If you want to know what “emergent” and “emerging” mean…

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : November 2, 2006

You should either read this quick lecture: Scot McKnight’s What is the Emerging Church?
Or take the time and read this relatively short book: Bolger and Gibbs’ Emerging Churches
Anyone who cares about the emerging church–either as its friend or its foe–would do well to at least read Scot McKnight’s lecture. It really is a great foundation for continued fruitful discussion and debate.

Here’s a great snippet from the lecture:

…if you are serious enough to contemplate major trends in the Church today, at an international level, and if you define emerging as many of us do - in missional, or ecclesiological terms, rather than epistemological ones - then you will learn quickly enough that there is a giant elephant in the middle of the Church?s living room. It is the emerging church movement and it is a definite threat to traditional evangelical

for further reading . . .

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10 Responses to “If you want to know what “emergent” and “emerging” mean…”

  1. toddh on November 3rd, 2006 2:31 am

    You know, that is quite a lecture. Thanks for the link!

  2. Bob on November 3rd, 2006 3:15 pm

    Thanks Mark! This is most helpful. I recently read Carson’s “Becoming Conversant…”. This really helps put these issues into perspective, especially in understanding emerging as an ecclesiological rather than as an epistemological movement.

  3. Bob on November 3rd, 2006 3:20 pm

    Here is a corrected link to my blog

  4. Tim on November 4th, 2006 1:25 am


    Thank you for referring us to this lecture. I must say, I’m often puzzled by what this ‘emerging’ this is all about and that lecture helps me understand its main principles better.

    although the claim that the emerging church is eccleisiological seems confusing to me because there isn’t really a sense of what the church is, other than a bunch of people who follow the 9 characteristics of the emerging. I’m also not sure I understand the relationship of the emergining idea to existing denominations. Is this an attempt to seperate off or something else?



  5. Van S on November 4th, 2006 5:08 am


    To say that the emerging church is a bunch of people who follow these nine characteristics is a pretty big simplification, and it puts things in the wrong order. Those nine emphases were selected by Gibbs and Bolger as 9 areas commonly critiqued by the emerging church. In other words, the emerging church isn’t defined by those 9 things, those 9 things were simply what Bolger and Gibbs observed and researched as professors.

    The emerging church is a fundamentally ecclesiological movement because the movement grew out of a changing understanding of the nature of culture, the nature of the church, and how the church relates with culture. Within systematic theology, these areas fall under the category of ecclesiology.

    Your question regarding the emerging church and denominations is an important one. Though some within the emerging church are anti or non denominational, the movement as a whole dwells within existing structures. And while many (most?) emerging churches are uncomfortable with hierarchy and struggle within their denominational systems, I don’t think it is accurate to say that there is a desire to separate from denominations. “Emerging” as a category is to be used much like we use the word “evangelical”–both are movements that exist both inside and outside denominational systems, yet neither has a clearly identifiable set of leaders, beliefs, or institutions.

  6. JVD on November 4th, 2006 9:21 am

    I don’t want to check out of the conversation on the emerging / reformed / mark driscoll vs. doug pagitt / rob bell vs. good biblical interpretation etc.

    But, it is tiring.

    We complicate ministry - not Jesus. We draw the lines - Not God. We are exclusive when we should be inclusive. We want to point to a list of beliefs on a wall and gather everyone around us who believes those same things. And God forbid if they don’t, then they can’t join our club.

    How about we start with this, “Love God, and Love other people.” Is it that complicated?


  7. Tim on November 4th, 2006 12:14 pm


    Thanks for the clarification on emerging. And the comparison to evangelicalism is instructive…it is didfficult to define a moevement thatis really so diverse. But, like the term evangelicalism, I wonder if there is even any use in using the term if the term is so empty of any concrete meaning.

    But back to eccelsiology. So the emerging would be critical of taditional church governmental structures and instead promote group decision making, correct? And possible do away with the “head Pastor” role or the”elder” role? Has anyone in the emergent come from other Christian traditions than evangelical? It would be interesting to know how Catholic, Orthodox, or mainline churches might view the emergent or might participate in it.

    Oh, and JVD, to a certain degree you are 100% correct. We should start with love. Yet, everyone has in their mind what love means. You talk about how we tend to be doctrinally inclined and that this is not love. Yet, although creeds have been used to do much harm to people, I think that those who wrote them, considered them a protection of what loving God and loving people really means. If we don’t seriously reflect on loving God and loving people, we will automatically important our contextual ideas of love into God’s command.


  8. Ross on November 4th, 2006 12:41 pm


    You hit the nail on the head. After all, What is the greatest commandment?

    It never ceases to amaze me the ‘need’ of Christians to put the ‘group’ before the ‘individual’ and God. Church should be an organization that is formed through the work of the Holy Spirit. Instead, especially here in the US, the church is a socialogically organized institution that is promoted by religiously trained self promoting people … lets call them spiriutal entrepeneurs. They run around analyzing their market and ’start’ a church. That is messed up. The apostles preached the word, fulfilled the great commandment and the church ‘emerged’ from the work of the Holy Spirit … the not the Apostle!

    The truth is, if the individual is truely loving God with every essence of their being, any setting should do. But the fact that we are still debating church ‘forms’ is tiring. It just is another indicator that church in the US is ‘human’ developed, not ‘God’ developed.

    So I agree. It is a tiring debate. I think once again Satan has us sidelined in our heads.


  9. Van S on November 4th, 2006 1:41 pm

    Pretty grim picture Ross. I don’t think it is all that grim. Most folks going to church aren’t into all this debate and discussion, and are therefore enjoying fellowship and drawing closer to God. But I still think it is worth discussing all of this stuff, and even in detail. But not everyone needs to be so into this stuff as I am. It is just my “field of study.” Nevertheless, discussing all this stuff is a small percentage of what I do. It all comes down to learning how to follow Christ with my community. It all comes down to growing in love for God and others. But HOW we do that, and WHY we do that matters to me. We do make it complicated, we make it too complicated. That is why I appreciate the emerging movement, because it is a largely deconstructive movement to make things simpler and empower more “lay” people into being and doing church. Sure from outside it seems like meaningless chatter, but that is always what stuff like this looks like from the outside. I see signs of the Holy Spirit working in the midst of all of this stuff.

    Nevertheless, I mostly agree with your frustrations and concerns. Most of the folks that are really seeking the Spirit and doing the “stuff” But most of that goes un-noticed. What we notice is the bickering and glossy books and shiny new churches with the cool new sense of style. But underneath it there are passionately Christ-centered, Spirit-led, God-glorifying people asking important questions as they struggle with how to be church. That is most of the people I know who are involved in the “emerging” church. I’d like to think I’m one of those such people.

  10. Van S on November 4th, 2006 2:45 pm

    JVD…I agree. The whole thing does get tiring. But there are signs of hope. I try to stay focused on Jesus and encouraging people to follow Jesus and live out his “way.” But it is easy to get smothered in all the crud of American Christianity.

    Tim…I think there are many from other traditions in the conversation. The largest chunk is certainly those from an evangelical background, but I’ve met many Methodists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians in the movement. There are some Catholics and Orthodox folk in the discussion, but I don’t know of any personally. Keep in mind that many are influenced by the the movement whether they recognize it or not. The emerging movement wasn’t created in a room somewhere, it is a general shifting of how we understand our relationship with culture in light of postmodernism and pluralism. I’d imagine that a Catholic or Orthodox person who is sympathetic with the emerging church would maintain priesthood but argue for more involvement among the laity.

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