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Emerging Church movement dead?

9 January 2010

What do you do when a revolution isn’t sexy any more?

So asks Danielle Shroyer (hat-tip to Julie Clawson). Danielle notes that the “emerging” movement has emerged into the mainstream and become established and institutionalised — they are teaching courses on “Emerging Church” in Bible Colleges.

The revolution we now call the emerging church movement may  not be as sexy as it once was.  It may not be feeding our endless obsession for what’s new and what’s next.  It may not have arrived in current form the way we had wanted or anticipated.  It may not be stroking our egos as much as it used to, now that some random guy on the streets of Dallas can probably define “missional” without our help.  But it is far from over.

I don’t see myself as part of the “Emerging Church” because I’m not emerging from or into anywhere that people who see themselves as “emerging church” are coming from or going to. So if they see themselves as going somewhere else, that’s OK too. But I have enjoyed participating in the “emergin g conversation”, and I would be sorry if that disappeared.

One of the focal points of the “emerging conversation” in Southern Africa is the Emerging Africa blog, or rather collection of blogs and bloggers. But recently Nic Paton asked there “Why does this site does not engender much enthusiam? Has it had its time, and we need to move onto another platform, or just get on with it in the real world?”

So what do you do when a revolution isn’t sexy any more?

I only heard the term “emerging church” for the first time four years ago, but from what Andrew Jones (alias Tall Skinny Kiwi) says, it sounds as if it was around for a lot longer, even if people weren’t calling it that. We were plugging house church in the 1970s, based on a model developed in the 1950s, to give just one example. We were doing “church as a party” in 1969 (see Notes from underground: Psychedelic Christian Worship — thecages). But we didn’t call it “emerging church” (when I say “we” I mean our generation — the old farts).

Back then there was a radical Christian magazine called The Catonsville Roadrunner, and on one issue the front cover had a picture of a young girl and and old man dancing, and the heading “We shall celebrate with such fierce dancing the death of your institutions”. But, as Danielle Shroyer points out, there is a tendency for revolutions to become institutionalised. If old institutions die, new ones arise to take their place, or the old ones simply absorb the revolutions.

Andrew Jones is concerned about the history of the Emerging Church movement. As a historian, I think it is a good concern. What has been told of the history of Christianity in the second half of the 20th century hasn’t told half of it. I have a similar concern about the history of the charismatic renewal movement in Southern Africa. It had a tremendous influence on Christianity in southern Africa, yet the story of it has not been told. What happened to it and where did it go? I think that to some extent it is linked to the history of the emerging church movement, though the latter seems to be far smaller. Will it continue to grow, or is its time past?

One of the reasons I find the Emerging conversation interesting is that even though the answers it produces may not be relevant, the questions are. There is the concern with being missional, and one of my concerns is that the Orthodox Church should be more missional. The answers produced by the Emerging Church people are not usually relevant, because we’re not coming from the same place. Some of what they say simply doesn’t translate from an alien context. But the concern is an important one, and needs to be fostered.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 9 January 2010 9:34 am

    though the answers it produces may not be relevant, the questions are.

    I just read Deep Church by Jim Belcher. He outlines seven criticisms the emergent movement offers to traditional evangelicalism. Nearly all are issues Orthodox people have been bringing up for years.

    As you say, his answers aren’t ours, but the questions are well thought-out and the book reflects dialogue with figures in and out of the emergent scene. He’s actually helped me frame more cogent questions and conversation-starters in my own dialogues with other Christian traditions. Oddly enough, though, I haven’t heard much from that movement that I can apply in daily witness to the unchurched majority around me.

    Our community is missional in that we’re forming relationships with people who then osmose into our fellowship, begin attending services and eventually ask for baptism. But it seems the more we concentrate on doing and expressing the culturally alien tradition and worldview we’ve received, the more distinct we become and the more effective our witness seems to be.

    • 9 January 2010 12:03 pm

      Concerning your last paragraph — it seems to be confirmation that Christianity is indicative rather than imperative. Being is more important than doing.

  2. 9 January 2010 1:23 pm

    I still don’t get what “emerging church” is/was supposed to be. I was hoping that it was emerging from the cultural imperialism that characterised so much of Christianity — the assumption that Christianity is the only truth, that kind of thing. But it doesn’t seem to be about that at all. Its missional stance is probably more sensitive and inclusive, but it’s still missional.

    As you know, I object to evangelism (although I find the Orthodox way of going about it much less objectionable than the Pentecostal, because the Orthodox Church assimilates what it can from the original culture/religion, whereas Pentecostals just destroy it).

    I wanted the emerging church to embrace the Phoenix Affirmations, but that seems rather unlikely, given the nature of most of the “emerging conversation”.

    • 10 January 2010 7:06 am


      Without evangelism or being missional Christianity would cease to be Christian. So are you saying that you don’t accept it as “legitimate” unless Christians become pagans, or at least something other than Christian?

      Samuel Huntington said ““The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power. The problem for Islam is not the CIA or the U.S. Department of Defense. It is the West, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the universality of their culture and believe that their superior, if declining, power imposes on them the obligation to extend that culture throughout the world. These are the basic ingredients that fuel conflict between Islam and the West.”

      And perhaps that, mutatis mutandis is what fuels conflict between Pagans and Christians. The problem Pagans have with Christianity is not Christian fundamentalism but Christianity, and vice versa.

      So where do we go from here>

  3. 9 January 2010 1:36 pm

    Aha! Finally, Wikipedia has a decent entry on the emerging church that actually explains it properly (someone has done a lot of work on it since I last looked at it). I think I get it now. As I thought, it is still missional, but with an emphasis on dialogue instead of polemic. A slight improvement on old-style evangelism, then. And it’s more spiritual and mystical and liturgical, which is nice.

  4. 10 January 2010 6:40 pm

    Steve – I think you are on the right track with your questions and looking at a bigger picture. The problem we seem to have is having a narrow view and thinking that our movement/conversations are the main thing (or even the only thing) when in fact the emerging church/conversation, the charasmatic renewal movement, house churches and many other things are all small components of something bigger that has been going on for quite a long time.

    Phylis Tickle is one person who I think is doing a good job at looking at the history of Christianity during the last century and she made this point when commenting on Danielle’s post:

    Emergent Christianity is one-but only one- portion or presentation of Emergence Christianity. Emerging is another, so is Missional Church, so is new-monasticism, so is Fresh Expressions etc., etc. Protestantism was never limited to a Baptist pov or a Lutheran one or a Presbyterian one etc., etc. Nor did all those component parts within Protestantism follow the same precise maturation patterns. Neither will the components of Emergence Christianity. One does not the whole make, in other words

    My other comment here would be that a very sound argument can be made that things like Taize in Europe in the mid-forties or, in this country, the Church of the Saviour in DC, for example, are early and clear presentation of Emergence Christianity. We are not dealing with a decade and a half so much as with a little over half a century of presence here.

  5. 10 January 2010 10:54 pm

    Here’s one Emergent death notice I came across:

    Incidentally Emergent and Emerging are not entirely synonymous. Emergent is more closely associated with narrative/postliberal theology.


  1. When the revolution is over, the work begins « my contemplations

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