The EMERGING Church

January 18, 2011 — The emerging church has become the Rorschach test among Christians in this country. In the Rorschach test people look at various inkblot shapes and are asked what they see. Not surprisingly, people see different things. So it is with the emerging church. Some see it as a passing fad, others as the Next Big Thing; some see it as thoughtful and helpful, others as dangerous.

Part of the problem may be timing. It’s too early to tell what will “emerge” and how to evaluate it. If leaders are to be believed, we are the midst of a major shift in our culture, which will of necessity involve a shift in how we approach our faith—and our churches. In one of the influential books from this movement, A New Kind of Christian, Brian McLaren breaks up church history into four eras: the ancient world, the medieval world, the modern world, and the postmodern world. Emergent leaders contend that we are at the front end of the shift to the postmodern world and only beginning to understand what effective ministry will look like in this world. It’s like a Polaroid picture developing in front of our eyes: at first all we see are vague shapes and outlines; over time things will come into focus.

Meanwhile, even if there are significant differences between “modern” and “postmodern” church expressions, during the time of transition there won’t always be clear-cut distinctions between them. Most people are not either modern or postmodern; they are a little of both. The postmodern mindset may be more prevalent in some regions of the country than others. People who want to minimize the significance of the new will point to examples of thriving “modern” churches as evidence that nothing has changed. But they are missing the point. Modern church approaches might have some success, but they could simply be reaching people who haven’t made the transition yet. Confused? So is everyone else.

Rather than try to give a comprehensive description of the movement, let me point out five transitions that are affecting the churches I’ve pastored—and, I will guess, yours too.

1. From a seeker to mission mindset

In emerging churches, the watchword is no longer “come to us,” it’s “let’s go to them.” From evangelistic crusades to seeker sensitive and purpose driven churches, the basic mindset of modernity has been that outreach means getting people to come to us. We invite people to attend our events or seeker services where they can hear the gospel message and respond. It’s growth from the outside in.

Emerging churches focus instead on getting people to go out and serve the spiritually lost people in their community. It’s growth from the inside out. They believe the people they’re trying to reach are unlikely to come to church services or events and see the importance of building bridges and establishing credibility by demonstrating the love of Christ before anything else can happen.

Think of how a football game is played: teams get into a huddle before each down to catch their breath and prepare for the next play. What really matters is what happens after the huddle breaks up and the ball is snapped. That’s the real action. You never hear a coach say “we couldn’t run the ball, pass, or tackle very well, but we really had great huddles!” Who cares about the huddle? What matters is how you play the game.

Church services are the huddle. Living in mission to our neighbors, co-workers, and friends the rest of the week is the real game. The worship, teaching, and fellowship we experience an hour on Sunday morning equips us to live out our faith and join in God’s mission to the world the other 167 hours of the week.

Granted, this mindset is not unique to emerging churches. Many modern churches speak the language of “leaving our church campus and going out to our mission field.” But the underlying value of “going to them” is especially pronounced in emerging churches, where people sense that their “mission field” is made up of people too cynical and resistant to be attracted by a seeker service, Christian music concert, or a Promise Keepers-style event.

There’s another reason why emerging churches adopt a “go to them” mission mentality: they are committed to a holistic understanding of mission. This stems from the second transition.

2. From salvation as life after death to salvation as life

One critique the emerging church has toward modern churches is the way they reduce—and thus distort—the gospel message. Dallas Willard sums up what he views as the reductionist message common in today’s churches as “the gospel of sin management.” This “gospel” is focused on helping people “get their sins forgiven and go to heaven.” If we pray a prayer and believe a certain thing about Jesus’ death on the cross, then we will be forgiven of our sins and go to heaven when we die. While no one disputes that as part of the gospel message, emerging church leaders wonder if that’s all of it.

Jesus promised more than eternal forgiveness—he promised eternal life. People in the emerging church ask, “Isn’t there more to the Christian life than just waiting for it to end so we can go to heaven?” Eddie Gibbs puts it this way: “Emerging churches embrace the gospel of the kingdom as revealed in Mark 1:15-16. At the outset of the gospel narrative, the good news was not that Jesus was to die on the cross to forgive sins but that God had returned and all were invited to participate with him in this new way of life, in this redemption of the world. It is this gospel that the emerging church seeks to recover.”

The gospel of the kingdom has been a hallmark in Reformed theology long before it was promoted by the emerging church. It is here that Reformed Christians have much to offer the movement.

3. From hierarchy to network

One key feature of postmodern life is cynicism. People have been burned by unfaithful leaders and dysfunctional organizations, and they are too well-informed to be duped. They read the fine print. They are hesitant to trust anybody, especially someone who wants to control them. In the books and blogs by people in the emerging church, you find an almost palpable sense of frustration and cynicism about command and control leaders (CEO pastors).

Dan Kimball says that in the future “the leaders of our churches will need to move from the one-man hero warrior conqueror CEO to being more of a thinker-architect-shepherd . . . Too long have we seen leadership portrayed as one man, with the charismatic personality, rallying the troops to his vision, leading the way, conquering the mountain.”

So in most emerging churches, leadership is often done by consensus or some form of team leadership. This often works because most emerging churches are small, where organizational systems can be more fluid, and the demands on leadership to be directive are lessened. Pastors can be freed up to focus more on relationships, and decisions can be made by consensus. But as churches get larger, this changes. The need for structure, policy, and systems become paramount, and leaders must come forward to make decisions that other people in the organization don’t have input on. This presents a real challenge.

Advocates for changes in leadership models point out that we’re living in the age of communication networks, full disclosure, and increasing distrust of leaders, so people are much less likely to follow anyone blindly. But how emergent leadership models will work in larger churches remains to be seen.

4. From presentation to participation

In the early days of this movement, differences in worship style got lots of attention. But this is just one piece of the puzzle that is the emerging church. Emerging leaders are at pains to emphasize that postmodern worship is not simply a matter of style (candles and an informal ambiance). It’s about establishing an environment where people can experience—not just hear about—the power of God.

Leonard Sweet once described the postmodern mindset by recounting an observation made by his son about baseball one afternoon while they were watching a game. His son said, “If a guy hits a foul ball into the stands and somebody catches it . . . how come the batter isn’t out?” Think about the logic of that statement: Why is it that the “fans” can only watch the game . . . why can’t they participate in it? Why can’t their actions genuinely shape the outcome (other than encouraging the actual “players” on the field)? Understand the logic behind that question and you will understand the critique of worship in the emerging church. The same person who resents having to be a mere spectator at a baseball game resents being a spectator in a worship service.

Most contemporary modern churches have worship that is much like a music concert, with the congregation functioning like an audience, singing and clapping along—at least on the songs they know. Emerging churches look for ways of helping people participate and shape the worship experience.

Once again note that this works well for a small group but gets harder as the church grows in size. Look for more discussion about this issue in years to come.

5. Can modern and emerging ministry get along?

One interesting, and as yet unanswered, question is how modern and postmodern expressions of church life can work together. Is it as simple as establishing a separate “emerging worship service” as part of the larger church, much like churches conduct separate “traditional” and “contemporary” services? This creates a situation in which the emerging ministry might have its own worship service, teacher, and leadership team, but would still be accountable to—and funded by—the broader church. Is that a good idea? The jury is still out.

One of the early practitioners of an emerging “church” that functioned as an alternative service in a larger church was Dan Kimball (see sidebar for one of his books, which describes this ministry). He has since left to start an emerging church that exists on its own and now warns about the dangers of the sub-ministry approach.

Should pastors with passion for emerging ministry be brought into existing churches to create special services/communities within these churches or commissioned to start their own “emerging churches”? Should the leaders of existing churches seek to adopt insights from the emerging church into their own ministries, reinventing themselves rather than creating separate programs? Or should we ignore the discussion going on around us and write off the emerging church as a passing fad?

These are not easy questions to answer, especially when the landscape of postmodernity seems so unclear, and the specific character of the emerging church is still being formed. This is a good time for church leaders to think, study, and pray about this phenomenon so that, like the leaders of Issachar, they can understand the times and know what to do (1 Chron.12:32).

Further Reading

Here are some books that describe emerging churches and focus on church leadership issues.
  • Emerging Churches by Eddie Gibbs (Baker, 2005). Offers a great summary and description of the movement by one of the leading church observers today
  • The Emerging Church by Dan Kimball (Zondervan, 2003). Describes an emerging church ministry that functioned as an alternative worship service of a larger church—an approach that the author no longer advocates
  • Postmodern Pilgrims by Leonard Sweet (Broadman & Holmes, 2000). Summarizes the postmodern mindset and especially how it applies to worship
Deeper thinking required — theological
  • The Next Reformation by Carl Raschke (Baker, 2004). A great book that outlines a philosophical and theological defense of postmodern ethos.
  • Becoming Conversant in the Emerging Church by D.A. Carson (Zondervan, 2005). Presents a critique of the emerging church from a theological perspective
Books that articulate faith for postmoderns; directed towards popular audience
  • A New Kind of Christian by Brian McLaren (Jossey-Bass, 2001). Most any book by McLaren would be helpful, but this presents the basic tenets of emerging church thinking.
  • Blue Like Jazz (Nelson, 2003) and Searching for God Knows What (Nelson, 2004) by Donald Miller. Both books by Miller give expression to the Christian faith in ways that fit with the emerging church mind-set.
  • Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell (Zondervan, 2005) is an excellent example of how someone in the emerging movement articulates the Christian faith.
Online Resources
  • www.theooze.com is the website created by Spencer Burke, one of the leading advocates of the emerging church. Includes many articles and discussion boards.
  • www.ginkworld.net/ is one of the most content-rich sites around about the emerging church, with links to articles by and about many leaders in the movement.
  • www.emergentvillage.com—while not as content-crammed as the other sites listed, this site has links to a great set of articles by emerging leaders.
For Discussion
  1. Are we really in a major cultural shift? What's actually changing, and from what to what? How is your church responding to such changes? Is your congregation doing enough or too much?
  2. What are the differences between a "modern" and a "post-modern" mindset? How does that change the way people are, think, and act? How might it affect their response to the gospel?
  3. If the common mindset is indeed shifting "from hierarchy to network,” what does that say for the way we structure our local church and our denomination?
  4. Is a mindset that wants more active participation in worship and church ministries a good thing? If so, how should we respond to it?
  5. Rev. Brouwer poses the question, "Can modern and emerging churches get along?" How might that work? Which would you prefer to part of?

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