Much of the published literature uses "emerging" and "emergent" interchangeably. Others are definite in declaring a distinction between the terms, but still differ on which is preferable. Although there may have been enough general consensus regarding the term several years ago for one evangelical critic to state that "emerging" is 'the defining adjective for their movement' (Carson 2005:12), an increasing ambivalence can be observed towards the "emerging church" marker, particularly within the blogosphere.
In my thesis, I argue against the tendency to define such a thing as an "emerging church," for several reasons. Firstly, this endeavour is difficult, given the diversity of communities self-identifying as emerging churches. Secondly, it is reductionistic; typologies of emerging churches divide communities based on their primary concerns to the exclusion of other concerns. Thirdly, it is agenda-driven. It is often clear where the affinities of the people doing the classifying lie.
These difficulties and failings can be shown in relation to Ed Stetzer's typology of emerging churches, which has been re-worked by Mark Driscoll and, in my opinion, re-worded by Darrin Patrick.
Stetzer's three-fold typology divides those communities that self-identify as "emerging churches" thus: 1) relevants try to ‘make their worship, music and outreach more contextual to emerging culture.’ 2) reconstructionists hold that ‘the current form of church is frequently irrelevant and the structure is unhelpful,’ and therefore embrace ‘“incarnational” or “house” models’ of church. 3) revisionists recieve the least explanation but the most condemnation and are defined negatively – as differing from Baptist theology on issues concerning ‘the nature of the substitutionary atonement, the reality of hell… [and] the complementarian nature of gender.’
In the Criswell Theological Review and this interview, Driscoll rearticulates Stetzer’s categories, adding a fourth (reformed relevants) in which he places himself. It is clear that Stetzer and Driscoll’s concerns lie with liberal theology and the reinvention rather than innovation of church forms.
Patrick’s recent Francis A. Schaeffer lectures can be read as translating Stetzer’s typology into an alternative language: relevants become ‘attractional,’ seeking ‘methodological revision’; reconstructionists become ‘incarnational,’ seeking ‘structural revision’; and revisionists become ‘conversational,’ seeking ‘theological revision.’
However, participants’ communities often consciously use more than one descriptor to articulate their identity, emphasise holism over compartmentalism, or tacitly exhibit characteristics of multiple categories. In particular, theological revisionism (revisionist/conversational) also manifests itself in alternative liturgies (relevant/attractional) and contextualised ecclesiologies (reconstructionist/incarnational). Likewise, organisational and aesthetic changes employed by many communities in an attempt to be relevant to contemporary culture often result in reconfigurations of ecclesiology and theology. It is therefore neither possible nor desirable to neatly divide communities and to define them according to their primary concerns (revising theology, cultural contextualisation, or structural organization).
In my thesis, as I have blogged before, I am going to follow the approach which Gordon Lynch takes in his 2006 exploration of 'the progressive milieu,' and argue for the usefulnes of the concept of a "milieu" in approaching the emerging church and its spiritualities. The decision to describe the emerging church as a milieu allows me to avoid implying through a definition of an "emerging church" that one type of community is either prevalent within the conversation or preferable in my opinion.
In his video blog, Pagitt says,
"...emerging church is the implication, the playout, the ramifications, of emergence happening inside the church... emergence is the larger category of what’s going on... Emergent Village is the network inside of that larger movement, and the emerging church is one of the enterprises that some of the people inside that network have been a part of."
In contrast to this position, however, I would argue that the emerging church milieu is the larger entitiy, a milieu (which has overlap with several other milieux within, on the fringes of, and outside the Christian religion) of which Emergent is but a part. To elevate the developments occuring within and through the organization and network Emergent Village above those occuring within and through the other individuals and communities within the emerging church milieu doesn't seem quite right to me. It's prescribing what emerges rather than allowing emergence to happen as an event with the ability to surprise us with its shape.
And I have misgivings about Pagitt's insistence on emergence as a 'larger category of what's going on.' While Phyllis Tickle's characterization of our current era as that of 'the great emergence' is an interesting way of framing the simultaneous emergence of new forms of Christianity as reactions to the dominant forms and the reconstitution of dominant forms of Christianity as a response, I think Pagitt places too much emphasis here on it as more than just a theory about what is occurring in today's religious landscape. For Pagitt, it is as if Tickle's articulation of this current era in the language of emergence (and she could have appropriated any number of different terms to describe it) represents an affirmation of both Emergent and emerging churches (but, apparently, of Emergent over emerging churches). It seems rather circular that Tickle's decision to refer to this era as 'the great emergence,' which was not made independently of there already being a milieu within contemporary Christianity that uses this language to describe itself, is now being used as a legitimation of that diverse collective's existence.
I will be interested to hear more reactions to Tickle's work when it is published.