of the church and the divine
    inspiration of the entire biblical canon
    6. It revels in spreading doubt more than faith

  8. Interesting article. I have been paying some attention to the “movement” over several years, though not directly involved in it. I went through a major “paradigm shift” apart from this all, in the early to mid 90s (in my early to mid 40s). So I can appreciate a lot of the Emergents’ concerns and perspectives. I find that the only theological system, toward which many of them moved, that takes a serious biblical and theological look at what many of those things are is Process theology. I realize it is generally further from orthodoxy than the Emerging perspective and theology. But that is one of its great strengths. That and its rigor to be consistent in biblical interpretation, to take context, genre, etc. seriously (“higher criticism”) and to explain as many of the “loose ends” as possible. I believe it does an incredible job and is also a strong theology to “live by”!

  9. In section 5 toward the end with the mention of the Marburg Colloquy–did you perhaps mean Luther and Zwingli rather than Luther and Melanchthon?

  10. It seems to me that the reason this movement failed primarily was because deep down, the “emergent” folk didn’t really believe the Gospel. They didn’t acknowledge Christ, his life, death, and resurrection from the dead. They didn’t acknowledge their own sinfulness and need before an almighty God. They ridiculed his people, his word, and his teaching. It is no wonder they failed, yet right now we deal with a far greater threat. The greater threat is that many churches with a seeker-sensitive bent are not preaching the Gospel, but giving people what their own heart desires. They are leading many astray through tithe challenges, me-centered theologies, and the promise of an extraordinary prosperous life, that is all about “me” and not about Christ. That is a threat that is far greater because this movement is teaching things that are “almost right.”

  11. The emerging church never really had Christ as it’s center. Oh, yes, it talked about Christ and finding the real Jesus, but ultimately, it was narsisisstic; too wrapped up in itself. It’s not the only one, you will find Sardinian churches in every denomination and movement. The church exists to glorify God, eventually anything else will die, unless God is allowing Satan to work it for his purposes.

  12. Ian McKerracher 2015-09-27 at 3:33 pm

    I remember when my son left home and hitch-hiked a couple of thousand miles and, through chance more than anything, ended up as a roomie in a house full of young anarchists. I understand that they are political and not uhmmm…”spiritual” but the parallel is interesting to me. He later mentioned this in a conversation and told me why he is NOT an anarchist. Out of the half-dozen young political zealots, exactly none would stick around the house and clean it or even do the dishes. Also, in the new world order that they were attempting to inflict upon us, they all wanted to be artists or musicians. It occurred to my son that the world doesn’t work like that.
    It is the same for the emerging Christians. As was pointed out, they had no real leadership, no real vision other than “change”, and no people who would do the hard work of actual doing things different. There is a world of difference between rebellion and revolution. Evangelicalism desperately needs a revolution and Emergence was not it.

    • Interesting thoughts Ian. I’ve heard that our fathers and mothers were farmers and hunters so we could be doctors and lawyers so our children could be artists and musicians. Anarchism seem to me to be self-defeating.

  13. The Emergent Church has gone underground. What they do is change their name and then continue to keep trying to undermine the truth as it is written in the Bible. The Emergent Church people advocate paganism and everything else the Bible names as an abomination. They are against Christianity and all that the Bible says it is. The One Project which is part of the Emergent Church, is making its stinking presence felt. In my church I have had to endure loser pastors trying to impart new age thinking through new age meditation and ecumenism, etc. (how can a Protestant church merge with the Catholic church? Ridiculous! The Reformers died for the protestant message. They were correct. Folks today don’t know history. I am not against the Roman Catholic people – I have met and know some solid Christians within that church – but, I am against the institution which is Roman Catholic and the Papacy. The Pope is NOT the Vicar of Christ (which the Pope calls himself) as far as the Bible is concerned. It is blasphemy for a man (priest) to hear and forgive sins; that is why the Jews crucified Christ. The Emergent Church is still around in 2015 it is just calling itself something else. It is up to you all to keep alert.

  14. It may be the case that the emerging church has disappeared as a ‘movement’ however it’s influence and ethos is still very much in evidence within the recognised church, and has influenced the new ‘movement’, i.e. the missional church movement. Emerging church (EC) advocates like Brian McLaren are still influencing modern church thought. I don’t mean ‘missional church’ movements like Tim Keller’s church, I mean the 3DM missional church movement, which is very light on theology and glosses over sin and the Cross and the need for the Cross. The aim in the 3DM model seems to be not to offend anyone, so take the Cross out of the message so people are not offended. I agree that the emerging church did not recognise the atonement or the Cross, which means it wasn’t really Christian at all. The EC was right in non-eternal things, e.g. bland church services, but was wrong in the important ‘eternal’ things, so people could identify with the non-eternal things, and jumped on the bandwagon without an appreciation of the necessity to have the ‘eternal’ things in place. The 3DM movement seems promote a more ‘evangelical’ model than the EM but still fails to proclaim the true gospel i.e. the answer to the problem that we are all cut off from God because of our sins and Jesus died to reconcile us to God.

  15. It may be the case that the emerging church has disappeared as a ‘movement’ however it’s influence and ethos is still very much in evidence within the recognised church, and has influenced the new ‘movement’, i.e. the missional church movement. Emerging church (EC) advocates like Brian McLaren are still influencing modern church thought. I don’t mean ‘missional church’ movements like Tim Keller’s church, I mean the 3DM missional church movement, which is very light on theology and glosses over sin and the Cross and the need for the Cross. The aim in the 3DM model seems to be not to offend anyone, so take the Cross out of the message so people are not offended. I agree that the emerging church did not recognise the atonement or the Cross, which means it wasn’t really Christian at all. The EC was right in non-eternal things, e.g. bland church services, but was wrong in the important ‘eternal’ things, so people could identify with the non-eternal things, and jumped on the bandwagon without an appreciation of the necessity to have the ‘eternal’ things in place. The 3DM movement seems promote a more ‘evangelical’ model than the EM but still fails to proclaim the true gospel i.e. the answer to the problem that we are all cut off from God because of our sins and Jesus died to reconcile us to God. Without the gospel all the nice messages of how God loves us does not change a thing.

  16. This is a thorough and thoughtful analysis and it makes some great points but may have missed some others.

    I agree with your conclusion of the ongoing need for reformation within conservative Protestantism. I also agree that there was a need for more respectful dialogue between both parties and particularly liked the distinction between ‘Ermergers’ and ‘Emergent’.

    I do believe, however, that some of the more radical of the ’emergent’ thinkers and writers such as Brian McLaren still have a lot of influence. Their books are sold in Christian bookstores and their ideas are widespread and easily accessible and replete with presentation and wordplay that appear evangelical. They invite us into a ‘conversation’ about the future of Western and indeed global Christianity. A problem with this is that the ‘conversation’ uses language that is designed to control the direction and outcomes of the debate: https://thereluctantsamizdatwordpresscom.wordpress.com/2016/01/06/discussion-as-disinformation/

  17. The Emerging Church was not unlike a teenager who thought that he suddenly had it all figured out.

    Same thing could have been said by Roman Catholics some 500 years ago about the then-emerging Protestant Reformation…

    Evangelicals were offended.

    So were Catholics half a millennium ago, but that didn’t stop the growth of the Protestant movement…

    Signed,

    A Tactless Non-Protestant. 🙂

  18. Great article and summary. Your points encourage me to continue to be vigilant – that although we don’t talk as much about the persuasiveness of the Emergent church, the underlying theology and principles are still ever present today.

  19. Kevin Simonson 2017-01-18 at 2:46 pm

    Some of the commenters mention Rob Bell as one of the notable thinkers of the Emergent Church. Is this the same Bell who thought Christians needed to consider the possibility of universal salvation, the possibility that it might turn out that everyone will eventually repent and be saved? Is Patton’s point (at least partially) that Christian thinkers don’t think that any more?

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  1. THIS & THAT and Favorite Quotes of the Week | Coram Deo ~ - 2015-08-05

    […] What Do You Think Happened to the Emerging Church? Michael Patton writes “One thing is for sure, at least the “name” emerging church is no longer a threat to conservative evangelicals and no one is publishing anymore about it. This is to say that the emerging church as a “movement” has passed. Why is that? What happened to the emerging church? Let me give you a few reasons why I think it has passed.” […]

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