Sunday, September 21, 2008

Emergence, Emerging, and Emergent

In response to the imminent publication of Phyllis Tickle's The Great Emergence which I blogged about here after I read the corrected galleys, to recent reflections in the blogosphere about the value of the term "emerging church," to tallskinnykiwi's poll on whether to dump it, and to Doug Pagitt's video post on the distinction between Emergent and emerging church, I've decided to write a bit more about my decision to characterise the subject of my PhD research as "the emerging church milieu." (I've blogged about the term "milieu" before, here).

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.


Anonymous said...

'R.I.P. Emerging Church
An overused and corrupted term now sleeps with the fishes.'

hello Katherine - this is a headline from the Land of Ur blog which highlights an increasing consensus that the term emerging church is past its sell by date. Your post shows how problematic the use of this term now is.

I have often wondered if the EC particularly in the states is a bunch of ex-evangelicals gradually rediscovering classic liberal/progressive theology from mainline denominational christianity (I am thinking for example of Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossan as the popular writers of to-day. Maybe there nothing particularily radical about the EC at all.

In your efforts to move foward from the difficuties of using the 'emerging church' definition I wonder if your use of the word 'church' in ECM is not confusing as it primarily refers to a gathering/assembly/community of Christians yet some groups within the milieu would increasingly wish to identify themselves as outside of the Christian tradition.

The common use of the word 'emerging' in your ECM definition and that of the emerging church also suggests a very close link between the 2 and therefore your revised definition might suffer from too close an association.

I am playing devils advocate ...

(I wish a wider group of people would interact with your ideas so to bring you fesh insight)

all the best


Katharine Moody said...

Hi Rodney, I'll head over to Land of Ur and see what they have to say on the subject. Thanks.

I'm fine having a close association between what I'm characterizing as an emerging church milieu and all of the discussions about emerging/emergent/Emergent/emergence, as these are the types of conversations I am trying to signal without suggesting that all those engaged in the conversation (or lurking around it!) are doing the same things(s).

Equally, in using the term 'emerging church' in my 'emerging church milieu' I'm not saying that all those within the milieu are part of a church community. Rather, I am saying that they hold things in common, ideological commitments (which I promise I'll blog about more soon - I'm writing a first draft of that chapter now) with those who are engaged in an 'emerging church' conversation.

ikon, for example, are part of the emerging church milieu whilst not being an 'emerging church' or even a 'church' - by both their and my estimations. The conflation of all those involved in the milieu with such a thing as an 'emerging church' was what I was trying to avoid. Due to your interaction in the emerging church conversation I would see you as part of the emerging church milieu, although you share some aspects with it and some with other contemporary Christian milieux.

I'm going to call the milieu 'the emerging church milieu' but resist the temptation to name anything inside it as an 'emerging church,' thereby avoiding linking the terminology so close as to suggest that some communities within the milieu are more prevalent or preferable in my opinion. So I'm working through different ways to name the communities from which my participants come, like alternative worship, fresh expression, post-church, not-church, and the like. I'm struggling with this, though!!!

I wish I could get more readers too! Know any???!!!???