Parsing Emergent

By John Drury

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

I was recently commissioned to write an article for Princeton Theological Review on Emergent Ecclesiology. Although I intend to do more than just define emergent (the task having become a bit of a cottage industry), the writing process necessarily begins will some clarification of terms. Over the past year, I have come to see that the emergent conversation can be parsed into three overlapping yet distinguishable categories.

(1) Epistemology:

Emergents have something to say about how we know. Although there are numerous various, the common denominator of emergent epistemology is that of a critical distance from strong truth claims, and hence an aversion to timeless propositions and a preferences for contextual stories. Terms like "postmodern" or "postfoundationalist" or even "narrative" will get thrown around in this regard. This aspect obviously attracts the more philosophically oriented, yet it has practical thrust: one communicates the gospel quite differently if it not a list of propositions to be accepted rationally but rather a story to be "lived into" so to speak.

(2) Cultural Analysis:

Emergents are also making observations about the contemporary culture in which we live. The claim is that we are in the process of a massive shift of the cultural forms and norms resulting in a new emphasis on community, the rise of pop cultural literacy, and a changing role of the church in society. Terms like "globalism" or "pluralism" or even "tribalism" will be used in respect to this aspect of the emergent conversation. Such cultural analysis naturally attracts the more pragmatically oriented as they seek to find new forms, styles and methods to "fit" the current culture. Yet all emergents necessarily have some interest in cultural analysis, for the term "emergent" itself has this cultural valence. "Emergent" in the narrowest sense refers to emerging cultural phenomena: emerging cultures, emerging generations, emerging churches.

(3) Ecclesiology:

Emergents are furthermore saying something about the nature of the church. The dominant theme is that the church's nature subsists in its mission, and that the structures and ministries of the church should reflect its missional nature. This implies both the addition of forgotten aspects of the church's mission in the world as well as the subtraction of those activities in the church which do not serve its mission. Emergents thus speak of "missional" communities or "post-christendom" models or even an "apostolic" ethos. Such ecclesiological discussions draw in the more theologically oriented, who are interested in scriptural exegesis, ecclesiological concepts, polity & denominational structures, the dialogue with missiology, and the understanding of ministry & laity. But of course, all emergents participate in such theological reflection, at least at the motivational level. For the church to be worth changing, it must be worth saving.


Is this parsing helpful?
Is it helpful?
Are you particularly attracted to one of these aspects?
Do any of these aspects turn you off?
Which aspect is the strong suit of the emergent church?
Which is its weak spot?


At 11:25 PM, August 17, 2005, Ken Schenck said...

I'll confess that what few comments I have made about the emergent church have largely been made without real knowledge--they've been more reactions to people I know rather than real engagement with the "players." I look forward to learning more.

One question I have is to what extent something is really emerging or whether we simply have the usual reclamation of past dimensions lost in the over-reaction of the past emergence. I accept that after modernism such a return probably has certain unique aspects in history and is perhaps a unique combination of characteristics in some ways.

But if my basic hunch is correct, my blog title is going to be "Emerging as what we once were."


At 2:05 PM, August 18, 2005, JohnLDrury said...

I understand where you are coming from in that I am also inclined to say there is nothing new under the sun. However, if one approaches the emergent conversation with a presumption that nothing new or fresh will come of it, then one will find such to be the case. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The alternative is to honestly identify what is old and what is new, then move on to the more important step which is to say what is good and what is bad. For could it be that what is being said, whether old or new, is good and therefore worth engaging?

So to reframe the questions in light of your observation:

Are these three aspects as I have outlined them heuristically illuminating?

If so, which of these aspects are "new" and which are "old"?

Whether new or old, which aspects are the better and which are the worse?


At 3:52 PM, August 18, 2005, Ken Schenck said...

Epistemology: Philosophically, I am with the "emergent" Zeitgeit. However, I am only with it as a critique of modernism, not in the naivity that I perceive in those that make "post-modernism" a trendy fad. If McManis is emergent, I perceive in his Barbarian Call an implicit (does he even realize it) sense of God's distance in terms of rational approaches to Him.

Cultural: I associate a proper return to community as a return to catholicity. However, the emergent community seems more a move to pluralism. That's not emergent, since the "elephant" approach to religion is as old as classical liberalism. It's just now emerging from this generation of evangelicals.

However, I do believe that the challenge of pluralism is more real than it has ever been. It is for this reason that some IWU graduates who have world travelled have had immense faith crises. I find this a difficult issue myself--if God is as particular as I believe Him to be, then why is there such devout plurality of divine worship around the world. This is not an easily dismissed challenge, in my view, and it seems strongly embodied in the emergent Zeitgeist.

Mission: I suspect that the missional aspect of emergent is more social gospel in orientation than salvific in an eternal sense.



At 4:52 PM, August 18, 2005, ben said...


I'm glad you are taking on this task. I believe you bring clarity to many discussions you engage in. I like the divisions, although I don't know what hueristically means. I don't think many emergents would say they are not doing any of these exceptionally well.

Epistemologically, it is clear that they are still in the very early stages of formation--except, as you say, what they are distancing themselves away from.

In some ways I think it is becoming a "new" thought or at least a new blending of many old thoughts. I don't see an epistemological reversion happening like I believe is happening Ecclesiologically (thats not a word is it?).

On that note, while I believe emergent is moving toward church as mission agent, as communities they are still mostly homogeneous ethnically, culturally, socio-economically, and generationally. In praxis, their mission is currently to those who reject their grandparents / parents church.

As far as cultural analysis, I believe they are doing a new thing in at least one respect. They are the first church to really wrestle with the realities of our increasingly tight, interconnected postcolonial globalism, particularly the lag between economic relationships and other social relationships between "tribes". It is the scope of the problem/opportunity that makes this situation unique. I don't believe they have many answers yet, but I see them really wrestling with the issues.

Of the three, I think emergents are closest to articulating and practicing a useful ecclessiology. Not because they are that close but because of the serious conlicts still to be dealt with epistemologically and the confounding blend of cultures in our global community and its implications.

That being said, currently the most important voice the emergent church has to the larger body is in the cultural analysis conversation. They are asking questions we need the rest of the church to start asking. Similarly, emergent epistology is an important thorn in the side to the western church that desparately needs to make some distinctions between our theology and modern philosophy.

Thanks for the questions, sorry for the long post. I hope all is well--would love to see you and amanda when you are back in West Michigan.

Ben Price


At 5:39 PM, August 18, 2005, Ken Schenck said...

Just one more comment on emergent ecclesiology. Is it really much more than a collective individualism?


At 1:45 PM, August 21, 2005, millinerd said...

I find this parsing helpful. I would add that in general emergent can be characterized by a left of center political stance on most issues.


At 10:30 PM, August 21, 2005, JohnLDrury said...


Interesting distinction b/w what might be "best" and what is a "contribution". Thanks for that!



At 10:31 PM, August 21, 2005, JohnLDrury said...


Or at least left of their roots, which may be still right of center in the larger spectrum.


At 10:42 AM, August 23, 2005, millinerd said...

Nice point. I guess Emergent is not something more than it is something.

If it's a revolution, is it a 1776 or a 1789?


At 10:42 AM, August 23, 2005, millinerd said...

This post has been removed by the author.


At 8:25 PM, August 24, 2005, David Drury said...

hey John. Just so you know I thought this blog entry was right on and very helpful. I thought I commented on it but in looking back I neglected to.

You da man. Ecclesioemergentboy


At 7:42 PM, September 30, 2005, Just . Jay said...

here's a really late comment...

I think Emergent is the new Alternative. remember when Nirvana and Pearl Jam got so popular in like 1993... and then EVERYTHING in music that came out was labeled "alternative," even though they very well could have been split into a hundred categories? Nirvana was "alternative music" and now somehow so were the Beastie Boys?

that's what I think of Emergent right now. (almost)anything non-Boomer, non-Purpose Driven, non-Mainstream Jesus USA is now somehow Emergent. I think it will take time to know how to define it and/or them, much less define their Ecclesiology.

either Emergent will spawn a few new Denominations, change the denominations they are a part of now(which could create some new branches) or it will amount to about as much as Powerpoint presentations have...
oversimplified, sure.