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An Emerging Church

Over the past decade there has been growing controversy about “a new way of doing church.”

The debate has been generational in nature. Many of our sons and daughters are forming or joining congregations that don’t look or sound like our kind of church.  Yet, they are likely to tell us that they are just trying to be authentic followers of Jesus and that many of us have been unfair in our criticism of them. See, for instance, New Zealander Andrew Jones’ eloquent defense of these emerging groups at “What I Would Say to the Young American Emerging Churches.”

The emergent phenomena, however, has been marked by bad blood.  Some members of the traditional church have characterized these communities as critical, culturally obsessed, biblically illiterate, and more interested in taking the church apart than in building it.

From where I sit, seems to me that what is needed is the kind of wisdom that some of the first church leaders showed when they called in Paul and Barnabas and listened to their story (Acts 15). Here’s some of what I think we would hear.

Many emerging churches affirm:

  1. The tri-unity of God as a basis for valuing community rather than self-centered individualism.
  2. Faith as a conversation and a journey rather than just a declaration and decision.
  3. Taking a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” approach to eternal salvation and social involvement; the letters of Paul and the Gospels of Jesus; our church and the kingdom of God.
  4. Seeing the church as a movement rather than just an organization.
  5. A desire to reach a generation largely untouched by traditional churches.
  6. Valuing creativity and variety in worship styles.
  7. Seeing spiritual leadership as a matter of example rather than authority and control.
  8. A willingness to think through the doctrines of the church rather than just taking for granted that their parents generation had it right.
  9. Living the Bible rather than just studying and defending it.
  10. Seeing not only the truth of God but also the mystery.

It’s important to understand, however that these values will often be expressed as a reaction to and sense of disillusionment with the churches of their parents’ generation.

Emerging communities often take issue with:

  1. Emphasizing the letters of Paul while ignoring the Gospels of Jesus.
  2. Condemning homosexuality and abortion while ignoring sins of pride, racial prejudice, greed, divisiveness, and hypocrisy.
  3. Defending doctrinal statements with anger and intimidation rather than with reason.
  4. Regarding arguable or possible implications of the Bible as absolutes and tests of orthodoxy.
  5. Interpreting the Bible as if it was written in our generation rather trying to understand what it meant in the times in which it was written.
  6. Preoccupation with prophetic scenarios while ignoring the needs of poverty and justice within our own church families and communities.
  7. Following male leadership that does not include or respect the needs and thoughts of women.
  8. Seeing church authority as a matter of hierarchy and control rather than example and servant attitudes.
  9. Viewing the church as an institution rather than as a community.
  10. Focusing on unchanging forms of worship rather than fresh expressions that reflect continual renewal.
  11. Attempts to marry the church to political power.
  12. Emphasis on professional clergy rather than encouraging whole-church participation.
  13. A failure of the traditional church to confront abusive patriarchy, warfare, and injustice.
  14. Efforts of the church to bring people in rather than going out to them.
  15. Outreach that sounds angry and condemning rather than embodying the attitudes and methods of Jesus.
  16. Teaching that focuses on texts and doctrines rather than on the story and stories of the Bible.
  17. Church leaders who cater to rich and powerful members
  18. Use of a code-language (church jargon) that self-identifies and self-authenticates insiders while remaining confusing or misleading to those outside of Christ.
  19. Attempts to maintain a theology that doesn’t leave room for the mystery of God

I’ll plan to follow up with some of the possible pitfalls of these young groups. But seems to me that those of us who represent the parent/traditional church need to be ready not only to take a hard look at ourselves, but also be ready to encourage, applaud, and pray for those who say they are more concerned about following Jesus in an authentic way than just going through the motions.

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37 Responses to “An Emerging Church”

  1. click says:

    What an interesting post! I find myself with lots of questions. While this seems like a refreshing and interesting way of worship, is this an age related phenomenon or is it a transition that this generation is starting (ie will these young people want to come back to a traditional church at some point in their life)?

    My congregation doesn’t have a young adult ministry, yet we find ourselves with a small number of late teen and early twenties folks that attend (or rather hang out at the church). They typically start in church for the music and then wander outside for a cigarette and may or may not return. However, on any given Sunday one or two will come in and listen to the entire service. This type of worship seems like it may better connect with them.

    So, I ask myself, if I want to do more than encourage, applaud, and pray for this; and would actually like to visit a worship service/time of this nature. How do I go about doing that? I am guessing these groups don’t advertise in the yellow pages.

    This is fascinating and I look forward to future posts on this topic.

  2. Skeezix says:

    I am slightly confused by some of the list;

    e.g., …

    Emerging communities often take issue with:

    17. Church leaders who cater to rich and powerful members

    I mean should they not take issue with that? I take issue with it as well since it certainly is not what Jesus advocated.

    Perhaps I’m missing the approach here.

  3. Mart De Haan says:

    Skeezix, sorry this is confusing. I suspected that using long lists like this with wording that is not always parallel might be hard to follow. And on your point, I agree. In fact, many of us in the “traditional church” would agree that young people can and should have a problem with this whole list.

  4. WeForgive says:

    Thanks for these thoughtful insights and observations. I am sharing them with friends and members of my spiritual community because as our congregation ages we are very concerned about the legacy we are leaving. I am also sharing it with members of the campus ministry which served my daughters and continues to serve students at the University of Michigan. I appreciate the conversations you bring into existence. They help the rest of us to create some clarity concerning ideas that may be challenging to articulate constructively.

  5. pegramsdell says:

    It seems to me that the new church is trying to draw the young people in. The music is loud, lights out, very dark and talks and preaches about how to live your life in victory, but doesn’t preach about the power of the Holy Spirit. Tells you to be good and try really hard and everything will be allright.
    I don’t like it. Maybe I’m getting older, I don’t know.
    God is light and in Him there is no darkness. Why would I want to worship and praise Him in the dark?

  6. Mart De Haan says:

    pegramsdell, I sure don’t blame you for feeling this way. These are real issues that churches need to weigh together with consideration– and a reasonable, explanation– for all…

  7. JohnPetersen says:

    Thank you for the message. My Sunday school is currently using the “Living the Questions” version 2 to explore this very topic. With respect to the age of the church this is a new movement but I think it’s been around for more than hundred years. As we cover the materials we find the thoughts of Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as well as the views of many other contemporary theologians and Bible scholars like Crossan, Borg, Spong and Brueggemann who are also teaching LQ2. The message is that each faith tradition seeks to understand the mystery of God, that for us Christians the Bible acts as a lens to view, study and live with the mystery with its sharpest focus being the faithfullness of Jesus and his message of compassion and justice. That as metaphorical reference to the developing thought about understanding the mystery of God the Bible is a much richer, deeper and more powerful than as a literal text alone. As we move through the lessons there is continued discussion concerning the blog posting I highly urge people to study these developing thoughts and become part of the movement.

  8. sitsathisfeet says:

    Through the years I have had the opportunity to worship at some non-traditional type settings, and it certainly is interesting. My sons first commited their life to Christ in one of these situations. Recently we went to a rock of ages festival and there was quite a large group of teens there. Well, they held a concert, which I couldn’t understand the music or much of the words. Sounded like clanging cymbals to me. However, when they stopped for a little while and began to speak, their biblical preaching was sound, and the young people responded! Also the church I now attend was known as a “hippie church” in the beginning because a lot of long hair, bare footed people were coming to Christ! It reminds me of various missionaries around the world who adapt their worship for their people. Certainly not to change the basic tenants of the faith, but as Jesus did to reach them where they are. I guess it touches us all in different ways. One time my son went to a different more traditional church, and came home and asked if he needed a shirt and a tie to go to church, as frequently in our church people come in sandals, barefoot, or in shorts, long hair etc. This was a good opportunity to discuss our faith, and what the Lord requires of us, inside and out. And as you know frequently our Lord looked past appearances and at hearts. It’s interesting too that the same church, or denomination, or non-denominational will vary from location to location too, depending on the gifts of the members of the body etc. There is a story that you’ve probably heard of the missionary who was proclaiming the good news of Christ somewhere in Africa, and as he finished witnessing to a man who was listening intently, the man asked how long ago did this happen. Oh, the missionary said about 2,000 years ago. Well, the man replied why did it take you so long to bring us this good news? This should be a hallmark to us to be ever ready in season and out; Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope we have. 1Peter 3:15 I believe this applies to the church inside and out, and if we were less concerned about appearances, structure, methodology etc. , but focused on the gospel of Christ we would do better. Finally, Chirst will draw the people to himself, are we vessels individually, and as a church he can use? If so, he will meet us there, whatever the worship looks like.

  9. poohpity says:

    This is exactly what my church is going through. I was at a meeting with the elders that was held in a 55 and older Sunday School (Faith Community). I listened carefully to the problems presented and the one that seemed to be on top of the list was wanting a traditional choir because those with the gift of music wanted to minister to others with song and the choir is no longer being used except at holidays. I felt this was justified because song no matter what kind always touches one’s soul. As the conversation continued folks eluded to that it was the Pastors job to teach us into spiritual maturity. Well I could no longer keep quiet and stated that that was the job of the Holy Spirit along with our effort by reading and praying daily. This is a personal relationship between God and each individual. After more discussion one older lady in the corner said, “I would feel much better if there were flowers around the pulpit”. What on earth are we thinking?

    I so agree with the notion about what the younger generation feel about following Jesus. I am soon to be 55 and I have read through the bible probably 14 times and still counting and find that it is alive and working in me. I have asked those who complain about changes in the church have you ever read the bible and more times than not the answer is no.

    It seems that more often than naught the bible is no longer being taught in the Sunday Schools it is a book from an author who may or may not have read the bible but they are a literary wiz. I just wonder what Paul would have done to address the issues in today’s church as he went around putting out the fires in the early churches. I do not think people understand that in each church in Paul’s time there were different issues in each country that he dealt with individually. Some cultural issues and some issues about worshiping female god’s, etc.

    Please someone bring us back to the basics of our faith and get rid of religion!!!!!

  10. Ted M. Gossard says:

    Thanks, Mart for this post. I think it’s important to really find out what these churches are doing. You can’t stereotype them, including the kind of worship they do.

    I also think this is part of what is needed in the church always reforming according to the Word of God, reading it along WITH tradition (not THROUGH it) as there is so much good, including that which predates the Reformation.

    I cheer them on, and after all, we’re all one in Jesus in this together. We need to take the stance you’re suggesting here, Mart. I so much agree.

  11. steve smith says:

    I attend a Presbyterian church that has two types of services on Sunday: contemporary AND traditional.

    I prefer to attend the contemporary service. I enjoy singing modern Christian songs as opposed to Hymns. Most people wear slacks or jeans in this service. A lot of the older members of our church prefer the traditional service so they can sing Hyms, dress up and follow more traditional Presbyterian practices during the service.

  12. steve smith says:

    I failed to mention that we do have a Bible based sermon in our contemporary service.

  13. Robert says:

    Well, I don’t know a lot about these Emerging Churches and if it involves praying in the dark, then I guess maybe that it’s not for me. But each and every point on the list is something that I would take issue with as well.

    What traditional churches today have to understand is that they have to come to terms with WHY their congregations are getting smaller and smaller as the years pass. The reason is in the mirror looking back.

    Society has changed and evolved but many traditional churches have not kept up. It’s like they put themselves in Park at the turn of the century and turned off the ignition while the rest of the world continued.

    Today, as young people (or people who lost their way, myself included) turn around and seek the wisdom and love of Christ, they take a look at traditional Church and see archaic thinking and harsh, judgemental piety in what they perceive to be “just another man or an equal” and they reject it.

    Traditional church needs to recognize this fact and deal with it. I’m not saying anything other than the fact that modern day church needs to be more inclusive and open-minded to the spiritual needs of an evolving world.

    Should a school teacher give up on a student after he/she does not understand the first example or should that teacher find another way of explaining it?

    Christ is always looking for ways to bring us closer to Him (or back to Him) because he loves us so much.

  14. rokdude5 says:

    To me there are three purposes for “church”. 1)Worship God 2)Evangelize the lost 3)Minister to the needy.

    If we keep in mind the Great Commission, Matt 28: 19-20 (which is a Command from God), the style of music should really cater to the lost. If Hip Hop/Alternative music is needed for bringing in the young, then so be it. If Contemporary music is needed for families, then so be it. If hymns are needed for traditionists, then so be it. I personally think there arent any reasons not to offer any of those styles at various services or even at the same time. Of course, we lose sight that the music isnt really for us but to worship God but I know Im the Lone Ranger in my view.

    Im personally not into a “feel good” approach because there will be times where being a Christian is quite “uncomfortable” and trying. Of course that when God is molding us into being more and more like Him and that can be quite painful at times.

    Right now, Im studying the various intrepretations of “Pre-tribulation, Mid-tribulation and Post-tribulation” and how that issue in itself has divided various churches to the point where one group would accuse another group of “the devil has got you.”

    I just want to know God more and more but, at times, I feel like I rather be a child and be naive about all this and just cling to the cloak of Jesus.

  15. poohpity says:

    I know what you mean rokdude5 sometimes it pays to have the heart and mind of a child.

  16. Charis says:

    Dear Mart,

    I’m not young, but I resemble that! Where can I sign up for a church like that? Sounds to me like they have ears to hear what the Spirit says to the churches!

  17. Mart De Haan says:

    rdrcomp, there is a lot of that kind of analysis and criticism out there. As you acknowledge, sometimes it applies. Often it doesn’t.

    Where real spiritual danger exists, it needs to be warned about. But I’ve been hearing way too many general characterizations that are not checked out before being used in a reckless manner. They end up amounted to nothing more than gossip and character assassination.

    In http://www.rbc.org/bible-study/been-thinking-about/2007/11/01/column.aspx I wrote about “the urge to jump” to wrong conclusions. Had in mind events described in Joshua 22 that remind us how important it is to check out our facts before going to war against family, neighbor, or anyone…

  18. bevcattle says:

    A very good topic. I am close to 50, and most if not all our age group and older have worshiped in a very conservative and trandional setting. As kids we were t taken to church and sent to Sunday school. I do love the old hymns and wish that churches could mix it up a bit, but i do love the new ones too.
    My daughter and son automatically went with us to church/sunday school when they were young, as they grew older they started complaining about how boring church was, and the pastor is so old and has these boring messages that put us to sleep etc. My son encountered a young guy from a church called church without limits,where you can dress how you want, clap, shout, raise hands, get up and dance to the music etc.my son said to me mom you wont believe this guy he is like us, he talks like us, he dresses like us, and if you see him, you won’t even tell he is a believer and great roll model to kids like us, this guy is so into God, that when he talks about God he has this passion that no one can fake. THe devotes himself to going out daily to malls, school grounds, bus-stops etc finding and talking to young people about Christ and inviting them to his church, if it wasn’t for this young man and others like him from this church, young people will never come to know Jesus and never go to “our boring churches” This was the best thing that ever happpend to my son, he gave his life to Christ, and each week at his cell group he prayed for his sister to come join the church, and she did. Now I couldn’t wait for her to come home and tell me what she thought of this church, I had this feeling she would not like this type of worship. But boy was I wrong, she loved it so much, she couldn’t stop talking about this church, she invited her friend and they all went faithfully each week, they joined the various cell groups, and leaders groups, went on a retreat that was solely to be in prayer and connect with the Holy Spirit. This church does not allow even one young attendee to just come and be a guest every week, they encourage them to join the cells groups, teaching them to be diciples, so they can go out into their own schools and colleges to bring others to Christ.They got baptized and live daily knowing that God is number one in their lives. Today we have to find ways of how to attract young people to church first and lead them to Christ by everyone sharing their testimonies. I was so surprised to hear a lot of the teens testmonies in that church, former hookers, drug addicts, thieves, their was even one who helped murder someone, and all of them are now living for God.
    I hope we have more up beat services like this for our teens in our very own churches, maybe all churches should have an evening service for the teens.

  19. pegramsdell says:

    Well, what do you suppose Jesus would do to get the youth in the church? Offer an evening service away from their parents? Play their kind of music? Is that what Jesus would do? Would he cater to their styles and moods and attitudes. We keep compromising so that our children will come to church and that is sad.
    And the reason we do this is because most parents won’t come and it’s up to the church to take up the slack. Rock and roll music with christian words doesn’t make it praise or worship. Just noise. God wants us to make a joyful sound unto Him.
    What these kids need is changed lives, not entertainment. The only way to get that is to become a new creature in Christ. Otherwise, how are these kids any different than the world? Are they set apart?

  20. daisymarygoldr says:

    Not really surprised or concerned about the emerging, emergent or any other denomination, organization or movement. Revelation describes 7 church-types who will be tested by fire in the end when Christ will ‘purge’ all man-conceived ‘perishable’ elements and ‘purify’ His Body to ‘present’ the church to Himself “a glorious Church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish”.

    Regardless of the change of generations reflecting the change in style of music, dress, medium and method God will continue to build His Church on the true and tried foundation- The Word of God. The Gospel will continue to find its way to every nook and corner of this world and the very gates of Hell will not shake God’s solid foundation that stands firm and sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are His”…

    Meanwhile, let us also continue to train our children in the way of the Lord and when they grow old they will not depart from it. My parents did not merely teach but trained us to walk in the “old Godly way”. Today, though I live millions and millions of miles away from them, though I get to see them only once in 3 years, though it is impossible to fellowship with the same Church-type, we continue to share the common goal of His Church- to preach the gospel to the whole world even to the ends of this earth!

    Note aside to Charis: Sign up for a church? …thought it was the blood of Christ that cleans sinners and adds them to His church…

  21. poohpity says:

    Oh my gosh shall we have flowers on the stage that will make you sure feel better. I guess some have not read the bible about where Jesus went to the people where they are at, you know those sinner type people. I am so confused about where it says in the bible to sit in the pews every Sunday with dress up clothes on? Please show me where it says that!! I will show you where it says someone was dancing almost naked in praise to the Lord in an uninhabited manner.

  22. Rom1136 says:

    I think before we engage in these discussions concerning the so called ’emerging church’ movement, we need to educate ourselves on what this is exactly. I too have been interested in this subject. I found a very good article in the Christian Research Journal called ‘Navigating the Emerging Church Highway’ by Mark Driscol that breaks this down into five different movements, or ‘lanes’. There is not one ’emerging church’ ideal or movement. They range from some churches striving to just modernize and attract younger people to the very liberal ‘Emergent church’ that has some pretty disturbing beliefs concerning basic Christian doctrine and their perceived need for changing it.

  23. Bill Ball says:

    I’m 71 years and just found out that according to your description my thinking is in line with the “emerging church”. I feel somewhat like I did 38 years ago when I found out I was part of the “Jesus Movement”. I remember being asked by someone if I thought the Jesus movement would last. My reply was, “Jesus has been moving for nearly 2000 years and I don’t think He’ll stop soon.”

  24. Charis says:

    Note aside to Charis: Sign up for a church? …thought it was the blood of Christ that cleans sinners and adds them to His church…

    You are right. Scratch that “sign up for a church”. Every institutional church membership I have held in 30 years as an evangelical Christian involved signing papers. Just a month ago I withdrew and renounced my “church membership” and it is precisely because of some of the things which Mart listed.

    Literally “church”=ekklesia=called out. I remain a called out member of the body of Christ. But I can’t stomach the institution which calls itself “church” anymore.

  25. Rom1136 says:

    Again, before we discuss the “emerging church” phenomenon, we need to understand this isn’t just modernizing the church necessarily. I’m not sure where Mart’s list came from, but this blog is simplifying the emerging church movement. This is multi faceted. One blogger could be referring to one type of ’emerging church’ and another arguing from what he believes it to be.

    A separate blog could discuss why we as the Church of Christ, feel the need to dumb down and water down our church history, doctrines, music, and worship in order to align ourselves with our present culture, so as to attract people.

  26. Mart De Haan says:

    Good point. There’s a distinction not only between “emerging” and “emergent” but also between many of the critiques you can find out there– and reality.

  27. Rom1136 says:

    And whatever you want to call it, I believe the most important thing is if we are opening our doors to change in the Church, we better carefully examine what we are letting in and why. And we should not compromise the Church for the sake of compromise.

  28. daisymarygoldr says:

    Church is indeed ekklesia and Christ has added each one of us to His Body to do what we have been individually “called” to do. He never commands me, the pinky toe to “stomach” the functioning of the other toes or even the general functioning of the entire body. He is the Head and it is His job to regulate and oversee the proper functioning of every member. Instead of accepting or rejecting the role of the other members let us be focused on our individual efficacy in contributing to the Body. However, I do understand that it will be v-e-r-y difficult for some of us to stomach this, if we never understood or accepted the Headship of Christ!

  29. Rom1136 says:

    As members of the Body, we are also to be aware of what poses as ‘members’, or is bent on perverting the Gospel, not to sit back and allow it.

    In regards to the extreme end of this movement as I mentioned before (the dangerous ‘Emergent church’) Read 1 Timothy 6:3-5. There are many others.

  30. Dave K says:

    Don’t limit your emerging-church comments to the younger end of the age spectrum. I and a number of non-young people that I know are discouraged by the institutional church for the reasons cited in your “emerging communities” list.

  31. christiansoldier32 says:

    If you are interested in viewing an example of what may be referred to as an “emerging church” check out Mark Driscol’s Seattle church on the web, marshillchurch.org and you will see what works in attracting young people. It is extremely conservative in doctrine but connects through culture. My wife and I are late twenties and early thirties who both grew up in the “traditional church” but we did not like it for a variety of reasons. We love Marshill because its about faith and the gospel not religion and tradition. The music is loud like being at a rock concert which makes us feel like we are truly worshiping Jesus being alive, even if the sanctuary is dark. And the message is on point, direct from the Bible and communicated in a way that is easy to connect with.

    If there is a fear of culture, I question what was Jesus doing amongst the people. He wasn’t just sitting in the synagogue worshiping as they had done for centuries waiting to have people come to him, he was out amongst the people that needed to hear the message, to me this means immersed in the culture. You can’t effectively minister to people you can’t or don’t connect with.

  32. aboden says:

    I don’t want this to come across mean, that’s not my intention.

    But if our personal relationship with God were truly meaningful and inspiring to our children, they wouldn’t feel the need to come up with something drastically different.

    If the next generation doesn’t see our eyes light up each time we talk about God’s amazingness, they’ll look for inspiration elsewhere.

    As humans, we all struggle with getting bogged down with religious formulas and tenets that leave us in a rut.

    2 Corinthians 4:16

    “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.”

    We tend to forget about the “renewal” once we get into a comfort zone.

    Also, with regards to #15:
    “Outreach that sounds angry and condemning rather than embodying the attitudes and methods of Jesus.”

    I find this interesting, regardless of who is taking issue with it. Jesus had his moments when he sounded angry and condemning. It always seemed to be when religiosity was becoming a barrier rather than a support structure (turning tables at the temple, calling Pharisees “white-washed tombs”, etc.). We should be equally ready to challenge ourselves with this same indignation and give ourselves a quick kick in the rear without thinking we’re about to start an “emerging church”. :-)

  33. ryanellison says:

    Dear Mart,

    I very much appreciated your thoughts on this sensitive subject. I am new to this site and look forward to diving deeper in the other articles!

  34. Bo Thunderson says:

    To understand ’emerging churches” in a nut shell they are people who want to enter into the party by the back door and are dressed in the wrong garments . They could not earn their way into traditional church systems because they simply are too impatient ( or respond out of spite to the institution of church) to follow the prescribed rules and invented a shortcut . What’s really bad is their penchant to draw others onto their wide path as if you really should follow such a course . Although their intentions are well meaning remember the saying ; the road to hell is paved with good intentions .Sadly they are the seeds that fell into the briers. Our best course of action is not to judge them but instead to encourage them to step into the light and walk the prescribed narrow path . after all we’re only human and have many planks in our own eyes . Our best course of action should be to pray for unity while we reach out our hand to those who reach back . I myself was once sucked into this vortex and can attest ‘ Spite never = Right .God’s Peace and grace be with all,

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