Emergent Church Overview – Who’s Emergent?

Who is Emergent?

A local Assembly of God pastor and church planter in the Boston area recently told me that world-wide his denomination is growing significantly, especially in Latin America, but as well in other countries overseas.  But here in North America, like most other evangelical and Pentecostal churches, the growth is either flat or in decline.  “We have to do something” he said to me, “so I guess I’m Emergent, because what worked in the past is not working now”.  However, when I pressed him about doctrinal issues such as the deity of Christ, the Atonement, and the inspiration and reliability of the Bible, his confession was clearly totally orthodox.   I have had similar exchanges with other pastors and laymen in other denominations: something isn’t working, something needs to change.

The above anecdote then leads us to one class of people who label themselves “Emergent” — those who wish to reach the current generation in North America, as well as the UK, Australia and New Zealand, and some other parts of the western world.    By “reach” in this context, speaking in a traditional dialect, the implication is that there is a desire to evangelize in order that the reached people will become followers of Jesus Christ, their sins forgiven, their names written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, with the Holy Spirit, third person in the Trinity coming to dwell within their souls in a way that He does not in the souls of the un-reached; that these reached souls will by the transforming power of God and His mercy and grace begin a life of being conformed into the image of God, and that upon their death they will be ushered into the Presence of God in an tangible way, and this life following death will be without sin and filled with inexpressible joy.  However, before death, because of the enabling power of God and the ongoing sanctification of their lives through their obedience and the mercy and faithfulness of God they will be drawn to not only evangelize others but will also be moved by the Holy Spirit living within to intentionally set out to feed the poor, take care of widows in distress, and visit those in prison.  Interestingly though, it is likely that these same “saved” people will have a tendency to support political structures which allow churches to spread the Gospel in the surrounding culture without government interference, and further will likely support economic policy that maximizes the ability of people to live in self-supporting, responsible manner, as opposed to becoming increasingly dependent on the government.  In other words, these saved souls will have a tendency to move themselves and encourage others to move into the middle class similar to what has taken place in Brazil with the Pentecostal revival of the last generation.  Terms such as “social justice” will have little meaning to them as a slogan (other than perhaps to wonder about the theology of the persons or groups uttering such phrases), but their lives and supported public policies will tend to bear immense fruit for the Kingdom of God.

The latter part of my rant above may to some take an unexpected “turn to the right” in terms of political inclination, but that leads us to a recurring characteristic of a portion of the EC: a definite predilection toward left-leaning politics.  This is because to some, the real meaning of the coming of Jesus and His Gospel is to participate with Him to bring the Kingdom of heaven down to earth.  The life verse for these people might be from the disciples’ prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth…”  Additionally, this particular combination of the spiritual and political realms seems quite aligned with the “social gospel” of 80 or 90 years ago; paradoxically, that ultimately resulted in the birth of the contemporary evangelical movement which the EC is in part a reaction to.  Cycles.

The above examples – learning how to better evangelize post-moderns, and the desire to re-cast the Gospel as first and foremost an emphasis on life in the here and now – are representative of two diverging streams of the EC movement.    The central issue dividing them is their view of the Word of God, its reliability and authority and the doctrines that are derived, based upon the starting assumptions/beliefs about the Word of God.  What is common to both streams however is a degree of discontentment with the status quo, leading to new initiatives, changed world-views, and redefinitions of terms resulting in a new “thing” emerging out of the old.

Big question: what is that “thing”?  Is it a better way to “do church”?  Perhaps new programs?   Improved spirituality?  Or is it something more drastic?  A revision of doctrine?  A new way to look at Scripture?   Even a new religion?  Post-Christianity?  Because of the diversity of this movement, it might be some or all of the above.   Yet on the other hand, maybe nothing of importance is happening, other than lots of people getting enthusiastic and others resisting the focus of that enthusiasm.

One point does seem to be clear:  the EC movement with all of its diversity and complexity is actually largely restricted to exist among Caucasian, English-speaking Christians.    As a simple example, a few months ago I came across the pastor of a Hispanic congregation that meets in our church building.   I asked him about the EC, and he told me he had never heard of it.  I told him in about 1.5 sentences that it was the marriage of Christianity and post-modernism.  He pointed one finger to his ear in a rotary motion: “tickling the ears”, “end-times”, was his response.   Another example: I recently attended a conference that included hundreds of charismatics.  During that time, I spoke with a number of attendees and host church staff: nobody had heard of the EC, and further did not seem to be curious about it.

Another crude example: a google of “black emergent” in February 2010 finds a single blog that is written by an African-American pastor in the PC (USA).  Similar searches on “Assembly of God emergent”, “Nazarene emergent”, Baptist emergent”, etc. invariably yield many hits.   Ok, not scientific, but consistent with my observation.   I attend a church that is largely non-Caucasian, and the EC is nowhere to be found in conversation among members or from the pulpit, other than when I bring up the subject.

Further, in the reading I have done on the EC over the past year, I have no memory of anyone referring to any EC activity among Christians in locations around the world where Christianity is flourishing and growing: Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, China, etc.

A little word-game might be illustrative here:

1.  Name the 10 most influential Black pastors in the EC movement (hint: there are none)

2.  Name the 10 most influential Black academics in the EC movement (hint: there are none)

Now see how many different ethnic references you can replace “Black” with, where the “hint” will still be true.

Meta-hint: Hispanic, Korean, Chinese, Polish, Brazilian, Ugandan, Arabic, Hittite, Sir Lankese, and many more….. (ok, just kidding about the Hittite!)

And you can take it one more step.  If you start with Phyllis Tickle and Nancey Murphy, name the other 8 most influential female writers/bloggers in the EC movement  (hint: there are none).  So maybe the profile of the leadership of the EC movement is not only western, Caucasian and English-speaking, it’s also almost exclusively male.

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2 comments to Emergent Church Overview – Who’s Emergent?

  • Teresa

    Not sure when you wrote this. Thought you might find this interesting – for false teaching. Includes emergent people like James Wallis and Brian McClaren (sp?)



  • Richard

    Amazing list. Thanks. The pages dealing with the Emergent Church were posted in 2010. From my current perspective, the spiritual Eph. 6:12 components of progressivism have taken a big toll on the Evangelical movement, and it is especially evident in Christian Higher Education and seminaries. One would have hoped, even expected that these institutions would be at the forefront of opposition, pushback and exposure, but instead they have become either facilitators, or else shamed into silence by that most effective PC putdown term: “fundamentalist”. But there is a remnant, and they remain uncontaminated, seeking a new awakening. However if the culture is to be awakened, it has to start in the church.

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