What Type of Movement is the Emergent Church?

It has been interesting comparing some of the various responses to the Emergent Church movement. I have read very little in the area, but I have read enough to become convinced that the Emergent Church has not always been treated very fairly by its critics. The following is the first in what might be (if people are prepared to respond and give their thoughts) a series of posts designed to start discussion on the subject of the Emergent Church. My hope is that we might together come to a better understanding of what the Emergent Church is and how to interact with it.

From what I have encountered, I have a number of areas of real difference with certain elements of the Emergent Church. I would greatly appreciate if some people from within the movement would be prepared to discuss these issues through in what I hope will be a non-threatening environment. Please, sheath your serrated edges before engaging in this discussion.

Brian McLaren

I found Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy very interesting when I first read it. My initial response was quite negative, for reasons that I might raise in later posts. Nevertheless, over time my judgment of the book softened somewhat. When I first read the book my inclination was to treat McLaren as one putting forward a new theological position. Treating McLaren as the advocate of a new theological position was one of the things that encouraged many of my negative reactions. I am becoming increasingly convinced that this is the wrong way to understand McLaren and the Emergent Church.

McLaren’s book has recently been subjected to heavy critique on Doug Wilson’s blog. Whilst I agree with many of the criticisms that Wilson has of the book, I do not find the tone of his critique very helpful. I do not think that we should be so quick to condemn the movement.

Most of us are used to interacting with theological positions, attempts to build theological fortresses. When we first encounter a movement like the Emergent Church we are tempted to respond to it as we do to the various movements that we have known that have been propagating a particular brand of theology. I do not believe that the Emergent Church is primarily concerned with the propagating of a particular brand of theology.

The Emergent Church seems to perceive itself quite differently from more theologically-driven movements. Rather than attempting to construct a theological fortress, it is seeking to move us beyond the existing, crumbling, theological fortresses in a quest for something better. It is a journey, not an attempt to build a new city. There is no hard and fast theological position being advocated.

The Emergent Church seems to be primarily about a profound dissatisfaction with the ways of ‘doing church’ that have predominated in evangelical circles for the past couple of centuries. They recognize that evangelicalism is exhausted and fails to truly address our current age. Evangelicalism was formed as a response to questions that most people are no longer asking and lacks genuine answers to the problems of our contemporary era.

The Emergent Church seeks to move beyond the theological fortress mentality that predominates in much of evangelicalism. Moving outside of the closed confines of the theological fortress, they find themselves exposed to vast areas of thought that they had never properly encountered before. The world that evangelicalism inhabits is so theologically and culturally parochial, that, once one has seen beyond it, is is very hard to go back inside it without feeling claustraphobic.

Outside of the fortress one encounters the culture of the changing postmodern world. One encounters theological insights from all corners and ages of the Christian Church. When one first experiences it, it is enough to blow one’s mind. It can be easy to feel cheated. Evangelicalism, in its noble attempt to protect people from error, has ended up being obscurantist and has prevented people from meeting with theological positions and insights that could have greatly enriched them in their faith.

If you have just broken with the world of evangelicalism, it is likely that you have not yet developed the necessary critical faculties that you will find necessary when dealing with theological positions that have been around for many hundreds of years before evangelicalism ever appeared on the scene. You will make some silly mistakes and be misled from time to time. It is likely that you will go through a stage of experimentation and exploration of the furthest reaches of this exciting new world. In the process you will be exposed to errors and dangers that you would never have encountered within the confines of the theological fortress of evangelicalism. I believe that this is where many within the Emergent Church find themselves.

If the Emergent Church were trying to construct a new theological fortress we might be more justified in criticizing them. As it is, they are exploring and discovering the treasures and the pitfalls of the world outside of the evangelical church. I do not believe that they have found final settling places yet. For this reason we would probably be better advised to help them in their exploration: it is a necessary stage that they need to go through. It is a necessary stage that we all need to go through.

As James Jordan has observed, just as the world of evangelicalism is coming to an end, so the world of the Reformed faith is coming to an end. We need to move forward by faith, preserving the riches of our historic faith, but not allowing ourselves to become trapped in decaying systems that are long past their prime.

The Emergent Church is a challenge to pull down the old fortresses before they crumble on top of us, and move on to better ground. Daniel Kirk puts it well, I believe:

A Generous Orthodoxy is a case study in what I perceive to be a growing desire in N. America to see lines redrawn (what Scot McKnight calls “purple” theology). It articulates and embodies a desire to lay heavy weight on the process of theologizing—a process of humility, charity, courage, and diligence. I think that this framework, more than any of the particular content of the book, is its greatest contribution as well as its greatest potential source of conflict. Standing over against the “once right always right” over-realized theological eschatology of most of our Christian traditions, McLaren rejects the sort of arrogant posturing that comes as a result of having our theology figured out for us 450 years ago….

This book lays an excellent groundwork for overcoming the commonly acted upon assumption that if your theology is right that gives you license to treat people like skubala.

How we respond to McLaren’s project, what he’s trying to accomplish is an important litmus test for our various Christian communities. Do we resent the idea that treating people like crap and creating witch hunts indicates that we’re instruments in the hand of Satan? Then we’ll probably thrash the book and continue to prove it true. Calls for repentance are never easy to hear.

Do you think that this is the right way to view the Emergent Church? Is the movement to be regarded as a threat or an opportunity? Please give your thoughts in the comments.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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9 Responses to What Type of Movement is the Emergent Church?

  1. As with many “movements”, the emergent church is correct in some of the problems they see, but their solutions aren’t always appropriate. Their willingness to locate and identify problems with evangelicalism is valuable as a self-critique. Their rejection of traditional structure and acceptance of whatever (literally) is more troubling.

  2. Jon says:

    I particularly like the bongos in the pic of BM… whether or not the Reformed faith will die out, that strain of religion in which there are bongos set on the stage behind the speaker will live on for eternity…

  3. Al says:

    Fortunately I don’t think that the EC is trying to give us yet another new strain of religion designed to last for eternity.

  4. I think some of the criticisms that are justly levelled against McLaren become incorrect when they are generalized to the EC movement (despite what people say, it seems to be a movement of some kind). A lot of people undoubtedly agree with McLaren’s liberal-ish leanings, but there is nothing inherent in the essential idea of the EC itself that requires someone to have those leanings. “Moving beyond the modernistic church” tells you nothing of what you are moving towards.

  5. Al says:

    Good point, Andrew.

  6. David says:


    Let me start by saying that I am not ever remotely close to being an expert on the Emergent Church. My exposure has been pretty much limited to McLaren and a bunch of young men (yes, all men – isn’t that interesting?!) who are only a year or two out of college, but …

    One of the issues I hope you can interact with proponents of the Emergent Church about is the place of theology in the Church. I have not been struck so much by the desire in these young men (or, for that matter, McLaren) to establish new theological fortresses. Instead the thing that stands out is (and this is only a very unstudied perception on my part) an apparent desire to have a Church with no limits on theology or truth claims.

    Hopefully I am just plain wrong about this. If not, we should note that one of the major prevailing sins throughout the history of Israel was syncretism. It seems to me that (at least the small parts of the movement that I’m familiar with) that the Emergent Church is virtually encouraging syncretism.

    I look forward to reading your thoughts and hope you can finish your exams with joy and thanksgiving.


  7. Good analysis. I wish I were more familiar with the relevant literature and personalities here. My inclination is to err on the side of “opportunity” rather than “threat.” You can’t really win folks over if you do all you can to alienate them first. I look forward to further thoughts from you.

  8. Mark says:

    I am just now getting in on this conversation, many months after your post. I have just completed- no devoured- reading “A Generous Orthodoxy” and “The Secret Message of Jesus”.

    Approximately the same age as McLaren, growing up in the 60’s, and being on the fringes of the “hippie” movement, I can not help but wonder if McLaren is facing some of the same middle-aged angst as myself. Is this all there is?, Is this what “church” is all about? Shouldn’t we have accomplished more? What about the shaping of our politics? How can we obtain more justice, forgiveness, equity in the world?

    Like you, I do not completely agree with some of the conclusions he draws from history, nor feel comfortable with concerns over syncretism. But, I too think these are honorable questions, and that McLaren does not claim to be “right”, nor finished in the journey.

    I have concerns that because of my inexperience, my desire to see God’s justice in his Kingdom, and inablility to have developed the critical thinking needed, that I may be misled- and then mislead others. There can be no doubt that the individualistic, how we get to heaven mentality, has shut down and diminished the churches good works.

    Please keep us informed of other contact you have with the emergent church.

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