We have often been asked what the Emerging Church movement or the emergent conversation is all about. We usually hesitate in our response since we are still grappling with what it means, even as efforts are underway to unpack and articulate this recent phenomenon. You may have come across buzz words such as “missional”, “postmodern”, “postcolonial”, “contextual”, “friendship”, “local”, “justice”, “safe place”, “culture” and “story” that are often used in the context of discussions about the Emerging Church movement. In this article, we have put together excerpts and references that explore the subject in an exercise likened to ‘eavesdropping’ on the conversation. We will also share some developments that have been taking place here in Malaysia.
A common misconception of Emerging Churches is it follows a specific church growth model and that they are “high-profile, youth-oriented congregations that have gained attention on account of their rapid numerical growth, their ability to attract (or retain) the twenty-somethings, and their contemporary worship that draws upon popular music styles with the accompanying pyrotechnics, and that promotes itself to the Christian sub-culture through its websites and by word of mouth.
After 5 years of research and interviewing over fifty reflective practitioners in the USA and UK, Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger of Fuller Seminary in their book Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures suggest that Emerging Churches come in different styles, shapes and sizes but all with the following ethos—“[they are] missional communities arising from within postmodern culture, consisting of followers of Jesus seeking to be faithful in their place and time.” Gibbs and Bolger further identifies nine patterns they observed as missiologically significant. Obviously, the list below is aspired by all churches seeking to be faithful to the Gospel, perhaps these younger churches in the midst of seeking relevance to their context paradoxically are drawn back to essential theological emphasis in reaction to easy sounding formulas for church growth:
- Identifying with Jesus: Re-centering the gospel on Christ and the kingdom of God.
- Transforming secular space: Engaging culture without a sacred-secular dualism.
- Living as Community: Doing life together in 24/7 community.
- Welcoming the Stranger: Listening with openness, including the outsider.
- Serving with Generosity: Serving those in need without ulterior motive.
- Participating as Producers: Involving participants in worship.
- Creating as Created Beings: Valuing creativity in the image of the Creator.
- Leading as a Body: Leading through networks, not hierarchies.
- Merging Ancient and Contemporary Spiritualities: Integrating ancient and avant-garde in spiritual formation.
Prof. Scot McKnight refers to the movement as an “Emerging movement” in which “conversation” takes place. He places the phenomenon within the context of the traditional evangelical movement. His description is useful:
It is a conversation about the future direction of the evangelical church in a postmodern world; it’s a reaction and a protest against traditional evangelical churches; and it’s a conversation focussed less on theological niceties and more on ‘performing’ the gospel in a local setting.
Emerging movement is an umbrella term that refers to a group of churches, pastors, writers, and bloggers who are exploring the missional significance of culture, philosophy, and theology in a postmodern context.
The Emerging movement (following McKnight) is far from homogenous. However, it is worth noting that the leading voice within the movement is a group known as the Emergent Village. Members of the group describe their relationship with each other as “a growing, generative friendship among missional Christians seeking to love our world in the Spirit of Jesus Christ.” Key figures within the Emergent Village include authors such as Tony Jones (its current National Coordinator), Doug Pagitt and Brian McLaren. These leaders, along with others associated with the Emerging movement, have been criticised as revisionists who “question and revise not just the church, but what most evangelicals would understand the gospel to mean” (Ed Stetzer). Justin Taylor in An Emerging Church Primer categorised criticisms levelled at the Emergent Village in terms of how they view (1) the authority of God’s Word (e.g. debate on inerrancy); (2) the cross of Christ (e.g. “penal-substitutionary” view of atonement); (3) concepts of truth and knowledge (e.g. philosophical discussion on “absolute truth”); and (4) sexual ethics (e.g. issue of homosexuality).
In the face of such criticisms, Brian McLaren cautions against judging those engaged in the emergent conversation prematurely. He outlines seven layers of the emergent conversation saying, “We all enter at a different layer, but everyone should be welcomed into the conversation no matter where they may be.” The layers are areas of interest where one directs one’s attention when participating in the conversation:
- Layer 1: Style (e.g. how can we reach the 18 to 36 year olds?)
- Layer 2: Evangelism (e.g. how can we communicate the gospel in a language that young people understand?)
- Layer 3: Culture (e.g. what modern presuppositions are our churches built on?)
- Layer 4: Mission (e.g. why are our mission strategies not effective?)
- Layer 5: Church (e.g. what kind of communities and forms of churches are needed?)
- Layer 6: Gospel (e.g. how is the gospel more than what we have imagined it to be?)
- Layer 7: World (e.g. how can the church engage the larger world to reveal the fact that the kingdom of God has drawn near?)
In response to criticisms on their writings, members of the Emergent Village issued a joint statement saying, “To clarify our position and suggest ways for the conversation to continue constructively for participants and critics alike … it is our hope and prayer that even our disagreements can bring us together in respectful dialogue as Christians, resulting in growth for all concerned.” As a further example of the sort of tone and approach preferred in emergent conversations, McLaren, in his posting Emergent Reflections: Spring 2006 writes:
I hope that we can avoid polarisation on this line and instead move to a higher level of discourse. Each group, I think, should be glad for the other, just as scouts, pioneers, and settlers in the past learned, through many conflicts, to appreciate one another. The scouting and pioneering work of theological rethinking is, without question, risky business. The only thing more risky would be to see one group of settlers as perfect, beyond need of reform, and so to refuse ever to rethink anything theologically. As in the other areas we’ve considered, there are two dangers, not one: excessive theological innovation, and insufficient theological imagination.
It is important to note that a number of other groups have already been engaging in the wider Emerging Church conversations e.g. networks such as Resonate in Canada, discussion groups focussed on theological exploration such as Open Source Theology in the UK, websites that provide a platform for sharing such as EmergingChurch.Info, and organisations that provide resources and training such as Allelon (USA) and Forge (Australia). Aside from these, there are also efforts amongst the mainline churches such as the initiative and collaboration of the Methodist and Anglicans in the UK called Fresh Expressions, which is focused on church planting. There is even an aggregator that tries to keep track of the global conversations on the Emerging Church. The Internet has truly enabled this global conversation to be dynamic and fluid.
For our brothers and sisters in the West, much of the discussion and debate surrounding the Emerging movement is centred on how the church engages with the culture that is increasingly postmodern and post-Christian, and a world that is more globalised and unsettled. The initial motivation was missional—many engaged in the conversation initially were pastors and youth workers looking for new ways to connect with a new generation. In the early stages, this led to new approaches in church methodology (how to ‘do’ church) but they soon realised that there was a need for renewed theological and philosophical discussions as many aspects of our theology and philosophy are in need of fresh articulation.
For the rest of us in Asia, and indeed in our country, the sorts of questions and concerns raised by those in the Emerging movement are not entirely new to us. For example, we are constantly wrestling with issues concerning how we are to live and think as Christians in a pluralistic country where we are a minority. How can we be faithful in living and sharing the gospel, in word and in deed, in the here and now, when faced with the realities that confront us daily? In fact, questions of contextual theology and missiological possibilities have been explored in seminary classrooms in Malaysia for many years. In the year 2003, the Asian Missiology Conference on the Theology and Practice of Holistic Mission (with the theme “Mission as Transformation in 21st century ASIA”) provided a platform for ‘engaged’ scholars and ‘reflective’ practitioners to interact and deliberate on such matters. Efforts in missiological and theological conversations also take place through networks such as the International Fellowship of Evangelical Mission Theologians (INFEMIT) albeit at a more academic level.
Increasingly, these discussions are taking place at the grassroots level among regular church folk. They usually involve those who are disillusioned with the status quo, although it also includes those who desire for the church to have a bigger impact on the wider Malaysian community. The questions asked are wide ranging and often touch on fundamental issues of faith. Not surprisingly, such questions often make others uncomfortable. Realistically, the scope for exploring and discussing such issues within the local church context may be limited. Consequently, many sought out conversation partners elsewhere, which was how some of us got involved with the global emergent conversation. The emergent conversations began locally but it was the global connection that provided us with the resources and a common language to continue with our exploration.
In 2004, rather than continue with our ad-hoc discussions, a few of us decided to organise ourselves as an informal network called “Emergent Malaysia” as a means of inviting more people into the conversation locally, and to continue our engagement with and contribution to the wider global conversations. We used the name “emergent” because we identified with the thrust of the conversation and we felt it described our journey as well. We are neither a franchise nor a sister organisation to Emergent Village USA although we are on friendly terms with them, and we respect and learn a lot from them.
Many who have entered this conversation were delightfully surprised to find a safe place to share about life, theological musings and ministry experiences. Most of our exchanges take place over an email discussion group and face-to-face ‘open’ meetings. To give you a taste of our discussions, here are some themes we explored previously in our ‘open’ meetings:
- What does it mean for us to be and do church in the Malaysian context?
- Second-generation Christians
- Modern and postmodern investigations
- Catholic, Evangelical and Charismatic perspectives of Jesus
- Post-colonial orthodoxy
- Dialogue on Eastern orthodoxy with an Eastern Orthodox priest
Some recurring themes on our online as well as offline conversations include worship and justice, gospel and culture, orthodoxy and orthopraxis, holistic spirituality, community life, church models, politics and religion, essentials and non-essentials, and how to engage with people of other beliefs. Evidently, our discussion is very eclectic at this stage.
For many of us, the space provided by Emergent Malaysia has been helpful in numerous ways. Those who were disillusioned found hope and moved towards a more constructive approach towards faith and the church. A sister shared that the ‘safe space’—relationally, spiritually and theologically—has served as an encouragement for her to still remain a Christian. For others, it is a laboratory (or an art studio depending on the metaphor you prefer) to try out new ideas without being dismissed immediately as a heretic. Those involved in pastoral ministry have gained new tools and insights to serve God’s people better. Still for others, our interaction with each other has fuelled our ‘hunger’ for deeper theological reflection.
The journey we have begun is both liberating and humbling, and points to the reality which the Apostle Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 13:9-13 (NIV):
For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Sivin Kit is pastor of Bangsar Lutheran Church. He wrote this article with help from Yoon Yew Khuen and Alwyn Lau, and contributions from about 10 others who have been engaged in this conversation.
- Anderson, Ray S., An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006)
- Carson, D.A., Becoming Conversant with Emergent: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005)
- Frost, Michael & Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2003)
- Gibbs, Eddie & Ryan Bolger, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005)
- Kimball, Dan, The Emerging Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003)
- McLaren, Brian D., The Church on the Other Side: Doing Church in a Postmodern Matrix (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000)
- Sweet, Leonard (ed.), The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003)
- Taylor, Steve, The Out of Bounds Church: Learning to create a Community of Faith in a Culture of Change (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003)
Blogs & Links
- Scot McKnight’s Reflections on the “Emerging Movement”
- Aggregating global conversations on the emerging church
(This article was originally published in Kairos Malaysia Monograph; October 2006 – Emerging Church Issues.)