The Emerging, Emergent, Traditional, Missional Church

June 27th, 2011

The great ice storm of 2011 has gave me ample opportunity to read two good books I'd been meaning to read for a while. The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, by Phyllis Tickle, and Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional, by Jim Belcher.

Phyllis does an excellent job describing the hinge points in Church history (about every 500 years) and how new forms of doctrine and practice emerge as the result of these transitions. Just think about the 1500’s and the emergence of Protestantism, which was a radical transition in both doctrine and church structure. “Sola Scriptura,” as the churches’ defining point of authority, and the priesthood of all believers became two of the reconfigured orthodoxies. Tickle follows the 2000-year path of church history by observing that, “about every five hundred years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable carapace that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.” Tickle states that a “re-traditioning” occurs following each change of eras. She calls the era that we are currently transitioning through “The Great Emergence.”

Jim’s work is an important follow up to Tickle’s in helping the reader understand the emerging/emergent church movement and the differences within. Belcher rightly states that the evangelical church (where the emergent movement had its beginnings) is deeply divided over the movement. What was most helpful for me was Belcher’s description of the three broad categories or groups that he contends make up the emerging tent.

Relevants are theologically conservative evangelicals who are not as interested in reshaping theology as they are in updating worship styles, preaching technique and church leadership structures. “They are often deeply committed to biblical authority and preaching, male pastoral leadership, and other values common in evangelical circles.” In some sense, like their boomer counterparts who went before them, they are trying to make their methodologies and language more relevant (contextual) to the emerging culture, yet still exist within the more conventional church structure. The author points to Rock Harbor Church in Costa Mesa, Mars Hill Church in Seattle and Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz as fitting this description.

Reconstructionists typically hold to a more orthodox view of the gospel and scripture but are rethinking the current form of the church and its structure. “They contend that the traditional and even seeker models of the church are often unbiblical and surely irrelevant to meet the needs of a changing culture.” The reconstructionists are experimenting with incarnational and organic church forms such as house churches and new monastic communities. “They stress that the church is sent, are aggressively planting churches, call for the church to be a ‘resident alien,’ and want the form of the church to be less hierarchical and based more on a servant model.” Belcher identifies leaders such as Neil Cole, Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch as inspiration for this model. I hate to label myself, but if pressed, I most identify with this model.

Revisionists openly question key evangelical doctrines on theology and culture, wondering whether these dogmas are still relevant for the postmodern world (e.g., the nature of the substitutionary atonement or the reality of hell). Leaders from the Emergent Village (Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, and Doug Pagitt) are most often linked to this view.

I personally know, respect, and fellowship with many of the people represented in all three camps. Jesus said that the world would know that we are his disciples by the way we love one another. Does this mean that I must compromise what I believe about the absoluteness of the gospel? Absolutely not, but as we move forward in seeking God’s direction for the church we must remember “to stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together with one accord for the faith of the gospel without being frightened by those who oppose you” (Philippians 1:27). We are told in 1 Peter to “honor everyone”--not tolerate, not attack, not hurt with words or actions, but honor. When the polarized partisan world sees that kind of love, they will recognize the risen Jesus!

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