Well, I started out with some prognostication, and then I got distracted. It’s easy to get lost when you’re talking about the future, which is inherently hard to see anyway. But let’s get back on track nonetheless. As I was saying, the emerging church was set to become more mainstream, and it has done so in the past couple of years. This is not to say that the self-fashioned heresy-hunters are happy, but that’s not something that’s about to happen anyway. (Not ever, that’s their schtick.) Evangelicalism, however, has become more comfortable with certain forms and contributions from the emerging church. For those who followed along in the past year, you might think this is convenient, because evangelicalism is dead as well as the emerging church, or they’re at least on side-by-side deathbeds. What a pretty pair they make, gasping for breath to tell you that rumours of their demise have been greatly exaggerated. The precise meaning of the word “greatly” in this instance is still in some dispute.
Let’s allow that neither one is going anywhere just yet. Both are hanging on and will continue to do so for a while yet, thanks partly to a blood donation from the missional church, and partly to the inherent urge to continue flogging the horse long after others may have assumed its discontinued utility, if not its complete demise.
Right. So maybe now I’ll come out and say a few things in plain English. Let’s consider a few outstanding questions that linger when we consider how various types of emerging church are now acceptable in the mainstream.
- Firstly, what does it mean that the emerging church is more acceptable in the mainstream? Have they finally emerged?
- Secondly, what does it mean for the mainstream to be more accepting of emerging churches? Have they finally made the changes the emergents were calling for?
- Thirdly, where is the world outside the church in all of this? Do they benefit at all, or are they worse off?
In short, if we’re standing on common ground, who moved? Good question.
Let’s start with mainstream evangelicalism. I don’t think they’ve moved significantly, though perhaps they’re ready to meet in the “missional middle.” That is, with mission as the goal, they are prepared to accept some unconventional approaches and to deal with some decidedly unconservative people in their midst. In the name of missional ministry, they’ll apply some emerging church thinking. Unfortunately, with a large swath of this type of church, there’s a quiet battle for the word “missional.” I’ve written extensively on the meaning of missional in view of the various ways people use it. It is in truth a radical word with theological as well as practical ramifications. Some, however, have attempted to co-opt the word and prepend it to existing ministries to say that they are now missional. This doesn’t cut it — but if they are allowed to redefine the term so that it merely means something like “outwardly-focused,” they will rob it of its radical effect and excuse themselves from the radical change necessary to become missional in more than just name only. This looks to me like a recognition of the need to change paired with the unwillingness to actually change, at least to any significant degree.
In the years ahead, this is where we’ll see not major change, but more adoption of older methods rebranded missional. Think “missional campus” appended to a multi-site church reaching into the inner city, or the “missional program” (an oxymoron if ever there was one) of a megachurch running outreach programs, or the “missional service” that used to be called “seeker-sensitive.” None of these are truly missional in their core, but allow church leaders to tell their congregants that they’re “taking the good stuff” from the missional movement to apply to their own church ministry. They aren’t, but it’ll placate a lot of people.
As for the emerging church, the need to be “relevant” to the culture that was sparked by missional concern before spending ten or fifteen years re-theologizing will return for some. The emerging church will fracture between the liberalizing theological stream and the missional stream, which is to say, the part of the emerging church that returns to the roots of why the began to be emerging. The liberalizing theological stream, on the other hand, is made up of those who didn’t enter the emerging church for primarily missional reasons, or whose emphases changed once they began redefining their theology.
My suspicion is that the emerging church label will trend more toward the liberalizing theological stream, while the missional stream will simply drop the term and use “missional” instead, or else retain the combination term “emerging/missional,” at least for a while. Those who just say “missional” may have to battle the mainstream evangelicals for the definition of the term, while those who say “emerging/missional” will have to continue explaining that their theology is not of the emergent-liberal variety. In other words, we aren’t yet done with the frustrating semantic confusion and seemingly endless discussion of terminology.
Yes, I’m saying that the fractures we talked about last year in the emerging church will continue… likely with more pieces, and wider divides. For some, this may bring to mind Andrew Jones’ recent distancing from Emergent Village, but remember this is nothing new for those who recall the FORGE distancing from Emergent in 2005. Of course, we could toss in a few other notable names here as well.
So who moved? Everyone. Nobody’s really standing still here, everyone’s reacting to changes in culture and in the face of the church. But that’s the subject of my next post.
One more thing, though. Over the next decade, more books will be published about the whole movement. Of course already knew that… but this is the part where I toss out some easy ones so that if I’m wrong about any of the above, I’ll still be able to say I was right about something. ;^) Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m really wrong about any of this stuff. So watch for more criticism about the emergent brand and the money behind it, mainly in publishing and the attendant tours and conferences. Of course, some of the theology will be challenged in the liberalizing arm of the movement as well, so there’s enough controversy to go around. And like among our evangelical church bretheren, some of the coming fractures will have to do with good old-fashioned scandal as well as theological viewpoints and practical emphases.
By the end of the decade, it’s more likely than not that the emerging church as we know it will be done. It will either fizzle and be a failed movement, or it will be more fully integrated into missional and mainstream churches… but I don’t think that it’ll be a standalone movement as it is now. And in order for that to happen, the movement’s leaders will have to ask themselves (or remind themselves) whether they were emerging in order to build “their own thing” or in order to create change, even if it means letting “their own thing” fall into the ground and die.