The Center for Faith & Culture—Olivet Nazarene University

Congregational Ministry

Emerging Church 101


Introduce the topic of the emerging church among pastors and church leaders and you will probably evoke a strong response. That response will tend to be either strongly positive or strongly negative. We're either "for" it or "against" it. The tendency is to categorically reject the perspectives of the emerging church or to uncritically affirm them. This article is an attempt to make our way into the conversation without being polarized. However we finally regard the critique and proposals of the emerging church conversation, it is an important conversation to be aware of and, in some constructive way, involved in.

The dynamic nature of the emerging church conversation makes it hard to simply define or categorize. Part of the ethos of the postmodern approach is to reject such categorical thinking. Nevertheless, we need to be able to have some orientation amidst the disorder if we are to make our way meaningfully. The characterizations suggested in this article are offered as tentative, or working, descriptions. I realize that they only serve to identify general tendencies or prominent themes and can't adequately or accurately portray the entire conversation or individuals in it.  But I think we can see some patterns that allow us to orient our thinking. I am not an authority on the emerging church but I am an interested observer. What follows is an overview of my observations.

Who's On First?

Before we consider the character and dynamics of the emerging church it bears noting that this conversation includes a wide diversity of perspectives within it. One error we want to avoid is to assume that the emerging church is a movement with clear and common commitments. It should be better understood as multiple movements, or better, as a broad-ranging conversation that includes various groupings of ideas and commitments. They are closer in the issues that prompt them than they are in the resolutions they are exploring. The lack of clarity of language and common use of terms makes confusion more difficult to resolve. So, what does it mean when your pastor or youth pastor says they identify themselves as "emerging?"

The name emerging can simply mean that someone is earnestly interested in renewal in the life of the church. Concern to find new ways to engage outsiders in worship or to communicate the Gospel may be identified as "emerging." Desire to reconsider church structures or forms to more faithfully reflect the call to discipleship may be affirmed as "emerging." This level of reconsideration is important but hardly new. The church is - or should be - forever reforming and renewing itself to be faithfully and effectively contextual in its ministry.

A person might also see "emerging" as identifying a more radical revolution in the life and practice of the church. While committed to classic, biblical faith, these emerging thinkers may see a recovery of biblically faithful forms and practices as requiring a thorough-going overhaul. The church and its current message need to be radically restructured. The cumulative effect of cultural influences on the church have left it disordered and culturally compromised.

A third, even more radical, meaning of "emerging" calls for a revisioning of the Christian Faith, its understanding and practice. This revisioning is not limited by the restraints of biblical authority or classic understanding of the Christian Faith.

A Reaction Against

The emerging church conversation is best understood as the product of critique. The emerging church conversation begins as a reaction "against." It has been prompted by deep dissatisfaction with the church and practice of Christian Faith as emergents experienced them. While this discussion is wide-ranging there are recurring themes which identify key points of dissatisfaction. Let me name several of the most prominent.

1) A narrow view of salvation - There is recurring criticism in the emerging conversation of the "ticket to heaven" conception of salvation. In this view, salvation is narrowly understood in a forensic, or legal, way. We stand under judgment and subject to consequent penalty. Salvation is the application of the merit of Christ's atonement on behalf of our sin, relieving us of God's judgment and penalty. This spiritual transformation is, however, outside of us and does not necessarily imply or require transformation of life.

2) Static tradition - Emerging conversations reflect frustration and dissatisfaction with tradition as rigid repetition of past patterns in worship and doctrine. While emerging thinkers generally have a strong interest in ancient tradition they are strongly critical of recent inherited practices and doctrinal formulations.

3) Excessively rational truth claims - This critique is prompted by strongly rational definitions of Faith. It is tied to propositional notions of truth, including biblical truth. That is, we know objective truth by knowing and accepting propositions, or rational statements, as true. This reduces spiritual knowledge to an exercise of the mind. It also can assert that we can know and express absolute Truth absolutely, or objectively.

4) Inerrancy of Scripture - This critique is tied to the last. Understanding spiritual truth as essentially expressed in a collection of rational truth propositions contributes to an understanding of Scripture. Scripture is, then, an authoritative collection of truth propositions. Scripture becomes a collection of rules or divine data.

5) Cultural captivity of the Church - Emerging conversations are full of criticism of the pervading influence of culture - especially American - on the Church to such an extent that the Church is distorted in its life and practices. American nationalism, consumerism and institutionalism so influence the church that it fails to faithfully embody and practice the life of Christ and is Kingdom.

These five critiques are core issues that have prompted the deep dissatisfaction of young emergents and shaped the critical emerging conversation.

A Call For

While the emerging conversation is rooted in reaction against it does move to calls for better options. Again, while these proposals vary widely, there are recurring themes which correspond to the critical issues identified above.

1) A more robust understanding of salvation - Rather than a narrowly forensic, or legal, definition of salvation the emerging conversation calls for  an understanding of salvation as transformational, a call to radical discipleship. Salvation should change us, especially in how we relate to the world. Emergents will tend to see radical discipleship in terms of social action or engagement rather than personal piety.

2) More creativity - Rather than static, staid faith expressions and practices emergents are drawn to an open, re-creative approach to practices and understanding, including theological or doctrinal language. Accessibility and relevance should shape our re-articulation of faith. Recognition of changing cultural and different cultural locations should inform our practices.

3) Aversion to truth claims - The reaction against Christianity as rationalism moves the emerging conversation to a discomfort with, or rejection of, truth claims. The dominance of the idea of "conversation" reflects a preference for a more dynamic approach to norms of faith. Reflecting the postmodern bias to tolerance and pluralism, ideas of "generosity" and inclusion replace notions of boundaries, or even definition of the "center."

4) Dynamic approach to Scripture -  This issue follows the last. Rather than viewing Scripture as a static collection of propositional faith claims the emerging conversation values a more dynamic approach to Scripture. There is a strong bias toward narrative understandings of Scripture (Scripture as "story") and sensitivity to the contextual understanding of Scripture (both the context out of which it comes and the context in which it is read and interpreted)

5) Re-visioning authentic community - In contrast to the static traditional church (as an assembly of the saved) the emerging conversation values authenticity and fidelity to the counter-cultural values of the Kingdom. Quality and depth of relationships, corporate practices that embody Kingdom culture, and critical reconsideration of traditional practices (that may be inappropriately formed by cultural influences) are factors in an often dramatically re-cast vision of the life of the church. Recovery of (uncorrupted) early church practices is a recurring theme.

These positive impulses significantly shape the constructive agenda of the emerging church.

A Time Out

Having briefly considered the dynamics of the emerging church conversation I would like to propose a time-out before we jump in. The question for folks from the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition should be, "Is this our conversation?" A quick look at the critical perceived deficiencies which the emerging church is reacting against reveals assumptions about the "traditional church" which are essentially reformed evangelical. A more than casual look at the conversants in the emerging church conversation will disclose that the vast majority come from a reformed evangelical heritage or experience. The construction of Christianity which they are attempting to "deconstruct" is not native to the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition (at least at its best). Consider a Wesleyan-Holiness perspective on the five critical issues we have been discussing.

1) Understanding of salvation - The Wesleyan-Holiness tradition has never advocated a narrowly forensic understanding of salvation. This was an important "target" of John Wesley's criticism. Holiness builds foundationally on a transformational understanding of salvation. We are not merely forgiven, we are changed. Any notion of salvation that does not include as essential the expectation of transformation is unacceptable.  The Wesleyan tradition has a robust understanding of salvation that includes, but extends beyond, the individual person to the restoration of the New Creation. Wesleyan soteriology includes radical personal transformation, renewal of the church, and restoration of society and the natural world under the reign of the Kingdom.

2) Tradition - Any critique of static traditionalism in the Wesleyan-holiness tradition has to be fairly limited in its scope. While we are continually engaged in the dynamic tension between inherited practices and faith expressions and changing cultural context, the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition has been, characteristically, an adaptive and innovative tradition. Revivalism itself was radically innovative and lent itself to fairly free-wheeling adaptations in worship practices and theological formulations. If anything, this tradition has been excessively creative, often leading to excesses. The Wesleyan tradition reflects Wesley's commitment to the consensual tradition while focusing on core issues of the Faith, allowing liberty in non-essentials. And, it should be said, the Wesleyan range of "non-essentials" is pretty broad as our Article of Faith on Baptism, for example, will attest.

3) Rational definitions of Truth - While the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition has been committed to the doctrinal affirmations of classical Christianity, the bias of its interest has always leaned to right living and vital personal faith. Our concern has focused most centrally on producing "warm hearts" rather than right-thinking minds. Classic orthodoxy is affirmed but it is living faith, not correctly articulated faith, that most interests us. Truth (and Christian life) is critically relational rather than abstractly rational.

4) Scripture - Our understanding of Scripture flows from our relational understanding of knowing truth. The Bible tells us how to know the God who loves us and how to live in right relationship with Him. It is more like the chapters of a love story than a compendium of data. There are certainly truth statements in Scripture that carry propositional meaning. A relational understanding of Christian Faith is not all affect. But the heart of the matter is, well, the heart of the matter. As a result, the Wesleyan-Holiness approach to Scripture is essentially dynamic, discerning within it the inerrantly (reliably) revealed will of God concerning our salvation.

5) Cultural Captivity - It must, I think, be conceded that the Church in America is excessively formed by our cultural context. Americanism, consumerism, capitalistic economics, triumphal individualism, all contribute to our understanding and practice of Faith in ways that we might  regret. On the other hand, it bears noting that every faith community will be, inescapably, contextualized. Our cultural challenges are not unique in character, just specifics. We should also remember that the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition has been, in many respects, profoundly counter-cultural. The conversation that formed our own tradition focused on holiness as the radically transformed life of the Kingdom. Practices that we now tend to lampoon - like curious practices of dress and restrictions on Sunday business or attendance at movies - were rooted in the conviction that the life of holiness, life in the Kingdom, should be different than the world. Whether or not we got the answers right, we were wrestling with this important conviction - a rejection of cultural captivity to live in the Kingdom.

These five perspectives reflect a pattern of Faith essentially formed by our Wesleyan-Holiness tradition.

Whose conversation are we in?

These foundational commitments of the Wesley-Holiness tradition reveal the pattern of a different conversation than the one that forms the emerging church. There are certainly aspects of the emerging critique that can apply accurately to the practices and faith expressions that can be found in many of our churches. But my point is that these are not driven by the core commitments of our tradition. They are often reflective of the encroaching influence of broader reformed evangelicalism. But do we need to "own" that critical conversation? Emerging church leaders are trying to revision their tradition in ways that will make it more relevant, accessible and faithful. Is the best path to our future to be found in reformed evangelicalism's critical dialogue with characteristic patterns of its tradition? Or do we need to focus on our own conversation?

To be sure, there are concerns and issues in the emerging church conversation that "resonate" with concerns in our own tradition. The question is, what direction do we go in trying to address them? While there is much more to be said about the challenges and resources of the emerging church conversation, my essential critique is this - it is not our conversation. Our best - and most faithful - future is not an emerging, culturally accommodated reformed evangelicalism. It is, rather, in recovering the best of who we are. The Wesleyan-Holiness tradition conveys a rich heritage and a robust perspective for our understanding of the Christian life and its practice. Our engagement in a focused conversation about the emerging Wesleyan-Holiness church is the conversation that holds the best promise for our future.

Tags: Emergent

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