Whatever happened to the Emerging Church?

By Joshua Penduck 

Although it was a tightly kept secret known only to myself, seven to eight years ago I was a theological revisionist. I believed that Orthodoxy was pretty much old hat, that Christianity had to recognise itself as just one religion amongst many, that Jesus was a thoroughly decent religious leader but no more, and that God was more an impersonal spiritual presence than the personal source of all existence. Theologically, everything had to be revised. What stopped me from continuing that (admittedly dead) journey?

Simply put, the Emerging Church movement.

It may seem strange to many (who see the Emerging Church movement as a stepping stone to outright revisionist liberalism), but this movement brought me back to orthodox Christianity.

For those of you who don’t know, the Emerging Church movement (ECM), or Emerging Christianity, or Emergence, or even the Emergent movement, was an attempted meeting ground between Evangelical Christianity and Liberal Mainline Christianity. The leaders tended to be Evangelical Christians who sought a more theologically, spiritually and liturgically creative way of being Christian than what their Evangelical environment had given permission to. They combined the best of Evangelical culture – a love for the Scriptures, a passion for Jesus, relevant and creative forms of worship (which draw on modern culture), and ecclesial flexibility – with an openness and engagement with the best of Mainline Christian thinking.

Before encountering the ECM, the only other Protestant option for a young Pentecostal like me was to be a Mainline revisionist liberal. And it didn’t sit comfortably. I couldn’t cope with the strictures of old fashioned conservatism, but I didn’t want to reject my Pentecostal heritage for what appeared to be interesting and imaginative but ultimately spiritually dead theology either. The ECM was therefore, quite fundamentally, a spiritual life-saver. I remember watching a Nooma video by Rob Bell at my church cell group meeting, and my life was changed. It was as if I could still be an Evangelical, still tenderly hold my heritage in my arms, but no longer needed to be bound to a strict form of Evangelicalism. I could be open and creative in my thinking and my worship in a way I hadn’t felt able to before. Above all, the way Rob Bell spoke felt that Christianity could be relevant not just in my own life again, but more – relevant to the world. For the first time since as I child I had been bullied for my faith, I wanted to tell other people about Jesus.

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Solomon’s Porch, a classic example of an ‘Emerging Church’ service

I consumed books by Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, Steve Chalke, Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones, and Donald Miller. I watched endless Rob Bell videos, returned to my Bible with a joy that I hadn’t truly encountered before, looked forward to hearing any sermon, and found the beginnings of my voice as a preacher. I had been given license to preach in a way that felt like me (despite the massive influence of Rob Bell!). I would listen to every Homebrewed Christianity podcast. I would think of endless creative ways in which we could worship. Suddenly, every film, every music video, every dance, every poem, every novel, could be used as an illustration for a sermon. I started to read postmodern philosophy and sociology. I even wrote a book in that time, called ‘Jesus on a Bad Day’ (looking back, it wasn’t particularly good, but I suppose it was cathartic). What joy I then found when I went to the Christian bookstores in America and found books by all these Emerging Christians! I felt a deep spiritual unity when I found a Rob Bell book in my sister’s megachurch bookstore!

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Me (on the right) – the young Emerging preacher, speaking in Malaysia

Much of this new life was aesthetic: it was a Christianity that spoke to me as a millennial (to coin an adjective…) through its open-eyed and open-hearted approach to the world around me. Yet it led me to realise the beauty of Orthodox Christian belief again, which was now richer and truer to me than ever before. First I read Karl Barth, then the New Testament scholarship of N.T. Wright, then I discovered Rowan Williams, and then Jürgen Moltmann. Doctrines like the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, became so life-giving once more that even now I have a warmth in my heart thinking about them.

After a while, I realised that some of the claims made by the ECM were exaggerated. I read the book ‘Emerging Churches’ by Gibbs and Bolger and was shocked at how short a lifespan many emerging churches had. I was on placement for a year at an Anglo-Catholic church as a preparation for being trained to be an Anglican minister, and I felt that the ECM often missed out on the beautiful liturgy of the ancient church. I realised that it was more difficult to make ambient worship look good than had seemed to be the case on the photos I had seen of Emerging Churches on the internet.

Then came the rupture in my life which I still struggle to keep together: the rejection of Rob Bell by the wider Evangelical community after the publishing of his book ‘Love Wins’. After years of tension between traditional and emerging Evangelicals, this was the final divide. I look back on John Piper’s famous tweet ‘Farewell Rob Bell’ as a farewell to an enriching time in my own life.

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The (in)famous tweet from John Piper after the publishing of Rob Bell’s book ‘Love Wins’

Since then, many Emerging Christians have left Evangelicalism and joined Mainline Christianity. Some (like the Homebrewed Christianity podcast) have become theological revisionists of the kind that the ECM originally drew me away from. Rob Bell has seemed to become a Christian form Deepak Chopra (although, as his latest book ‘How to Be Here’ demonstrates to me, he still knows how to speak to the soul). There are a few like Scot McKnight who try to keep the creative Evangelical tension of the ECM without simply flying off into Mainline Christianity, but it has lost much of its verve. In my own Church of England, many of the best aspects of the EMC have been assimilated into the wider liturgical and ecclesial life of the community.

Since then, I have continued to reclaim my orthodox heritage (even Moltmann is suspect now!), and thus am not in the same place I was when I first encountered the ECM. Nevertheless, this rupture has impacted me deeply. I have lost something that brought such spiritual beauty in my life. Whatever happened to the EMC? Perhaps it was a rich opportunity that flowered too fast? Perhaps it suffered from an increasingly uncompromising American culture? Or maybe it was the case that although the ECM flourished rapidly, its roots didn’t go down deep enough, as the parable of the sower has it? Only the later church historians can tell.

I still thank God, though, for the spiritual enlivening that time brought me.

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2 thoughts on “Whatever happened to the Emerging Church?

  1. Great article, Josh! Shades of Riceour’s second naivety. I wonder if something like an emergent ‘phase’ is necessary for our discipleship, in the same way being a teenager is necessary to becoming an independent adult. I don’t like the assumed idea of progress of that metaphor but it does seem to have some resonances, including the conservative Protestant as the overprotective father that drives his kids away into the bad crowd of rebellious liberals smoking behind the bike sheds…

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    1. I like the metaphor! It’s less of a linear style of progress, which tends to leave the past behind, but more of a spiral form of progress (which may move away from the starting point on one level, but also revisits it from a wider perspective)

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