What is the “emerging church”?

If I didn’t hang around at WorldontheWeb, I probably wouldn’t even have heard of it, at least not until now. The subject has come up a few times there, sometimes in the context of discussing “church” (such as worship style), but more often in the context of social issues.

I kept thinking, I ought to find out more about that. But I think that about a lot of topics, and find time only to explore a few. (A few months ago it was Islam. Right now I’m reading a book on Eastern Orthodoxy.) From what little I did find out about the emerging church, it because clear that even among those who consider themselves part of the movement (though I read that they prefer to call it a “conversation” rather than a movement), there was not a consensus on what it meant.

For some it is mostly about worship styles, and doctrine is pretty much the same as in more traditional churches. For others, even traditional doctrine is up for “re-envisioning.” And that naturally makes anyone with any association to the movement (or whatever you want to call it) highly suspect.

Rick Warren, who has been in the news much lately (first over the AIDS summit, more recently the Saddleback Civil Forum last Saturday), is regularly tarred for his connection with it (whatever that may be) by one outspoken commenter at WoW. As the church I attend thinks highly of Warren, and has used his books at least twice for churchwide study, I suppose our church would also be associated with the emerging church, at least in this person’s view.

After all, we have contemporary worship services led by musicians playing guitar and drums, the pastor often quotes from Eugene Peterson’s The Message, and (some) people come to church in jeans and T-shirts and carry cups of coffee (not Starbucks!) into the auditorium (which really is an auditorium, complete with stage and stage lighting and theater seats).

On the other hand, the doctrine taught at this church is as orthodox as that I’ve heard anywhere (unless you consider KJV-only to be necessary for orthodoxy, as at least two churches I attended as a teenager did). They don’t give a weekly altar call as some churches do (or did – do they still?), but it is made clear that Jesus is the one way of salvation, that we are called to repent and to turn to God by faith in the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Today I read that Brian McLaren, an acknowledged leading voice of the emerging church, has endorsed Barack Obama for president. Even knowing the disaffection of many young evangelicals with the Republican party (not that McLaren is exactly young), I found myself surprised by this news.

Most evangelicals I know who do not want to vote for McCain will either not vote (at least not for president), or will vote for a third party candidate (I’m leaning strongly that way myself). Many other evangelicals will metaphorically hold their nose and vote for McCain as the only effective way to vote against Obama.

So what is this emerging church, that according to at least some people I am associated with by virtue of my church’s use of Warren’s materials, that wants to see Obama elected president? A diverse group, I’m sure – but I think now it’s time to figure out who or what they are.

I looked first at Matthew 25, the PAC supporting Obama that runs the McLaren ads. No names I recognize there except McLaren. And not a lot of explanation of who they are except that they cover a broad range of Christian traditions and that they see a need to use public policy to support carrying out Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25 to care for “the least of these.”

Next I found emergingchurch.info, which I have just begun exploring. One “reflection” page there certainly expresses desires I can identify with. Some of it I do find in the church I attend now – culturally relevant, deep interpersonal relationships (at least there’s a real effort in that direction, though making it happen depends on each person’s commitment in time and transparency), and the value of story.

I see less valuing of ancient traditions (I miss some of the liturgical elements of Presbyterian worship, such as the corporate prayer of confession and reciting the creeds and confessions of the Church), and definitely too much push for noise and intensity in worship (I get very annoyed at the suggestion that the decibel volume of my praise has anything to do with its sincerity or depth).

I’ll tell you more when I figure it out …

3 Responses to What is the “emerging church”?

  1. cindyinsd says:

    Hi, Pauline

    I, too, have become interested in the emerging church. You’re right that it’s a pretty broad slice of pie. My problems lie with parts of it that seem to exclude certain sexual things from the realm of sin (not that they’re THE sin, but they are sin, not physical/psychological characteristics), parts that suggest that Christianity is compatible with pretty much any other religion such as Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism (ie: one can simply add Jesus into the mix and voila’: a completed Muslim, etc.), and parts that believe that the Bible is “all true . . . and some of it actually happened,” whereas I believe that the Bible is simply . . . all true.

    On the other hand, the idea of house or “organic” churches is immensely attractive to me, yet they identify themselves as part of the “emergent” church. How much of it do they subscribe to? Very difficult to find out. I’ll definitely be following your blog.

    God bless,


  2. Karen O says:

    The Emergent Church certainly is hard to pin down. My husband recently asked me what it was, & I had trouble giving him a good answer. I’ll copy this post & pass it on to him.

    As for Rick Warren, as I told that person on WOW (who claims that his involvement in the EC is well known in evangelical circles), she’s the only one I’ve read making that claim. She posted part of an article to back up her claim, but that was merely someone’s bad opinion of Warren, not any proof.

    I’ve read elsewhere that Warren’s emphasis is on the truth of the gospel, along with living it out. Some mock his plans for bringing change to Africa, one nation at a time, but I think, Hey, at least he’s trying to do something.

    Many claim that his Purpose books are works-based, but he claims that the purpose he writes about is God’s purpose for us.

    I’m not even that familiar with all of what Warren does or has to say, but from my reading so far, I don’t think many of the complaints against him are justified. I may be wrong, but that’s my opinion so far. It seems whenever someone does something in a different way or comes from a different angle in their thinking, many assume they are not orthodox & that there must be something wrong with them & their theology.

  3. cindyinsd says:

    I’ve heard a lot of people complaining about Rick Warren, too, and like you, I don’t know a lot about him. I’ve read Purpose Driven Life and I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it. It was very helpful to me and my husband when we read it. Maybe I’ll have to go back over it with the “works” thing in mind. It’s been a long time ago. Of course, people who have a problem with Warren probably don’t much like James, either. 😉

    You don’t suppose people are jealous of Warren, do you? From all I hear, he’s a fine guy and the main thing you might hold against him is the immense popular success of his books and his church. But he keeps only 10% of the money his media sales make and takes no salary from his church (and paid back his past salary as well) and hasn’t (or hadn’t at the time) moved into a different house since his success as an author. I read that in an article in Christianity Today or Charisma or some similar magazine (on-line).

    Really, I was surprised at the complaints against Warren, and I’m not even sure what people are criticizing him for. The emergent church is really interested in social concerns like helping the poor and so on. Maybe that’s the connection there. I believe that we Christians should all be concerned about that, too, though we might have differing ideas of appropriate avenues of help.

    For some, genuine help really can only come in the form of a handout, but this is not the case for all, and possibly not the case for most of the poor in the USA. That’s the tricky part. How do you help someone when passing out free money isn’t going to do the trick? It’s much easier in Africa. I’ll bet a lot of the people there really do need a handout. Anyway, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Rick Warren trying to help the poor.

    Well, I’ve got to go. My daughter and I are reading The Divine Conspiracy together. You should check it out. It’s really a spectacular book.

    God bless,


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