Why the emerging church does not exist

Part 2 in a series on the emerging church

The rest of the series:
Part 1 – Come, emerge with me
Part 3 – Why I am emerging: A new way to believe
Part 4Why I am emerging: A hopeful way to believe
Part 5Why I am emerging: An inclusive way to believe

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In writing about the emerging church, I must first inform you that the emerging church does not exist. That’s right, there is no such thing as the emerging church.

You might think I’m joking. I’m not. You might even think you’ve read articles and even books about the emerging church. You haven’t. And most confusing of all, you might think I’m writing a series on the emerging church. But that is not true, because the emerging church does not exist, and you can’t write a series of blog entries about a topic that does not exist.

Please, allow me to explain.

People like to talk about the emerging church as if it is something you can point out and identify in the real world. But that is simply not the case. Just like there is no such thing as the emerging church, there is also no such thing as an emerging church. The term is simply too subjective, it is defined in widely varying ways, and ultimately it is too broad to mean much of anything. As a result, I don’t think it exists. It’s a myth. An apparition.

One person hears the term “emerging church” and thinks of the use of candles and media in worship services. Another person hears the term and thinks of moral relativism. Still another person thinks the term relates to the church’s engagement with culture. Some people might think the emerging church encompasses all of the above, while others might say all of the above is wrong and actually we should be talking about the emergent church and not the emerging church. That’s right, some people find it important to distinguish between the emerging church and the emergent church. But personally, I don’t think it’s very helpful to replace one meaningless term with yet another.

So what am I getting at? Two things in particular.

One, the term “emerging church” has lost any real meaning or value (if it ever had any in the first place). It is seldom helpful for conversation. In fact, I think using the term is usually a hindrance, rather than an aid, to good conversation.

Two, rather than writing thousands of blog entries trying to describe the emerging church, and creating numerous fancy charts identifying the emerging church, I think we should simply avoid using the term altogether. Instead, just say what you are really talking about – get past the term and talk about something that really does exist, in terms that most everyone can understand and agree upon. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are probably times when it makes sense to use the term (even though it refers to something that doesn’t exist) but for the most part, it only causes problems.

Well, I’m glad we worked that out. The next entry in my series on the topic that shall not be named, will actually work to describe what I am talking about, rather than what I’m not talking about.

What do you think about all this nonsense?

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29 Responses

  1. interesting. i do agree that all the differences make it confusing. but i think it is too far to say that there is nothing emerging from within the church. the whole concept is that there is a generation that views church totally different than their predecessors. how is this a myth?

  2. I appreciate the comment Tyler. Hopefully I can clarify. I’m not saying there is nothing emerging within the church. Don’t get me wrong on that. I think the church is changing, evolving, etc – you might even call it evolving. But I think this is happening within the church as a whole and we don’t need to label some part or movement within it as “the emerging church.” It does us no good.

    Also, I definitely disagree that this is a generational issue.

    The myth is the idea that this “emerging church” is something we can define, get our hands out, point out in real life, etc. It just doesn’t exist in reality. It’s a figment of our imaginations. And it should just quietly go away. Well, at least that’s what I think.

  3. k that is fair. i guess my comment to that is that we would call the previous generation the moral majority. something our generation doesn’t like tagged to us. so we will be labeled something. is being labeled the emerging church that bad?

  4. I don’t think it is necessarily bad, I mainly think it is unhelpful.

    However, it can be bad. Especially as there is more of a distinction between emerging and emergent I feel like there is going to be greater division among Christians, etc. Also, some people who are not “emerging” feel marginalized and/or might have bad impressions of “emerging” folk. And I think some of that is just unnecessary – again, no good comes from it.

  5. OK Mr. Smartypants, what would YOU call it?

    (No, really, I have no idea. I think the term “emerging” is awkward at best. But frankly, it’s probably easier than “socially conscious, often left-leaning, post-modern, culturally relevant, nebulous, yet Christ loving” church. SCOLLPMCRNYCL Church doesn’t really fit on most signs anyway.)

    People ask me to describe Mosaic (an old friend of ours did the other day) and that’s what I threw at her, all those terms. “Emerging” would have saved me some time, but I don’t think it would have meant anything.

  6. GK, here’s a practical example of why “emerging church” is useless as a label.

    The description you gave of Mosaic sounds pretty good – and some people would definitely call that “emerging.”

    However, this guy (watch the video) also considers himself “emerging.” And to distinguish himself from the squishy “liberals” he sees in your definition of Mosaic, he calls those kinds of people “emergent” instead of “emerging” (in this video).

    I think all this brings us to a place of the terms having no meaning. Let’s just leave the terms, leave the labels. That’s my opinion. There’s no such thing as the emerging church – it does not exist. I’d rather do this than divide up into “Emerging A,” “Emerging B,” “Emergent 1,” and “Emergent 2,” etc, etc. I don’t want to separate myself from others in order to distinguish my brand of “emerging” as the best or whatever. And don’t get my wrong. I think some “emergent” people are just as bad with this as Driscoll (the guy in the video) – and I include myself in that problem.

  7. yeah… i made the mistake of using the term in a conversation with a conservative. Immediately discredited me. The conversation lost all meaning.

  8. amen, amen, amen

    from my pov, the best thing that could ever happen to the formal entity that is EMERGENT VILLAGE is that it shuttered itself

    conversations & movements happen in chlumps, often with little or no organization

    brands are built & nurtured by campaigns, mailing & media

  9. i agree adam. i think many times, most people identify it as a noun. but most of us who have been around for a while or who are a part of the deeper friendship don’t see it as a noun. but rather as a verb. or as the “spirit” of emerging/emergent. so because it’s gained a bit of momentum moving forward, many people are jumping on the bandwagon thinking it’s the next thing. they treat it like a noun and in doing so do it a great disservice.

  10. while I agree that “emerging” is unhelpful, I’m not sure where that leaves us. What do we call people/churches involved in this conversation (I assume that we just call them people in a conversation, which is fair)? Maybe we need to redefine what we’re even talking about.

    Could it be that emerging churches do exist, we just need to separate them from the conversation as something else- something you are obviously “emerging” from?

  11. I get the whole “we don’t like labels” reaction, I really do, but ultimately I don’t think it’s helpful. For a number of reasons:

    1) Human beings need shorthands in order to communicate. I can’t go around giving a dissertation on all the ways my beliefs have changed in the past decade every time someone asks. It helps to have a general category like “emerging” to point to and identify with. Then if someone is genuinely curious and wants to know more about it, I can start to unpack it for them.

    2) There are a lot of people out there that are looking for a safe place to ask their questions, and having an identifiable movement called the “emerging church” is a good way for these people to start finding each other. That’s why we have cohorts, that’s why we do conferences. There are a lot of people on the verge of giving up their faith or walking away from church until they discovered the emerging church. For people like us, the EC becomes a spiritual “home” of sorts – our tribe, our friends, the people who “get” where we’re at in our faith. It doesn’t matter what you call this tribe, but you have to call it something, and whatever that “something” is will be a label. Right now “emerging” seems as good as any.

    3) There comes a point where you have to stop complaining about labels, and stop defining yourself by what you’re not, and actually start describing what you’re for. And as soon as you start standing for something you’ve created a name for yourself. I think eschewing that name now is a step backwards in the process. If “Everything Must Change”, how will anything ever actually get done if we can’t stop navel gazing and worrying about what it’s called, and just get to work? I’m for working together with likeminded people to make a difference for the kingdom, and if using the label “emerging” is one way to find those people, then I’m all for it.

    4) “Emerging” actually is a good descriptive label. Despite the misunderstandings, it really does capture what this movement is about. Brian McLaren talks about how he prefers to refer to the “church which is emerging” rather than “the emerging church”, if the latter seems to indicate one more slice of the Christian pie, one more splinter group rather than something that is happening on all the edges of the Christian pie. I think that’s basically right, but I still thing that “emerging” (however you phrase it) is still a good descriptor for this kind of phenomenon.

    5) Sometimes snubbing labels like “emerging” is just one more example of the “hipper-than-thou” that emergents so often get accused of. Now we have the “too hip for labels” crowd.

    Just my .02

    BTW, I’ve written a lot more about this here.

  12. I’m with Mike on this one. I think the label has pros and cons, but ultimately I think it is more pro than con. I also think it is unavoidable. And, while there are certainly lots of differences amongst various “churches which might be called emerging”, there are also a lot of similarities.

    Belong as I do to a church which refuses a name, I can tell you that others that know us give us a name, whether we like it or not. And the name we would give ourselves would be better than any of the names I’ve heard others have given us.

  13. I’m curious now, Mark. Other than ‘cult’ (which seems inherently tied to where we live), what have we been called?

  14. Mike and Mark,

    First of all, thanks for your thoughts. I agree and disagree with you both.

    Mark, I think (y)our church’s name issue is different. That is a set group that can be located. That’s not true of EC. Also, a church can decide together on a name – a loose movement cannot.

    Mike, I think your comments about the usefulness of a shorthands for communication makes sense. However, that’s only if there is some shared understanding of the meaning of the terms. I think that is often not the case with “emerging” or “emergent.”

    I agree with you about the value of a tribe to belong to – I see value in this. You’re right, that’s why we do cohorts, etc. And that is wonderful. However, really you are talking about Emergent Village here, which should not be equated with “emerging church,” right? I see value in EV as a place for people to connect. But I see that as a separate issue than what I’m specifically talking about here.

    About complaining, you’re right on. What’s important is doing. I agree – that is largely where I’m going with all this. I think we need to forget about labels and start doing.

    As for whether or not “emerging” or “emergent” is a good descriptive label, I think we’ll have to disagree here. I just don’t find value in it as a descriptive label, unless you’re only talking to people who all know each other real well.

    Your last point (hipper-than-thou) – maybe you’re right. I don’t know. I don’t think I have a problem with labels. I just have a problem with labels that have no meaning.

  15. Is this a problem of association? Do you no longer resonate with what may or can be associated with “the emerging church?”

    I think the emerging church movement exists as an umbrella term that covers many facets. Just because many ways of talking about emerging churches (that is, churches who engage emerging culture) exist, that doesnt mean the term is useless.

    The civil rights movement took on many facets and meanings depending on who you talked to. Does that mean the civil rights movement didnt exist or is useless language?

    Is the question, what do we call churches who engage the emerging movement? Or is there even an emerging movement?

  16. The civil rights movement is a good analogy. And part of the reasons the CRM succeeded is that many people were able to work together for shared goals despite their differences. That’s what I’m afraid won’t happen if people keep refusing to self-identify as “emerging” even when they share many of the same values. I desperately want to see things change in the church and in the larger society. I want things to get better. And I want to work together with others who share these goals. But I fear that this will never happen if we’re so afraid of labels and identities and institutions that we won’t ever get organized.

    I also worry that some of the hesitancy to self-identify with the emerging church is really related to that same old Protestant impulse to separate and disassociate from anyone with whom you don’t completely agree. I think one of the more helpful trends of the emerging church is to get past this need for total agreement between Christians before we’re willing to associate and work together. If we’re going to make an impact for the kingdom of God in this world, I think it’s time that we stop defining ourselves by what we’re not, and start defining ourselves by what we have in common.

    And as far as people misunderstanding and misusing the label, I think that’s inevitable no matter what we call it. We could all start calling it something else and pretty soon that term would be vilified and demonized too. At this point we might as well stick with “emerging” IMHO.

  17. Joe and Mike- I do still identify with emerging. I even still use the language of “emerging.” I think you make some good points here. The CRM is a good comparison. However, I do think there are significant differences. There were some clear goals with the CRM. I don’t know if there are clear goals with “emerging” – at least not across a wide spectrum. But I don’t know maybe I’m wrong on that. I have no problem associating with people who call themselves emerging, in fact I don’t really have a problem calling myself emerging (I do on my “about” page), I just would personally prefer to not use the language very much – I don’t think it’s helpful. I want to be more descriptive. I’m not really against anything here. Actually, Mike, I am right with you. Much of the reason I have come to the point I have is because I agree with you. I’m tired of disagreements, I want us to move forward with common goals in mind. I will work with anyone, I have no desire to divide. Am I coming across as divisive? I don’t mean to. In fact, I think these terms are much of the problem of division, and that’s why I would prefer not to use them. I see a real problem with the increasing use of “emergent” and “emerging” and drawing strict lines between them. That’s what really led me to thinking along the lines I wrote of in this post. Driscoll’s distinctions and Patton’s really bothered me. And then on the more “emergent” side I see people doing the same thing – taking the term “emergent” and steering away from “emerging.” I got frustrated with this and I am increasingly thinking these terms only cause problems and misunderstandings, divisions, etc. I don’t just mean theoretically, I’ve seen it in my own relationships with people.

    But please be clear on this. I am not separating from “emerging.” Emerging really is my tribe (to use Mike’s language). Emerging has saved me I think. And that is where my series is going – to a real positive affirmation of what “emerging” is for. I just wanted to start off by saying I don’t really believe in the language – I don’t think it is helpful. But that doesn’t mean I’m dividing from it – I’m more for “it” than ever.

    I hope this helps a little…or maybe it makes things more confusing…I hope not.

  18. Also, make sure and take note – this is my series on the emerging church.

    I haven’t completely given up the language.

    Maybe I’m taking a Rollins/Caputoesque a/theistic view of the emerging church. Ha!

  19. No, I don’t think you’re being divisive Adam. I’m commenting more on the overall trend I see of disassociating from “emerging” than anything you said in particular. I agree with you that the point is not the term itself. The point is what it represents and the approach to faith it designates. I just want to see some momentum get going around those ideals and it seems that will be difficult if we can’t even settle on what to call it.

  20. Thanks for this…

  21. Amy: I wasn’t really thinking of anything so overtly negative as “cult”, although I have of course heard that one. The few “names” that immediately come to mind that I’ve heard are “peas and carrots” (joking that we are an odd assortment, or something to that effect) and various iterations of “______’s church” (using the first name of one of three or four different men in our church).

    Then we have names we give ourselves. The “innominate church of Waco” is one which one of our own has given us (I like this one). I have used the phrase “Hubby church” myself from time to time. But the name we most often use to refer to ourselves is “the church”, which I dislike because it is confusing and potentially misleading and could have obvious yet unintended negative consequences if used too often for too long.

    Anyway, I didn’t mean to change the subject. I think there are parallels between this issue and that of the emerging church label, and I’ll add another comment to elaborate on that.

  22. Great points on both sides, Mike, Joe and Adam. I hope this conversation continues…

    Adam: Mike’s original points 1, 3 and 5 are all concerns I have had about our (local church’s) rejection of a name. It leaves people without an easy reference for our group. It tends towards a definition of our group that is more about what we are against than what we are for. And it comes across as arrogant. Anyway, I’m not trying to change the subject. So, to the extent this analogy is not helpful, ignore it!

    You make a good point Adam about the tendency of people to attach a negative to a label and then attach the label to you and then judge you based on the negative view they had of the thing they labeled. You know I have experienced this w/r/t the emerging church. But I think it is unavoidable.

    So, while I would be very disappointed to see the “emerging church” become institutionalized or become some kind of new denomination, I do think the phrase as it is currently being used is not something that we should try to avoid or distance ourselves from. In other words, were I to belong to such a church (take Mosaic in Austin for example, since I have visited that one), I wouldn’t be in favor of adding the phrase “Emerging Church” to the sign out front. But if someone asked me “is that an emerging church?”, I wouldn’t hestitate to say “yes, it is”, and “why do you ask?”

  23. As someone who is not really an active part of the emerging conversation (or am I, since I’m commenting?) I have to personally agree with Adam’s idea that the term can be confusing and even useless. It is much more helpful for me to read WHY Adam is part of the conversation and what it has done for his faith than anything else I’ve read or heard on it, ever. I agree wholeheartedly that there is immense value in the movement and in the ideas behind it. But, again, I think Adam has a good point. Using the terms emerging and emergent and spending time identifying what they are and are not really gets back to Protestant divisions of denomination, to my mind. “I’m Methodist because I believe A, B, & C.” Or, “I’m Episcopalian because I believe X, Y, and Z.” Or, “I’m Baptist because I don’t do 1, 2, or 3.” It also goes back to Christian terminology that only applies to the initiated. “I’m saved” (what the heck does that mean to someone not part of a/the church?) or “sacrificial atonement” (again, what does that mean?), etc. Emergent and emerging are full of meaning and significance to those who are part of those conversations and movements, but they carry with them, as does any common language we use to describe our tribe, a bit of exclusivity. I have not felt excluded by anyone who identifies with emerging or emergent, but even after hearing and reading about it for months, I didn’t have a good idea of what or why until I read Adam’s description of what it’s done for him and his faith. I think there is value in identifying what we believe, how and why we believe it, but to the uninitiated, it can be confusing and somewhat divisive, even though that is usually unintentional.

    It’s a catch-22.

  24. Amy – thanks for this. I’m glad this has been helpful. Hopefully it will continue to be that way as I go through the series. Actually, that’s the main reason I wanted to do this series – to help people understand why I have been helped by all this, etc.

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  27. Yeah this is about the closest any body has come to my feelings on on emegent, one thing though I feel is missing is that it stems out of a spirit of confusion which is not of God. It can also been seen as profane fire also not of God.

  28. Like Wallace said, “get yourselves organized down there.” As soon as this happens, well, you are back where all the rest of us have been: you are a local church, and perhaps your connectedness will soon look like an organization.

    Emergent church = the arrogance of ignorance.

  29. First of all: amen to the need to stop using meaningless and confusing labels (emerging, emergent, etc). I totally agree.
    I’ve been skeptical about emerging church stuff for many years, and back in 2006 I wrote this article for Relevant magazine (ironic… b/c they’re pretty emergent): http://www.relevantmagazine.com/pc_article.php?id=7212
    Since then I’ve cooled on my criticisms a bit, as I’ve come to realize that not all emergents are created equal and the term (as you point out) is really unfairly applied to a broad diversity of things.
    Anyway, thanks for writing about this!

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