NEW ORLEANS (BP)–The best way to understand the “emerging church” is to approach the movement from a missiological perspective, Ed Stetzer told a Baptist College Partnership meeting at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
The emerging church movement, much like postmodernism, has proven too diverse for easy definition, with participants scattered along a lengthy continuum, said Stetzer, who is an experienced church planter and director of LifeWay Christian Resources’ research division.
Participants in the emerging church say much of contemporary Christianity is consumer-driven, Stetzer noted. The movement essentially seeks to express Christianity in a way relevant to people outside the church.
“The emergent/emerging church stands as something of a collective voice in an attempt to call attention to the ways in which contemporary expressions of Christianity have been domesticated,” Stetzer said in his April 4 comments.
That collective voice originated in a 1997 event sponsored by the Dallas-based Leadership Network, Stetzer noted. The gathering, which met near Colorado Springs, Colo., was aimed at raising up new leaders who would reach young Americans with the Gospel.
“The name chosen for [the] gathering of about a dozen young leaders … was ‘Gen-X 1.0,'” Stetzer explained. “Leadership Network offered a tag line for their logo. It said, ‘Advance Scouts for the Emerging Church.’ At this point, the term was really descriptive of the project to locate and encourage future church leaders.
“That gerund would eventually become a noun, and a movement would be born,” he said.
In time, the movement has both organized and diversified, Stetzer explained. Because emerging Christianity stresses contextualization, the “look” of emerging churches varies from place to place. Over time, however, groups within the movement have sought to update both ecclesiology and theology. That is where groups like Emergent Village enter the scene.
At the heart of the emerging church movement is a desire for more effective contextualization and practice of the Gospel, Stetzer said. In general, the emerging church values putting Christian faith into action.
“For those in the emergent church, practice is considered a first-order spiritual matter, while doctrine is a second-order spiritual issue,” Stetzer said. “The values of the emerging church illustrate an emphasis upon practice they believe is missing in more conservative forms of the faith.”
Christian leaders both inside and outside the movement have phrased the emerging church’s practice-centered values differently, Stetzer noted. He identified four main values, for example, held by the liberal-leaning Emergent Village: a commitment to the way of Jesus, commitment to the church in all its forms, commitment to God’s world by living missionally and commitment to one another. Theologian Scot McKnight expressed his view of the emerging church’s values in terms of “five streams flowing to Lake Emergent”: prophetic or provocative, postmodern, praxis-oriented, post-evangelical and political. Fuller Theological Seminary professors Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger identified nine characteristic practices of emerging churches in their 2005 book, “Emerging Churches”: identify with the life of Jesus, transform the secular realm, live highly communal lives, welcome the stranger, serve with generosity, participate as producers, create as creative beings, lead as a body and take part in spiritual activities.
Stetzer’s own categories address both the practice and the theology of the movement. “Relevants” attempt to contextualize worship and message while remaining theologically conservative and biblically based. “Reconstructionists” are largely concerned with church structures and may lean toward a house church model for church life. “Revisionists” reject the historic form of the church and the Gospel and revise biblical stances on issues such as gender roles, homosexuality and the authority of Scripture.
Many conservative evangelicals affirm the contextualization emphasis of the emerging church while rejecting some of the more liberal theological leanings of groups like Emergent Village, Stetzer noted. “Evangelical circles have very quickly developed a shorthand,” he said. “That shorthand goes something like this: ‘I’m emerging, but I’m not emergent.’
“I believe it’s largely because many evangelicals who want to embrace some of the emerging church don’t want to embrace some of what they hear coming from Emergent [Village].”
New Orleans Seminary professors Jack Allen and Page Brooks and Matt Pinson, president of Freewill Baptist Bible College in Nashville, Tenn., offered their responses to Stetzer’s presentation. Overall, they agreed with Stetzer’s assessment of the movement and voiced their concern for continued commitment to a robust theology and holy living within the emerging church.
Stetzer’s paper and the three panelists’ responses will be included in the upcoming issue of the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry, published by New Orleans Seminary’s Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry (www.baptistcenter.com).
Michael McCormack is a writer for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.