Has the emerging church wilted?

I’ve been reading less and less about the emerging church movement in the United States. Part of that has been because I have had a little less time to keep up on some of the reading that I began in my third year at Concordia Seminary, but part of it has been for another more compelling reason: the term simply isn’t being used that much anymore.

That actually fits some of my predictions about the movement, that it would never really achieve the status of being a monolithic movement but would rather influence other church bodies such as 2nd wave charismatic mainline churches (see the “Renewal” movements in mainline Christianity) affected 3rd wave charismatic changes in other burgeoning church bodies (i.e. Assembly of God/Calvary Chapel/Vineyard).

The emerging church movement began basically in the mid to late 1990’s as a reaction to (and against) the attractional mega-church movement. The megachurch movement abided by a “Field of Dreams” sort of missiology – “build it and they will come, build it bigger and more will come.”

Early emerging church leaders saw themselves as those who were “emerging” from one sort of missiology with substantial differences. In other words, they saw themselves as the wheat among what they thought were the weeds of Matthew 13. They rejected the idea that the church simply wasn’t hot or cool or sexy enough to bring non-Christians into a relationship with Jesus. In fact, they postulated that non-Christians were being turned off by big-business feel of big churches.

Instead, these emerging church leaders presented ideas that competed with some of what mega-churches were championing. Instead of a large group (in the thousands often times) worship service supplemented with small groups for personal contact, emerging churches presented the idea that the worship service should feel like a smaller group, a community that someone could grab on to right away without the additional layer of a small group. Instead of high-tech presentations, these early leaders embraced low-tech and highly symbolic practices of the early church (while clinging to what was established as a pre-concieved norm for Christian communities when it came to instrumentation, the use of screens, etc).

The smaller-church more symbolic nature of the emerging church is what originally interested and puzzled me about this burgeoning movement. While theologically different from the Lutheran church in certain respects, the “church culture” of an emerging church appeared to be much more Lutheran-friendly than other churches like Saddleback (Rick Warren’s church). I found it especially odd that the Lutheran church largely ignored and/or took annoyance with the emerging church as a cat ignores an out of line kitten.

Today it appears that the emerging church can largely be described by another of Jesus’ parables recorded in Matthew 13 – the parable of the Sower. In that parable, Jesus explains that some seeds grow quickly with much promise but if they are sown in rocky ground, they soon whither and die. The Subversive Influence blog and many others have described the phenomenon as simply shifting away from the term “emerging” to other terms, however I wonder if it is just a change in semantics. I wonder if the emerging church has emerged and whithered in the rocky ground of contemporary American Christianity.

If the emerging church is truly a cadaver on the table, the autopsy may reveal some interesting things about American Christianity and ecclesiology (how church is put together). Here are some of those possible interesting points:

+ The emerging church movement solidified in only its most theologically liberal segments. The Emergent church movement which comprised part of the emerging church movement embraced theologically liberal ideas about ecumenism, the role of the Bible, and the theology of the Trinity. The views of the Emergent church were often not something that represented the whole of the emerging church movement (it is or was largely linked to evangelical Christianity). However, the Emergent church quickly solidified itself – perhaps in order to defend itself. Because of that, the Emergent church began to be confused with the emerging church (partially, as well, because of the etymological similarity between the groups’ names).

+ The emerging church movement did not seek to answer theological questions, but rather cultural questions. The emerging church was concerned with ecclesiology more than it was concerned without outrightly theological questions about substitionary atonement or the presence of the Holy Spirit in Christian life. Because of this tendency, the emerging church often looked to be participating in spiritual mimicry as it took on the theological background of the particular churches that birthed it.

+ The emerging church movement consisted largely of generational specific ministry. The emerging church movement largely focused on one or two generations – aging Gen X’ers in their 30’s to younger millenials in their late teens and early twenties. There wasn’t much room for old folks in the emerging church movement. While it should be applauded that the emerging church movement was reaching out to a demographic that hadn’t been intentionally reached out to before, it failed in allowing people older than 45 to have a place in this new conceptualization of church.

+ And the biggest one in my opinion: The emerging church movement never wanted to be a monolithic movement, but rather a catalyst for change. In this respect, the emerging church movement was a success and still is today. While there may be less people who classify themselves as “emerging”, the movement succeeded in being a catalyst for change in many local congregations. As with any good catalyst, once the change is produced – the catalyst burns away. The emerging church movement succeeded in being a catalyst that created awareness of a new generation of Christians, a new epistemology (how you know things) of faith, and it changed the way that the church used technology as a medium for getting the message out.

The emerging church movement may or may not be dead. Time will tell if initiatives like Dan Kimball and Scot McKnight’s non-Emergent emerging church network will revive the churches that once called themselves emerging. However, if the emerging church did die, then it only did so after having spread seeds of its own which continue to pollinate the American Christian landscape.

Jay Winters is a Lutheran pastor and campus minister based in Florida, USA. This article was orignally published on Jay’s website :