Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Should the Emerging Church Settle?
A few months ago on the Submergent blog, someone highlighted a suggestion by Dr. Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York that all us emergent folks ought to just pick one denomination and settle down, rather than simply becoming another "non-denominational" splinter group. He suggested the Anabaptist tradition. Here was his comment:
“If the emerging church tries to ‘take the best of all traditions’ I’m afraid it will end up like the modern, traditionless cut-off-from-the past mega-church evangelicalism it doesn’t like. It is an enormous undertaking to forge a new Christian tradition. (It took the Pentacostals 100 years and 2-400 million people.) I think it would be best if the emerging church settled happily into one tradition but with appreciation for others. I think it is indeed an Anabaptist approach. Its approach to community and witness, its relationship to culture, its view of the atonement, salvation, and revelation–all of these are far more like the Anabaptist tradition than any other.”
– From the comments on a post on TallSkinnyKiwi

However, rather than simply settling on one tradition (as Keller suggests), or becoming another non-denominational splinter group (as Keller fears), I want to suggest a third possibility - one that has yet to actually be tried in the church, as far as I know. What if instead of looking at the emerging church as simply one more slice of the Christian pie - one more sub-group, denomination, affiliation, or whatever (even if attached to a previously existing denomination) - we instead looked at it as a movement of the Holy Spirit throughout the whole body of Christ, across many denominations? Rather than becoming yet another division, what if a better strategy this time around is to start acting as a sort of glue that will begin to bind all the broken pieces back together again? What if you have emergents among the Anglicans, and the Presbyterians, and the Baptists, and the Pentecostals, and the Methodists, and the Catholics, and the non-denoms, and yes, among the Anabaptists too? And what if together we can start to find a new center, points of commonality across the board, while also retaining our distinctives and learning from each other? What if, as Brian McLaren says, the "emerging church" is really "the church which is emerging", i.e. what God is doing out on the forward edges of the Church as a whole, in all its different incarnations? And paradoxically, what if, as Phyllis Tickle says, the "emerging church is also the "converging church", i.e. what God is doing to draw all the different traditions back to a new center? If that is the case, then I think settling on just one tradition would be the worst thing we can do. Yes, absolutely, let's embrace the good that we find among the Anabaptists, and if some Anabaptists are also "emerging", that's great too; but let's not limit ourselves only to that tradition. I think God has so much more to do throughout the whole body of Christ.


posted by Mike Clawson at 4:48 PM | Permalink |


At 1/15/2008 05:41:00 PM, Blogger Lydia

What if you have emergents among the Anglicans, and the Presbyterians, and the Baptists, and the Pentecostals, and the Methodists, and the Catholics, and the non-denoms, and yes, among the Anabaptists too?

One of the reasons I don't label myself as an "emergent" is that I'm really not interested in joining any sort of denomination (which is where I can see things heading with some people who call themselves emergent or emerging.)

But I could do this.


At 1/15/2008 06:14:00 PM, Anonymous Mark Van Steenwyk

For the record, I didn't highlight that quote...I'm not sure who did (since it doesn't list the person who posted that. Not that it is a big deal.

Anyways, I'm sympathetic to the idea of submitting to a tradition...but can really take or leave the idea of having to be saddled to a denomination. Often, those two things can be the same thing, but they don't have to be.

So, I think you're right on. This idea is similar to the charismatic renewal of the 60s and following. Very few denominations sprouted up, but MANY churches either embraced the charismatic movement or were at least influenced by it. And so we had renewals within denominations, a rise of non-denominational churches, and the emergence of a few charismatic denominations (like the Vineyard). I suspect similar forces will be at play here...but with one interesting and potentially important distinction:

the charismatic-movement was almost anti-traditional but the emerging church calls for an embracing of the Great Tradition.

What does this mean? I think it presents two very exciting opportunities:

1) It allows traditional groups to be renewed without threatening their traditions (depending upon how dogmatic those traditions are, I suppose).

2) At the same time, it allows groups to rethink existing ways of organizing and discover new ways of clustering as believers.

Both of these threaten the status-quo. And the extent to which one embraces the status-quo is the extent to which they find the emerging church a threat, I suppose.


At 1/15/2008 06:49:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

A good idea, but I wouldn't say it hasn't been done before. Marsden and others talked about the 'Evangelical Denomination' that cut across all the traditions in the mid 20th century. When I was a young minister, as an evangelical Presbyterian in town, I had more in common with the other evangelicals in the other denominations (Methodist, Episcopal, Baptist) than I did with the non-evangelicals in my own Presbyterian tradition. We were all united by Billy Graham, John Stott, etc

Tim Keller


At 1/15/2008 09:31:00 PM, Blogger Mike Croghan

Hey Mike,

Amen, brother, and again I say amen! I think this is exactly what is going on the the "church that is emerging". The idea of "converging church" captures it pretty well, but to me that too connotes sameness. To me, a big part of what the emerging church is about is developing strong ties of friendship across diverse parts of the Body, not through a "melting pot" that erases our differences, and not despite our differences, but *celebrating* our differences. The emerging church, among other things, is saying that it's not just OK that we worship, theologize, organize, etc. differently - it's wonderful! And it doesn't stop us from forming strong friendships in which we learn from each other, support each other, and hold each other accountable to the Gospel. Amen!


At 1/15/2008 10:49:00 PM, Anonymous Mak

this is how I have always viewed emerging - let it be so!


At 1/16/2008 09:06:00 AM, Anonymous Karl

My thoughts upon reading this post were similar to those of Mark V-S. The charismatic renewal/revival of the 60's and 70's jumped immediately to mind as soon as I saw where Mike C was headed. That movement cut across not only denominational barriers within protestant circles, but heavily influenced many Catholic churches and individuals as well. The ripples are still being felt throughout Christendom.

I could see that happening with the emergent movement and would welcome it, or at least much of it. But what that required was that most of those people did stay in, and submit to, particular traditions even while influencing them for the better. I see this happening among some emergents - maybe even the majority. But I see others wanting to set up their own thing. Some in the charismatic movement did that as well, but their influence was much more limited and less long-lasting than those who stayed within their own Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, etc. tradition to challenge and enrich it.

I think Tim Keller makes a good point in his post as well, regarding the parallels between the current emergent movement and the movement of evangelicalism across denominational boundaries. As one who grew up Presbyterian also, I felt similarly. In many ways more in common with evangelical methodists, baptists, anabaptists, pentecostals or even (gasp!) devout Catholics, than with many non-evangelical moderns in the Presbyterian church.


At 1/16/2008 09:19:00 AM, Blogger Mike Croghan

Karl, you make an excellent point, but it begs the question: what are we in the emerging conversation aiming for? Is it to have a "lasting influence", or to save and make flourish our own faith and the faith of others who are like us in the here and now?


At 1/16/2008 09:40:00 AM, Anonymous Karl

Mike Croghan, that is a good question. I guess I'd say that those two things shouldn't be mutually exclusive. Maybe even more than that. Perhaps they need to be tied together - a lasting influence will result from those who most effectively save and help flourish their own faith and that of others in the here and now. And in hindsight it seems like with those other movements, not only the lasting influence but the most vibrant and dynamic examples of flourishing personal faith, took place among those who were rooted in and accountable to existing communities (while networking with like-minded folks in their own and other communities), rather than among those who picked up stakes and set up their own alternative sub-group just with people who agreed with them. Those latter seem in hindsight more like the seed that fell on shallow soil, sprang up for a while but didn't last. Exceptions exist, I am sure. But those are my impressions.


At 1/16/2008 09:58:00 AM, Blogger Mike Croghan

Karl, again you make a good point. But perhaps the critical issue is not whether the community is formally affiliated with an existing tradition, but whether it's forming strong networks of accountability and support with other like-minded communities, whether formally inside established traditions, or not? Perhaps what "killed" many of those "go-it-alone" communities is that they were truly going their own way, not part of strong peer networks *or* strong hierarchical/institutional affiliations. I'm just speculating too, but I wonder if the strong peer network can be as effective in supporting flourishing faith and accountability as formal affiliation with an established tradition can be.


At 1/16/2008 12:03:00 PM, Blogger Nicholas Price

Great response. This has been my impression of the emerging church since I first learned about it and it is good to hear you reiterate it.

I do have one question, and I apologize if you have answered this before. How do we determine what is good as we examine different traditions? You've mentioned embracing the good we find not only in the Anabaptist tradition, but also in others as well, so I was wondering if you could clarify this some more.

Also (sorry, I realize this is a second question), how do we approach doctrinal differences even as we celebrate our commonalities? This is a big question in the ministry that I currently work for (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship) and I would love to hear your perspective on it.


Nicholas Price


At 1/16/2008 01:47:00 PM, Anonymous Adam

MVS writes, "Its approach to community and witness, its relationship to culture, its view of the atonement, salvation, and revelation–all of these are far more like the Anabaptist tradition than any other.”

Can we really say that "the emerging church" has one particular view of these issues MVS identifies?


At 1/16/2008 03:02:00 PM, Blogger thechurchgeek

I agree with the anonymous, persumably Tim Keller comment, that what you propose is precisely what happened in the mainline denoms with evangelicalism.

All it's done is render tears within every protestant denomination that evangelicalism has been affiliated with.


At 1/16/2008 06:35:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Mark - sorry about falsely attributing it to you. I guess I shouldn't have assumed. I'll go fix that now.

Tim - thanks for dropping in again on my blog. Excellent point about the similarities with the evangelical movement (and with the charismatic movement as others have pointed out). I think maybe Mark is right on tho' about the essential difference between those movements and the emerging church; i.e. the EC's move to embrace the "Great Tradition" and value the differences, rather than minimize them. I think this kind of "generous orthodoxy" is maybe what distinguishes the EC from those earlier movements.

Karl - There are emergents both within existing structures, and those who are doing their own thing. I think both are necessary and good.

Nicholas - you asked "How do we determine what is good as we examine different traditions?" Excellent question! Obviously individuals will differ on what they thing is "good" or not, but personally my standard is pretty simple. If it contributes to the love of God and others, then it is good and worth keeping.

You also asked "how do we approach doctrinal differences even as we celebrate our commonalities?"

Through open conversation, and a genuine willingness to agree to disagree without excluding or rejecting the other for their disagreement. And by valuing love above all of our opinions. That's how it works in our church anyway. All kinds of doctrinal opinions are expressed in our gatherings, but our love for each other trumps them all.


At 1/17/2008 05:55:00 AM, Blogger Mike L.

Great post Mike! If Emergent ever becomes a denomination, then I'm outta here.

I sometimes wonder if Emergent will be a big enough "tent" to include me. I'm a bit extreme in my beliefs. I hope it doesn't narrow or splinter.


At 1/24/2008 05:49:00 AM, Blogger Nate Custer


Maybe a helpful pause here would be to reconsider Neihbur's concept of the word "Church" being that vanguard part of every body that is moving towards a more responsive position to the deep realities of the world.

Writing in 1946 he puts it this way:

"The Church is that part of the human community which responds first to God-in-Christ and Christ-in-God. It is the sensitive and responsive part in every society and in mankind as a whole. It is the group which hears the Word of God, which sees His judgments, which has a vision of the resurrection. In its relations with God it is the pioneer part of society that responds to God on behalf of the whole society, somewhat we may say, as science is the pioneer in responding to pattern or rationality in experience and as artists are the pioneers in responding to beauty."

When I use this meaning of church, it helps me to see through a discussion on emergent's denominational affiliation. Emerging people are sensitive and responsive to the deep realities. That is what unites and defines them. They unite when they sense similar things happening and/or where their responses are traces of the future for each other.

I think the theological trends that get commonly identified in Emerging circles have two central causes:

1) The shared backgrounds of so many in the conversation make some theological schema easier to work from, and some theological problems more pressing.

2) The deeper, wider trends of reality. If the world is really heading towards a ecological crisis, then it makes sense that most folks responding to their local realities is going to have something to say about being green.

Suggesting that Emergents should settle down in any specific location or camp, I think is to misunderstand the nature of what is going on. It is like someone watching the migration along the Oregon trail and then suggesting that to be a pioneer you should settle in Portland.

Nate C


At 12/14/2009 07:34:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous

I think Tim Keller is right. Theologically speaking, the emergent have quite in common with the anabaptists and BIC denomination.


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