What happened to the emerging church? I don’t know.
For many years, it was the talk of the town. From its advocates to its antagonists, the emerging church gave everyone fodder for conversation. Bloggers knew every day what they were going to blog about. Revolutionists always had a distinguished place in the world. Revisionists had many friends who would take up the same rifle and shotgun. Deconstructionalists all held their distinguished hammers. If you were an emerger, you were not alone.
However, today things have changed. No one blogs about it. No one claims the name anymore. No publisher would dare accept a book about the emerging “thing” that happened in the forgotten past. Why? because around the year 2009, the identity of the emerging church went silent and many (some enthusiastically) put a gravestone over its assigned plot. In fact, I even paid my respects.
What happened to the emerging church? Which emerging Church?
Defining the “emerging church” is as difficult today as it was in the bygone days. No one ever agreed. It touched so many issues: ecclesiology, soteriology, epistemology, anthropology, and sociology. You could “emerge” with any or all of these issues. In general, the emerging church represented a disenchantment with the traditional methodology and beliefs, primarily within the Evangelical church. It was an ununified movement of deconstructing. Many deconstructed theology. Some deconstructed liturgy. Others deconstructed truth altogether. The key unifying factor was that people were disillusioned with the folk religion they had been given, and were willing to stand up as reformers in whichever area housed their ensuing bitterness. But there was not much unity with regard to their beliefs. They just did things differently. They believed differently than their parents.
What happened to the emerging church? Who was involved in this?
The “movement” claimed advocates as diverse as Mark Driscoll, Scot Mcknight, Rob Bell, Doug Pagitt, Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, and Dan Kimball. For many of these, it was their only claim to “fame.” Now that it has died out, many of us cannot even spell their names. Some were reassumed back into their parental fold of Evangelicalism, others continue their crusades without much fanfare or publicity.
What happened to the emerging church? Emerging what?
Well, maybe I do have a good guess. The emerging church never unified and, therefore, was never a movement at all. It was doomed from the beginning. Those who were percieved as leaders rarely agreed with each other. Some just wanted to change the way the Lord’s Supper was handled; others wanted to redefine the atonement of Christ. Some simply wanted to identify with the culture and get a tattoo here and there; others wanted to get rid of Hell. Some wanted to distance the church’s identity from politics; others wanted to change the church’s stand on issues such as homosexuality and abortion. Some wanted to have incense burning in their church building; others wanted to get rid of the church building altogether.
In 2006, people began to distinguish between the “emerging church” and the “emergent church.” Internally, I think many thought this would save the emerging church from being identified with its more radical and liberal representatives who were teaching doctrines that fell outside of the historic Christian faith. These more radical representatives, such as Brian McLaren and Rob Bell, were called “emergent.” The more orthodox brand was labeled “emerging.” However, this rebranding did not help. Eventually, everyone disassociated with the name altogether (at least as far as I know).
What happened to the emerging church? No landing gear.
I suppose one could say the plane never landed. The emerging church asked Christians to re-think their faith. They asked us to deconstruct our beliefs. They asked us to doubt everything. They asked us to take a ride in the emerging plane and fly for a bit. This was to gain some perspective and let us know that we Evangelicals are not the only ones out there. They asked us to look at Christianity with new eyes. Many of us jumped on this plane with great excitement. Many of us were already on a plane very similar to this. We all wanted to gain some perspective. However, the emerging plane never landed. It soon became clear that there was no destination. There was no runway on which to land and the emerging plane did not even have landing gear. The deconstruction happened with no plans of reconstructing. The emerging journey became an endless flight that did not have any intention on setting down anywhere. Many people jumped out, skydiving back home. The rest, I suppose, remained on the plane until it ran out of gas.
What happened to the emerging church? It is still around.
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. 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 great example 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.
The name “emerging” became tainted by the radical reformers associated with the movement. But the “best-of” the emerging church lives on. Indeed, the ethos of the emerging church never dies, as the church is reformed and always reforming.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]