The Emerging Movement


(Since you guys wouldn’t read the 30 page document I linked in a previous post, try my 4 1/2 page summary instead! I needed to do this anyway. I’d really like a conversation about this – yes, I’m begging.)

I’ll begin by admitting that, as a non-academic, I prefer the lectures I read from the Westminster Theological Seminary to be funny. So Scot McKnight is my hero. In his lecture, you’ll find terms like suck and lookee here alongside dictionary-searching words such as orthopraxy and epistemology. And an awful lot of Mark Twain.

McKnight begins by laying some groundwork:
* First, denying that the emerging church can be defined by the popular stereotypes such as… folks who deny truth exists, folks who are simply enamored with using candles and incense in worship, and folks who are Brian McLaren.
* Second, he denies any such thing as the emerging “church” even exists, calling it instead more of a movement or conversation.
* Third, specifically for Terry Austin, he clarifies the difference between the terms “emerging” and “emergent.” The latter refers to Emergent Village, as directed by Tony Jones. The former is “bigger, broader, and deeper.” A movement, not a place.
* Fourth, he agrees to the premise that the “emerging movement” is a protest movement, but not in the ways some characterize it to be: instead of denying “truth” per se (my understanding of his use of the term, epistemology here), it is more a protest about, or maybe against, “church” as we know it (ecclesiology).

And just before he develops his metaphor that grabbed me, he summed up his groundwork this way: “…if you narrow the emerging movement to Emergent Village, and especially to the postmodernist impulse therein, you can probably dismiss this movement as a small fissure in the evangelical movement. But, if you are serious enough to contemplate major trends in the Church today, at an international level, and if you define emerging as many of us do – in missional, or ecclesiological terms, rather than eptistemological ones – then you will learn quickly enough that there is a giant elephant in the middle of the Church’s living room. It is the emerging church movement and it is a definite threat to traditional evangelical ecclesiology.”

I found the lecture both scary and exhilarating, and for the same reason: I discovered that I am not alone in the world after all.

(Melodramatic? Maybe, but I’m not so sure…)

McKnight’s metaphor employed to describe the emerging movement is a lake (Lake Emerging) with four rivers flowing in (postmodern, praxis, postevangelical, and politics). Some folks are on one river near the point it flows into Lake Emerging. Some are in the lake, but near one of the specific rivers. Still others are splashing around in a confluence of all the rivers in this theoretical lake.


It is in this river from whence the accusation of denying the existence of truth comes. Yet McKnight argues that this is a mistaken accusation. Instead, in this river, emerging thinkers “embrace…a chastened epistemology.” He goes on to explain, “LeRon Shults claims ‘from a theological perspective, this fixation with propositions can easily lead to the attempt to use the finite tool of language on an absolute Presence that transcends and embraces all finite reality… The truly infinite God of Christian faith is beyond all our linguistic grasping…and so the struggle to capture God in our finite propositional structures is nothing short of linguistic idolatry.’ Flaubert once remarked, when trying to express his love for his mistress, that the ‘language to do so was inept.’ That, my friends, is [what] some emerging postmodern Christians are trying to say. Language is inept to talk absolutely about God. I must confess that I am smitten with the potential adoration and awe that derives from such apophatic approaches to Christian theologizing, and I’m inclined to say Shults is right.”

McKnight concludes, “What I’m suggesting in this first point is that postmodernity, at various levels, is a recognizable river flowing into Lake Emerging: it is conscious, it is intentional, and it is desirable. Someone who eschews or bad-mouths – or who curses, as the Lutherans sometimes do – postmodernity cannot be emerging.”


To McKnight, this is the heart of the movement. He had suggested earlier a book by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger (Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures) as the best description of the movement, and he quotes it here: “Emerging churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures.”

My first impression of the “emerging movement” was that of candles and incense, and for many this remains the picture. McKnight inserts this aspect on the Praxis River, but wonders if this is really that big a deal to emerging folks after all. Instead, there is a definite feeling that “the way we do worship” is obviously not the end-all, be-all to Christianity. So they wonder – and practice – other ways to physically express worship.

But this is not the major current on the Praxis River. Instead, McKnight explains: “To be straight up about it, the emerging movement thinks how a person lives is more important than what they believe… And that the power of a life forms the best apologetic for the way of Jesus.”

Before the tomatoes start flying, McKnight goes on to say “I know of no one in the emerging movement who thinks one’s relationship to God is established by how one lives, nor do I know anyone who really thinks it doesn’t matter what one believes about Jesus Christ…” But… “emerging folk are quite proud to remind us that we will be judged according to the parable of the sheep and goats on how we treat the least of these, and that the wise man is one who practices the words of Jesus. On top of this, some are quite fond of reminding us that Jesus didn’t offer a doctrinal statement but a way of life, and that he called people to follow him and not just to get their theology right.”

Emerging folks notice that no one has ever got it all “right” when it comes to theology, which (McKnight concludes), “leads them to concentrate on living the way of Jesus. We may not get it right when it comes to theology, so what we are called to do is live right…”

As a result, emerging folks are interested in social justice. McKnight argues that the approach to social justice, however, is not related to the Religious Right’s emphases on the issues of abortion and militarism, but the historical approach of Walter Rauschenbusch (architect of the social gospel) and Jane Addams.

Finally, the Praxis River is missional. McKnight writes, “…the missional impulse of the emerging movement finds its perfect expression in the ministry of Jesus – who went about doing good – to bodies and to spirits and to souls and to families and to societies. He swept up the marginalized from the floor and put them back on their seats at the table, and he attracted harlots and tax collectors, and wiped the lame clean and opened the ears of the deaf. He cared, in other words, about bodies and whole persons. He attacked the vicious injustices of the Herods and the Caesars and the religious elite of Israel, and he declared in tones even more strident than Jim Wallis that what they were doing was flat-out wrong and it had to change. The central element of this missional praxis is that the emerging movement is not attractional in its model of the church but is instead missional: that is, it does not invite people to church but instead wanders into the world as the church. It asks its community, ‘How can we help you?’ instead of knocking on doors to increase membership. In other words, it becomes a community with open windows and open doors and sees Sunday morning as the opportunity to prepare for a week of service to the community, asking not how many are attending the services but what redemptive traits are we seeing in our community. It wants to embody a life that is other-oriented rather than self-oriented, that is community-directed rather than church-oriented.”

(It is here that I’m prepared to come forward as we stand and sing.)


The emerging movement is a protest against evangelicalism.

McKnight begins with this simple explanation: “The gospel is more than Jesus coming to die for my sins so I can get to heaven.” He explains that this reduction of the gospel is rejected by the emerging movement. “Not in the sense of abandonment, not in the sense of rendering obsolete, but in the sense of taking up and moving beyond…”

McKnight guesses that the emerging movement is not necessarily post-evangelical in basic theology, but very much so when it comes to the Christian life and theology. (My gross simplification: “God, Jesus, Bible, Church, Spirit, etc. – okay, that’s not the argument. But how do we live?”)

First, “the emerging movement is perhaps annoyed more by Bible thumpers and Christians who are obsessed with being biblical than anything else – not because they disparage the Bible but because they know too many Christians whose theology is all that matters to them, who render judgment on everything and everyone – with Bible verses to back it up – but who don’t live compassionately…” He goes on, “When I wrote Jesus Creed to show how central loving God and loving others was to his ethics, I didn’t know my idea was emerging. Whether it is or not, it is biblical: Jesus said the whole Law hangs from these two commandments… The emerging movement thinks love defines Christian existence. Which means reading about love and exegeting agapao and the likes are not enough.”

Second, the emerging movement is suspicious of systematic theology. After offering several reasons why, McKnight writes, “Frankly, the emerging movement loves ideas and theology; sometime sit down with its leaders and its participants and you’ll find that they love theology – they just don’t “have” a theology and don’t “subscribe to” a theology or “confess” a theology. They believe the Great Traditions offers us ways of telling the truth about God’s redemption in Christ, but they don’t believe any one theology gets it absolutely right.

Third, the emerging movement is skeptical of the “in vs. out” mentality that comes with evangelicalism. McKnight explains, “Let’s get the foil for the emergents on the table: evangelicals render judgment on who is and who isn’t a Christian… The emerging movement is skeptical of our ability to know such things.” McKnight goes on to show the negative implications this has toward evangelism and challenges the movement in this regard, but this strand of protest is against a movement defined by evangelism, even if it hasn’t articulated a coherent alternative to its traditional practice.


Quoting yet again, “Lake Emerging also receives a river called political, and here I’m talking now only about the USA. Tony Jones is regularly told that the emerging movement is a latte-drinking, backpack-lugging, Birkenstock-wearing, group of 21st Century left-wing hippie wannabes. Put directly, they are Democrats. And that spells ‘doomed’ for conservative evangelicals.”

Later, “…although emerging leaders often speak of the bi-partisan or non-partisan nature of emergent, I don’t see it. I think they are mostly political left. Brian McLaren called for a ‘purple’ politics. I’ll believe the emerging movement is ‘purple’ in politics when I see a politics that is genuinely moderate, genuinely independent, and genuinely willing to criticize both the Republicans for their godless emphasis on money and the Democrats for their godless emphasis on amorality.”

McKnight believes that Jim Wallis is Walter Rauschenbusch a century later and argues that Wallis’ solitary message to the evangelical church is that justice in the world matters to God. McKnight agrees, but raises the question of how justice is defined. He goes on to say that when he reads emerging folks write about justice, he thinks he is hearing the Democratic platform. He concludes, “I could be wrong. But this is what I see.”


McKnight concludes with his thesis that the emerging movement is more about ecclesiology than epistemology – more about “how to do church by practicing the way of Jesus in postmodernity” than a theological statement.

I conclude by saying that I was both frightened and exhilarated to read about myself in light of a “movement.” Frightened because I haven’t been subscribing to the company newsletters (my initial impression of emerging led me to avoid the literature), and exhilarated because I’m a lonely person (although I find encouragement from the houseflies from time to time, I feel very much alone in the world as to my worldview).

I guess I am not alone after all. I do not know the implications of being able to say that aloud.

16 Responses to “The Emerging Movement”

  1. Whitney Says:

    There’s a book I really like called “Who is My Brother” by F. LaGard Smith. You may find him too conservative for your taste, but this book actually fits in with all your saying here.

    It talks about the practice of baptism, its importance in how we follow and obey what Jesus taught, and how baptism as an act of being buried with Christ, to die with Him, isn’t only for those folks in the churches of Christ. He talks about the big mistakes the churches of Christ are making (by making themselves denominational) when they take this point of view.

    You should read it if you haven’t.

    I’m not sold on Emerging. HOWEVER, I don’t necessarily dismiss it, either. The ideas that you summarized are so true of us as Christians. We just have to be very careful not to lead people the wrong way by not teaching them fully what Jesus said and did. I mean, in order to “live like Jesus” we have to do just that, right? I don’t even know why this is going to be so hard to discuss in churches of Christ, but it will be. Now, if you frame it differently (not referring to Emerging, but referring to our responsibilities to society and to God and to eahc other) it would be accepted just fine. I just don’t know that anything would actually happen. We’d sit in your pews, nod our heads, maybe even shed some tears and then head to Applebee’s for a bruschetta burger.

    Sandi, if you’re reading this…how does this ring with you? If you saw a church like this, would it draw you in or repel you?

  2. Whitney Says:

    apologize for the typos…i accidentally hit “publish” instead of “preview”

  3. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Hey Whitney! Thanks for getting a discussion started…

    I have not read F. Lagard’s book, but I’ve heard about it often. The very nature of the title (I’m assuming) places it at odds with emerging thought, specifically in evangelicalism’s need (the CofC can be the poster child here) of who is in and who is out. For some reason, I’ve never ended up with a copy. Didn’t it end with a letter to Max Lucado? Seems like I remember that…

    Anyway, your point about “teaching them fully” is a bit touchy for (shall I say, “we”) emerging folks. Not disagreeing, just the word makes “us” want to clarify a bit -“fully” begs the question of who’s cornered the market on the knowledge of what that means.

    And your point that we listen but don’t do anything (self included to large extent) is what drives “we” emerging folks insane. Not pointing fingers. Implicating the whole lot of us – evangelical/emerging/the whole Hee Haw gang.

    From where I sit, these things will be VERY hard to discuss in Churches of Christ. A whole laundry list of problematic thoughts come to mind:
    * You mean we don’t have all the answers, but that’s okay?
    * You’re serious that introducing candles in worship might be acceptable – no record in the NT of candles in worship ya know…
    * How a person lives is more important than what she believes? (the Mother Teresa dilemma)
    * You would knock doors to serve people, not to set up Bible studies?
    * Helping people is more important than the Church?
    * Jesus dying for my sins so I can go to Heaven is not the point of it all?
    * Love defines Christian existence, not being right?
    * You can’t really know who’s “in” and who’s “out?”
    * You voted Democrat?

    Just some thoughts that came to mind to make the point more personal, and therefore more dramatic…

    Thanks again for kicking off. I hope several will get involved…

  4. Whitney Says:

    You might be surprised by the book. It is talking about the essential nature of baptism in that we can’t live with Christ unless we die with him and that LOTS of people practice baptism and that we are not God, therefore, it is not up to us to question the “authenticity” of the baptisms. Rather, it is for each person (regardless of theological approach) to decide if his or her baptism follows the whole “die with Christ.” Accordingly, not fellowshipping with said folks because we think they aren’t saved, well, that makes us big time losers. That seems like something you’d agree with.

    When I say fully, I mean give them the Bible, Al. It’s all we have. Teach them WHAT JESUS DID (Sorry, not yelling…just not in the mood to do html tags). And HOW we can follow his example. For those who don’t like the Bible, well, i don’t know what to say to them except that you cannot learn much about Christ, therefore you can’t really learn how to follow Him or how to pray or how to ….. without it.

    So, how do you think the emerging movement views baptism…as theological? See, I don’t (view it as theological). I think it is just another part of following Christ’s example. I think it is a clear example, also, of how people were converted in the NT, as the initial part of their decision to follow Jesus. I just don’t think I could say to someone, “I feel GREAT that you haven’t died to self, with Christ. It just doesn’t matter!! So long as you’re good to other people.”

    I would have to say, “Look at these examples and make up your own mind.” But to sit back and say nothing is, to me, irresponsible. That’s why I think a conversation, ongoing, is a great idea. If people truly desire to live by Jesus’ example, I cannot see what about baptism would be a turn-off. (For post-modernists, its just a way to say, “Screw your tradition.” But not all perceived traditions are real traditions…with me?)

    On the other hand, for us to say, “YOU HAVE TO BE BAPTIZED!! You have to do this and that.” and on and on, but to not show compassion, to not give of ourselves to help others, is foolish. It is ridiculous to think that will get us closer to God.

    Oh, and yes, there’s a letter to Max Lucado at the end. They’re apparently friends, so it is quite interesting.

  5. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Thanks, Whitney…

    No big issues in response: I’ve been teaching baptism & baptizing folks for quite some time now. At some point, my approach shifted from baptism as a final step in a salvation process to a starting point in a following Jesus process. Theologically, not practically (we’re still going down in the water the same way).

    I can’t characterize how emerging folks would view baptism. First, because I’m new to the support group. Second, because you’ll have to remember that there isn’t a doctrinal statement.

    Not being snippy toward F. LaGard here, but for sake of discussion it sounds like…
    * Smith: You must be baptized, then we’ll let God sort it out as we try to follow Jesus’s example
    * Emerging: We’ll let God sort it out as we try to follow Jesus’s example (which, from where I sit, would obviously include baptism in the attempt)

    Do you see the difference? Not “here’s our minimum, then God” but “just God.”

    I believe/practice/teach baptism. It is in the statement of claiming that my interpretation is perfect that I falter. This is the Postmodern River: “chastened epistemology.” I’ve been heavily influenced by my background, my geography, my time in history, Bible translators up to present day, and a host of other factors. I’m just doing my very best with what I’ve got and encouraging others to do the same.

    So once again, I have no beef with your comment.

    Baptism has a theological element AND a practical element to it. They are entwined. To claim my theological understanding of baptism superior to yours (and vice-versa) is problematic to emerging folks it seems.

    Okay, I can’t seem to quit talking:

    Example: Why aren’t we homeless like Jesus? It is in our theological understanding of Scripture that we’ve determined (I’m supposing) that following the example of Jesus doesn’t necessarily include that part. Others have disagreed.

    Can someone come to a theological understanding of baptism that sees it in a similar way? That’s hard for me to imagine, but will I claim that it is impossible, and more importantly, it is impossible for God to see their sincere conclusion as acceptable?

    That gets to the heart of it a bit more: not being consumed with that “in vs. out” mentality (who is my brother?). This poses a problem with evangelism, acknowledged in the lecture, and a serious one that needs to be discussed.

  6. Al Sturgeon Says:

    To be more accurate, in my simplistic comparison of Smith/Emerging, I should say in the parentheses: “which would obviously ADDRESS baptism in the attempt.”

    In light of those who think following Jesus involves poverty, they might say following Jesus “would obviously ADDRESS self-poverty in the attempt.” Better than “involve.”

  7. juvenal_urbino Says:

    A couple of quick thoughts.

    First, thanks for the summary. I haven’t had time to take another look at the full version.

    Second, I think McKnight is playing diplomat a little, saying this thing is about ecclesiology more than epistemology. It looks to me like the ecclesiological change is a direct result of the “chastened epistemology” (often referred to by Jesus and others as simple “humility”); without the epistemological change, the rejuvenated ecclesiology doesn’t happen. It’s a direct cause & effect relationship.

    The emergers are political in a new way, they’re post-evangelical, and they’re missional because they have realized that neither they nor anyone else has or ever will have anything but partial answers. They’ve learned epistemological humility.

    Third — okay, so 3 quick thoughts — this is not new. American churches have discovered this before. The history of Christianity in American proceeds in cycles or oscillations: a wave of revivalism comes along, gets carried away with itself, is followed by a wave of humility, which eventually turns into relative acedia, at which point the cycle begins again.

  8. juvenal_urbino Says:

    instead of denying “truth” per se (my understanding of his use of the term, epistemology here)

    Epistemology has nothing to do with the existence of truth (or Truth), per se; that’s ontology. Epistemology has to do with how we know. (Since humans are primarily interested in knowing true things, that often gets extended to “how we know truth.”)

    I point out the distinction between ontology and epistemology not to be pedantic, but because it’s an important distinction that tends to get lost, especially in the context of religious discussions, and it seems to me the loss of that distinction in people’s perceptions of emergers is one of the things McKnight is trying to address.

    When people talk about epistemology, they’re not saying anything about whether or not Truth exists. I gather that, being orthodox Christians, the emergers don’t doubt Truth’s existence or God’s complete knowledge of it. What they’re talking about is whether or not we can claim to know Truth in anything other than a partial sense.

    We are not God. We are fallible. We have faulty memories. We have poor understanding. We are intellectually lazy, and often self-deluding. We are limited to 5 senses, each of which is itself extremely limited, even when working at 100% of its capacity. We are limited to what can be conceived and expressed in human language.

    There are all kinds of problems with us that limit our access to Truth. Saying so doesn’t put any limits on God or what God knows or even what God would like us to know. Whatever may be true (heh) on those scores, God chose to fashion us such that we are language-bound, etc., and therefore there are limits to our knowledge. (Or, alternatively, our limitations might not be God’s direct choice, but a result of the Fall or some other mechanism. Who knows? Not us.) Moreover, God chose to reveal himself as one of us, and therefore to communicate with us through language, with all its limitations. That being the case, we have to face up to the fact that human beings will only ever know Truth partially.

    Truth can exist in the mind of God, and emergers can (and apparently do) acknowledge that as part of the greatness of God. But that doesn’t mean we can know Truth, except through a glass darkly.

    What exists and what we can know are 2 totally different questions. One can question what we can know without questioning what exists. But when someone does it in a religious context, the faithful tend to miss the point and start hollerin’ “Relativism!” and “But the Bible…!” and whatnot. They set to defendin’ the faith when no one’s even questioned it.

    I think McKnight’s trying to say that’s the case in many people’s reactions to emergingism. He then goes a step further by saying the emergers aren’t even saying much about epistemology, but he’s fibbin’ a mite.

    (Apologies for having gone around the block just to get across the street.)

  9. Al Sturgeon Says:

    No apology necessary.

    I’m glad your evaluation of McKnight’s epistemology/ecclesiology distinction is what it is. This was why I asked for you to read on anyway – I didn’t think he was “really” saying that…

    And your “this has happened before” paragraph interests me. In particular, was there anything worth learning from those times when this has happened before?

  10. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Sure. What used to be known as the “mainline” Protestant denominations are an example of churches that had learned epistemological humility. Although they came to somewhat different ecclesiological conclusions than the emergers, they did share the belief in the need for social justice, and the emphasis on the qualities of one’s life over theological precision in one’s confession.

    A sense that that was carried too far is part of what has driven the current round of revivalism and emphasis on church qua church (e.g., the Confessing movement within the United Methodists, a good bit of Hauerwas’s thought, etc.).

  11. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Just got a minute here – crazy day – but one quick question…

    These mainline Protestant groups are declining now while the emerging movement is…well…emerging, right?

    Is there an ecclesiological disconnect between the two groups? Or what?

  12. juvenal_urbino Says:

    The mainliners have gotten a bit old and stodgy. And they tend to be High Church in their worship style. To an emerger, they’re probably yesterday’s biscuits.

    And there may well be substantive differences between the two groups. I probably know less about this emerging business than anybody here.

  13. juvenal_urbino Says:

    The mainliners have gotten a bit old and stodgy.

    And gentrified.

  14. Duane McCrory Says:

    Juvenal (and Al, and whoever else is reading),

    I agree with your assessment about how the emerging ecclesiology came about–an epistemological change–however, I think what McKnight is saying (and I did read the 30-page document, but only once so far) is that the focus became praxis–orthopraxy vice orthodoxy. So the movement is more concerned with what one does than what one believes. This leads them outward instead of inward, to be a community that does not invite people to attend a gathering but goes out into the world as community to serve others. The orthopraxy and ecclesiology are inextricably connected–being church means doing the right actions, not necessarily having the right beliefs, which are in any case only partial.

    What is interesting to me is the unanswered and undiscussed epistemological question, “How do we know orthopraxy or what is the correct ecclesiology?” His answer seems to be Matthew 25 and the life of Jesus. In other words, we know what correct practice is by looking at the life of Jesus. If individually this is the right way of doing things (praxis), then collectively it is too (ecclesiology). I would think his statements lead this direction, anyway. I do not remember any discussion as to the source of his eccesiology except what I understand here to move from the individual to the collective. Any thoughts along this line?

    Thanks for the discussion and sorry I’m not around much anymore.

  15. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Thanks, Duane. Good to have you around whenever you get the chance (and to have you post, too!).

    I’m afraid I don’t have any thoughts to add really, just general agreement with the same thing that interests you.

    Emerging folks won’t settle on a pat answer of course, but “Matthew 25 and the life of Jesus” is a pretty good way to go if you ask me. Over the years, I’ve noticed my frequent citation of the “sheep and goats” lesson.

  16. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Well. I’m glad I glanced back at this thread one last time.

    “How do we know orthopraxy or what is the correct ecclesiology?”

    Good point. McKnight and the emergers seem to me — and those of you more familiar with the movement, please correct me if I’m wrong — to be going for more of a narrative approach to Christianity: narrative theology rather than systematic theology. Put simply, “We don’t have all the answers, but we have a story to tell. And we won’t always know the right thing to do, but we try to fit into (or advance) the story.”

    That, ISTM, would be their answer to the orthodoxy and orthopraxy questions. As for the ecclesiology question, I think that’s a tougher nut to crack not just for emergers, but for any Christian tradition that puts very great emphasis on Jesus and the gospels, and rather little on, say, Paul’s epistles. For those threads of Christianity, ecclesiology tends, I think, to be sort of a hodge-podge artifact of the decisions they’ve made about theology and epistemology, etc., not systematic. (Which, as is probably obvious, I think is perhaps as it should be.)

    Don’t be such a stranger.

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