Emerging Church trend expands, diversifies

Propelled by the Internet, the “emerging church” has been gaining followers among Protestants of all stripes who want more community in their Christianity. What they share is youth, a drive to make Christianity relevant, a preference for small communities, frustration with traditional church structures, and an embrace of culture.

As the emerging church – also known as the postmodern church or “po mo” — has evolved, it has also diversified. Some want to transcend boundaries between conservative evangelicals and liberal mainline churches. Others seek more leadership opportunities for women and non-Anglos. And many churches, though they’re not all about youth or culture, have borrowed ideas from the emerging church trend, available through the Internet, conferences, books and CDs. Jewish leaders have hoped to engage more youth have even consulted with emerging church groups.

Another hallmark of the scene is a strong anti-church sentiment. Few of these young congregations have called themselves churches. Leaders say they turned to emerging ideas out of frustration with churches’ lack of emphasis on evangelism, lack of outreach to society’s poor and neglected, and divisive denominational politics. Among emerging churches, many have held fast to conservative roots while others have been willing to question traditional Christian teachings.


Why it matters

Participants in emerging church may help reshape faith groups’ relationship to their communities and to traditional church structures. That, in turn, can affect the way churches participate in addressing social problems and public issues.

Concepts and definitions

POSTMODERN: Describes a worldview of transition that is replacing the modern perspective, which was based on knowledge and the belief in rational science. Networking, dubiousness and community are in; the autonomous individual, faith in progress, authority, structure and hierarchy are out. Ultimately, conservatives contend, postmodernism cannot be reconciled with evangelical Christianity and its dependence on certainties and absolutes.

MISSIONAL: A bedrock notion of emerging church, conservative or liberal, is the commitment to sharing the gospel. The idea is to become a representative of Christ to the surrounding culture.

CONTEXT: Emerging folks talk a lot about context, by which they mean local culture, be it suburban, urban, techie, street or Goth. Think of missionaries embracing a foreign culture to make their message credible. Unlike their fundamentalist forebears who shunned the secular world, emerging Christians participate enthusiastically in the world around them – enjoying coffee, a beer, basketball, the Internet or alternative music – endeavoring to bring (or simply live out) Jesus’ message. The emphasis is less on heaven and more about reaching out to help those in need in the here and now. Followers try to imagine the life and times of Jesus and how he responded to his world. Scholar and author Ed Stetzer says the emerging church is grounded in Scripture but applied in culture. He tells church planters: Don’t pastor the community in your head, pastor the community around you.

ALTERNATIVE (ALT) WORSHIP: Much of the energy in the emerging church scene centers on energizing worship and reviving ancient practices, often seen as more genuine, raw and meaningful. The goal: a more “biblical” church. In language typical of the thoughtful, sometimes wonky intellectualism of the emerging scene, one participant calls this trend toward old forms of worship “paleo orthodoxy.” Their parents strived for clear explanations and modernized practices; emerging worshippers value mystery, transcendence and the experience of communion. Some say their churches have more in common with churches of the apostolic era than with those of the 20th century.

Alternativeworship.org provides ideas and resources for “changing church in a changing culture.” Read a definition of alternative worship.

DIVERSITY: Despite its desire to mirror contemporary culture, the emergent conversation is conspicuously white and male. Many emerging congregations support women’s equal participation in church leadership, but they come from traditions that promote men’s leadership over women’s. An increasing number of women and people of color are speaking out in the movement. For example, an Emergent Women’s ReGathering event is being organized for late April through the Emergent Village site.

Ideas for reporters

  • To find local emerging churches, post a request for help on one of the blogs below or email some prominent bloggers. The emerging community is warm, communicative and open, accustomed to networking and emailing.
  • Try to locate several styles of emerging churches. Look for those both inside and outside denominations, for conservative churches and radical, question-everything congregations. Contrast their politics – some will be liturgically experimental but politically conservative; others question traditional evangelical stances on everything, including gay rights and abortion.
  • Ask congregants and leaders what, in their world view, is absolute and what is up for discussion. The issue of relativism is the theological divide between moderate and radically liberal emerging groups.
  • Ask how they engage with the non-church community around them: Do they engage the outside culture only to evangelize or, for example, to do good works, too? What does “missional” mean to them? How do they interpret the call to evangelize?
  • Ask congregants if they are just searching for new means of worship or are actually rejecting church. If so, what experiences and traditions are they rejecting?
  • Find churches experimenting with alternative worship forms and inquire what they get from these; ask church historians to trace the roots of ancient practices such as mazes, labyrinths and chanting.

Websites and blogs

The emerging network lives in large part through online discussions and blogs. Look for links to other sites on emerging faith and culture. Here are a few of the most influential sites:

  • Synagogue 3000

    Synagogue 3000 (S3K) is a national, not-for-profit institute dedicated to revitalizing and re-energizing synagogue life in North America.

    Synagogue 3000 provides a forum for discussion between emergent Jews and Christians about revitalization. Read Doug Pagitt’s comments on the phenomenon.

  • The Well

    The Well’s mission is to bring a Christian community of together for the purpose of completing missions, understanding faith and sharing values.

    See The Well’s slide show for a taste of the informality and nontraditional organization of space at an emerging church.

    Contact: 215-364-5288.
  • Emerging Leaders Network

    The Emerging Leaders Network is a community of friendship, exploration and theological conversation among people interested in emerging churches and faith communities. They focus primarily on shaping young adults into religious leaders by a “head, heart, hands” philosophy of understanding, application and feeling.

  • Emergent Village

    Emergent Village is the center of the emergent stream of the emerging conversation. Emergent is a more experimental – and sometimes more liberal-minded — group, influenced by Brian McLaren. Member congregations include Church of the Apostles in Seattle; Vintage Faith in Santa Cruz, Calif.; Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis; Jacob’s Well in Kansas City, Mo.; and McLaren’s Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Md.

  • Off The Map

    Off The Map is a nonprofit that produces seminars, workshops, conferences, published multimedia and written materials, a Website and an Ezine called Idealab.

    Contact: 641-715-3900 Ext: 37309.
  • Acts 29

    The Acts 29 network is both a site and an international network of churches around the world that hope to inspire others to become disciples by planing churches in new areas. The community follows both traditional and never-before-seen ways of practice in order to meet the needs of a social-media oriented audience.

    This site provides access to a large network of emerging churches. See the “churches” tab for a list of affiliates nationally; check “news and events” for events nationally at the conservative end of the emerging spectrum.

  • Sites Unseen

    Sites Unseen is a ZoeCarnate website that gathers and provides easy access to Christian information online and emphasizes “alternative” Christian resources.

    Sites Unseen is a central site on emerging church.


Other background

The emerging church seemed to be forking in three directions, said scholar Ed Stetzer in his book, Breaking the Missional Code: When Churches Become Missionaries in Their Communities (co-author David Putman, Broadman & Holman Publishers, May 2006). The most conservative fork accepts the gospel and the church in their historic forms but seeks to make them more understandable in contemporary culture. A second fork accepts the gospel but questions and reconstructs much of the traditional church form. The third and most radical fork questions and re-envisions both the gospel and the church.

National sources

Leaders in emerging church movement

  • Dan Kimball

    Dan Kimball is pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, Calif., and author of The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for a New Generation (Zondervan, 2003) in which he coined the phrase “vintage Christianity” for the experience of a generation in search of mysterious, authentic, deeply spiritual and thoughtful faith outside traditional churches. He is author of additional books about Christianity and modern interpretations and applications.

  • Ed Stetzer

    Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as executive director of the school’s Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He was formerly the executive director of Lifeway Research, a division of Lifeway Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. He blogs on a variety of subjects related to American evangelicalism for Christianity Today.

  • Brian D. McLaren

    Brian D. McLaren, founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Burtonsville, Md., is a central figure in the movement. He is a lightning rod among emerging thinkers because of his interest in the intersection of faith and progressive politics. His many books on the subject include the popular A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey (Jossey-Bass/Leadership Network, 2001). His latest book is A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I Am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-yet-Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished CHRISTIAN (Emergent/YS/Zondervan, 2004). He is on the board of Sojourners.

  • Doug Pagitt

    Doug Pagitt is founder and pastor of Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis and co-founder of Emergent Village. He is the author of, among several books, Reimagining Spiritual Formation: A Week in the Life of an Experimental Church (Zondervan, 2004). He hosts a weekly radio show in the Twin Cities and online.

  • Tony Jones

    Tony Jones is an authority on the emerging church movement, postmodernism, youth ministry and church evolution. He is national coordinator of Emergent-US, a network of emerging churches and is theologian-in-residence at Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis. He’s also a volunteer police chaplain in Edina, Minn. He wrote Postmodern Youth Ministry (Zondervan, 2001) and The Church Is Flat: The Relational Ecclesiology of the Emerging Church Movement (The JoPa Group, 2011).

  • Andrew Jones

    Andrew Jones, a New Zealander and a pivotal emerging thinker, has been blogging tallskinnykiwi.typepad.com since 2001 – a long time as these things go. He is project director for the Boaz Project, based in the Czech Republic and developing “a support structure for church in the emerging culture.”

  • Mark Driscoll

    Mark Driscoll is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Church, a fast-growing, nondenominational, theologically conservative congregation in Seattle’s urban Ballard neighborhood. He was named one of the 25 most influential pastors of the past 25 years by Preaching magazine in 2010.

  • Leonard Sweet

    Leonard Sweet is E. Stanley Jones professor of evangelism at Drew University in Madison, N.J., and has been dean of the theological school there. Sweet is affiliated with the United Methodist Church. He and his wife, Karen Elizabeth Rennie, are the primary contributors to the web-based preaching resource preachingplus.com. A popular speaker, he has written numerous books, including (with Brian McLaren and Jerry Haselmayer) A Is for Abductive: The Language of the Emerging Church (Zondervan, 2003).

Leaders trying to diversify the movement

  • Elizabeth Potter

    Blogger Elizabeth Potter is the co-founder of (f)emergent, a network of female emergents, and is part of the Emergent Coordinating Group. She writes about her emerging community, her work as a local ecumenical activist and church planter and her life as an ordained minister in Grand Haven, Mich.

    Potter wonders: As one weary of being directed to the “pastors’ wives’ luncheon,” do I and my fellow (f)emergents break off and do our own thing? Or do we hang in there, hoping that enlightenment and intentional inclusion happens before emergent becomes emerged and … the next fresh movement of God’s Spirit in the Church?

  • Andre Daley

    Andre Daley is lead pastor at Mosaic Life Church in Michigan and an African-American evangelical. He is author to a number of articles concerning race and culture in religious groups.

    Daley calls himself “post-emergent” because he has not seen the racial, gender and cultural inclusiveness that he had hoped for in the emerging movement.

  • Kelly Bean

    Kelly Bean is pastor of a Portland, Ore., house community, Third Saturday. She is a member of the founding team of the Emerging Women Leaders Initiative and served on the board of directors of Off The Map. Bean’s history included a painful departure from a beloved conservative congregation that excluded women from leadership.

    Bean says: The territory is often uncharted for women leaders. Even so, many gifted women are pioneering in the emerging church. Change still is needed, though, for men and women to minister as equals.

Scholars, observers and critics

  • Robert E. Webber

    Robert E. Webber taught history of worship and spirituality and was William R. and Geraldyne B. Myers chair of ministry at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Ill. He wrote many books. The publication of his The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World (Baker, 2002) was a turning point in contemporary evangelical history, reporting on grass-roots changes in forms of conservative Christian worship and community. He passed away in 2007.

  • Ryan K. Bolger

    Ryan K. Bolger is an assistant professor of church in contemporary culture in the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. He is a scholar of the emerging scene and, with Fuller professor Eddie Gibbs, wrote Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Baker Academic, 2005).

  • Diana Butler Bass

    Diana Butler Bass is an author, speaker and scholar who specializes in American religion and culture. She is the author of many books, including Christianity After Religion and Grounded: Finding God in the World – A Spiritual RevolutionArrange an interview through Melinda Mullin at HarperCollins.

  • Walter Brueggemann

    Noted Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann is an appreciative observer of the emergent conversation. He is professor emeritus from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga. and author of over 100 books and scholarly articles.

  • George Barna

    George Barna is directing leader of The Barna Group, an evangelical research company in Ventura, Calif. He is author of nearly 50 books and over 100 articles. He is a popular speaker at ministry conferences around the world and has taught at Pepperdine and Biola Universities and several seminaries.

  • Donald A. Carson

    Donald A. Carson is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill. A critic of emerging church, he wrote Becoming Conversant With the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications (Zondervan, 2005). He is founding chair of The GRAMCORD Institute, a research and educational organization dedicated to providing computer tools to help study the bible.

    Contact: 847-317-8081.
  • John Hammett

    John Hammett is professor of systematic theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C..He is the author of Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Kregel Publications, 2005).

    Hammett believed the emerging church to be in danger of being overly influenced by secular culture in 2006.

  • Alan Roxburgh

    Alan Roxburgh is president of Missional Leadership Institute, a consulting and training organization based in Vancouver, B.C.,that works to transform denominations and congregations in a missional (missionary) direction. He has pastored, authored multiple books and taught as an adjunct professor in seminaries in the USA, Australia and Europe.

    Roxburgh welcomes the emerging movement yet sees it in the context of the breakdown of structure and institutions. He urges followers of both traditional, structured churches and the less-structured emerging movement to abandon the either-or picture that some hold of contemporary Christian church life.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Miroslav Volf

    Theologian Miroslav Volf, director of the Center for Faith and Culture at Yale Divinity School, is a favorite scholar of emerging church leaders. He wrote Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (Zondervan, 2006) and many other books.

  • Jeffrey K. Jue

    Jeffrey K. Jue is an assistant professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, Pa. and a critic of the emerging church movement.

  • Brad Jackson

    Brad Jackson is pastor of the 40-member emergent church The Well in Feasterville, Pa. He started and pastored a Sunday night worship community known as The Table. This ministry reaches out to 20 to 30 year-olds with the Gospel and the goal of bringing young adults to follow Jesus Christ.

  • Heather Kirk-Davidoff

    Heather Kirk-Davidoff is a pastor in Maryland and serves on the board of Emergent. She is co-founder of the Emerging Women Leaders Initiative. She has published a number of essays and is a frequent contributor to the Alban Institue’s Congregations Magazine.

  • David F. Wells

    David F. Wells is an ordained Congregationalist minister and is the Mutch Distinguished Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass. He is an expert on religion and postmodernism and can discuss how the Christian faith is adjusting to a new culture. He wrote Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005).

    Wells calls emerging church the third major constituency of evangelicals (after the traditional postwar evangelical generation and the later, pragmatic seekers, typified by Willow Creek Community Church).

In the South

  • Kenneth Surin

    Kenneth Surin, professor of religion, literature and critical theory at Duke University, has written about liberation as a critical term of religious study and the relevance of Marxism.

  • John Kenney

    John Kenney is pastor of the Quest Church in Augusta, Ga., affiliated with the United Methodist Church. (“We’re real people who don’t have it all together, but who are taking the journey of life together.”). Quest Church is focused on the relationships in the community and the exploration of faith by ancient and contemporary models and means.

  • Lauren F. Winner

    Lauren F. Winner is the author of numerous books, including the popular Girl Meets God: A Memoir (Random House, 2003), about coming to Christianity in her 20s. She holds a Ph.D. in the history of American religion and lives in Durham, N.C.

  • Liz Buxton

    Liz Buxton is pastor at Cedar Grove and Harmony United Methodist churches in Alton, Va. She is working to connect women in the emergent church movement (they call themselves (f)emergents).

  • Alan Creech

    Alan Creech has been blogging about his life in the church since 2002; he is a founding member of Vine + Branches Christian Community, an emerging community in Lexington, Ky.

  • Danielle G. Shroyer

    Danielle Grubb Shroyer is pastor of Journey Community Church in Dallas. She serves on the national Emergent Coordinating Group in the area of social justice. She is the author of The Boundary-Breaking God:  An Unfolding Story of Hope and Promise (Jossey-Bass, 2009).

  • Roger Olson

    Roger Olson is an expert in historical theology and professor of religion at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. Olson co-chairs the evangelical theology group of the American Academy of Religion. He wrote the “theology of evangelicalism” entry in the Encyclopedia of Protestantism (Routledge, 2004).

  • Elaine Heath

    Elaine Heath is McCreless Assistant Professor of Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

  • Bill J. Leonard

    Bill J. Leonard is a professor of church history and dean of Wake Forest University Divinity School in Winston-Salem, N.C. and the author of over 15 books including The Nature of the Church (B&H Publishing Group, 1991) and Word of God Across the Ages: Using Church History in Preaching (Broadman Press, 1981).

    Leonard says emerging church movement members are trying to recapture the intimacy of the early church.

  • J. Ligon Duncan

    J. Ligon Duncan is minister of First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Miss. He was professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) and was responsible for teaching courses such as Systematic Theology, Ethics, Apologetics, History of Philosophy and Christian Thought, Covenant Theology, Patristics, Evangelism, and Theology of the Westminster Standards

    He sees the emerging movement as another in a never-ending cavalcade of “what’s new” in the evangelical world.

In the Midwest

  • John W. Riggs

    John W. Riggs is professor of historical theology and church history at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis. He is an expert on Christianity in the postmodern world.

  • Debbie Blue

    Debbie Blue is a pastor and author of creative urban church in St. Paul, Minn. and founder of House of Mercy.

  • A.K.M. “AKMA” Adam

    A.K.M. “AKMA” Adam, an Episcopal priest and taught New Testament and early church history for nine years at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. He has written numerous books and articles, including Faithful Interpretation: Reading the Bible in a Postmodern World (Fortress, October 2006).

  • Scot McKnight

    Scot McKnight is Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Ill. He specializes in films about Jesus and the Orthodox faith. He wrote The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others (Paraclete Press, 2004) and is Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University in Chicago. He is co-editor, along with James D.G. Dunn, emeritus professor of biblical studies at Durham University in England, of The Historical Jesus in Recent Research, a collection of essays by leading Bible scholars.

    The lack of concrete certainty about theology among many in the movement appeals to young seekers, McKnight says.

  • Cary Fuller

    Cary Fuller is active in the emerging conversation through her Indianapolis, Ind., church, The Dwelling Place, where her husband, Shane Fuller, is pastor. Though social media she intended to build relationships and create a safe atmosphere for questioning and debate.

    Although the emerging church is largely led by men, Cary Fuller points out that it is becoming more diverse and that its roots are in conservative denominations where women are not encouraged to question what they’ve been taught.

In the West

  • Bob Hyatt

    Bob Hyatt is a pastor and elder at the Evergreen Community (Motto: “Life’s short, why not apply for an extension?”), a church plant that was founded in 2004 and which meets in a pub in Portland, Ore. Evergreen believes it is important to give the “unchurched” and the “formerly churched” a place to belong before they believe. Hyatt is a megachurch escapee who says American churches that get bigger and bigger foster a culture of church consumerism and neglect individuals. One of the great attractions of planting a church, he says, is creating and sustaining a real community.

  • Mark Oestreicher

    Mark Oestreicher is president of Youth Specialties in El Cajon, Calif. He is a leader in the emerging movement. Youth Specialties markets training seminars, conventions and educational materials to Christian workers. Oestreicher has authored and contributed to more than 60 books and training materials that help youth workers present traditional Christian concepts to the modern youth sensibility.

    Contact: 619-440-2333.
  • Rose Madrid-Swetman

    Rose Madrid-Swetman is a pastor and social justice worker in Seattle.

  • Deborah Loyd

    Deborah Loyd is a pastor and planter of The Bridge Christian Church for street kids and socially disenfranchised people in Portland, Ore. and is co-founder of Women’s Convergence that supports women in Christian ministries.

  • Rachelle Mee-Chapman

    Rachelle Mee-Chapman is abbess and founder of a small urban abbey, ThPM (Thursday Night Gathering) in Seattle.

  • Wade Clark Roof

    Wade Clark Roof is F. Rowny Professor of Religion and Society and chairman of the religious studies department at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He is a columnist for Beliefnet and author of, among other books, Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion (Princeton University Press, 2001). He is also editor in chief of Contemporary American Religion (Macmillan Reference USA, 1999).

    Roof says admonishments to believe in God and attend services regularly aren’t sufficient to help people make sense of today’s world – hence the attraction of the questioning alternative (emerging) church movement.

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