The Decade in American ChristianityEssays, Featured — By Jordan Green on December 31, 2009 at 12:35 am
This decade, there was no Christian movement more discussed and still misunderstood than the emerging church. With roots internationally from as early as the late 1980s, the emerging church in the US developed through informal meetings of youth pastors organized by Doug Pagitt, then working for the Leadership Network. Always described more as a conversation than a movement, those within the emergence represented a diverse set of denominations, conservative and liberal, mainline and evangelical. Founded greatly in reacting to and embracing elements of postmodernism, these leaders sought to re-develop the method of delivering the gospel to a new generation.
Completely separate from this informal group, perhaps no individual has had a bigger impact than Brian McLaren on the emerging church. A forward-thinking pastor, McLaren wrote A New Kind of Christian, a book that detailed a friendship between a recently-fired pastor questioning everything he believed in within organized Christianity and former pastor turned science teacher who discovered and lives out a new dimension of relationship with God. Many readers who had been questioning organized and traditional Christianity found solace and hope in this new perspective, and McLaren became the rock-star author of the movement. At the same time, he also became the poster boy for critics of the emerging church, branded as a heretic or relativist rather than Christian or follower of Jesus.
While difficult to define theologically, key distinctions of the emergent church movement include a breakdown of traditional worship, a conversational method of the gospel, a higher emphasis on social justice, and a flattening of the historical hierarchy of church leadership. The Emergent church is often the label given to churches somewhere along the emerging stream, in contrast to the Emergent Village, which is an organization of leaders who have committed to the national and international discussions of emerging Christianity.
There are three publications I believe most authentically convey the story of the emerging church and Christianity. Phyllis Tickle presents the emerging church as the next reformation of Christendom in The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why. Tony Jones, former national coordinator of Emergent Village, presents the historical narrative of the emerging church, leaders, and stories of those on the emerging church frontier in his book The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier. Scot McKnight, professor of religious studies at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois, presents a six-page article called The Five Streams of the Emerging Church for Christianity Today. McKnight describes the key elements of the emerging church in an attempt to clear misunderstandings about the movement.
Despite the confusion and controversies, the emerging church has made a huge impact on Christianity and the American Church. The breaking down of political ties between evangelicals and the Republican party, the significant drop in membership of mainline denominations, the apathy of traditional church hierarchy and authority, the infusion of art and alternative mediums of worship, the growth of communal/missional living or new monasticism, and the outpouring of social justice activities (organized or not) are all reactions, if not initiated, by the emerging conversation.