Each Sunday evening, several hundred people gather in south Minneapolis seeking to grow in love for God, each other, and the city. The walls are lined with artwork and the meeting hall is filled with couches and chairs in rings around a bar stool. Between the conversations, screams of children, and acoustic music coming through the PA system, the mood is one of barely-organized chaos. Though they meet in a former Methodist church, they don't refer to themselves as a "church" so much as a "Holistic Missional Christian Community". This is Solomon's Porch, one of the major influences in the movement known as emerging Christianity.
Emerging Christianity is not a church. It is a decentralized movement of believers who share a conviction that much of modern, western Christianity has gone wrong somehow, or is not as it should be, and that the time has come to move past tired old answers to fresh expressions of the historic Christian faith. It is "communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures," seeking not to change the faith, but to rethink how it is thought about and practiced in a way that is viable for the twenty-first century and truly representative of its participants. Doug Pagitt, the pastor of Solomon’s Porch, considers this to be what faithful Christians of all centuries have done. Brian McLaren, one of the visionaries at the forefront of the emerging movement, believes that Christianity, like every faith, must be reborn to each new generation. Speaking for many emerging Christians, he asks: "how can we go back and get reconnected to Jesus with all of his radical, profound, far-reaching message of the kingdom of God?"
The emerging movement began in the 1990s among evangelical leaders concerned with declining rates of attendance among young people. They realized that changes in worship and ministry styles to appeal to "Generation X" didn't go deep enough. The real disconnect was not as much between young and old as between the established ways American churches went about worship and practice and the increasingly postmodern culture to which they ministered. Around the same time, McLaren wrote an influential book entitled A New Kind of Christian, in which he wrestled with conventional evangelical understandings of God and Christianity in light of the questions posed by postmodernity. To these early emerging Christians, it became increasingly clear that deep changes in how their faith was expressed were in order to close the gap between western Christianity as it is and a new kind of Christianity that the unchurched, de-churched, and spiritually disillusioned in today's postmodern world can truly call their own.
What emerging Christians emerging from? Though they tend to resist labels, most in the movement are characterized by three "post-"s: postmodernity, post-evangelicalism, and post-Christendom. These reflect disillusionment with established forms of Christianity as well as the desire to creatively seek out new expressions that are both faithful and relevant.
First, the emerging movement is marked by its interaction with postmodernity. This is not a denial of all absolute truth but rather wariness about trying to use limited human language and systems to define or explain God and the Christian faith. Emerging Christians believe western Christianity has unwisely allied itself with modernity. The result is an emphasis on abstract, propositional truth above all else, a quest for the "one right way" to believe and live, a deep divide between sacred and secular, and the silencing, intentional or not, of individuals and questions that need to be heard. Modernity places the mind, with its ability to know the "absolute truth" about God, front and center, marginalizing other forms of communication and knowledge that are important to those in the increasingly postmodern culture. Emerging Christians seek a new expression of their faith that is compatible with postmodernity rather than opposed to it.
One way in which this change of focus works itself out is that emerging churches seek to bridge the modern division between thinking, feeling, and doing. To them, the quest of countless theologians to "get it all right" is misguided, as shown by how much they have disagreed. They like to quote sayings of Jesus like "you will know them by their fruits" (Mat 7:20) to shift the focus from believing to living. Scot McKnight, a professor at Northern Seminary who pays attention to the emerging movement, summarizes: "We may not get it right when it comes to theology, so what we are called to do is live right". The gospel, to emerging Christians, is experienced at least as much as it is known; the truth is not rational so much as it is relational.
This means emerging Christians like to experiment with worship and spirituality. Hence the in-the-round layout at Solomon's Porch, meant to foster a sense of community and equality. Pagitt says that with the couches, "we’re trying to say something about where power lies in our community. And so to meet in the round says all of these people matter." They seek practices that foster the external dimension of faith, not providing an inward retreat from the world so much as a dream of a world that is nothing but sacred space. They are also adventurous about drawing from traditional Christian devotional/mystical practices like prayer incorporating the body, walking the labyrinth, the stations of the cross, lectio divina, and the liturgical calendar.
Second, those in the emerging movement are post-evangelical. They may still identify with part of the culture, values, or mission of evangelicalism at-large, but they also feel disconnected and disaffected from it. Part of their motivation for detaching from mainstream evangelicalism is to build new communities where they can spiritually belong and grow, to rediscover (in the words of Pagitt’s book) a Christianity worth believing. Tony Jones, the national coordinator for the clearinghouse Emergent Village, says, "we’re [starting new churches] to save our own faith, basically. So we’ll have a place where we can go and hold out heads up high." McLaren similarly moved away from mainstream evangelicalism due to growing questions and doubts about it, on a “quest for authenticity.”
Influenced by postmodernity, they are tired of attempts to gain a monopoly on "what the Bible says". "The goal, so we in the emerging movement often say, of the Christian life is not to master the Bible but to be mastered by the Bible." Evangelicals usually cite 2 Tim 3:16-17 to explain how "all Scripture is inspired by God" and what that entails; emerging Christians focus on the practical goal of this inspiration, "that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." They are similarly more interested in living out their theology than in getting it right and codified in a comprehensive system that treats the Bible as a book of prooftexts and easy answers. They are inclined to view theology as an open-ended conversation sparked by the Bible rather than as a science, in which no one has all the answers and each voice has something to contribute. Jones speaks for many in the movement when he says, "The emerging church is a place of conversation and dialogue and movement. Where that’s going to go, we don’t know. We’re figuring this out together. We don’t have an agenda of what it looks like at the end of the road. We just want to gather up people who are on this road, who want to go together on it."
This conversational format for theology means acknowledging our epistemological limitations and questioning our interpretations, even those behind sacred cows of evangelical doctrine like substitutionary atonement and hell that have become obstacles to belief for many. Emerging churches seek a bigger vision of the gospel than the individual one in which Jesus dies to save souls so they can go to heaven and have a "personal relationship" with him instead of facing hell. The point is not questioning old answers to find the "right" ones, but to be freed to live out the gospel instead of thinking and arguing about it.
Emerging Christians also want to leave behind the exclusivism that so often characterizes evangelicalism. They are skeptical of the "in vs. out" mentality behind the common distinction between "saved" and "unsaved', or at least about our ability to clearly distinguish the groups. They are more willing to trust that others may be in the family of God than to judge whether they are or not. Similarly, they seek to be inclusive of different Christian traditions, not just in their spiritual practices but in a generously defined vision of what Christianity can be, seeking healing for old divisions and schisms. Brian McLaren "describes himself as evangelical, charismatic, fundamentalist, Anabaptist, Anglican, and Catholic — among other things."
Even more than being epistemological or theological, the emerging movement is ecclesiological. "Christendom", the central place of the church in society and culture, is becoming a relic of the past at least as quickly as modernity, replaced by secular pluralism. Emerging observers of this trend see the old, institutional, bureaucratic brand of church as a creature of modernity which will have to change to survive this transition. Jones believes that bureaucracy is bad for the gospel, and that the church can do better as a sort of open-source network. The "church", he says, is not so much a global, monolithic spiritual institution defined by correct belief as it is something local, contextualized, and personal marked by Christlike living; there is not one “right” way that Christianity is always supposed to look or work. McLaren defines the church broadly (and in terms of practice rather than belief) as “a space in which the Spirit works to form Christ-like people, and ... in which human beings, formed in Christ-like love, co-operate with the Spirit and one another to express that love in word and deed, art and action”. Doug Pagitt sees God as working in the world independently of the church, which has the choice of whether to join in his work or not rather than being at the center of it.
As seen in communities like Solomon's Porch, the emerging vision for "doing church" does away with hierarchy, which is viewed as contrary to the inclusive reality of the body of Christ as well as the postmodern culture. Scripture and responsive readings are done by whoever in the meeting speaks up rather than by a designated leader, and the "sermon" is a creative, guided discussion playing off the biblical text that seeks to draw everyone's voice into the conversation. Even the Sunday meeting itself is deemphasized in favor of more organically building community throughout the week. In support of such practices, Jones asks: "why do we have these different ontological categories of leadership in the church? And how do some people – based on their sinfulness – not qualify, while other people do qualify?"
I have intentionally focused more on studying the emerging movement than on passing judgment on it. I think it tears down some false dichotomies of western Christianity that have long overstayed their welcome, but also creates others, demonstrating the difficulty of rehabilitating Christianity starting from a fragmented, modern reference point. The movement reaches some praiseworthy conclusions and plenty of wrong ones (when it settles on a conclusion at all!). But I do think that the questions it asks about modern Christianity are real, important, and worth asking and answering sincerely.
- Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 44.
- “Doug Pagitt Extended Interview,” Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, 15 July 2005, < http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2005/07/08/july-8-2005-doug-pagitt-extended-interview/11764/> (1 November 2014).
- Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith (London: Hotter & Stoughton, 2010), ix–x).
- “The Emerging Church, Part Two,” Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, 15 July 2005, (1 November 2014).
- “The Emerging Church, Part One,” Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, 8 July 2005, (1 November 2014).
- Gibbs and Bolger, Emerging Churches, 34.
- Scot McKnight, “What is the Emerging Church?”, Fall Contemporary Issues Conference, Westminster Theological Seminary, 26–27 October 2006, (1 November 2014), 13.
- Gibbs and Bolger, Emerging Churches, 20.
- McKnight, "What is the Emerging Church?", 18.
- McKnight, "What is the Emerging Church?", 13.
- "The Emerging Church, Part One".
- Gibbs and Bolger, Emerging Churches, 226.
- Darren King, “An Interview with Tony Jones: Part 3,” Precipice Magazine, (1 November 2014).
- McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, 8.
- McKnight, "What is the Emerging Church?", 23.
- "The Emerging Church, Part One".
- McKnight, "What is the Emerging Church?", 22.
- McKnight, "What is the Emerging Church?", 25.
- "The Emerging Church, Part Two."
- Gibbs and Bolger, Emerging Churches, 17.
- Darren King, “An Interview with Tony Jones: Part 2,” Precipice Magazine, (1 November 2014).
- McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, 228.
- Gibbs and Bolger, Emerging Churches, 42.
- "An Interview with Tony Jones: Part 2".