What is Emergent?

Today is the deadline for me to answer 3 questions asked by a popular magazine in USA. OK, I lied. Yesterday was the deadline and i wanted to sleep on my answers. Today I decided to forget what I had written and just answer the questions in a straightforward and honest manner.

1. What is emergent?

2. Why are you involved in this?

3. Seeing as one of the emergent values is missional, who is your mission?

QUESTION 1: WHAT IS EMERGENT?

Emergent is a name that a lot of us are using, at the moment, to describe the church’s response to the current emerging culture, and the peculiar aggregation of believers being called up out of this culture to follow Jesus back into it. At the recent “Global Roundtable for Emerging Church” held in UK (Aug 2004) emerging church leaders from almost a dozen countries agreed that we should keep the name for the time being. The emerging church definition has been reinforced by its use in recent books, highlighted by current criticism, and established on the internet through a well thought out definition on Wikipedia, and its acknowledgement by bloggers and new media communicators. Books will come and go, but new media content is consolidating a global database that will inform us for many years to come. And I am guessing that we are stuck with the word “Emergent” for at least another 5 years.

Emergent, as it is used in “Emergent Theory”, is a name given to the phenomena of how new organizational structures progress from low-level chaos to higher level sophistication without a hierarchical command structure. Emergent theory explains how birds change direction, how slime mould moves, how ant colonies are built and how Amazon.com knows so much about us. The process involves constant communication and feedback among the lowest level of organization, pattern recognition, local action affecting global behavior, and takes into consideration the element of unpredictability in a chaotic system. Solomon was wise in suggesting that we “examine the ant” (Proverbs 6:6)

But how does that relate to church?

Emergent behavior is also found in the way new churches are responding to a world of chaotic unpredictability and multiple possiblities. One of the defining features of emergent churches is that they are usually started with no predetermined ideal of what they will mature into or what size and shape they will become, since they will be also be shaped by the culture they transform. Unpredictability opens the possibility for a miraculous intervention and retooling by God during the process, as long as structures are simple, and communication is constant.

The emerging church around the world shares a number of common characteristics, including in most cases, an emergent vocabulary, synoptic outlook, creative expression, organic resourcing, fluid strategy, decentralized leadership, holistic expression, fluency in new media, postmodern sensibility, structural simplicity, countercultural origins, an upfront missional focus, modular church expression rather than singular, a deep ecclesiology, attendance at particular yearly festivals, a greater ecumenical commitment and social concern, and so on.

Emergent is also the name of one particular group of ministers (Emergentvillage.com) who have been leading a conversation on how this transition is taking place. It has become one of the most visible emerging church responses in USA, due to a strong connection with the mainstream church, conferences that are accessible to the traditional church culture, and the publication of numerous books on church in a postmodern world. I have been associated with this group from its beginnings as Young Leaders Group, sponsored by Leadership Network. But I am also a part of many other networks and conversations that go back before Emergent’s history, some of them more “emergent” than EmergentVillage and some less so. So when I say “Emergent”, I am thinking in terms of the church’s response to the emerging culture in their particular country and context.

On a simpler lever, “Emergent” or “Emerging Church” is the replacement term for what we used to call “Youth Church” in the 80’s, “GenX Church” in the early 90’s, and “Postmodern Church” in the late 90’s. If this is true, it is probably a better word, since it transcends the problem of associating the term with an age group, a cultural preference or a controversial and misunderstood philosophy. Many countries have adopted the term “Emerging Church” to represent the new networks of churches started by younger people for the new emerging cultures in their respective countries. Churches in the UK often ascribe the same meaning to “Alt. Worship”. Others (Japan, Sweden, Germany) have stuck with the term “Youth Church”. It is generally the same thing. And, as always, there is a mixture of good and bad, the impressive and the unfortunate. Thankfully, it is a culture that invites and welcomes criticism. And there is much criticism around to offer them – perhaps the criticism outweighs the encouragement and guidance.

On the simplest level, “Emergent” means the newly forming. Yes. Newly forming. Maybe i should have just said that?

QUESTION 2: WHY ARE YOU INVOLVED IN THIS?

Because God has not yet pulled me out. I have been working all over the world for almost 20 years, seeking to support the existing church and start new church planting movements where they are needed. I guess he still “considers me faithful for service”, which is a mystery to me. There are more qualified people out there than me.

The question is, why has God seen fit to have me focus on the one third of Western culture who have been called the “Cultural Creatives”. I guess I could answer that question. Its probably because most of God’s workers are ministering among traditionals or moderns, or perhaps the people most likely to respond to the approach and strategies of the modern church. But what about the other third? A third that is growing quickly and will one day be a half and then a majority. We cant afford to neglect the emerging culture or expect that our father’s church models will work for a new generation and a different worldview without a lot of critical examination and prayerful retuning.

QUESTION 3: SEEING AS ONE OF THE EMERGENT VALUES IS MISSIONAL, WHO IS YOUR MISSION?

It would be tempting to agree with others who say that my mission is to the “Cultural Creatives” since I am one of them and this demographic, representing one third of Western culture, is the most likely to join me and my family as we follow Jesus in this new and living way. However, our ministry flows out to whoever will come across our path. The “people of peace” (Luke 10) of course, are always among the first to receive us and our gifts, but these people are not always from the same demographic. We cant control where the gospel flows beyond the first generation. Likewise, the “emerging churches” that are popping up around the world are surprisingly multi-generational and multi-cultural. This is why I am glad we moved on from “youth church” and “GenX/Y/Millenial” tags for describing the churches.

Another answer to your question would be this: I think the “what” of my mission might be greater than the “who”. Jesus came to seek and to save “what” was lost, not just “who”. And God is reconciling ALL things to himself and sharing this ministry with us. It is very possible that the pilgrimage of my family is a prophetic act that is helping to restore the gentle rule of God in this world in many areas, most of which will be unknown to me until I get to the other side.

Andrew

Andrew Jones has been blogging since 1997. He is based in San Francisco with his two daughters but also travels the globe to find compelling stories of early stage entrepreneurs changing their world. Sometimes he talks in the third person. Sometimes he even talks to himself and has been heard uttering the name “Precious” :-)

14 Comments

  • Emergent is…

    Good definition and discussion of Emergent; but I particularly liked this tidbit: “Emergent, as it is used in ‘Emergent Theory’, is a name given to the phenomena of how new organizational structures progress from low-level chaos to higher level soph…

  • woah. WOAH. Perhaps the best descriptions of emergent and emergent church that I’ve read to date. What magazine / periodical / whatever is this for?

  • Thanks for the thinking. I would not, however, try to lump all the age stuff into this. I experience the movement as far more ageless than the generationally specific movements of the past (?). What makes emergent emergent is that there is no focus, generationally or otherwise, but response. And it is a response from within a fellowship and not a response so much to what is coming in from without. Does this make sense?
    Ha.
    I am not sure it does.
    Thanks for the post.

  • Hey can you suggest any good books, articles, etc to read more on emergent church and the influences of modernism and postmodernism on the church? I’d appreciate it. Thanks

  • Saul’s Armour: 2005, The Year of the Emergent Movement

    Emergent won’t have a real choice about being dubbed a movement, one way or the other. When it comes though, it’ll feel like Saul’s armour, and we’ll wish we could take it off again.

  • Weekly Links

    Oh man. Too good. For a while there I was back in church camp. This is the kind of stuff that the above article warns may lead to intellectual m———-n What is emergent? I just like the way Real Live…

  • Dear Dignan: an Answer on the Emerging Church

    An overview of what the emerging church is, why it is, where it’s headed, why it’s hard to define, and why it makes people nervous. A tall order.

  • Hi,
    I looked up your websiteon yahoo after reading a thread on whether the emergent churchwas good or bad on a dicussion group. I live in Indonesia, so I do not keep up with all the newest labels going around.
    I am also into Biblical house churching. By that I mean mutually edifying meetings, as opposed to one man preaching a sermon. Ministry is done by the member of the church. Many HC’s believe in plural eldership and some believe in the continuation of apostolic ministry inthe ministries of church planters. I was wondering if house churching is considered to be part of ‘the emergent church’ or if you know if there is some overlap.
    In Christ,
    Link

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