Spoiler: Because it’s practical to do so. Now here’s the long answer…
It is true that there are many definitions of what EC is, including this new one today; doubtless somebody else will define it again differently tomorrow. As to definitions, there’s the Wikipedia one, and it’s worth mentioning that one of the main voices in the definition business is Andrew Jones, whose new EmergAnt site provides a helpful summary of the discussion so far.
Well, so what?
Previously when my major theological thrust has changed, those around me have labelled me, and I have sometimes adjusted the label and sometimes just accepted it. I was called “neo-Pentecostal” and “Charismatic” and even “Vineyard” by others before I called myself any of those things. The same has been true when I became Emerging. I didn’t plan to become any of these things I’ve been labelled, it just happened.
Is the label helpful? Yes, I think it probably is. Particularly with the emerging church label, it aligns me with many online friends in a way that says I’m not alone… I find a lot of resonance within the conversation, and it’s a way that we can identify fellow participants. Labels are practical.
Once a group is cohesive enough and identifiable enough, it will be labelled either from within or without… and in the case of EC, I think it will prove helpful in time to have been allowed to self-define what we believe are the basics of the EC… what makes one EC and what does not. True, there’s not yet a widespread general definition, but I believe one will “emerge” from the conversation. It is my perception that there is greater clarity now about what constitues EC than there was just a few months ago… or maybe that’s only in my mind! One of the things that makes it difficult though is the wide variety of what EC encompasses… but while there’s no comprehensive set of EC characteristics, there are a few basic ones.
For me, I think that EC is evaluating the fundamentals of the faith, the culture of the times, and the restructuring of priorities (in this order) and changes in practice are flowing out of this re-evaluation of the foundations.
There are some who do not wish to re-lay any foundations and will not consider changes to the fundamentals, but have reviewed the culture and wish to change practices in order to express itself in a more culturally-relevant manner. To some this may be a kind of emerging church, but I don’t see it as representing the full meal deal. While I’m not actually opposed to this, in my view, it is essentially an attempt to use emerging veneer to foster church growth.
Now here’s some emerging-church postmodern irony. An attempt at definition may be made with either the intent or the byproduct of being able to say who’s in and who’s out… which is a pretty black-and-white response that doesn’t quite jive with the whole milieu. One hallmark of the real postmodern emerging church practitioner is probably that while the definition may be nice, it isn’t going to change his life.
So is the definition important? Yeah, kinda-sorta. Does it matter? Not really, mostly. Does it actually accomplish anything? Actually, yes… it communicates. And for something that fancies itself more a conversation that a movement, communication is important. The definition of EC then, is in essence the response one gives to the newcomer who is just joining a group of friends, saying, “Hey, everybody, whatcha all talkin’ about?”
Update: just found this article by Bob Hyatt which sounds like what I’m saying in the “Emergent? Nah…” line.