Friday, December 05, 2008

Should we still say "emerging church?"

I've been following with interest what seems to be a bit of a trend away from the emerging church/emergent nomenclature (Dan Kimball, Andrew Jones, etc.). I have to say that I find resonance with this discussion. In the past, I've written quite a bit about defining "emerging church." A lot of the ink I and others have spilled on this topic have revolved around the various agendas behind the use of the term. In my opinion, the fulcrum for the controversy is the theological revisionism that's attached itself to the labels. This is in contrast to the essentially evangelistic impulse that was originally - in my judgment - behind the popular use of the term "emerging church."

Now, I'm painting with a broad brush, obviously. I myself am a bit revisionistic theologically, but most of my participation in the movement in my writing, etc. has been along the lines of the "relevants" and the reconstructionists (using Stetzer's famous taxonomy). But I do wonder if the term has lost its punch because of all the confusion.

Some people moving away from "emerging church" are moving towards missional, as in its popular conception it's not theologically revisionist. Many know that for the last year I've been interviewing missional leaders and doing some writing for Leadership Network around this topic (my second piece on this should be out soon). But I think it remains to be seen if this term will take in any intergenerational sense. In the meanwhile, I do find "missional" a helpful term. That being said, I find it highly interesting that no less a missional luminary than Mike Frost recently complained that "missional" also is losing its distinctive meaning as it's increasingly being used as the new, hot buzzword.

Terms are important, but what's more important is the heart and spirit behind the terms. I am deeply grateful for what I've learned from the emerging church and what I'm learning from the missional conversation. Terms come and go - what matters is that we are listening to the Scriptures, to God's Spirit, and to each other and then, as a result, loving God with everything within us and our neighbors as ourselves.


kns said...

First, isn't an appeal to "revisionism" an appeal to a term that has equally competitive definitions? Second, it seems somehow ironic that the "emerging church", with at least some people identifying it with certain aspects of post-modernism and the "linguistic turn", is now itself trying to move "beyond language". In this it is certainly not alone.

Stephen said...


I think your comment on revisionism is a fair comment. I have heard tony jones, for example, passionately deny that he is unorthodox (I'm using the term "orthodox" technically here). But I don't think I'm being controversial by saying, for example, that his affirmation of homosexual relationships as consistent with Christianity would be considered theologically revisionist. And I'm enthusiastically in resonance with the emerging church desire to be transcending propositions. My point is that the term ec is becoming such a muddle that I'm joining Andrew, Dan and others in questioning the terms utility. Another way to put it: if we're spending all this time going "no, *this* is "emerging church;" no **this** is "emerging church," then perhaps we could more profitably spend our time discussing our presuppositional disagreements rather than having a proxy fight around the lexical sphere of a term.

I think that it's entirely possible that in as little time as a decade, the term "emerging church" might be more significant as a helpful label describing a decade or so of theological/ecclesial discussion rather than any then contemporaneous movement.

The same thing might also be true of "missional" in 10-15 years.

And I'm not suggesting that some of the emphases behind both terms haven't been helpful.

It's a bit like Bible translation. Because language is fluid, translations will always become obsolescent and there will always be a need for retranslation. Similarly, in theological discourse, as imbalances are addressed *and* as language changes, the emerging and, yes, the quiescence of terms serve us.

kns said...


I suppose my point wasn't so much that all definitions are slippery. "Revisionism", like "evangelicalism", has competing yet useful definitions. I can understand the impetus to move to a supposedly more "constructive" term, but I wonder if there has ever been a term of such significance that wasn't subject to intense debate. Just think of the number of labels which were originally pejorative - like the word "Puritan", for example - but which are still used for scholarly purposes even if subject to intense debate. It seems to me a misstep, and perhaps a misunderstanding of language, to think that a new word is going to provide the solution to the debate around a wider set of movements. Does that mean I reject a move away from EC? Not necessarily. But as the above suggests, some reasons for doing so are better than others.

Danny Kam said...

The problem with any term is the lack of definition it acquires once people begin to use it is a 'technical term.' Charlie Wear talks about words in the church that have lost their meaning:

I think that his post is helpful. I have also written about this in the past.

The problem is that familiarity with words often breeds more unfamiliarity because people begin to assume things about the word that the original authors never meant.