Thursday, October 27, 2005

What Defines The Emerging Church?

OK ... here we go.

I am feeling the need to write a bit about the emerging church for a number of reasons. First, because I have used this term to describe the kind of church Vintage Fellowship is going to be. I need to define the term for myself and others who care about Vintage. Second, I have fielded many questions from fellow pastors about the emerging church. My perception and theirs have differed a bit, so I feel like I need to clarify things. Third, I have read some very disconcerting and inaccurate things lately that warrant some response. So ... here we go.


Some have criticized the emerging church as lacking clear definition. While this is partially true, given that this conversation (a term I prefer to "movement') is relatively young, all emerging churches share at least one common denominator. All emerging churches are intentionally seeking to connect the Christian faith to postmodern culture. Whatever theological or methodological differences might exist among emergent churches, this basic purpose remains in tact. Emergent leaders have recognized that American culture has changed in the last twenty years, but in many ways, the church has not. The ongoing relevance of the church cannot depend on mere stylistic changes in ministry. It requires a wholesale reconstructing of the operating system of the church. The church cannot simply upgrade from Windows 95 to XP in an effort to be relevant; the church will need to switch from a Microsoft operating system to a Mac.

Therefore, I would define an emerging church as a church that is intentionally seeking to connect Christian faith to postmodern culture in an effort to help postmodern thinkers become followers of Jesus Christ.

more to come


Elizabeth said...

robb, by your definition, the emerging church is okay. but what do you do when you live in an area that defines the emerging church VERY differently. and by their definition, it is definitely WRONG? i'm frustrated because if i even talk about what you and vanessa are doing out here--they will all think you guys are heretics and that satan is using people like you to destroy the church and absolute truth, etc. AHHH! All i ever hear or see anymore is propaganda against what you and vanessa are doing...

Robb said...


That's an interesting question and part of what I am going to tackle as this post continues to evolve. I am planning on continuing this post with some more elements examining both the emerging church and its critics.

However, on a basic level, there are many who will simply never be happy with other groups or movements. This is a very sad but is a reality. I am at the point where I don't know what to say to them and about them. I don't think God is happy with those who choose to only criticize. I met a man on Tuesday who within two minutes of saying hello was yelling at me about the evil of Hollywood and the compromise of churches that use movies to illustrate spititual points. I walked away shaking my head. I am not sure what else to do.

A said...

If I can join this "conversation" (see, I am warming up to the terminology).

It seems to me to be counterproductive to try to convert non-postmodern thinkers to understand what a postmodern church done the right way is going to look and feel like. It would be like forcing a Microsoft user to switch to MAC in an instant.

The postmodern conversation, with all of its terminology and nuances targets a group that THINK differently. They will understand and appreciate the effort to relate to them with all of the trappings.

For those who are thoroughgoingly modern and incapable of grasping the postmodern shift in any terms but negative, don't force it. Don't use the terms. Don't make them uncomfortable. Use terms and explanations from the modern era to describe in a non-threatening way what we are doing.

Since we are in a cultural transition from modern to postmodern, we will have to be cautious of this very thing.

I think in an article posted here several months ago, McLaren says something about the pioneers not judging the settlers, and the settlers not judging the pioneers. We've got to be considerate of each other.

So, just because Vintage will attempt to connect the church with postmodern culture, doesn't mean those are the words one must use to describe what Robb and I are doing to someone who has only negative thoughts and feelings about those particular terms.

I don't see this as anything but doing for the moderns what we hope to do for the postmoderns, ie. explaining things to them in their terms in order to be understood.

kevin radford said...

first of all let me say i know little about the emerging church. but i know this is not a brand new thing, this movement began a few years ago.

i like you am a little disgusted with those that bare the same theological name as myself are not seeking to understand and criticize. some of their writing is just poor, and their arguments to say the least, weak.

i think both parties need to seek to understand and maybe even learn what they can learn from each other. i see the emegergent side doing this but seek a synacism from other circles.

by the way, this is amy radford's husband...

jdub said...

There is a problem...the problem is that some people don't realize the church has a history of change and reevaluation. Some good, some very bad and bloody changes have taken place, we can never say that we have it figured out. We can never say that THIS is what church should look like. The church is always changing, the church is alway reforming. Denominations come and go, but the word never changes.

People need to understand that the church that they helped to form needs to evolve (yes, I like using this word) into something better. We can never settle, we must always change.

The philosophical mindset of the western world has made or is in the midst of a major change, the last time this happened Capurnicus was excamunicated in the mid 1500s, and when Luther started the reformation. It wasn't pretty!

Our culture has changed, whether we like it or not. The church is changing because the people who are leading the church are postmodern.

All I have to say is that humanity has progressed so far in the past 500 years that we are not killing each other because we think that we are SO right.

Who knows this might just sound like a bunch of hot air, but change is hard. I have seen in it small and large church settings and seen how much of an effect it can have on people and their relationships, but inevitably those who are being persecuted for changing things down the road persecute people for wanting change. I can only imagine that how hard this will be the entire western world change how they do church. History repeats itself, it WILL happen!

goboyle said...

I am enjoying the discussion. It wouldn't so hard hearing the critics concerns, if they were as honest about there own shortcomings. Dr. Grier shared a workshop this past week and i thought did a fair job of sharing his concerns about out the Emerging church, yet also brought out the shortcomings the church in the modern became characterized by as well.
I'm personally excited for what you guys are doing and believe you will have a real connection with people and be able to see many won to Christ. Thanks for the definition and conversation. As a fellow missionary I have much to learn about culture today!

Robb said...

Some comments to all of you -

A - you are completely right, as usual. Thanks for reminding me to be irenic and gracious. It is not easy when you are attacked by the Lestors of the church and when people you considered friends won't email you because of your decision to do this. You have been through similar stuff, so thanks for reminding me to be as gracious as I can. Your comments brought to mind a parent teacher conference I had yesterday. As in all of them, the question of what I am doing in NWA came up, and since the guy was wearing a Dayspring shirt, I decided to try the terminology on him. "Emerging" brought a blank stare. So I said, "We are trying to launch a church for people who've grown disenfranchised with the modern church and want something that is relevent for the way they think and for their culture." His face lit up (he has an eighth grade daughter), and he said "That's awesome!"

Kevin - glad to have you on board. Tell Amy hi for us. You are right - understanding is key. I feel like I understand the modern church very, very well, but also that there are few in the modern church who care to understand what Aaron and I are trying to do.

Joel - you're right, it all just sounds like a bunch of hot air.

No - I'm just kidding. The historical reality of postmodernism will be patently evident 20 years from now when everyone under the age of 60 is postmodern. The church will have to be postmodern then or it will be dead.

Greg - great to hear from you. I pray for you often. Dr. Grier and DA Carson are the good guys in this debate. They are kind, knowledgeable, and gracious. I just wish they were on my side! My response was mostly motivated by less knowledgeable and less gracious responses to the emerging church that I have read lately in certain denominational publications. I won't assume this, but it seemed like the author of that article had not read any of the significant primary sources from either side, but especially from the emergent side. The same is true for John Greening's article several months ago in the Baptist Bulletin, where it seemed like he was working off the back cover of The Emerging Church without having read its content, nor any of McLaren. At least Grier and Carson are going to be informed and opinionated. These are just my impressions, and I hope they are totally off base.

I will add more to my original post later, hopefully today, but I am not sure. Keep the discussion going!

Elizabeth said...

okay, i really appreciate A's comment that we need to be sensitive to the "modern" church and their terminology. and i honestly cannot say much myself-because i haven't read the books :) but i will pray that whatever you guys do, God's Word will always be the foundation in your lives and in the "life" of your church. and don't be too harsh on the critics--you might have a hard time accepting it too, if you had never been exposed to any other way of thinking about it. joel-i would be careful about using the history to logically support the idea of a new kind of church--that could be used for absolutely anything new (i'm not saying it isn't right...just that it can't stand on its own).

Anonymous said...

Jumping in to the discussion from the standpoint of history. Whenever there have been major changes in the church, there have always been those on the front lines leading the changes and those who want to remain the same. Examples: Protestant Reformation,the Great Awakening of the 1730-1740s in England and the colonies, and yes even the Modernist/Fundamentalists wars of the 1920's and 1930's. So don't be suprised if there are those who either don't understand or don't want to understand. Even the critics (good and bad) can help refine thinking. Remember both Luther and Calvin and Edwards , etc. knew their church history!

Sara said...

I need to clarify something..i am not against the "emerging church". I do think that church needs to be relevant to the people that it is trying to reach.

With that said, i think i am getting some vocabularily terms all mixed up in my head.

For instance when i read the words "postmodern church" i think of what the word post modern means..and to sum it up to the best of my knowledge it boils down to "no-absolute truth". So when i read Postmodern Church my mind says "so is this a church that claims no absolute truth?"

Now i don't think that is the case at all but like i said something isn't registering right in my brain.

Matt Book said...

Good thoughts. Certain people and organizations are speaking out against postmoderism and/or the emerging church. Postmodernism is reality, not an opposing force and we'd be alienating ourselves from society to think and act otherwise.

By the way, hi. It's been a while.

Robb said...

Postmodernism is reality, not an opposing force and we'd be alienating ourselves from society to think and act otherwise.

Matt, I could not agree more. It is great to hear from you. What are you up to now?

kevin r said...

for sara:

i understand your questions on terminology. but i think that the skepticism with the word "post-modern" comes from the theological circle you are in. not that i am criticizing it, because i too am a student there.

what i am saying is "post-modern" shouldn't be word we are afraid of, and yet to question what someone means by calling themselves "post-modern" is good. its like asking someone what they believe about any issue, like if two people have a different definition of what "dating" is.

we are in a post-modern society, atleast the generation that you and i are a part of. they see right through the fakeness and shallowness of why we do what we do sometimes as Christians. basically from what i understand they want something real, and isnt that going back to what Jesus came to do and give us...??

kevin r said...

for robb:

i have a question for you. is there a book out there that has people from each side "post-modern" and "modern" talking about these issues in an objective way?

i would be great to put some of that kind of material together. but finding people on both sides of the debate that don't approach it in a i'm right your wrong attitude. but in an attitude of here's what we're trying to accomplish and why (the emergent view). and then here are some things we disagree with or do differently and why (the modern side).

it seems like you have a few people that you know who are not completely judging you, that could interact with you on this. and maybe clarify for those of us who are stratching their heads.

but at the same time we need to do our homework...

Anonymous said...

Friends and Neighbors:
In the midst of your theological discussion, take a break and check out a Blog I just found last week:
Hearts & Minds Book Notes for the review of Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalogue. Robb, isn't that the book we bought you for Christmas last year. Take some time and read his old notes. Enjoy!

Sara said...

for Kevin,

You right..once i asked the question i stepped back and realized the entire context of what was being i understood it more...and i myself need to do some more "homework"

Sara said...

for rob,

so how do you approach the postmodern society without losing biblical truth as well as without allinating yourself from that society?

klasieprof said...

JUst one thot about how we need to change to accomodate (know that spelled wrong) changing culture. I homeschooled for 4 years. Just had to put the in CHarter school this year.
SO far, I was able to keep the Harry Potter stuff at arm's length. WIlliam was in first grade when all this started, and we pulled him out in 2nd grade.
HOwever...NOW he is in the Charter (sort of private, sort of public)...HARRY is everywhere, and the new film is coming out.
As much as I may or may not like it..HARRY POTTER is part of HIS culture, and he will look like an idiot of he doesn't have some knowlege.
THanks to John powers, they are going to start a Crash Course in Harry the films, OR the"DIsCOGRAPHY"...with full discussion on how Britain magic is NOT like the stuff the bible warns of etc.
ANYWAY>..My roundabout point is..CULTURE for HIM has includes HARRY, and if wants to be "UP" on conversations, he needs some knowledge of HArry.
The same is true as I see it for the Emerging Church.
WE have to "meet people" where THEY ARE>..NOT where WE WISH THEY WERE......ISn't that What CHrist did??? Went to the places the PEOPLE were??

Does that make sense???

Robb said...


Check out Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives. Brian McLaren, Michael Horton and others contribute. I haven't read it, but I guess that it would be the best thing that matches your description. Here's the amazon link:

Robb said...

so how do you approach the postmodern society without losing biblical truth as well as without allinating yourself from that society?


This might be difficult to fully grasp, but I don't think that any person ever alienates themselves from their culture. I think we are all so immersed in our culture - our upbringing, thought patterns, influences - that we are shaped by it in ways we can't even begin to comprehend. And I don't think this is a necessarily bad thing. God made us as societal beings and therefore we need the influences of society. Each and everyone of us comes to the Bible (a collection of societal documents) wearing glasses colored by our society. We can never really take them off. The important thing is being able to realize what in our society is compatible with biblical values and what is not.

Each culture has some good things and some bad things. Clarifying the nature of truth will be a challenge for us in postmodern culture who take the Bible seriously. However, those in modernity have problems of their own to contend with - scientific triumphalism and rugged individualism, for instance.

I hope this is food for thought. Discernment is key, like Donna illustrated in her post.

Sara said...

No, i understand fully rob what you are saying...and all i have to say is I wish i could take off my glasses...i don't like what i see..and i can't even begin explaining to people the way that i view the world and how hard it is to know that my views...and perceptions have benn skewed by the experiences and my background.

The way that i take things in the way that i fear so much is all affected by the things in my past...and i try not to let it too..but it is like you said i can't take the glasses off.

I can only try to wash them up a little bit and hope that i will see a clearer picture.

Matt Book said...

Robb, sorry for the comment-jack but I'll briefly answer your question. Steph and I (and 2 kids) and living in Clarks Summit and we're doing really well. I'm working at the old alma mater and involved with music at our church. I'm glad I ran across your little space here and I'll come back to visit. (Hi, Aaron and Vanessa!)

Faz said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Bill Boulet said...

I am always mindful of the wise words of Dean Inge "He who is married to the spirit of the age will be a widow in the next" The one thing I find interesting about this discussion, is that those having think it is new. I have been in Pastoral ministry for almost 30 years and have been having this ongoing discussion the whole time. How can we embrace absolute Biblical authority and reach the culture in which we live? Once you think you have the answer, the culture shifts.....the point being this SHOULD be a life-long conversation, that way we never get STUCK in our SYSTEMS!