The Emerging Church: Movement or Conversation?

It’s great to see so much conversation on the emerging church. Roger Olsen is pumping out some provocative content. His post yesterday is on the topic of emerging church as a movement [or not].

It’s a movement, dammit!

6 years ago, I was helping 2 other guys to write the Wikipedia stub on “emerging church” – which now reads quite differently but not necessarily more accurately. This question came up, of course. Is the emerging church a movement or just a “conversation”. I asked Dr Paul Pierson, through Ryan Bolger, since Dr Pierson was my teacher on the subject at Fuller SWM. He sent a list of factors observed in revival and renewal movements that you can read on my old post called “Are We are Movement?”

I decided yes. Looking at the global spread and impact of the emerging church, we are indeed a movement.

Want more proof?

Tony Jones has a new book called The Church Is Flat: The Relational Ecclesiology of the Emerging Church Movement. Although his scope is limited to one type of emerging church and one country, Tony outlines the qualifications for a New Social Movement and shows that the emerging church movement qualifies as a NSM in multiple ways. This book is Tony’s doctoral dissertation and is actually good reading.

When did the Emerging Church Movement start?

Hard to say. The first models were isolated experiments that launched in the mid to late 80’s like Matthews Party (1986, Los Angeles) and New Song, NOS and Late Late Service (UK) Parallel Universe (1989, NZ), and various new monastic groups in Australia. By the mid to late 90’s, other countries had their movements (Germany, Brazil, Chile, Japan, etc) and the scene was gaining traction and attention from traditional church as well as achieving competence in ministry.

BTW “movimento’ is the name used by the South Americans who describe themselves as a “movement aimed at stimulating the implementation of new churches focused on the emergent generation known as the urban tribes.” Check out this video on the how emerging church movimento has developed in the past 10 years from a South American perspective, even if you don’t speak Portuguese. And watch for my handsome face.

2001 was a watershed year in the movement with large gatherings of networks and ministries (Emerge in Frankfurt, Epicenter in Texas, Emergent Village, etc) and for the next 6 years the movement was at full speed, building self-recognition and identification, disseminating practices and discoveries, publishing, dealing with criticism.

After 2007, there appeared to be a rift. It was harder to speak with one voice because the networks were so different from each other. In fact, there appeared to be two different emerging church movements – one that belonged in the world of academia and book publishing and led by older people with degrees and money and another, much larger emerging church movement on the streets and in the global cities where young people without many resources were starting simple forms of church and ministry that were very different from their parents church but not too different from what we read in the New Testament. The first group did not always represent the second group accurately so they shifted from under that umbrella.

So what happened?

As a response, some networks dropped the name ’emerging church’ which was increasingly identified as being “American” or confused with being part of Emergent Village which was becoming somewhat colonial, myopic and ‘narcissistic‘, some were renamed [Fresh Expressions in UK], there was decreasing blog discussion, some groups found themselves at odds withEV [Acts 29, Forge] many EC leaders were sought out and brought [bought??  . . . opps] over to traditional and mainline denominations, some networks stopped or downgraded because they had fulfilled their ministry [Forge in Australia, Sanctuary network in USA] and some were just not considered offensive or controversial anymore but were accepted into and supported by the mainstream [Emerging Church NetworkTexas, Tribal Generation Brazil, Emerging Church in the Church of Scotland].

In fact, our own ministry, The Boaz Project, ceased using emerging church terminology to describe the ministries we were helping to launch. Although I still teach on emerging church and keep up on the subject, I find some countries are confused by the label and other terms prove more helpful when it comes to networking and partnering.

My infamous post regarding the maturation of the movement in 2009 [some people said “death” which was a hasty overreaction] was poorly written and I wish I could have communicated better than I did [sorry everyone]. Some people still will not talk to me. I followed it up with a post on the ten streams of emerging church that I observed, after looking at 50 networks and ministries, had matured and were no longer offensive [10 Types of Emerging Church that will no longer upset your Grandfather] but that did not mean they were no longer functioning.

Are we also a conversation?

Yes, the emerging church is also a conversation. In the USA, this is mainly about ecclesiology, eschatology and ethics (including gender equality) in a postmodern world. In other countries different topics [like economics] are handled. The conversation will outlive the movement. In fact this is already true.

Are we too small to be a movement?

This depends on where you draw the line. In Roger Olsen’s post, as well as Tony Jones’ book, I see a tiny minority of the emerging church represented – maybe a dozen churches in the USA – and most of them all one kind. I would put these churches under one of my ten categories of emerging church. You could probably argue that such a small sampling would not qualify for a movement and you might be right. But looking at the global scene, which far outnumbers USA, the fresh expressions of church in the UK alone number 3000 [according to Bishop Graham Cray], I would say it is a movement for sure. And a conversation.

More important than asking whether the emerging church is a movement is asking at what stage this movement, in its respective countries, currently stands.

Related: When we stop emerging (2004), Fringe Expressions in Global Cities, My History of the Emerging Church, Part One.

Also, if you are a leader of an emerging church network, or just want to see the movement for yourself,  then please consider attending the next global roundtable which will be in Brazil, June 6-9. They had 4500 people at their event last year but the global invitation will make the 2012 En Contro/Tribal Generation a much larger event. Portuguese speakers may be interested in the Africa meeting later this month.


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.


  • Adam Walker says:

    Thanks Andrew, I always appreciate your perspective on these things because you take into account a whole world view and are not limited to the US. I am very encouraged by what you see in the worldwide church and thankful that you are a watchman for so many of us with limited perspective.

  • jbeau says:

    This post was like reading a foreign language. If I were a pagan I’m not sure I’d even recognize the Christianity in it.

  • brad/futuristguy says:

    It’s been said that there’s a difference between experts and authorities. Experts read and review all the literature on a topic and present their academic perspective. Authorities are immersed in the very issues that many experts just ruminate about. Authorities also embody their solutions and role-model sharing their life and living their faith.
    Sometimes someone is both an authority and an expert, and Andrew, you’ve been one of the leading *authorities* on “emerging” for far longer than most experts have been experts. Your lifestyle validates your reports from the front, and give great weight to your expert reviews of relevant media and reflections on the global picture. Thanks for your service and sacrifice through the years in detailing and synthesizing these movements for the rest of us!
    You rock, doc …

  • i agree with Brad! amen

  • Andrew says:

    jbeau, this post did not deal with Christianity or even spirituality but rather with sociology and social movements. Sorry you did not understand it.
    But if you were a pagan, then perhaps you would like my post called “Sometimes I dress like a pagan”

  • Eric says:

    Thanks for the info on this TSK,your perspective as a global traveler helps gives us Yanks with a much broader view then what is just happening in our cities. In general, there seems to be a distinct difference between the US and global EC that I have noticed and please correct me if I’m wrong. In the rest of the world the EC is focused on the Great commission and building the kingdom of God and are willing to partner with unconventional denominations like pentecostals, vineyard or Calvary chapel. In the US, EC is focused on building Christian communities that appear like the ones in the Pauline letters and are made up of evangelicals who do not want to be associated with other evangelical denominations.

  • Amy says:

    I love the way you synthesize information, and bring even history down to understandable bites that encourages us go and find out more on our own, too. Such a good teacher! (And cool new logo, btw 🙂

  • Andrew says:

    Eric its a very broad scene in both the US and beyond. YOu will also find in the USA a strong connection with evangelical denominations who want to be involved and, like the Southern Baptists, were sponsoring many of the new churches since the 90’s. Although Calvary Chapel does appear to be one group that has not appreciated the EC’s non-premillenial eschatology and worship styles. Vineyard has some fine examples of emerging church in the USA – look at what Central Vineyard are doing in Ohio.

  • Fantastic post…could you point out some equivalent churches in NZ that are still around?

  • Andrew says:

    sure. there are plenty in NZ and i was there earlier this year after 16 years away from my home country
    we were very impressed with Urban Vision in the Wellington area with about 8 intentional communities/houses in the inner cities and a contemporary monastery an hour away.
    worth a visit

  • Ron Henzel says:

    My question would be: “Is the emerging church too fragmented to be a movement?” If not, what’s holding it all together?

  • Andrew says:

    Ron, it might be.
    And some countries are more fragmented than others.
    But other countries are quite intact and integrated – like the Fresh Expressions in UK which number in the thousands. And if the UK “house church movement” of the 1970’s could be called a “movement” with only hundreds of churches, i cant see why the ec movement in UK, now called FE, should not also be called a movement since it is much larger.

  • DanKimball says:

    Hi Andrew! —
    Great post!
    Two follow up questions:
    1) How would you describe the USA specifically in terms of things being a movement or not? I understand globally it is different and all you are reporting on, but what would you specifically observe about the USA context of it all?
    2) With all the global activity you are reporting on (not the USA), theologically where would you put these churches? Despite their sizes or forms, what is the majority of them theologically from your best observations? Progressive, liberal, conservative, evangelical?
    Thanks Andrew!

  • Andrew says:

    Hi Dan.
    1. The USA emerging church scene has been described as a “constellation” of networks and movements and I concur with that, pointing out that the wider movement in USA includes new monasticism, house church, organic church, fresh expressions, cyberchurch, postmodern/emergent church, alt. culture churches incl. skater/surf/metal churches as well as genX type churches inside churches.
    But I would add that there is a new breed of spiritual communities, many connected with the missional social enterprise movement, that start from a different place and do not like being described as “emerging church”. Many of the leaders we were encouraging and mentoring ten years ago have shifted over and do not use the EC label anymore.
    2. It has been said that the liberal vs. conservative {fundamental} distinction that emerged in the 1920’s social gospel era is not sufficient to understand or define this movement. Fair enough.
    But I have observed that, from a global perspective, EC springs out of the previous movements and many of those are charismatic and Pentecostal. The USA scene is generally not charismatic or even post-charismatic [there are examples to the contrary of course – ask Earl Creps] which makes them unusual.
    For example, one emerging church conference I attended outside the USA asked me to speak on how to cast out demons, which I did, from my Baptist background.
    And the global EC scene is generally more conservative theologically than USA while at the same time being more open to experimentation practically in the forms of church, ministry training, forms of missions, etc.
    Nutshell – the USA EC scene is generally older in age of participants, wealthier, less charismatic, more traditional in both form of church and training path (Seminaries, bible colleges), less concerned with economic sustainability and business models, more concerned with identity apart from traditional church.
    The “Progressive, liberal, conservative, evangelical” conversation is very rarely talked about – at least i cant remember talking about it except in USA.

  • Dan says:

    Thanks Andrew! That is very helpful to know and shows the pretty dramatic difference of global vs USA when it comes to emerging/emergent churches and discussion. Wish we could see you more! People in our church still mention your visit earlier this year to our church and loved your heart and mission.

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