Over the next few days I will be exploring some of the key conversations occurring within Western Christianity.

The Morphing Protestant Scene

We all know our world has radically changed over the past few decades. I first wrote about this change in 1993 in my book Dancing with Dinosaurs[i]. In my book, I described the change as a “crack in history” into which everything was disappearing, never to be seen again. Since then, our world has morphed from a rather bland, simple, play-by-the-rules world to a wild and wooly, no-holds-barred world. Nowhere was this wild ride made any more evident than on 9/11 and during the worldwide 2008 financial crisis.

In the midst of this wild, unruly ride, several conversations are taking place that Christian leaders can’t afford to ignore because each one challenges the fabric of Western Christianity as we know it today. So we’d better pay attention. My goal in sharing them with you is not to criticize, but to report what’s at stake.

The Primary Players in These Conversations

The primary players in these conversations are multiplying like rabbits. Some of them have the potential of becoming full-fledged movements. Each of these groups has a different spin on what type of church is needed to address the unfolding culture of the 21st century, and each has the potential to play an important part in the shaping of the 21st century church. Over the next few days, I will examine six of these players: Emergents, Incarnationals, Organics, Reproductives, Missionals, and Sim Cards.

The Emergent Movement

Emergents are a growing group of disenfranchised pastors who are beginning non-traditional churches in protest to what they found in mostly evangelical traditional churches. They are hard to pin down because they practice a “both/and” approach to most issues. They prefer shades of gray instead of absolutes.

The best way to describe this movement is to start with their basic message. Emergents believe that it is no longer possible to hold on to the tenets and practices of modern-day Christianity for two reasons: one, they are flawed and don’t relate to today’s world; and two, the postmodern world requires a new view of faith and new kind of Christian – a postmodern faith and a postmodern Christian.

Emergents believe the more conversations they have, the closer they come to truth. To them truth is more beauty than absolute fact. Truth is messy and beautiful but never objective or eternally certain. Emergents speak with passion and urgency but never with certainty.

The primary leader of Emergents is Brian McLaren, although Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt are also strong voices for the movement.

Brian’s writings today are quite different from what he was saying when I first met him for coffee over a decade ago. Later we crossed paths at the church where he was pastor before he began pursuing his Emergent agenda. The worship and ministry of his church was much like what I have seen all over the country in thriving non-denominational churches.  Today, his writings ask the questions that many of us have been afraid to ask. In asking those questions, he pushes orthodox Christianity to its limits. I doubt what he writes today would be acceptable at the church where he was once the pastor.

I first met Doug Pagitt when he was working with Leadership Network.  I remember sitting next to him in a workshop on equipping leaders for ministry. Midway through the workshop (which I thought was excellent) Doug leaned over to me and whispered, “This is bull#&@$,” and he left the room, never to return. Normally I wouldn’t think much about it, but he was on the staff of the group putting on the workshop. Not long after that, he left Leadership Network and birthed Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis, a church squarely in the Emergent camp.

During the month of September, I had a month-long, fruitful, online conversation with Tony Jones, who was at the time the Executive Director of Emergent Village, and author of The New Christians.  I recommend his book, especially Appendix B, “A Response to our Critics.” During our conversation Jones made it clear that Emergents believe that no one comes to God except through Jesus. My conversation with Tony settled some, but not all, of my concerns about the movement.

However, the Emergent movement has provided a marvelous conversation for all of us because it has revealed the ugly truth – the established Christian church in the West is basically apostate and dead. And they offer a way forward for many disenfranchised church members. For that, we should be grateful and enjoy the conversation.

However, some recent events have occurred that don’t bode well for the Emergents: the defection of key players such as Dan Kimball and Scot McKnight, the release of Tony Jones from the position of Executive Director, and the dropping of the name “Emergent” by many movement leaders because of its negative baggage.

Nevertheless, Emergents will play a part in shaping the 21st century church, though it will be a much smaller part than most people think (see Phyllis Tickle’s book, The Great Emergence[ii]). This is because of a few things: their approach to truth appeals mostly to the intelligentsia; they are too unorganized to grow sustainable, reproducing congregations (most Emergent churches have relatively small congregations); and a modern movement as decentralized as their leadership is becoming will find it hard to sustain itself (no movement has succeeded without a central figure leading the movement).

Question: In your opinion, what are the positive and negative aspects of the emergent movement? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.

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Tomorrow we will examine the Incarnational Movement.

[i] William M. Easum, Dancing with Dinosaurs, Abingdon Press.

[ii] Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence, Baker Books, 2008.