Often when I begin a series on the emerging church people approach me with two questions: 1) “Am I emerging?” 2) “Are you emerging?” In both counts this is really a loaded question. I have a hard time answering it because I don’t know what they are really asking. It takes some further explaining before I am ever comfortable with such questions.
In the last post (”Will the Real Emerger Please Stand Up?“), I discussed the difficulty in finding a one-size-fits-all category for emergers as evidenced by the variety of leaders who claim the name. There is no one emerger that we can go to that represents the entire so-called “movement.” I then attempted to encourage people to see two primary strands of emergers—those that are simply emerging and a sub-set of those who are part of a more definite group of more liberal minded emergers called Emergent (closely associated with Emergent Village).
For this blog, I would like to narrowÂ our definition of emerging byÂ denying the label certain characteristics and giving a brief description of what I believe it means to be emerging.
What Emerging is Not:
The emerging church is not a church. It is important to realize that to label the emerging church as a church is misleading. Most people want to “go” to an emerging church to see what it is all about. I often tell them that this is not the best way to understand what emerging is all about. While there are “emerging” churches out there,Â the label emerging expresses something much more than a local assembly.Â Therefore, even though you may see people, including myself, call it the emerging “church,” this is not the best label and can be very misleading.
The emerging movement is not a movement. A movement implies a unified and organized group intent on bringing about change basedÂ inÂ a set ideology. The emerging movement is neither unified nor organized. In fact, those who are “emerging” would take the label of a “movement,” in this sense and at this point in time,Â as an insult that represents the antithesis of what is going on. Therefore, even though you may hear many, including myself, refer to the emerging “movement,” it is not really such.
The emerging “church” should not be associated with the seeker-sensitive church. This is a very common misconception that I find. The seeker-sensitive church is a label used to describe those churches who seek to tailor all their church services and activities for the unbeliever. They try to create common ground with those outside the church. This common ground is found in the way the service is conducted. It might involve the type of music, the length of the sermon, type of entertainment,Â corporate professionalism, the casual dress, or the times of service. All the primary events are doneÂ in order for theÂ unbeliever to feel comfortable while the Gospel is proclaimed. Seekers-sensitive churchesÂ want the bridge that one crosses from the culture to the church to be as small as possible.
Emergers, on the other hand, don’t have this philosophy. While many of the elements may look the same (casual dress, times of service, etc.) the reasons for this are completely different. It has to do with how the emerging community views culture. Emergers do not necessarily see the culture as evil as other traditions might. They don’t give people a taste of culture to lure them in and then attempt to change them, but they are the culture. This might help:
Relation to culture (forgive the stereotyping):
1. Fundamentalists: Separate from culture.
2. Evangelicals: Change the culture.
3. Emergers: We are the culture.
Remember the song We are the world”? Well emergers sing “We are the culture.” In this case, biblically minded emergers would distinguish between the apostle John’s definition of “world” (i.e. “Love not the world nor the things in the world”) from “culture.” The “world” is the expressions of a sin infected culture. Emergers would see God’s work in the culture just as much (if not more these days) as in the church. Therefore, they are one more step away from the fundamentalist philosophy of radical separation. They are not seeker-sensitive, but emerger-sensitive. Who are they being sensitive to? Themselves. Culture (believers and unbelievers). The imago dei in everyone.
What Emerging Is?
Briefly, I believe the best way to get ones arms around what it means to emerge is to define it as a widespreadÂ ethos, or way of thinking. This way of thinking is held by those who explicitly call themselves emergers and by many who don’t. It represents an articulated and unarticulated dissatisfaction with the current way that the body of Christ is perceived by the outside worldÂ and, indeed,Â truly is.
This ethos finds expression notÂ in church planting, revitalizations of local church assemblies, or the creation of new denominations, but through conversation—conversations withÂ other like-minded thinkers. People emerge on internet blogs, in chat rooms, and in coffee shops. They emerge through a shared ethos that expresses dissatisfaction and seeks change. These emerging avenues provide people with safety to ask questions—theological questions—that stimulate a conversation. These theological questions come with no assumed answer. In fact, most of the time they are not meant to be answered. Try to answer these questions too quickly with a definite and/or cliche answer and you will have immediately proved yourself disqualified from the emerging conversation. Why? Because you have illegitimized the question. You have insulted the intelligence of the emerging community by acting as if the questions that are bringing about conversation can be answered so thoughtlessly.
It is important to understand that many who are and have been dissatisfied with the church are apathetic to their own disdain. Their questions have never found a place—as safe place—to be asked. Most of these people are no longer active in Church nor are they seeking to be. They may not be able to articulate this dissatisfaction, but there is an ever present nagging within them that says, “This is not the way it is supposed to be.” These may qualify as dormant emergers. They share in the emerging ethos, but have yet to emerge as emergers. It would seem that these dormant emergers, who at present probably out number the active emergers, are being awakened by a like minded call for change—sometimes radical change. They are finding affinity in their naggings and are beginning to rise to the occasion.
Another group is actively seeking to do something about it. They call for and enact change at various levels—change in practice and thinking. Among these are those who are self-identified as emergers. They have come “out of the closet,” expressing their dissatisfaction with others.
So What Does Emerging Mean?
In short, the emerging ethos represents a growing mindset which is, consciously or sub-consciously, willing to legitimize and take seriously anew the type of questions being asked, doubts being expressed, and the distrust and dissatisfaction that the a postmodern (emerging) culture has with the traditional church (and Christianity) because they identify with them.
Those that seem to identify with the postmodern mindset too closely, believing that traditional Christianity may not have the answers, are more on the Emergent side. Emergents call for radical change in doctrine and practice. Those that identify with the postmodern mindset yet feel traditional Christianity, while imperfect, does offer the answers to the most important issues may be part of the more orthodox emerging movement. These call for a more mild change.
But it is not really that simple. There are many ways to call for change and many areas in which this change can occur. Next I will talk about how people can call for change—how people can emerge—in five different ways. (I know I already said that, but this needed to be said first!)
If this has served to obscure the issue for you, this is not such a bad thing. One of my main purposes with this series on the emerging “church” has been to show that confident categorizations of what it means to emerge can do more harm than good and really misses the point.