Sunday, September 16, 2012

Example Movement: The "Emerging Church"

All advocates of either reason or mysticism are, by definition, members of a movement. The movement supporting mysticism is populous and diverse; the movement supporting reason is less populous and less diverse. Within each broad movement -- for mysticism or for reason -- there are sub-movements supporting specialized versions of mysticism or reason.

This post, which is based only on a preliminary look at a few sources, focuses on one narrow sub-movement of the movement for mysticism -- the emerging church. One purpose of this post is to examine this movement for characteristics it might share with all other movements, as well as characteristics that distinguish it from others.

WHAT IS THE "EMERGING CHURCH"? The term "emerging church" refers to a group of Christians who think that because our society and culture have changed radically from modern values to postmodern values, the Christian church -- which tries to lead that society and culture to God -- must change. Here, the term "church" (also called "ecclesia") refers simply to the total group of believers in Christ; "church" here does not refer to any particular institution, such as the Roman Catholic Church. "Church" here names a "body" of believers. Advocates of the emerging church have a mystical view of this body. They think individuals in the group are united through God's "grace" or other factor.

"Modern values" means the values of the Enlightenment, especially the Enlightenment's love of reason as a faculty available in everyone. Other modern values flow from reason -- for example, admiration of capitalism and respect for individual rights. Postmodernists oppose these values. They reject reason, capitalism, and individual rights. (For The Main Event articles on postmodern rejection of modernism, see Feb. 7, 2012; Feb. 11, 2012Feb. 21, 2012, and other posts listed under "postmodernism" in the LABELS section in the right-hand column.)

Some proponents of the emerging church define their movement as "a growing generative friendship among missional Christian leaders seeking to love our world in the Spirit of Jesus Christ." ([3], p. 1) The emerging church movement seeks to bring "together a wide range of committed Christians and those exploring the Christian faith in wonderful ways, and many of us sense that God is at work among us." Some members of the movement are activists; they produce "books, articles, speeches, blogs, events, and churches." ([7], p. 1, points 1 and 2) Three goals of the emerging church are: "to make disciples -- especially among the irreligious and unchurched, to serve those in need ... and to show a special concern for orphans and widows in their distress." ([7], p. 3)

The emerging church opposes reason and supports mysticism. For example, Brian McLaren, a leading advocate of the emerging church, says "Christians should present Christianity through loving attitudes rather than logical arguments." ([3], p. 2) Accordingly, the emerging church rejects reason in the form of truth statements (propositions), especially foundational ones, in favor of images and stories. ([1], pp. 6-7) Members say they experience a mystical community through interaction with each other and through a shared spiritual life devoted to the three virtues of faith, hope, and charity. ([1], p. 8; and [9], p. 1 for the "Church as Mystical Communion")

FACING CRITICS OF THE MOVEMENT. Disagreements have arisen within the emerging church movement. The overall movement's deep commitments to "conversation" and to reconciliation have been a salve. "We have repeatedly defined [the] emergent [church] as a conversation and friendship, and neither implies unanimity -- nor even necessarily consensus of opinion." ([7], p. 2)

Criticism from observers outside the movement has also appeared. Some advocates of the emerging church movement have sought "constructive conversation" with these critics. Such a conversation "involves point and counterpoint, honest speaking and open-minded listening. ... We have also attempted to make personal contact with our critics for Christian dialogue." Most critics have refused the invitations. ([7], p. 1)

Some individuals in the emerging church movement have acknowledged that their movement, as with all movements, has no official spokesmen. "We each speak for ourselves and are not official representatives of anyone else, nor do we necessarily endorse everything said or written by one another." (7, p. 2)

After outsiders' criticisms of the emerging church accumulated, some of the leaders of the movement responded in writing.  Denying the critics' charges, one by one, these leading activists said:

"[W]e truly believe that there is such a thing as truth and truth matters ... no, we are not moral or epistemological relativists any more than anyone or any community is who takes hermeneutical positions -- we believe that radical relativism is absurd and dangerous, as is arrogant absolutism; yes, we affirm the historic Trinitarian Christian faith and the ancient creeds, and seek to learn from all of church history ... yes, we believe that Jesus is the crucified and risen Savior of the cosmos and no one comes to the Father except through Jesus; no we do not pit reason against experience ... our greatest desire is to be followers and servants of the Word of  God, Jesus Christ." ([7], p. 2)

HISTORY OF THE MOVEMENT. What were the major stages through which the emerging church movement developed? Around 1989, a few Christians in New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom began pursuing "alternative worship." They networked with each other, some inside but others outside their conventional church organizations. ([1], pp. 3-4) The movement spread to the USA. There, an informal group of Christian intellectuals began discussing the implications of two ideas: (1) From the 1960s through the 1980s, Western Civilization had changed radically, from modern to postmodern; and (2) "the church" (the sum of all Christians everywhere) needs to change itself in response to the changes in the general society. Sharing the same insights, more Christian intellectuals joined the network. "These believers realized that pushing the same methodologies [for spreading the message of Christ] and striving to salvage the old worldview [modernism, the pro-reason principles of the Enlightenment] would increasingly alienate popular culture and future generations of Christian youth." ([4], p. 3)

In the early 1990s, Leadership Network, a Christian foundation based in Dallas, Texas, brought "together the leaders of megachurches" in the USA. These leaders of megachurches noticed that individuals between the ages of 18 and 25 were not attending meetings. ([4], p. 3) Leadership Network then began building networks of "Generation X" Christian intellectuals. ([4], pp. 1 and 3-4) "After a couple of years," said Brian McLaren, a founder of the emerging church movement in the USA, "some of these young Gen X guys said, 'You know, it's not really about a generation. It's really about philosophy; it's really about a cultural shift'." The shift was from modern to postmodern. ([4], p. 4)

In the late 1990s, a group of like-minded individuals, brought together through the support of Leadership Network, began meeting formally to discuss their common views, especially the importance of "conversation" with other Christians and with non-Christians. ([5]) Valuing "conversation" became an essential characteristic of the emerging church movement. Conversation brought social contact, demanded tolerance, and yielded knowledge, they said. The proponents of the movement prefer the term "conversation" to "movement" because they see themselves as primarily conversing with each other, with other Christians, and with non-Christians. ([7], p. 2, point 7) The term "conversation" -- as an epistemological term -- is an echo of postmodernist Richard Rorty's notion of using conversation -- not independent, individual thinking -- as a source of knowing. ([8])

In 2001, a few young members of the emerging church movement -- which, until then, had consisted mostly of lone individuals or networks of individuals -- formed a particular organization, Emergent Village. Its purpose is to support the "Kingdom of God." The Emergent Village website says:

Above all, we became convinced that living into the Kingdom meant doing it together, as friends. Thus, we committed ourselves to lives of reconciliation and friendship, no matter our theological or historical differences. As time passed, others joined the friendship, and the friendship began generating things like books, events, websites, blogs, and churches. ([5])

Thus, within a decade of its beginnings, the emerging church movement had: grown in population; developed networks of communication and activism; clarified its defining principles; spread from New Zealand to Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States; expanded its networks; dealt with criticisms; built a formal organization; and melded the nearly 2000 year old Christian movement with elements of the twenty year old postmodernist movement.

Burgess Laughlin, author,

[1] "Emerging Church," Wikipedia, printed Sept. 2, 2012, 13 pages, 
[2] David Roach, "Leaders call 'Emerging Church Movement' a threat to Gospel," Baptist Press, printed Sept. 4, 2012, 4 pages, 
[3] "Emerging Church," Theopedia, printed Sept. 4, 2012, 6 pages, 
[4] Discernment Research Group, "How Leadership Network created the 'Emerging Church'," Herescope, Nov. 9, 2006, 5 pages, 
[5] Anonymous, "History," Emergent Village, "About/History," 
[6] Tony Jones and others, "About/Values" and "Practices," Emergent Village, 
[7] "Our Response to Critics of Emergent," printed Sept. 7, 2012, 3 pages, 
[8] "Richard Rorty, a postmodernist mystic," The Main Event, April 11, 2012, 
[9] Richard J. Vincent, "Models of the Church" (a review of Avery Dulles's book, Models of the Church), TheoCenTric, April 4, 2005, 5 pages,


  1. Here is a recent, brief article on one of the activities of Brian McLaren, one of the leaders of the Emerging Church movement:

  2. Here is an editorial by Brian McLaren, a leader of the Emerging Church movement. In this editorial, he appeals to fellow evangelical Christians to set aside their "Islamophobia" in favor of loving their enemies:


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