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.