In Defense of the Emergent Church

Shane Claiborne wrote recently about the “emergent church”. He says it’s “a very confusing trend within the contemporary renewal happening in the Church.”

I was sad reading his piece, and a little frustrated. He misses so much of what I hold dear about the emergent Christianity. Misses it entirely.

Emergence is how the world works

Here’s the opening sentence from Wikipedia’s article on Emergence:

In philosophy, systems theory, science, and art, emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions.

Emergence, when applied as an idea to the church (the whole of Christianity) is an acknowledgement that systems, including theological ideas, social expectations, language, and ways of doing community, evolve, develop, and change over time. This is in contrast to much of recent Christendom, which has been based on entrenched power, and the fantasy that we have everything all worked out, that the truth is obvious and written down, that there are no questions yet to be asked (except by those who just haven’t been given the answers yet).

This so-called “emergent church” is what has made it possible for atheists (I’ve known several) and others who once rejected Christianity outright to see the beauty in the good news.

The other kind of church allows questioning, as long as it can provide the answers. The other kind of church is all for trying out new kinds of music, as long as the doctrine stays clear and consistent. But the emergent church — the church that’s about people exploring, questioning, doubting, changing their minds when new ideas look more promising — that church is alive! That church is interesting!


I want to say a little bit about criticism. I don’t mean criticism of people — “you’re a dummy!” or “you’re the anti-christ!” I mean criticism of ideas. Part of this new way of looking at church involves subjecting ideas to criticism. It means being free to say “But ___ doesn’t really make sense to me. How can __ be true if __?” And out of conversations like that, we get better ideas. That’s what criticism can give us.

In a world where questions are “encouraged” only as an opening for experts to give answers, and criticism is not allowed, or is only given lip service, ideas do not improve.

Christendom is dead

The rule of the elite, with experts creating doctrine and the populace swallowing it, is gone. The emergent church is about thinking, feeling, experiencing the kingdom of God, and being free to see where that leads us. It’s beautiful, creative, and alive. And I’m so damn grateful.

11 thoughts on “In Defense of the Emergent Church

  1. I think the idea of “patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions” could very well describe our cohort. It reminded me of our discussion last night about our “purpose” – I think we can almost look back over the past few months of relatively simple interactions and derive a pattern and see where that is pointing us.

    In regards to criticism, the challenge for us is also being willing to hear criticism from people who are not liking the direction emergent is taking. Hear the criticism, consider it, learn from it, and improve (like you mentioned). And I agree, that goes for critiquing Christian ideas and Church ideas.

    I like that you say its about “being free to see where that leads us.” I’ve been in churches in the past where we thought, felt and experienced God, but only so far. The lines were pre-drawn. I like the idea that emergent/ence is charting new waters. And I am also quite grateful.

    Thanks again for the post.

  2. YES! I’m grateful too!

    However after reading Shane’s article I think he would probably agree with you. We all love this new, changing freer church, and love the re-imagining that people are doing.

    I think his point is more that he doesn’t like the brand, the image etc. of “Emergent”. Which I’m totally OK with people not liking, and don’t think they are not liking/critiquing me. It seems it was a useful label early on to help identify churches/people who were changing, re-thinking, etc. However now it seems it has come to mean churches/people who think/believe a certain way, and so maybe some people who still believe in substitutionary atonement got sick of being pegged emergent, and having that topic come up when they really just care about social justice whatever, who cares.

    So I’m OK with emergent leaders leaving the label behind because it has outgrown it’s usefulness to them. I think it’s better to be defined by what you do then how you label yourself. If leaving the label behind (or keeping it) helps a church (or cohort) to re-think, and question what it means to be church in this new era (or city) then more power to that eh?

  3. didn’t see your post Jesse.

    maybe when we have our directions discussion we can try to gather critques: from within our community, from other authors who have critiqued emergent, etc. and just let the critiques sit for a while, not try to change anything right away or anything just let them set

  4. I loved this tweet from Samir Selmanovic today, “We seek 2 be on ‘the growing edge’ of our faith. No need 2 be on ‘the cutting edge.’ We stay connected & follow life where it leads.”

    I love that approach to looking for direction. When I get lost is when I forget it and start creating the path instead of watching and listening.

    I remember one night, Tracy & I were walking and talking about what our ministry would be, or should be. Nothing sounded right until we sort of stumbled on the idea of “Wait. What are we actually doing? What does it actually look like?” And then we could ask how we wanted to shift it, what we love about it, what we’d like more of, what we’d like less of.

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