Saturday, May 15, 2004

wrapping the brain around the emerging church

Earlier this year, there was quite a bit of talk in emerging church blogdom about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of declaring it a movement or defining it or attempting to put any lines around it at all. Andrew Jones may have begun the ball rolling after a British magazine queried him for a definition. Just the day before, Alan Creech encouraged us not to think of the emerging church conversation as a movement. Steve Knight does a good job at picking up the narrative from that point bringing us up to do Brian McLaren's February 2004 Letter to Friends of Emergent where he says the idea of a postmodern church is ridiculous. This got Brian in a bit of trouble and he later nuanced his earlier statements by acknowledging that he was being somewhat iconoclastic in his earlier missive. Around this same time, Dan Thompson provided a definition of "emerging church" to Wikipedia and then later blogged some more quite excellent thoughts about the emerging church. Andrew also did finally formulate his shot at a definition and, later in February, Mark van der Woude interviewed Andrew again for even more thoughts on the topic. Reading all of these contributions to the topic is truly an education and genuinely does aid in understanding this movement/conversation/thing we term "emerging church".

One could curmudgeonly argue that any attempt to nail down a definition by such a self-confessedly postmodern group of folks is self-referentially incoherent (think smoke coming out of the back of the android’s head while Spock intones, “Everything I say to you is a lie.”). After all, postmodernism itself is summarized, albeit questionably, as denying the human mind’s ability to define anything and language's ability to communicate accurately. And while many have argued against that old saw as not being a legitimate reason to completely ignore all postmodern thoughtthreads, nevertheless emergers do typically embrace mystery and are hesitant to rest calmly in the comforting bounds of a definition or some finite list of characteristics.

Nevertheless, there really does seem to be a loosely configured, cross-organizational group of folks that swim in the same kind of faithsea together. Consider: one does tend to lump brian mclaren with leonard sweet, len with spencer burke, and spence with john o’keefe. So if you’re nodding your head right now, there are reasons you agree with me. Why do you agree? What do they have in common? Somehow you intuitively know that these thoughtleaders and many others share some common list of characteristics. Why do they all seem to be swimming in the same direction? So call it a movement or a conversation or just “emerging church” there is a ... something!

So while I’m not going to attempt to provide a definition or a definitive list of characteristics, let me at least provisionally suggest two primary characteristics. Then, if you’ll allow me, I’d like to engage in the very modern enterprise of suggesting steps of emerging church development. And I don't mean to suggest at all that churches can't skip steps or that it typically plays out in this way. I mean the steps to be more of a logical (oops, modern word) sequence (oops, another modern word) rather than a suggested chronological description of a common progression.

I suggest that many emerging faith communities have in common one of two primary characteristics and sometimes both: they’re speaking-out or they’re speaking-in.


They are either “constrained”, to use Darby’s wonderful translation of 2 Cor. 5:14, by love of Jesus to translate spiritualities into a language that the folks in their postmodern community can understand (think jew to jew, greek to greek ).



Similarly, these or other spiritual communities are moved by their love of our Lord to evangelize their fellow Christians to understand that perhaps they’ve been duped by modernity into believing that they’ll grow to love God and others more merely by information transfer or program or structure or rote or whatever. Speakers-in want to convince everyone that spiritual formation is much more organic and dynamic than that. They seek to convert their Christian friends to a more transpropositional mode.

Dan Thompson, in discussing the definition of “Emerging Church” resonates with this speaking-in motivation when he notes , “I get the sense that the people who would identify themselves with the Emerging Church movement are all either trying to deconstruct, or reconstruct Christianity.” He also well notes: “I think the predominant deconstructionists are going to be suspicious of the predominant reconstructionists because it feels like they’re building just another meta-narrative to oppress them with. Meanwhile, I imagine the predominant reconstructionists are there wishing the predominant deconstructionists would stop being class half empty kind of people intent on questioning nearly everything they try and do.”

Emergent Stage One

Extending Dan’s fine analysis: I just met someone who moved across the entire country to join a church staff after they convinced him that they were bona fide, cutting edge, pomoChristian emerging. But after he arrived he came to believe that they only had a “candles and incense” emergent aesthetic as they were still encouraging him to grow disciples in a way my friend found non-relational and by the numbers. These types of churches are commendably striving to speak-out, to speak jew to jew and greek to greek. Let’s call them Emergent Stage One. Some people stop here and do wonderful things for God. Some folks are more resonant with what we would call more modern presentations of spiritual truth.

Emergent Stage Two

But other spiritual communities are realizing that the emerging church conversation speaks to more than mere translation. Leaders of these bodies are realizing that the emerging phenomenon (and Bill Bean likes that word best) does more than merely provide them with an alternative vocabulary. Rather, it critiques not only their style of church but also the very way they do church. Church communities do sometimes need to be critiqued when they’ve been inordinately modernized. They’ve reached Emergent State Two. This is a stage of questioning, analysis and evaluation. But, as Dan intimates, this stage can be dangerous because it’s possible for a community’s leadership to stay in deconstructive mode beyond its time of effectiveness.

Emergent Stage Three

Other healthy communities have survived Stage Two trauma; they’ve actually kept what they needed to have kept from pre-Stage One and Stage One; and they’ve made critical reconstructionist changes in light of Stage Two insights. Somewhat stabilized and confident – not in their knowledge but in their Lord - these spiritual communities break out of critical self-absorption and return to the very legitimate State Onesque love for their larger communities. They now translate well and as they draw others within their circle through Jesus’ love (and not primarily through their electronica and multimedia) they more organically and holistically help them to love God and others. They are at Emergent Stage Three.

And they will be happy there.

Until the inevitable moment when they’re confronted with the need for Post-Emergent Stage One. And then, of course, someone from a magazine asks one of Andrew's kids for a definition....


rick said...

Excellent post, Stephen.

And we also need to keep in mind that the stages are amorphous without clearly defined lines or rites of passage. We just ooze from one place to another. Our church incorporates the relational elements of Pomoxianity without the candles. We still have the upbeat music and projector screens but we're very improvisational and unstructured. For me - and about 300 others - it's the best mix of old & new that fits our Central Ohio culture.

Good job,

Stephen said...

Hi Rick!

Agree! I'd love to learn more ab your church if you'd post its website. Thanks!

Matt said...

Hey Stephen,

Just got this link off of Andew's site and thought I'd lead you in maybe another direction.

I too was asked the question by Steve for the Christianity and Renewal
article. More because I've spent time with Steve than anything else. My response can be found here. My simple idea is emergent depends on culture and what is emerging in the States won't look like what's emerging in Congo Brazzaville. Jonathan Finley, a fellow ex-pat living in France, posted this pointing out the beauty of the "metissage" of the church.

We belive the emerging church must make a cross cultural effort to fully understand what it means to be emerging. Coming our of one culture is one thing. Figuring out how to connect with another is a whole new ball game. It is necessary because the church is God's new humanity that incarnates itself in all cultures.

BTW I'm now bloggin at endirect

Anonymous said...

Hi Stephen

Excellent post! Thanks for being so nice about my efforts.

Dan Thompson

Stephen said...


You're quite welcome! I very much appreciated your thoughts in the article and found them helpful.

Stephen said...


I wasn't sure the name of the magazine that was interviewing Andrew and appreciate the reference. I see the website for Christianity and Renewal but am I correct that the article is not online (though I see your answers and appreciate the link!) I'm going to comment on your answers in an upcoming blog so won't do that here. Very, very much appreciate your drawing my attention to this and happy to find out that you also know Brian. Beth and I went to Cedar Ridge for 13 years (ironically we visited there this morning!) and I ran small groups on part time staff there for a little while. The biggest thing I appreciate ab your comments is that it knocks me out of the oh so typical America-centrism that we folks here in the States can be so guilty of (e.g. "some people are trilingual, some are bilingual and then some are Americans" though you're an obvious exception!). I appreciate this gift.

Stephen said...


I just found your last name on your site and realized that we've met and once had lunch together with Brian!



Matt said...

Yep, that's me.

Anonymous said...

Stephen, Great post. Great analysis. I'm sure some deconstructionists will object to your "Stage One," "Stage Two" analogy, but whatever ... I'm just glad I could contribute, in some small way, to moving the conversation forward.

I personally believe the "emerging church" IS a "movement," and that there are "leaders" (as you called them, "thought leaders") who are recognized by those of us who are soaking in it. Even if these guys (and gals) are not self-proclaimed leaders, they are leaders nonetheless. They're writing the books and speaking at the conferences and slapping the "Emergent" logo on everything -- so let's call a spade a spade. These people are "leaders," and I'm fine with that. I just wish they were more comfortable with it themselves, and stop making excuses for it.

OK that's enough of a rant about that from me. I'm looking forward to connecting with some of these "leaders" later this week at the Emergent thing in Nashville. Should be a hootenanny!

--Steve K.

P.S. I think my church ( is in Stage 2 right now.

Anonymous said...

what a helpful article. these stages are helpful anchors to throw in the faithsea; it'll be interesting to see if they gain currency.

-- paul in san antonio