When exploring what the tenants of the Emergent Church are, we should evaluate a few sensible things for determining exactly what the Emergent Church is:
- The originators of the phrase or idea
- what the movement isn't
- the influential authors of the movement
- What critics claim it to be
So, let us begin with the first task:
Emergent: Who coined the term?
According Anglican Priest Ian Mobsby in his book God Unknown the term "emerging church" was first used in 1970 in the eponymicly titled book The Emerging Church by authors Bruce Larson and Ralph Osborne who defined/predicted the following characteristics of the Emerging Church:
What Emergent isn't
The chosen name for the Emergent Church is "Emergent". This therefore means that both the originators and follows of the movement feel that another moniker does not accurately describe or encompass their beliefs. This then means that the Emergent Church is not:
This isn't to say that the Emergent Church doesn't incorporate aspects of some of the above, but referring to the Emergent Church movement as one of the above is either A) too reductive or B) pejorative. If the leaders and members of the movement felt that one of the above described the movement, they simply would have called it the "Postmodern Church" or the "Progressive church."
Defining the Emergent Church by it's authors and leaders
The Emergent Church has a number of authors or publication who are popular among members of the Emergent Church and who have helped to guide or define the church or who have impacted the church in some way or another. A partial list includes:
David Kinnamin and the Barna Institute
Rachel Held Evans
The Junia Project
(additions are welcome, please feel free to suggest edits to update this list)
So, what does this list reveal about the movement? One of the best places to start is with David Kinnaman's writings. This Biola Alumnus is a statistician who collects demographic information about the modern church. In his books UnChristian and You Lost me, Kinnaman lays out his findings showing that the American church is in decline and the reported reasons behind that decline. In an attempt to combat this, authors like McLaren, Campolo, Wallis and Bell have sought to re-explore the gospel message; operating under the belief that the existing church is missing the mark as Kinnaman so clearly illustrates. Campolo and Wallis in particular explore Jesus' concern for the "marginalized" and "other" via Jesus' healing, attention and concern for socially outcast groups and people. They suggest that the Gospel then is best "preached" by emulating this healing and charitable work (this is known as "Social Justice" in the Emergent Community.)
One such marginalized group is women. Works like that of the Junia project and Rachel Held Evans seek to make a place at the table for Women and include them in conversation and leadership.
Nadia Bols-Weber, another strong female leader demonstrates the extreme inclusive nature of the Emergent Church in which all sinners are welcome.
These authors span a range of traditions from contemporary Evangelical to extremely orthodox Lutheran, Anglican and Episcopalian. This has two implications. First, it means that the Emergent movement is paradenominational. This is largely an extension of the welcoming and inclusive nature of the movement which is simply an extension of the Gospel focus of the movement which recognizes that it was the marginalized Other that Jesus spoke to, dined with and lived amongst and it was the orthodoxy which Jesus worked against. Yet, just as Jesus was unorthodox, he came from orthodoxy and included components of it in his mission and movement. Similarly the Emergent Church includes a very orthodox core, both in worship style and theology while simultaneously being very unorthodox. All of these things echo the traits detailed by Larson and Osborne.
Criticisms of the movement
What can be equally elucidating to defining the movement is by examining what critics identify within the movement and exploring the criticisms and if they do or do not have a basis in fact.
In his paper on the Emergent Church, Dr. Ed Stetzer lays identifies 3 types of Emergent church members: Reconstructionists, Relevants and Revisionists. The Wikipedia article on the Emergent Church describes the Reconstructionists as being "generally theologically Evangelical, and speak of new forms of church that result in transformed lives." which seems to be a fair assessment of the movement.
Of Relevants, Stetzer notes,
These people attempt to contextualize music, worship, and outreach
much like the “contemporary church” movement of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Their
methodology may be considered by critics to be progressive. However, their theology is often conservative and evangelical. Many are doctrinally sound, growing, and impacting
Despite this, Emergent leader Rachel Held Evans disputes this as a goal of the Emergent Church, stating:
What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.
We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.
We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.
We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.
You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.
Of the Revisionists however, Stetzer notes, "Most of the harsh critique is reserved for this group. I noted that some in this group have certainly abandoned evangelicalism." (which is certainly true as many migrate to non-evangelical churches) He goes on to state,
For this group, both methodology and theology may be re-visioned. My concerns
include that some might dispense with the substituionary atonement, the reality of hell, views of gender, and the very nature of the Gospel. It is at this point that many believe the move is similar to the mainline denominations years before, and I agree.
And indeed, many have criticized Rob Bell, Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo of being proponents of Unlimited Atonement (though all of them deny this).
Even within the most progressive/liberal wing of the Emergent Church, you get the sense that they are not looking to revise the fundamentals of theology, but instead are looking to re-vision how we pursue Christ. Evans describes her personal transition this way,
I went from having a long list of fundamentals (young earth creationism, biblical inerrancy, religious exclusivism, conservativism, etc.) to having a short list of fundamentals (love God, love people, affirm the creeds).
And Nadia Bolz-Weber has stated in interviews
I’m this really orthodox Lutheran theologian. I’m not this liberal that’s just quoting Thich Nhat Hanh in her sermons and saying every religion’s the same, and yet I’m very socially progressive.
[Elsewhere Stetzer has noted] that when examining the Emergent Church,
analysis is, well, rather challenging since there is such a broad diversity among those who call themselves emerging, from inerrantist evangelicals to mainline liberals, and everything in between.
This is not because Emergents are trying "to avoid any straight, direct answers" or are attempting to be cagey, but because the Emergent Church is fundamentally inclusive of all denominations and flavors of Believers and embraces the diversity of perspective within the church. The focus is more basic and fundamental than that. As Evans noted, our experiences of the Gospel are more important than our dogmas. Truth and meaning are experienced because the Good News of Christ is the Truth and the Gospel can only be experienced, not just objectively known. While Absolute truth obviously exists, we are fallen creatures who are imperfectly able to perceive perfect truth. Instead of choosing to let that that fracture the community of believers into denominations over dogmas that have little bearing on the actual Good News of Christ, the Emergent church instead chooses to create a space for a wide range of beliefs where community members can discuss theology and yet still disagree, love one another and hopefully experience and live out the Gospel in their lives.
Is it a catch-all for certain points of view?
No, it is a para-denominational movement which transcends most viewpoints.
Are there people out there that actively identify themselves as 'Emergent'?
Yes - most of the authors above self-identify as Emergent and I link to some interviews in which some authors directly claim this. I myself identify as an "Emergent Wesleyan".
What are, or what is considered to be the main tenets and/or beliefs of the Emergent Church?
While this may seem like an oversimplification of the Emergent Church, Jesus simplified his ministry and the Gospel to just two bullet points. Because the movement is so diverse, it is often criticized as "liberal", "postmodern", or "progressive", but this is too reductive and pejorative. It spans a spectrum. The movement seeks to be no more or less progressive, postmodern or liberal than the ministry of Jesus. While it may seem like members are trying to be cagey "hard to pin down" they do not intend to be any more or less hard to "pin down" than the positions of Jesus himself.