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Making sense of the emerging church movement

25 March 2009

If you’ve been somewhat bewildered, as I have, by all the talk about this emerging church thing, here’s yet another classification of the multiple mini-movements linked to the overall theme. Hat-tip to Matt Stone for the link.

To summarise, there are:

  • Neo-Anabaptists
  • Neo- Calvinists
  • Neo-Missiologists
  • Neo-Clapham’s
  • Digital Pentecostals
  • Neo-Liberals
  • Blenders

Matt Stone is in Australia, and Mark Sayers (who originated the list) is apparently also in Australia, and so it is an Oz-centred list. Perhaps that’s why I find it so hard to fit any of the people I’ve met who are interested in the emerging church into any of those categories.

In the list there seem to be a lot of “neo-” labels, and that seems to me something one should be careful about. “Neoliberalism”, for example, is usually associated with the ideology that lies behind the economic policies of Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher — privatisation, globalisation, structural adjustment programmes and the like, which have brought such disaster to Africa. It’s difficult enough to have to differentiate between the different liberalisms (political, theological, economic etc) without having to differentiate between different neoliberalisms as well.

In South Africa there seems to be a different pattern to the emerging church movement. There seems to be some neo-Calvinism (in Mark Sayers’s sense), where one would expect it, in the Church of England in South Africa, and possibly among some Calvinistic Baptists, but the emerging people in the traditionally Calvinist denominations, like the Dutch Reformed Churches, seem to regard regard neo-Calvinism as the thing that got us into the mess they are trying to climb out of. Neo-Calvinism is associated with Abraham Kuijper, a Dutch theologian and politician of a century ago, and Herman Dooyeweerd, whose thought was twisted by some Reformed theologians in South Africa to back up the now-discredited ideology of Christian Nationalism, which in turn backed the apartheid policy.

So it seems to me that Neo-Calvinism is the very thing that some South African emerging church people are reacting against (if any of them are reading this, and disagree with this assessment, I hope they will put me right).

If there’s a different stream, there may be some who are reacting against the consumerist mentality of the neopentcostal megachurches,  and who are looking for something more relational, where there is more community. And a third stream might be those looking for spirituality rather than religion. None of these seem to really fit the Oz pattern outlined by Mark Sayers and Matt Stone. And then there are people like Brian McLaren, who I thought was beginning to make a few nods in the direction of historical Orthodoxy, even if not really accepting it, but others seem to disagree. But then I’m not sure what the writer of that blog means by “historic orthodoxy” — I suspect it is very different from what I would regard as historic Orthodoxy.

So perhaps what passes for “emerging” differs in many more ways than are outlined above, taking very different forms in different countries. And it still concerns me that in South Africa it seems to be largely white.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. 26 March 2009 9:32 am

    I don’t know enough about neo-calvanism to know if I’m reacting against it or not!

    Yes, what passes as “emerging” is pretty fluid, and yes, in SA it’s largely white, but that will change over time.

    • 26 March 2009 1:02 pm

      would you regard yourself as belonging to any of those categories? If so, which? If not, what do you think is missing from the classification scheme? Post-church? Perhaps the South African people reacting against Neo-Calvinism could be called post-Calvinist, or at least post-neocalvinist 🙂

      But then they would need to say if they think that fits.

  2. 26 March 2009 11:03 am

    Steve, in Australia theological ‘liberalism’ is used as an antinom for ‘conservative’ and this is where we would locate McLaren, Jones, Pagitt, etc.

    And those looking for ‘spirituality’ versus religion tend to bow out of Christianity altogether or go for some sort of split-level syncretism. That’s not to say we’re not interested in mysticism, many are, but we wouldn’t see that as making up a distinct stream.

    You said, “So perhaps what passes for “emerging” differs in many more ways than are outlined above, taking very different forms in different countries. ” I agree totally.

    • 26 March 2009 1:05 pm

      Well, as I understand it, theological liberalism (in the sense of “liberal Protestantism”) is very much tied to modernity, and involved denying such things as the resurrection of Christ, on the gorunds that “modern man” can’t believe them. My problem with “neoliberalism” is that it has mainly been used in the economic context, a revival of the 19th-century laissez faire liberal economics.

    • 27 March 2009 9:38 pm

      A good post on neoliberalism as heresy and idolatry here. well worth a look.

  3. 27 March 2009 4:09 pm

    Someone like Mark Driscoll seem to be associating himself with being neo-calvinist, which for him seem to imply reading people like Piper. From the Dutch Reformed church, I think many got interested in the emerging church because of our appreciation of critical theology in the last two decades. This would lead to something totally different than neo-calvinism (in the Driscoll, and I believe the Sayers, sense of the word). This same factor leads to what Sayers call neo-liberalism, which I think is a very bad label, but this might be the kind of conversation you found at emergingafrica most of the time: a critical conversation regarding theology within a postmodern environment.

    I suspect that what Sayers label as being neo-anabaptist might help somewhat in the South African conversation. The Nieucommunities crowd would probably welcome that, Stanley Hauerwash seems to have had an important influence with someone like Nelus Niemandt, and those of us now attempting to use the work of David Bosch within the South African emerging conversation obviously would also find some points of contact with that label. It would be interesting to see, however, what happens to this when the current white crowd become more “South African”, because of the important influence of liberation theology (which is absolutely at odds with anabaptist theology) among black South Africans. Would they also reject the political theologies of the past (similar to the white crowd)?

    • 27 March 2009 9:10 pm

      Thanks for those comments, Cobus. I think it takes the conversation a little further, which Sayers doesn’t seem to want to do, having disabled comments on his blog.

      I’m not sure that anabaptist theology is absolutely at odds with liberation theology. There are varieties of liberation theology, and I’d regard Hauerwas as one of those varieties, from what I’ve read of him.


  1. David Bosch and the South African emergence (part 1) « my contemplations
  2. Spirituality and religion « Khanya
  3. wanneer woorde skeldname word: oor die emerging church « die ander kant

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