What is the Emergent Church?

The attractional church focused its energy attracting baby boomers, but what happens when a new generation is not attracted to the same things? The quickly changing culture of the twenty-first century soon produced a new type of church movement called the emergent church. The emergent church is difficult to define because even its leaders are hesitant to define the movement. In his assessment of the movement, D. A. Carson writes, “At the heart of the ‘movement’– or as some of its leaders prefer to call it, the ‘conversation’– lies the conviction that changes in the culture signal that a new church is ‘emerging.’”[1] Dan Kimball, an emergent church representative, writes, “I view the term ‘emerging church’ as a describing those who notice culture is changing and are not afraid to do deep ecclesiological thinking as we’re on an adventurous mission together for the gospel of Jesus.”[2]

While the attractional church adjusted services around modernistic consumerism, this emerging church made new adjustments according to post-modernism. In his book, The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations, Dan Kimball explains that young adults are no longer connecting with the contemporary, modern church services and the seeker-sensitive approach that was successful in previous generations.[3] He writes, “With the increasing dropout rate of people in emerging generations, it could be our destiny that in thirty or forty years, all of our recently constructed mega church buildings, which are now filled with people, will end up as virtually empty tourist attractions.”[4] The consensus of the emerging church movement was that things needed to change. The emerging generation is over-marketed and are now looking for authenticity. They are seeking spiritual experiences, genuine community, relationships, and a vintage feeling faith where spiritual people organically gather. Because post-moderns are relativistic and react negatively to concrete or modernist structures, the church should tread carefully when advocating church doctrine or practice. Preaching doctrine in an authoritative way needs to be exchanged for speculative conversation and spiritual talk. Belonging before believing should be the proper evangelistic method.[5]

The emergent church went beyond the attractional church in their contextualization effort. Its not that the emergent church simply avoided the difficult doctrines, rather the emergent church began to outright deny and dispute difficult doctrines that might turn away a postmodern generation. Substitutionary atonement, hell, biblical sexuality, and the exclusivity of salvation through Christ were all labeled offensive doctrines unworthy of serving as tests for orthodoxy. Rob Bell denied the existence of a literal Hell in his book Love Wins.  Brian McLaren described the doctrine of substitutionary atonement as, “divine child abuse.”[6] Emergent church representative, Steve Chalke writes, “The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse – a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to the faith.”[7]

While the attractional paradigm may have led the church into spiritual shallowness, the emergent paradigm led the church to deny biblical doctrines all together. The movement began with intention of reaching the culture by being like the culture, but the culture’s worldview prevailed.

In the name of relationships and authentic community, the emergent church disregarded doctrine because it would be divisive. In doing so, the emergent church abandoned what Paul articulated to be one of the primary missions of the church. In 1 Timothy 3:15, Paul writes, “If I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.” Notice, that Paul cherishes the church both as a relational community and as a defender and advocate for truth. The church is both a household of God’s people and a pillar of truth. The community is one that gathers around and is united by truth clearly taught and believed.

The office of pastor, the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s supper, church discipline, and membership are all ecclesiological structures designed to help the church defend and advocate for doctrinal distinctives. Paul’s letters to the churches almost always included some warning against those who would bring false teaching, “I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Tim 1:2). For Paul, doctrine is what united God’s people, and it is what separated God’s people from those who were not God’s people. The emergent church movement may have started out as a movement with loose ecclesiological praxis for the sake of reaching the lost, but over time it became what it was trying to reach – lost. In response to the Emergent church movement, Kevin Deyoung writes,

Emergent Christians need to catch Jesus’ broader vision for the church– His vision for a church that is intolerant of error, maintains moral boundaries, promotes doctrinal integrity, stands strong in times of trial, remains vibrant in times of prosperity, believes in certain judgment and certain reward, even as it engages the culture, reaches out, loves, and serves. We need a church that reflects the Master’s vision– one that is deeply theological, deeply ethical, deeply compassionate, and deeply doxological.[8]

– Kevin Deyoung

[1] D. A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 12.

[2] Dan Kimball, Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches: Five Perspectives. Edited by Robert Webber (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 84.

[3] Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 34.

[4] Dan Kimball, They Like Jesus but Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 16.

[5] Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, 13.

[6] Brian D. McLaren, The Story We Find Ourselves In: Further Adventures of a New Kind of Christian (San Fransisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003), 102.

[7] Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 182–83.

[8] Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck, Why We’re Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be (Chicago, IL: Moody, 2008), 248.

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