What is the Emerging Church?

Many people have questions about terms like the ‘emergent church’ or the ‘emerging church’, and wonder, well what exactly does that mean?

The Re-Emergence Conference I attended in Belfast recently helped clear up some of that for me. Phyllis Tickle, one of the featured speakers, noted that there is a shift happening in Christianity, and it’s something that happens every 500 years or so. Most recently was the (Great) Reformation in the 1500’s, before that was the Great Schism between the East and West portions of the church, before that was the Great decline and fall of the Roman Empire, with Christianity recently becoming the official religion of the empire, and before that was the life of Jesus, called by some the Great Transformation. (And if we want to go back further, 500 years before Jesus was the Babylonian exile, the end of 1st Temple Judaism and the beginnings of second temple Judaism, and 500 years before that was the beginning of the monarchy in Israel with David. Note that all of these dates are approximations, nobody is suggesting it is 500 years to the day.)

Tickle and other experts assert that today we are entering a similar time of broad change. When these changes happen, certain things are brought under question and examination – in the Reformation one major issue was ‘who or what is our authority?’, and the answer shifted from ‘the church’, to ‘the Bible’, or sola Scriptura. That was one major aspect of the shift at that time and helped spark the birth of Protestant Christianity (noting there were many other factors as well).

Today similar questions are being asked:

1) What is a human being? (Tickle: “For the first time in human history we do not know what a human being is.” She noted the shift from Descartes to Freud to Jung among others.)

2) How do we relate to other faiths and religions? (We live in a ‘glocalized’ world, where global and local concerns, realities, traditions, religions intersect, and the old imperial/colonial mentality of Christianity (‘the need to convince everyone’) perhaps needs to be rethought or reunderstood.)

3) What is our understanding of the doctrine of the atonement? (In other words, what did Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection accomplish? What was he about? Our understanding of that typically comes from a medieval development stemming from Augustine and more fully articulated by Anselm of Canterbury in Cur Deus Homo, or ‘Why God Became Man.’)

4) What is our authority and what exactly is the Bible? (Given scientific discoveries, biblical criticism, etc.)

These shifts are happening throughout Christianity, and there are various aspects of it under a variety of names: the emerging church, missional church, the emergent church, fresh expression, de-church, faith collectives, the house church movement, the new monasticism, hyphenateds (meaning a combination of a specific tradition with emerging church aspects, such as Anglican-Emergent, Reformed-Emergent, Presby-Emergent). No aspect of Christianity will remain unaffected by this shift.

Some hear the word ‘emergent’, and say we should run away from it. Those are usually people who don’t know very much about it, or only have ‘second-hand’ knowledge of it – in other words, they’ve only read what other people have written about it (usually condemning it), without reading authors who are a part of the movement itself. Some criticisms are that it ‘doesn’t take the Bible seriously’, or ‘isn’t faithful to Jesus’, or has ‘weak theology’, for example. Tickle noted that this couldn’t be further from the truth.

She says there is a profound depth to the theology of those who are a part of this shift, and I would totally agree. Authors like NT Wright, Walter Brueggemann, Marcus Borg, Brian McLarenScot McKnight, Dallas Willard, and Walter Wink, to name just a few, have done some incredible studying, thinking and writing about who Jesus was and how we are to understand the gospel and Christianity today. My own sense is that these individuals have such incredible respect and love for the Bible and for Jesus that they are willing to ask the hard questions, questions that might cause us to rethink what we thought we knew about exactly who Jesus was and what his message was/is. Those opposed to change are often ironically a product of major changes that have already happened in the faith (e.g., the Reformation or the invention of the printing press).

The questions many of these authors in the emerging world are asking are: how does the culture of the authors of the Bible affect what they are saying, how does the broader political, geographical and cultural context help us frame certain events and writings, how did the original readers of a text understand it, and how have our own modern, post-Enlightenment, post-Reformation biases affected our understandings of the text? Some are opposed to doing any rethinking about any of this, and think we’ve already arrived at all the answers (Thank you, John Calvin and Martin Luther. Of course we forget that even Calvin and Luther had a religious and political milieu within which they were living and reacting against).  If you ask me, a faith that refuses to ask questions, refuses to engage with the text and take it on its own terms (as much as possible), a faith that thinks it has already arrived, is a faith that is not living but dead.

The wonderful thing to me is that many in the emerging church are finding that the gospel is bigger, broader, and more beautiful than we’ve thought. Jesus wasn’t just about helping individuals escape punishment in the hereafter, he was articulating a new way to be human, not just individually, but in community, as it relates to a local community of people (of varying beliefs/backgrounds) as well as to the various political and social realities we find ourselves in. Jesus did not come to start a new religion but to announce and embody the kingdom of God. This embraces and includes all of life, all people (not just Christians), and the entire universe. It is truly good news.

I hope this is somewhat helpful, as many are asking these questions and wondering what this whole emergent or emerging church thing is. It is not something to be scared of, and the reality is – you are in the midst of it, whether you know it or not. Phyllis Tickle noted that emergents are people who are skeptical of denominations and mega-churches, are allergic to owning a church building, are interested in exploring and developing their faith in community and conversation, are eager to draw on some of the other great Christian traditions other than their own, and are interested in how art, faith and justice connect and interweave. Perhaps some of that resonates with you. Above all, it is a conversation – one you are invited to join.

Tickle has a great book on this whole shift, called, aptly, “The Great Emergence”.  I cannot do justice to the whole conference, or even one lecture, let alone a book in a short posting, but feel free to leave a comment or send me a note if you want to discuss it further.

If you haven’t listened to the BBC audio of the conference (a 5 min clip), check it out, there you can hear Phyllis Tickle, Dave Tomlinson, Peter Rollins, and myself, among others.

Here is a short explanation from Tickle herself:


3 thoughts on “What is the Emerging Church?

  1. The Phyllis Tickle video is helpful. I just finished reading a great commentary about the church, emergence and the traditional church called “Deep Church” by Jim Belcher. I found it to be very helpful and accurate in describing a third way to do church for those who can love and appreciate both sides of this debate. I’m a great Brian McLaren fan and attended a conference last spring in Goshen. What a humble man.
    Keep up the conversation at Pub Theology!


  2. Excellent post from Brian McLaren on emergent and whether it is becoming passe:

    “In my view, reports of the conversation’s demise are greatly exaggerated. In some cases, they represent wishful thinking; in other cases, a limited frame of reference. From my perspective, Chapter 1 of the conversation may be ending, but there are many new and even better episodes to come. Or better put, what we call “the emergent conversation” may in fact be chapter 3 or 7 or 123 of a much longer storyline. That larger story is nowhere close to being over, and in fact, I don’t think its most important work has even begun.”

    I recommend reading his post in its entirety:



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