Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches: Five Perspectives is an attempt to systematize what is emerging. Under the leadership of Robert Webber who serves as general editor of the project, five “emerging” church leaders/pastors were invited to write an essay. Following each essay, the four other writers are invited to respond. The impressive list of contributors includes: John Burke, pastor of Gateway Community Church in Austin, TX, a church that worships 2,000 people on a weekend, 75% of which’s membership is under the age of 40; Mark Driscoll, president of the Acts 29 Church Planting Network and founder of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, worshipping 5,000 and listed as one of America’s 60 fastest growing churches; Dan Kimball, founding pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, CA, and author of The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations; Doug Pagitt, founding pastor of Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis and a founding organizer of www.Emergent Village.com; and Karen Ward, founding pastor and “abbess” of Church of the Apostles in Seattle, an “emerging, monastic, incarnational Christian community of the Episcopal Church USA and the ELCA.”
I thought that the book would tell me that emerging churches are not necessarily focused on systematic theology. And certainly, all five contributors emphasize that the emerging church emphasizes relationships and practical theology that reacts to the prevailing culture. In light of that, a couple of the authors suggest that theology is a highly local thing responding to local issues and concerns. However, upon reading the chapters, you quickly discover that the authors do subscribe to “real theologies.” They are all committed Christians but they also reflect their seminary training. For being independent congregations, in the words of Robert Webber, “they all have in common a modern curriculum emphasizing a critical study of the Bible in the original languages of Greek and Hebrew; a study of systematics with an emphasis on a particular systems (Lutheran, Calvinism, Wesleyanism, dispensationalism); and an overview of church history that neglected the ancient and medieval period but emphasized the Reformation and modern movements such as Pietism, the evangelical awakenings and the missionary movement.” I thought of Ecclesiates 1:9, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
The writers all seem to have a profound respect for God’s Word. Yet some are reluctant to set it as God’s standard against which all should be judged. Karen Ward, for example, quotes the United Church of Christ “tag line,” “God is still speaking,” suggesting that the canon is not closed. (Karen, by the way, grew up in The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and speaks fondly of church pot-lucks as a model for the emerging church theology). I was taken with Dan Kimball’s essay which speaks earnestly to maintaining certain theological statements as standards and in particular his focus in the Nicene Creed.
These writers are obviously sincere. They are doing theology with emphasis on “doing.” Their ministry is about practical theology and how faith impacts the cultural context in which a local congregation of people resides. They all strongly emphasize relationships. They are also extremely civilized in their theological disagreements. Their relational mindset informs how they remain considerate of each other even when they have a serious disagreement. They would never approach each other in a demeaning or condescending manner.
So, what did I learn about the Emerging Church? First, it is a work in progress. This isn’t something that got started and somebody officially named ” Emerging Church.” There isn’t one theological bias or system. There isn’t one official interpretation of what it means. But there are a group of non-traditional churches doing some interesting ministry that is particularly attractive to young adults.
The assumptions or conclusions that I have arrived at (but even these are a work in progress) include:
The emerging church is about passion. It’s about commitment to God first and to people second. These emerging church leaders absolutely love God and they love people, believers and non-believers. They love each other and respect each other even if they have differences.
I believe the emerging church has an intrinsic sense of humor. While the five authors have a system to which they adhere, they are not so arrogant as to say, at this point, that their system is the last word. In some of the writing there is a healthy cynicism, a mark of many young adults.
Creativity appears to be a watchword. Karen Ward’s essay especially evokes references to creative expression. Dan Kimball’s book, The Emerging Church, references very creative worship. There are references in these writings to very traditional worship elements; candles, incense, darkness, art work, varieties of music and icons. A sterile environment does not appear to be a hallmark of the emerging church.
Relationships are key, first between God and man and then between persons, believers and unbelievers. These leaders would rather people come into their churches with all their doubts and unbelief, seeking answers to their questions than to wait for these same people to go through a church confirmation/assimilation class and risk never seeing them again.
Theology is important. It’s not expendable. Christian theology is not something they are willing to compromise in a generically “spiritual” world.
Leadership is another hallmark. I believe what makes these churches and pastors “successful” (and I use the term advisedly) is that these five people really are leaders with core convictions, commitments, passion, and energy. People are attracted to this kind of leadership because it stands for something, it’s bold and it inspires response.
It is these kinds of qualities that attract the young adult audience. They are tired of a pantywaist church that seems to be more interested in its own survival than in making a bold witness to the love of Christ. They like a church that moves, that has energy, that serves, that builds community and loves and supports people. They love Christ and they understand that Jesus is their salvation. They want to respond and in these churches they are empowered to respond; be it in worship, study, service or fellowship.
This isn’t the last word on the emerging church. It’s really only the beginning. There will be struggles, arguments, refinements, changes, disagreements, agreements, discussion, study, prayers and prayers and more prayers as this movement emerges into the post modern age. It’s exciting. Now the question is, how do we engage with it?
To paraphrase Paul Harvey, I cant wait for “the rest of the story.”