I was recently commissioned to write an article for Princeton Theological Review on Emergent Ecclesiology. Although I intend to do more than just define emergent (the task having become a bit of a cottage industry), the writing process necessarily begins will some clarification of terms. Over the past year, I have come to see that the emergent conversation can be parsed into three overlapping yet distinguishable categories.
Emergents have something to say about how we know. Although there are numerous various, the common denominator of emergent epistemology is that of a critical distance from strong truth claims, and hence an aversion to timeless propositions and a preferences for contextual stories. Terms like "postmodern" or "postfoundationalist" or even "narrative" will get thrown around in this regard. This aspect obviously attracts the more philosophically oriented, yet it has practical thrust: one communicates the gospel quite differently if it not a list of propositions to be accepted rationally but rather a story to be "lived into" so to speak.
(2) Cultural Analysis:
Emergents are also making observations about the contemporary culture in which we live. The claim is that we are in the process of a massive shift of the cultural forms and norms resulting in a new emphasis on community, the rise of pop cultural literacy, and a changing role of the church in society. Terms like "globalism" or "pluralism" or even "tribalism" will be used in respect to this aspect of the emergent conversation. Such cultural analysis naturally attracts the more pragmatically oriented as they seek to find new forms, styles and methods to "fit" the current culture. Yet all emergents necessarily have some interest in cultural analysis, for the term "emergent" itself has this cultural valence. "Emergent" in the narrowest sense refers to emerging cultural phenomena: emerging cultures, emerging generations, emerging churches.
Emergents are furthermore saying something about the nature of the church. The dominant theme is that the church's nature subsists in its mission, and that the structures and ministries of the church should reflect its missional nature. This implies both the addition of forgotten aspects of the church's mission in the world as well as the subtraction of those activities in the church which do not serve its mission. Emergents thus speak of "missional" communities or "post-christendom" models or even an "apostolic" ethos. Such ecclesiological discussions draw in the more theologically oriented, who are interested in scriptural exegesis, ecclesiological concepts, polity & denominational structures, the dialogue with missiology, and the understanding of ministry & laity. But of course, all emergents participate in such theological reflection, at least at the motivational level. For the church to be worth changing, it must be worth saving.
Is this parsing helpful?
Is it helpful?
Are you particularly attracted to one of these aspects?
Do any of these aspects turn you off?
Which aspect is the strong suit of the emergent church?
Which is its weak spot?