DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" ""> Essential Differences Between Emerging and Emergent

Essential Differences Between Emerging and Emergent

I just read a great article at Resurgence regarding the sharp differences between Emerging and Emergent. It is titled Essential Concerns Regarding the Emerging Church. (Tip: Jonathan Herron)

There seems to be a sharp and growing theological gulf developing between the Emerging Church Movement (Emerging Conversation) and one of its most visible, vocal and distinct streams - i.e., Emergent, aka Emergent Village. Are Emerging and Emergent two different conversations?

The Emerging Church movement (Emerging with a “g”) is a very broad, trans-denominational, methodological movement dedicated to discovering, developing and actually living new forms of ‘doing church’ in our postmodern or emerging culture. More recently the conversation has turned toward deep & practical theological articulation (this is a good & necessary turn!). Emerging churches proclaim an unchanged Gospel from deep within an intentionally engaged culture and society. It is a historic and orthodox Gospel proclamation. It is Missional. It is Incarnational ministry. I love this conversation & the movement resulting. I have been listening, discussing and talking about it for years. I put my ear to the wall of this conversation during my undergraduate B.A./Theology studies back in 1999-2000; right after I picked up and literarily devoured Len Sweet’s Soul Tsunami while simultaneously registering for an account on a very early incarnation of THEOOZE. It’s my generation, after all! Where else would I go?

The Emergent Movement (Emergent with a “t”) is, on the other hand, an increasingly liberal religious movement trekking toward unorthodox possibility and potential. Some would say Emergent is already unorthodox, theologically speaking. Others would brand it as an outright heresy. These critics may be correct, if the often muddy - or simply misunderstood - theological positions and statements of Emergent’s most viable leaders (Tony Jones, Brian McLaren and Doug Pagitt) are any indication. These positions and statements could be much less than outright heresy, as the trouble appears to sometimes be a problem rooted in bad theology and/or a lack of clear theological articulation. This would then result in a simple but understandably horrifying charge of misguided or inarticulate teaching, rather than heresy. I’m not sure which is worse, to be honest. I do know this: when Unitarian Universalists (who accept and advance everything and anything under the sun save a single/focused theological dedication) express interest in you and what you represent, you can bet the farm you are in some kind of trouble, theologically and methodologically speaking. You should be nervous and very open to hear & accept critical charge.

I do believe the Emerging Conversation (Emerging with a “g”) is laden with incalculable value. I also believe there is an unbelievable amount of God-honoring and God-glorifying potential in the resultant Emerging Church Movement. The value is evident in ministry as practiced by the Acts29 Network (Driscoll has distanced himself from Emergent, but there are questions regarding the number of Emergent leaning churches in the network) and many, many others who hold tight to the Truth of Christ’s Gospel & Missional/Incarnation ministry.

Too, I believe there is huge potential for ecclesiastic disaster in the direction embraced by the Emergent stream. More importantly than church damage, I think it can do serious and irreparable harm to the spiritual health and eternal destinations of individuals. Why do I say this? Well, because I went “there”. I’ve been “there”. I began in the same place - for the same reasons - as the Emerging Movement (Emerging with a “g”). I then stepped upon and followed the same path Emergent now trods (Emergent with a “t”). I ended up a complete liberal, as is the Emergent stream too it seems. I dove headlong into a complete religious relativity, theological liberalism and pluralism. I, for a season, foolishly discarded the truths of Personal God, Inspiration, Virgin Birth, Trinity, Resurrection, Atonement, and the Deity and Sufficiency of Christ. In short, I lived religious liberalism. I’m here to tell you that it is no life to live! I was seriously, seriously misguided, wrong, and full of a humanistic sort of hubris that blinded me to my own lack of a theological, ecclesiastic and practical foundation for my ministry and life. I only awoke to my precarious spiritual situation when I was suddenly thrust into a prolonged setting full of sick, dead and dying people and members of their suffering, grief-stricken families. I quickly discovered I had nothing - zero - to honestly say to them. I realized that I could not minister to them authentically from a completely liberal religious position. Why on earth was I there!?! My intellectually fancy and hopelessly self-deluded liberal constructs (which ultimately proved to be neither intellectual, nor fancy) made no serious difference - at all. I could not help them.

I have since repented for my foolishness after trying in vain to live reality according to junk standards thinly set by a seriously disjointed liberal theology, life and faith. A historic and orthodox Christian faith, tradition and practice form the center upon which my feet are now firmly and immutably planted. Jesus Christ and his way is sufficient! It’s all about living the way of Jesus.

The Emerging Church is a valuable lesson in Incarnational and Missional Gospel ministry. It will become far, far less if it ever exchanges the true Gospel of Jesus Christ for theological and philosophical relativity and pluralism. The growing distance between Emerging and Emergent seems to indicate a strong dedication to Gospel Truth by more than a few individuals and groups within the Emerging movement. There is always a danger of actually becoming swept away by the detrimental aspects of the culture into which you dive deep and deeply minister; I think this is the strong current the Emergent wing should remain cognitive of and discerning, lest the movement be swiftly swept away, as are all liberal religious efforts which stray far from Gospel.

8 Responses to “Essential Differences Between Emerging and Emergent”

  1. That is a great, great verse, my friend. Thank you! :)

  2. Tom Says:

    Great point, Shawn. “Walk in wisdom toward those who are without…: Col. 4.5.

  3. Shawn Says:

    Thanks for the thoughts, Tom. I think you are correct, to an extent. The danger inherent to any conversation is that one veers off … and ends up talking to oneself, or only to those who speak the code. The Emergent conversation seems especially prone to this detriment. It can be an echo chamber, I’m sure. Too, just because everyone ‘out there’ won’t be listening, or conversing, doesn’t mean there isn’t a conversation occurring. It’s a balancing act, at times, no doubt. Thanks again, Tom.

  4. Tom Says:

    Thanks, Shawn. The “emergent” discussions, to me, have a very weak christology. In fact, as I try to determine who the audience is in all these discussions, it becomes more evident that it is merely narcissistic banter. That has be going on for centuries. Consider the audience of the incarnate “enfleshment” of God in the person of Christ. His eyes, his words and his actions were trained on those who were without. He sought to change individuals, to die for individuals to teach individuals who were without! He commissioned his soldiers to seek these same with love and the Gospel. Personal knowledge of the Master, the quiet Shepherd helps us do the same.

  5. Shawn Says:

    When I was an undergraduate theology major (1999-04), an incredible philosophy/theology professor took note of my increasingly liberal-heading theology. We had a few conversations after which he gave me a bit of advice which resonates with me to this very day (because I took him up on it). He said, “Shawn, go and spend some time in religious liberal circles.” I did! I went and sat at their feet for instruction and teaching. I attended their churches. I did it all.

    When the dust settled I couldn’t get out of there quick enough. I think a lot of these Emergent-type folks are where I was early on in my Christian formation. They are into theological ideas that they have not actually tried out, ecclesiastically or personally. I think if they actually try to live out their philosophical and theological constructs they will come back closer to the center - which is Jesus Christ. Liberal religion is a mess. It doesn’t work and it will not work.

    That said, I embrace religious dialog, openness and the free-acceptance of my neighbors. I’m into new forms of church and art. I am not yesterday’s evangelical. Nope. I’m Emerging, that is, if Emerging remains Incarnational, Missional, and, most importantly of all, Jesus Christ-centered, without becoming an “Emergent-liberalism”. I’ve tried religious liberalism. It doesn’t work at all.

    If it’s not Gospel, I won’t touch it.

  6. Diane R. Says:


    I think you’ve done a great service here. Having grown up in a liberal Protestant church and never hearing the gospel until someone told me when I was in college, I too am wary of the theological directions the emergent movement is moving. By the way, I just finished a book by professor of theology at Fuller Seminary Ray Anderson entitled, “Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches.” In it he espouses a more Pauline theology than the Jesus as Rabbi one that so many emergents are pushing right now.

  7. Thanks Jerry. Truth and reality has a natural way of making things … great. Most of the time, we just need grab hold of it.

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