3 Things the Emerging Church Took From the Catholics

What did the Roman Catholics ever do for the Emerging Church? Nothing! The EC had to figure it all out by themselves. Over 2 decades of struggle and experimentation and getting laughed at and being misunderstood.

Actually, thats not quite true. A few things come to mind. And since I promised last week to mention the Catholics and the emerging church, here are 3 things the Emerging Church took from the Catholics:

1 The Catholics coined the term “emerging church”

The phrase “emerging church” as well as “emergent church” appeared in Catholic literature more frequently than in Protestant writings in the first half of the last century. It often referred to the first centuries of the Christian church but occasionally it pointed to the new “younger” expressions of church rising up on the mission field. By the 1960’s writers were using it to describe new church expressions in the Western world. Some of these churches also embraced an “emergent theology” referring to the “theology from the underside of history” (Torres and Fabella).

“The mature Christian of the future will not belong primarily to a Christian denomination: he will belong to a community of people who believe in the Christian interpretation of life.” from The Emerging Church, by William Kalt and Ronald Wilkins (Catholic writers), published June 5, 1968, page 230. I blogged that quote here.

Apart from a number of Catholic books on the emerging church from the 60’s and 70’s that sit on my shelf, by far the most prophetic book is “The Emergent Church: The Future of Christianity in a Postbourgeois World” by Catholic scholar Johann Baptist Metz (English edition, 1981). I have referred to this book a few times over the years, especially in Germany to emerging church networks there. Metz did not coin the word, despite what Wikipedia says, but he did bring it back into circulation and use it in reference to the Western world. In his book, Metz predicts a New Reformation of senses for Protestants, of grace for Catholics, and of a new kind of justice for politics. The emergent church will spring up from the grassroots, he argues, not from the middle class. Which, as I have said before, has already happened.


2 The Catholics demonstrated church in a house

Its a revolutionary idea, well . . . unless you consider the first three hundred years of church history, but we Protestants were inspired to do house church from the Catholics. Let me play it out. The current global emerging house church movement is a less cheesy outgrowth of the house church movement of the 1970’s, which was precedented by the experimental house churches of the 1950’s. Donald Allen, writes in 1972, “Of all subsequent house church developments in England the most notable has been the oft-cited work of E. W. Southcott as vicar of Halton Parish in Leeds.” And if you are lucky enough to find Southcott’s book “The Parish Comes Alive” (1956), which, being the geek I am, managed to do just that, you will discover that the main inspiration for his network of 12 house churches were the Franciscans who were doing house church in the 1940’s in Belgium and France. Chalk up another for the Catholics.

3 The Catholics inspired church in a pub

Or church in a coffee house. Or a club. Or quite a number of “third spaces”, “secular” or culturally “neutral” environments. The emerging church movement has made these third spaces kosher for churches and missions of all stripes. But there were already ministries in pubs and coffee houses in the 1960’s, although lacking in a robust ecclesiology. One of the earliest examples of protestant “church in a pub” was at Soho, London, in 1955, where Rev. Tony Reid took his parish to the people. Father Patrick McLaughlin gave permission for this experimental fresh expression of church after seeing the church involved in social action in Brussels in the 1930’s. Another one for the Catholics. You could almost say that the emerging church sprouted out of Brussels . . . . um . . . hmmm . .

But apart from these things, what did the Roman Catholics ever do for the emerging church? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!


Andrew Jones launched his first internet space in 1997 and has been teaching on related issues for the past 20 years. He travels all the time but lives between Wellington, San Francisco and a hobbit home in Prague.


  • mattias says:

    Andrew, thanks for this! Really good stuff. Would be cool if you could unpack this even more.
    So, if I understand you correctly, we can safely conclude that EC is a totally homegrown Protestant thing then, eh? Good, you got me a bit worried with that last post of yours…

  • Joanna says:

    I love it, turning preconceived ideas upside down.

  • Thanks for this important information, Andrew.

  • Jody+ says:

    I recall the first few times I heard the term “emerging church” and I assumed it referred to the early church. Eventually the disconnect between the term as I understood and and the context made me ask what these folks were referring to…

  • + Alan says:

    Cool – thanks for gathering the information, Andrew. Happy Advent to you and your crew.

  • My Jesuit spiritual director, many years ago now, first introduced me to the thought of Johann Baptist Metz. While, in an inchoate manner, I had already employed concepts like interruption, memory and suffering theologically, Metz awakened in me the realization that these are private, personal realities only because they are first social communal realities. Further, the community referenced must be broadly and inclusively conceived as humankind, which is to recognize that 1) we only invoke because we have been convoked 2) I have been interrupted because WE have been interrupted 3) all suffering is OUR suffering and 4) our memory realizes our radical solidarity.
    Interruption, suffering and memory will inevitably fashion our spirituality and give normative & evaluative impetus to our political responses, for better or for worse. If misconceived as a personal reality only, it leads to narcissism. Even if properly considered as also social but still too narrowly conceived, it leads to institutionalism, nationalism, jingoism and all manner of insidious -isms (and war).
    Authentic emergence thus properly conceives these realities and engages these realities in a radically inclusive way that transcends all exclusivistic ecclesiocentrisms. We need not bracket our Christocentric stance but we should be willing to translate it, in interreligious dialogue, into a more broadly conceived pneumatocentric vision, which affirms the efficacies of the Spirit wherever and in whomever they are realized.

  • Steve Hayes says:

    Ah yes, I still have Ernie Southcott’s book, and was inspired by it to try to promote house churches in the 1970s. And also inspired by someone from his parish in Leeds, John Davies, to introduce soemthing even more important and complementary to the house church — the parish meeting.

  • Ted Seeber says:

    I’d add to this Vatican II itself. If that wasn’t emergent, I don’t know what was- the end of the counter reformation.

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