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What Happened to the Emerging Church?

What happened to the emerging church? I don’t know.

For many years, it was the talk of the town. From its advocates to its antagonists, the emerging church gave everyone fodder for conversation. Bloggers knew every day what they were going to blog about. Revolutionists always had a distinguished place in the world. Revisionists had many friends who would take up the same rifle and shotgun. Deconstructionalists all held their distinguished hammers. If you were an emerger, you were not alone.

However, today things have changed. No one blogs about it. No one claims the name anymore. No publisher would dare accept a book about the emerging “thing” that happened in the forgotten past. Why? because around the year 2009, the identity of the emerging church went silent and many (some enthusiastically) put a gravestone over its assigned plot. In fact, I even paid my respects.

What happened to the emerging church? Which emerging Church?

Defining the “emerging church” is as difficult today as it was in the bygone days. No one ever agreed. It touched so many issues: ecclesiology, soteriology, epistemology, anthropology, and sociology. You could “emerge” with any or all of these issues.  In general, the emerging church represented a disenchantment with the traditional methodology and beliefs, primarily within the Evangelical church. It was an ununified movement of deconstructing. Many deconstructed theology. Some deconstructed liturgy. Others deconstructed truth altogether. The key unifying factor was that people were disillusioned with the folk religion they had been given, and were willing to stand up as reformers in whichever area housed their ensuing bitterness. But there was not much unity with regard to their beliefs. They just did things differently. They believed differently than their parents.

What happened to the emerging church? Who was involved in this?

The “movement” claimed advocates as diverse as Mark Driscoll, Scot Mcknight, Rob Bell, Doug Pagitt, Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, and Dan Kimball. For many of these, it was their only claim to “fame.” Now that it has died out, many of us cannot even spell their names. Some were reassumed back into their parental fold of Evangelicalism, others continue their crusades without much fanfare or publicity.

What happened to the emerging church? Emerging what?

Well, maybe I do have a good guess. The emerging church never unified and, therefore, was never a movement at all. It was doomed from the beginning. Those who were percieved as leaders rarely agreed with each other. Some just wanted to change the way the Lord’s Supper was handled; others wanted to redefine the atonement of Christ. Some simply wanted to identify with the culture and get a tattoo here and there; others wanted to get rid of Hell. Some wanted to distance the church’s identity from politics; others wanted to change the church’s stand on issues such as homosexuality and abortion. Some wanted to have incense burning in their church building; others wanted to get rid of the church building altogether.

In 2006, people began to distinguish between the “emerging church” and the “emergent church.” Internally, I think many thought this would save the emerging church from being identified with its more radical and liberal representatives who were teaching doctrines that fell outside of the historic Christian faith. These more radical representatives, such as Brian McLaren and Rob Bell, were called “emergent.” The more orthodox brand was labeled “emerging.” However, this rebranding did not help. Eventually, everyone disassociated with the name altogether (at least as far as I know).

What happened to the emerging church? No landing gear.

I suppose one could say the plane never landed. The emerging church asked Christians to re-think their faith. They asked us to deconstruct our beliefs. They asked us to doubt everything. They asked us to take a ride in the emerging plane and fly for a bit. This was to gain some perspective and let us know that we Evangelicals are not the only ones out there. They asked us to look at Christianity with new eyes. Many of us jumped on this plane with great excitement. Many of us were already on a plane very similar to this. We all wanted to gain some perspective. However, the emerging plane never landed. It soon became clear that there was no destination. There was no runway on which to land and the emerging plane did not even have landing gear. The deconstruction happened with no plans of reconstructing. The emerging journey became an endless flight that did not have any intention on setting down anywhere. Many people jumped out, skydiving back home. The rest, I suppose, remained on the plane until it ran out of gas.

What happened to the emerging church? It is still around.

There will always be reformers needed in the church. In fact, the Great Reformers said that the church is reformed and “always reforming” (semper reformanda). Every one of us must go through a deconstructing process, questioning our most basic beliefs. This can do nothing but make us more real to a world who believes we are fakes. Therefore, in some sense, many in the emerging church were reformers who served the church well. Others were part of a more radical reformation and suffered from their complete detachment from the historic Christian faith.

But certian aspects of the ethos of the emerging church should be within all of us. We should never be satisfied with the status quo. We should always be asking questions and bringing to account our most fundamental beliefs. We need to identify with the culture at the same time as we hold on to the past. I believe Robert Webber, though never really called an emerger, was a great example of our continued need to reform. His Ancient-Future Faith was a great example of how we can hold on to, respect, learn from, and identify with our past, yet push forward into an exciting future.

The name “emerging” became tainted by the radical reformers associated with the movement. But the “best-of” the emerging church lives on. Indeed, the ethos of the emerging church never dies, as the church is reformed and always reforming.

Find out more about the emerging church in an article I wrote about it some years ago.

32 Responses to “What Happened to the Emerging Church?”

  1. My best guess is that out of boredom, and because of their sheer intellectual powers, they became the hacker group known as “Anonymous.”

  2. Perhaps some have moved into what is known as the “Progressive” movement. (Whatever that means) You can see them at places like Darkwood Brew, http://darkwoodbrew.org/ on the internet or churches like the Bend Oregon First Presbyterian Church which claims to be a “welcoming church”. meaning welcome gays, Buddhists, and other Eastern religions, claiming there are more paths to God than Jesus. Brian McLaren seems to have parked his flag in this Progressive lot.

  3. I still call myself emerging, but you’re definitely right that in general the label has fallen out of vogue. I think you’re partly right that a reason is because it is so broad, where some would say that some parts are borderline heretical, and so people didn’t want to be associated with the label.

    I think there’s another couple reasons the term has fallen away, though. For one, the emerging attitude by its contextually-sensitive nature is one which operates within a variety of different contexts while being aware of other contexts. Creating a unified “movement” wouldn’t make that much sense within that idea since it would generalize too much.

    On top of that, emerging is pretty much synonymous with postmodern. As everyone becomes postmodern along with the world in general, there is less and less reason to bother with the label since you’re just like everyone else. I would argue that the emerging church is still growing but without necessarily needing a label or an organized movement. Much like the Reformation era, there were some early on to explicitly call for changes but the majority came along for the ride as culture shifted (then into modernism, now into postmodernism).

  4. You do know that the National Conversation About Emergence Christianity just concluded, with speakers including Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, Brian McLaren, Diana Butler Bass, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Eric Elnes, and Pete Rollins?

  5. To be sure the so-called “emergent” types are still out there, but as Rob Bell’s book on “Hell”, they have somewhat deconstructed themselves right out of orthodoxy and spiritual reality (i.e. authority & belief)! And to my mind anyway, they were never true Reformers at all! Nor should the word “emergent” even be connected with any real and or modern (so-called) Evangelical Reform. The word is sort of like “progressive” to my mind! My two cents anyway.

    And again, just to my mind, perhaps Evangelicals should read the book edited by Timothy George: Evangelicals and the Nicene Faith, Reclaiming The Apostolic Witness, (Baker 2011). The great need to rediscover the classic Reformational and Reformed Faith is always part of the real Church Catholic! And it is here too btw, that just perhaps we can learn something from our Orthodox Brethren (the EO)?

  6. Dan,

    No i didn’t, which is kinda my point. :)

    I was actually at some of the first grassroot emerging conversations in Dallas (before the name was even heard of). I forgot what we called our group. I may have even been a leader in it! It became the non-stop talk of the town. I suppose its because none of the books are flying off the shelves anymore that few pay attention anymore.

  7. More-or-less by definition, the “emergers” (emergenters?) struck positions that got attention by being news. But sooner or later novelty wears off.

    Those who meant to work got to work and are still working, but we don’t hear from them quite as much anymore because they took whatever stands they were taking (and made hay from the attention while the sun shone) and then went on doing what they were doing before–which just isn’t as novel so isn’t as attention-getting. (It isn’t like the two quite different Mars Hill projects have vanished into the ether, even though Rob Bell left his MH to go do whatever it is he’s doing now, wherever that is. He isn’t making public waves so he doesn’t show up on the sonar. Mark Driscoll says something goofy every other Sunday and shows up on the sonar more often, but he was always doing that. ;) )

    People used to ask me if I was part of the “emergent” or “emerging” Church, because I’m a Christian universalist. I told them I had less than no interest at all in whatever mess that was. I was (and still am) interested in being theologically accurate, and fair to other people, as a self-disciplinary activity, and that was pretty much it. I’m too conservative by nature to be much impressed by “movements” much. To paraphrase Chesterton, movements come and movements go–mostly go. {g}

    Still, hey, progressives try out things and help to fix errors (sometimes); any real improvements or corrections stick around and become part of the new conservatism, which guards what works and watches out for novel errors. Each side has strengths and weaknesses which complement the other. We need each other in order to walk according to what light we can see, looking for more light thereby.

    That being said, I never read even one “emerg-” book, aside from Rob’s–and I was brutal on his post-modern foofaraw. ;) (The book admittedly got better as he went along, but in direct proportion as he dropped the pmodding.)

    JRP

  8. Opps, forgot to click for comment tracking…

  9. An excellent post and well timed given last week’s Emergence conference.

    From my involvement in the movement the split occurred when the (rightly distinguished) Emergent wing kept returning to the Liberalism of the early 20th century and the emerging wing became missional.

    Ultimately the death knell was as described above (no landing gear is a good way to put it) and because they never really articulated an answer to the challenge of the new millennium. Though I am entirely unconvinced they (or any of us) are remotely postmodern (or that postmodernism is possible) the extremists in the Emergent wing ultimately discreditted themselves as they embraced the tired, dead Liberal school of 100 years ago. McLaren, Pagit, Jones, Bell, et al declined identifying as their leaders and in an attempt to further nuance their aesthetic (it really was all aesthetic wasn’t it) they produced works that distanced themselves from evangelicals.

    Finally, and this is probably it, while the emerging movement started off as a means of discussing how we can better reach those outside the Church it became an excuse for not reaching at all.

    It is a case study in what happens to a theologically vapid movement that is rooted in arrogance.

  10. @Jason: “Christian universalist”..really? (As with Calvin, the Atonement is Sufficient for all, but only Efficient/efficacious – for the Elect). Thank God for Calvin is all I can say! If anyone touches Paul on soteriology, it was/is Augustine and Calvin, of course I’m both an Augustinian & neo-Calvinist! ;) I can also thank God for both the Irish Articles 1615, as the Thrity-Nine Articles. I wish I could give every true Evangelical pastor-teacher a copy of W.H. Griffith Thomas book: The Principles Of Theology, An Introduction To The Thirty-Nine Articles, (1930…my copy is a London re-print, 1963). This is simply a gem!

    Btw, as a conservative, both politically (though an Irish Brit here) and theologically, ugh on both the words and usage of “emergent” and “progressive”! Let’s try to rehabilitate the word & term “Evangelical”! :)

  11. As noted by Soong-Chan Rah, in The Next Evangelicalism, the emergent phenomenon is/was primarily, though not exclusively, a white, middle-class, North American, suburban phenomenon. Emergent ideas did not gain much traction among minority ethnicities.

  12. My only problem with this post is the section:
    “The “movement” claimed advocates as diverse as Mark Driscoll, Scot Mcknight, Rob Bell, Doug Pagitt, Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, and Dan Kimball. For many of these, it was their only claim to “fame.” Now that it has died out, many of us cannot even spell their names. Some were reassumed back into their parental fold of Evangelicalism, others continue their crusades without much fanfare or publicity.”

    It makes it sound like they are hardly heard from now, when in fact, people such as McKnight, Driscoll, and Kimball are as influential as ever.

  13. Thank God the Gospel and the “kerygma” (message) therein are not about social aspects (nor the messengers), strictly speaking, but “Christ Jesus” Himself. (1 Cor. 1& 2)

  14. Fr. Robert,

    Yep, really, thirteen years now this winter. {g}

    Yay for old books, btw!–I rescued and rebound an edition of The Restoration of All Things by Jeremiah White (chaplain to Oliver Cromwell) reprinted in 1779. Not the clearest author to read in the world, but the mud-or-blood-stains on the pages lead me to wonder if it was carried by a soldier in the American Revolution…

  15. Fr. Robert, “Let’s try to rehabilitate the word & term “Evangelical”! :) ”

    Much agreed! Persistent evangelism for everyone until success! :D

    (Strictly speaking, if I’m wrong it’s because I’m too evangelical in principle: I ought to be more limited in my evangelism one way or another. ;) )

    JRP

  16. Phyllis Tickle wrote a book called “Emergence Christianity” that was published in 2012. So I don’t know that I would say no one is writing books anymore. As a person who would count myself among the Emergent movement I would say that the reason the “movement” seems to have cooled off is that it was never intended to become another kingdom. As the group got closer to becoming something like another denomination the members decided to downsize the national organizing arm to ensure that it did not become another denomination. The emergent church is nothing more than a collection of like minded people. We would be more akin to the mom and pop store where as denominational churches tend toward the Walmart model. I am not scared by the presence of you my brothers nor do I work to prove or bring about your down fall. I find people all the time who are better ministered to by Evangelical churches than my own church. I wish you all well.

  17. McLaren questions were very helpful to me in breaking out of the exclusivity of the group I was raised in. However, I did find that I moved on from him rather quickly.

  18. I can remember when Stanley Grenz (RIP) wrote his book: Renewing the Center, Evangelical Theology In A Post-Theological Era, (Baker, 2000). Then in 2006 the Second Edition was put out, but this time with a foreword by Brian McLaren, and a so-called Afterword by John Franke. I have both copies, and have read the book (first ed), but I have read the foreword and afterword of the second. The whole point is that any lasting Evangelical renewal, simply must be biblical and theologically pressed! Grenz’s book is still a must read, but as always, it means different things to different people, sadly! But just as the Reformation, Reformed theology is not a church, as a Biblical, Theological work itself, within the Church: Ecclesia semper reformada est! Perhaps again, we need to really define the doctrine of the Church, again just what is it?

  19. And btw, this was my point about Phylls Tickle, she just does not have the theological clout or distance, in my opinion. But most certainly Grenz did!

  20. Of course I am an Anglican, and over 60, so I have been around. Another point, at least for me, is why do some so-called Evangelicals, end-up going either to Roman Catholicism, and or The Eastern Orthodox? And there have been many well known names and people that have done so over the many years, from the 19th to the 21st Century. The list is real for both churches! I wonder what our “Brethren” (this includes women), from both that read this blog think here?

  21. “As noted by Soong-Chan Rah, in The Next Evangelicalism, the emergent phenomenon is/was primarily, though not exclusively, a white, middle-class, North American, suburban phenomenon. Emergent ideas did not gain much traction among minority ethnicities.”

    Maybe this is why the Emergent and “Young, Restless, and Reformed” tangled so much. They came largely from the same demographic.

  22. Personal “Demographics”? Certainly that is NOT part of exegesis itself!

    Aye/yes, I am a white Irish Brit (born), now in the USA. Older, Reformed.. but not really restless! ;)

  23. I’d like to think the Emergent Church is dying out, but sadly, in our neck of the woods, it isn’t. The largest SBC church in our state is heading that way. It is so subtle, many people don’t see what is happening. Passion 2013 and Liberty University are showing the signs as well. Social Justice is the new way to ‘save’ people, at least among many 20 somethings I know. Of course, the parent’s enjoy “Christian” yoga and no one questions counseling centers that use labyrinths as therapy either–mysticism abounds. Maybe it’s just the path we’re on, but from my vantage point, there are very few biblically literate people around anymore, particularly newer believers. Everyone sets to work serving, but no one is studying to show thyself approved or entering through the narrow gate, being holy is not talked about much.

  24. Ann, I completely agree with you. I can’t believe that folk here think that the ’emergent’ movement has died out. It is alive and well and I’m surprised that no one has mentioned Rick Warren and his unequal yoke with R.C convert Tony Blair in their Peace Plan. It will be interesting to watch where the social gospel is taken now that R.W has welcomed the new Pope Francis into office. R.W tweeted “prayer and fasting for God’s will “in the cardinals choosing the new Pope. Hello? God’s will? The emergent movement is an unholy alliance of ecumenism and Eastern Mysticism with a smattering of Gnosticism thrown in for good measure. Please no one downplay the existence and influence of the emergent movement.

  25. I just stumbled upon this blog, but I think you have the wrong perspective about the “influence” of the emergent church. I think if you asked any of those guys you listed, the entire concept of a “destination” or a “landing” or a new “institution” is antithetical to the movement to begin with. The emergent church is a response to the decline in institutional Christianity and Christiandom in general, and as far as I’m concerned, it can’t come too soon. If you compare what we have today with the early Christian church, they bear almost no similarity. If you truly believe in semper reformanda, you should want to tear the whole thing down. This business with Mark Driscoll right now is exactly a symptom of what is wrong with institutional Christianity today. The entire concept of a celebrity pastor is ridiculous, it’s a sign that the Church has completely lost it’s way.

    Here’s what I think the emergent church brought into the mix, they started asking questions that once you ask, cannot be unasked. What I mean is, I can’t go back to when I was 8 years old and thought that Noah brought all those animals (and dinosaurs I guess) on to that ark. I can’t to back to unknowing all the errors and contradictions that cannot be reconciled in a way that makes any sense or would make any sense of “inerrancy” as defined by the Chicago Statement. I can’t conceive of a God who is loving that can send women and children to a place of ETC. I can’t reclaim the “logic” I once say in the penal substitutionary atonement. What I mean is this, once you start the process of deconstruction, you never end up back to where you started, you always end up someplace else. You may not be as comfortable as you were before, you may have more questions and less certainty, but you certainly can’t go back and take the blue pill, why they heck would anyone want that? Rest assured, emerging folks are all still out there, because once these ideas become fully formed in your head, they never just go away, and these ideas will keep spreading because they are valid challenges to conservative Evangelical doctrine in the post-modern era. It’s not a fluke, it’s the new underlying reality. You think it died, but it’s still there, it’s invisible, it’s in the air, you don’t even notice you’re breathing it. But 20 years from now, mark my words, the Evangelical Church is not going to exist in the same way we understand it today and it will be because of what these folks have spoken and written about.

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