Emergism, or the emergent movement/emergent churches, represents a variety of groups attempting to work within postmodernist society to establish viable faith communities, beginning in the late 1990s. Because it is a marriage of most of the movements considered previously, emergism takes many forms and it is quite difficult to make any generalized statement that is truly inclusive of all groups. Regardless, most of the emergent movement focuses on attempting to grow their view of God’s Kingdom by working within existing culture, to deconstruct previous traditions, and to be willing to experiment with new ways of performing Christianity.
Sections on this Page
- Origins and History
- Denominations Involved
- General Considerations
- Emergism and Postmodernism
- Emergism and Culture
- Emergism and the Church
Origins and History
Emergism is the offspring of postmodern philosophy and the modern movements within “Christendom,” particularly evangelicalism, the charismatic movement, ecumenism, the community church movement, the house church movement, and the megachurch movement. Many emergent groups grew out of “Generation X” style churches of the 1980s; the movement gained its name around 1999, even though many would not wish to be so identified1. The movement has continued to grow since, especially in the United States and the United Kingdom. While there is no formal organization of emergism or any such thing, most involved in the emergent movement are online and continually interact through that medium.
Emergism is not affiliated with any particular denomination, yet most Protestant denominations (Lutheranism, Calvinism, Anglicanism/Episcopalianism, Baptists, Wesleyanism, Christian Church, many Pentecostal churches) have some “emerging” congregations in their midst. Many of those within emergism came from such denominational backgrounds.
Emergism has a strained relationship with evangelicalism overall, since many would consider themselves “post-evangelical”; nevertheless, emergism does represent an offshoot of evangelicalism. Many involved in emergism maintain an ecumenical viewpoint, and some consider themselves as community churches. While many emergent groups have small group meetings in houses, and share many common beliefs, there is no formal connection to the house church movement or its theology. Many emergent thinkers and emerging churches were or are also part of the megachurch movement.
Quite a few emergent groups, however, have no denominational affiliation and stand on their own.
Emergism reflects the same variety seen consistently in movements. The list below represents many features consistent with many strands of emergism.
Emergism and Postmodernism
Emergism has developed entirely within the postmodern world, and perhaps the most unifying concept among the various strands of emergism is the conviction of the need to work within postmodernist society using the ideology of postmodernist society2. Postmodernism, in this context, is the philosophical reaction to what is commonly called “modernism”, which was the primary philosophy in Western culture from at least 1750 to 1950. Modernism was marked by a desire for objectivity, rationalism, and the triumph of human ability, among other matters. Postmodernism, born in the tempest following two destructive world wars, challenged all the assumptions of the modernist viewpoint, marked by subjectivism, relativism, and a much more limited view of human ability, especially in being able to discern truth. There is no doubt that we currently live in a time of great change and fluctuation, as modernism and postmodernism collide, and humans are left to sort out what to believe. In this climate, should we as Christians embrace either such philosophy? What do the Scriptures teach?
Paul bears witness in Colossians 2:6-10:
As therefore ye received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and builded up in him, and stablished in your faith, even as ye were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. Take heed lest there shall be any one that maketh spoil of you through his philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ: for in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily, and in him ye are made full, who is the head of all principality and power.
God’s wisdom as established here is important for us to remember: we should not be taken captive by any individual philosophy, according to the traditions of men, but always to be rooted and established in Jesus Christ. We must recognize that modernism and postmodernism both provide support for–as well as particular stumbling blocks against–Christian beliefs. Modernism recognized the existence of absolute truth and provided a rationalist framework through which much could be understood; on the other hand, it fostered an overly scientific viewpoint and went too far in compartmentalizing the world. Postmodernism corrects some of these tendencies, and yet as a reaction poses its own difficulties. In postmodernism, truth is quite relative, and any concept of “absolute truth” is anathema; in Christianity, such truth exists (John 14:6). Postmodernism eschews structure; while this nicely corrects many excessive structures within “Christendom,” some structure is still necessary (Acts 14:23 et al). Postmodern tolerance and ecumenical concepts come together; the Scriptures, however, establish a level of exclusivity that makes many today uncomfortable (John 14:6, Galatians 1:6-9, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9).
Christians, therefore, are not to be “modern,” “postmodern,” or whatever new fad philosophy may come into place. Christians are to be just that–followers of Christ–and put that allegiance first. Where modernism or postmodernism is conducive to the truths of Scriptures, we freely promote such truths. When the Scriptures present concepts that do not sit well with philosophies, we must still hold fast to what God has taught. Human philosophy is insufficient in expressing the will of God; whenever anyone tries to profess a given philosophy while trying to follow Christ, such a conflicting perspective limits that person’s ability to understand what God has revealed and can lead his/her understanding of God–in light of such changing philosophies–to become irrelevant when the prevailing philosophy changes. Perhaps many denominational structures conformed to modernist thinking and need reformation; such does not justify establishing postmodern structures that may need reformation when the next philosophical change takes place. We are not to conform to the world or its philosophies, but rather to be transformed by the renewal of our minds in Christ (Romans 12:2)!
As postmodern philosophy represents a reaction to modernism, so too emergism often represents a reaction to various structures present within denominations. We may sympathize with many of the tenets of emergism and agree about the errors plaguing many denominations; nevertheless, emergism also often goes too far in its postmodern thinking, as will be seen below.
Emergism and Culture
As established earlier, emergism finds its greatest voice in its attempt to present the Gospel within postmodern American and British culture of the twenty-first century. Those in the emergent movement attempt to be followers of Jesus, faithful “in their place and time3“. This endeavor is particularly marked by “alternative worship,” which represents attempts to worship God “native” to the culture of those involved, even if that culture involves bars or nightclubs4. The “embodied Gospel” in postmodern culture may include the club scene, dance music, and Gregorian chants: this is consonant with many emergent churches’ view of their role in culture, being high-profile, youth-oriented congregations who gain attention because of their rapid growth and ability to attract twenty-somethings5. Previous notions of church are deemed “not viable” for postmodern culture, and many within emergism point to the decline in historical churches over the past few years6. It is claimed that the differences between emergism and historic Christianity, especially in “alternative worship,” are “cultural” and not doctrinal7. Finally, emergism often points to the example of Jesus, who was incarnated in a particular culture, that of first-century Palestinian Judaism, and we must do the same in the twenty-first century8. Are these claims true?
There is no doubt that there are many traditions within churches that are more cultural than doctrinal; these represent liberties and can easily be questioned. Are all such things liberties? If a given culture or sub-culture involves things like clubs or other such places, should we automatically embrace such things within that culture?
Paul establishes the following in Colossians 3:8-11:
But now put ye also away all these; anger, wrath, malice, railing, shameful speaking out of your mouth: lie not one to another; seeing that ye have put off the old man with his doings, and have put on the new man, which is being renewed unto knowledge after the image of him that created him: where there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bondman, freeman: but Christ is all, and in all.
In Christ’s Kingdom, all persons can be reconciled to Him; in a very real sense, therefore, Jesus transcends culture. Culture in and of itself cannot be the standard: Jesus must remain the standard.
In any culture, tendencies will exist that are consonant with Christianity; there will also be tendencies that are against the principles of Christianity. Yes, Jesus was a first-century Jew in Palestine; the Jews of Palestine were God’s people attempting to live according to God’s standards, and whenever traditions or sin were getting in the way, Jesus would rebuke those elements (Matthew 23, John 8:11). It is manifest that we must live within the world, and that will mean that we will have to understand the culture around us, as Jesus did His own, but does this justify radically changing Christian practice?
Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:19-22 are instructive:
For though I was free from all men, I brought myself under bondage to all, that I might gain the more. And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, not being myself under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; to them that are without law, as without law, not being without law to God, but under law to Christ, that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might gain the weak: I am become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some.
Here we see that Paul is willing to “become all things to all men,” but notice that to those “without law,” he was “as without law,” yet “not being without law to God, but under law to Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:21). We are to do what we can to communicate the Gospel of Christ to all men, and that may mean that we must wear different “hats”; it does not require embracing all aspects of culture!
Paul was willing to enter synagogues and teach the Gospel (Acts 17:1-3), and yet we never see him entering a pagan ritual ceremony, a symposium, or other revelrous festivity. Jesus was willing to eat with sinners and prostitutes, but never justified their behavior (cf. Matthew 9:9-13).
Yes, we must interact with postmodern, twenty-first century culture, but we must never conform to the culture entirely in order to do so (Romans 12:2). We must avoid that which is revelry and all things contrary to God’s Word and instead strive to present normative New Testament Christianity to the twenty-first century. Christianity must dictate our relationship to culture; culture has no right to dictate how we must act as Christians!
Emergism and the Church
Great deliberation has occurred within emergism on the church, and while some of their views are consistent with the New Testament, many overreach and go beyond what the Scriptures present. Emergism, in general, takes a “Kingdom” view of matters, and places the church within that view: great focus is placed on the church as a community9. This focus is so preeminent, however, that many groups feel no need to have weekly assemblies; because “traditional Christianity” has become so building and assembly focused, many in emergism shift entirely to a “community” view of the church10. The church becomes paramount; most of the distinction between an individual and the church are lost, and one’s life of practicing Christianity is considered one’s “church life,” in effect. Within many emergent churches, distrust of historical systems along with democratic concepts have led to “leaderless” churches or churches where “leaders” relinquish most order and control to the group11. Emergent churches wish to be “new expressions” of church that will be relevant to the modern day12. Are these views consistent with what is seen in the New Testament?
As in much of what has been seen before, balance in all things is essential. Many churches have become too focused on the building and the Sunday assembly and have not focused on the building of the community that was present in the New Testament church (cf. Acts 2:42-47). Nevertheless, New Testament churches met on the first day of the week to break bread, have a collection, and other acts of encouragement (cf. Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:1-3; likely 1 Corinthians 14). Ekklesia, the Greek word translated as “church,” properly means “assembly”; what kind of assembly can there be when its members do not assemble? The ekklesia of Christ is to be both an assemblage of persons and also a group of persons with shared identity that share in koinonia, or association/community (1 John 1:5-7). Both are essential aspects of the faith.
While postmodernism may eschew leadership, the New Testament affirms the need for some structure and leadership in local churches. Elders were installed to oversee and shepherd the congregations of which they were a part, both Jewish and Greek, on three continents (cf. Acts 14:23, Acts 15:2, Philippians 1:1). Such are to “rule” the members, guiding them in the ways of God (1 Peter 5:1-4).
While the individual is part of the church, and the church represents a collective of individuals, we each represent individual children of God, who will individually stand or fall before our Master (Romans 14:12). The collective is not to be burdened when the individual has the resources available (1 Timothy 5:16). The Christian is part of the church, but the Christian is also more than the church, and is to shine the light of Jesus to all men with whom he comes into contact (cf. Matthew 5:13-16). We should not so over-emphasize the church (the collective body) so as to miss the individual parts that comprise it!
Reactions rarely serve to achieve true Biblical faith. Let us maintain a balanced view of our lives, faith, and practice, gaining our understanding from Jesus over culture, philosophy, or any other such thing!
1: Gibbs and Bolger, Emerging Churches, 30
2: ibid., 28
4: ibid., 39, 84, 87
5: ibid., 41, 87
6: ibid., 28
7: ibid., 72
8: ibid., 118
9: ibid., 61
10: ibid., 61, 90-91, 96, 99
11: ibid., 109-110, 119
12: ibid., 235