You asked What IS Emergent? and it doesn’t look like you’ve gotten an answer yet. From your other posts on your blog, it sounds like you may not “resonate” (to use an emergent-y kind of word) with a lot of what the emerging church (or “EC”) voices are saying, at least theologically, but allow me to stop and applaud the willingness, even desire, to dialogue with us EC-types.
Finally. As you know, we’ve been pretty beaten up lately… and there’s nothing that so refreshes the soul and so “sharpens iron” as honest dialogue, the kind where nobody has any vested interest in “converting” the other, just exchanging ideas which sharpen our own understandings. But you gotta know, if you’re going to call yourself “An idealist and dreamer wandering in a desert of cynicism,” then you do sound kind of emergent yourself ;^)
So… first off, I don’t blame you for not understanding what EC is about… we’re still working that one out ourselves, and even the Wikipedia definition is in flux at the moment. It isn’t that we don’t know what we’re doing, it’s just that the expressions of EC are quite diverse, and an all-encompassing definition has therefore proven a greater challenge than people realize. Reasonable attempts at defining EC have been made by Andrew Jones and by Will Samson, and Andrew (TSK) Jones has created an online area called EmergAnt to help flesh it out a bit more for people.
Before we get too much further though, we also have to pause and say that sometimes the word Emergent isn’t the same as emergent or emerging… sometimes it refers to the group called Emergent Village. I’ve written further about this here, and it’s worth a look for some further reading, with a number of further links to chase down. Suffice it to say there are not one, but several groups or associations of emergently-minded folks, and they pretty much get on well together. But they aren’t the same. This leads back to the definition, which in order to understand why it’s difficult to summarize, we must realize that there are more than one “flavour” of emerging church.
Now don’t throw up your arms hold on, stay with me… this part is important. Alan Creech and Rob McAlpine have (independently) described the overall emerging church as comprising three “streams” or “types” of EC. (Robbymac describes two, but one of those comes in two types, so again, three). Alan Creech’s three posts are linked from this post of mine, which manages to relate the whole thing to Lawrence of Arabia.
Now, if we were to sum up a few common (though perhaps not universal) characteristics about or ideals of EC, we might offer the following:
- Something’s wrong with the way we’ve been “doing church” it’s become, or becoming, ineffective and irrelevant.
- Christianity must be re-contextualized for postmodern culture.
- The church must be missional.
- It’s time for a re-examination of what is really central to the faith and a re-consideration of what the best structure for church ought to be.
and based on these,
Well, this summary can elicit a couple of responses, from “What does that mean on the other side of the jargon?” to “Hold on, you’re changing everything!” Well, yes or almost. What’s not up for grabs is the central gospel, Truth as we have it from the Bible. Let’s return to the list and elucidate upon each item.
- This is based upon observation, but Barna supports it. Something’s broken. In this category we have a whole bunch of personal stories, many of them pain-filled, which drive people from traditional churches into EC. In my own journey, I basically said that I had to choose between a crisis of ecclesiology or a crisis of faith. This, though, is the personal angle, the “sign” that led each of us to dig deeper.
- Christianity in its modern expression is increasingly irrelevant to the culture in which it’s immersed. Culture is changing, and we are in fact at an epoch-al change in time as the world begins the shift from modernity to postmodernity. Many see postmodernity as “the great evil” and attempt to reject it as anything to which theology should adapt, but this isn’t the point for EC-ers. To us, it appears that postmodernity simply is. It isn’t an optional philosophy or anything of the sort, it’s more akin to the prevailing worldview of our culture not like a worldview that can be cast off and replaced, but one which can be shaped by the presentation of the gospel… if the gospel can be made relevant within that culture or worldview. This is what missiologists have for years called contextualization and is the subject of this more in-depth post by Robbymac. There’s a lot of fear about postmodern theology, but what is being proposed is actually theology for postmodern times, which is different. Yes, Truth does exist. The next step is to pick your non-negotiables (say, the Apostles’ Creed) and start re-examining everything else. Our gospel is affected by our culture (another fact recognized by missiologists), and only by rethinking and distilling it can we get it pared back to what’s really non-negotiable. We find in this exchange that there’s a lot more philosophical and cultural baggage incorporated into it than we first thought. I once asked a rhetorical question here on this blog, “Why are missiology and ecclesiology not the same conversation?” and of course, the answer is that EC is in large part an attempt to make them the same conversation. Step one in this process is contextualization, and it seems to make most evangelicals nervous.
- “Missional” is another way of saying “outward-focused.” The modern church today is based upon an evangelistic-attractional model, whereas missional church, whereas a shift is seen as necessary to move to being missional-incarnational. Major differences between the two modes are summarized by Adam Feldman in a series of articles (the other posts in the series are linked from each post). In a nutshell, this says rather than build megachurches, let’s just get out and meet the neighbours. It’s about taking church to the people rather than bringing people to church… and it’s a the heart of my motto, “Live your faith. Share your life.”
- So church needs to be re-invented. It’s got to be more culturally relevant, but in large part, this is being done in a less heirarchical, more flat, destructured, decentralized fashion. Sometimes the churches look traditional (at least on the outside) and sometimes they’re house churches or networks of very small gatherings. There’s a fair bit of diversity here, but even the ones that maintain the more traditional structures are changing methodologies.
Well, there you have it. This won’t summarize all ECs, and it’s a fairly long answer that directs you to even more reading… but if you do a fair bit of that “within two clicks” of this article, you’ll come to a pretty fair understanding of what EC is about.