Is there a distinctive approach to theologising for the emerging church?

For too long the emerging church has been viewed by some as a trendy shop front to more traditional forms of church. We too have been guilty of putting the emphasis on being ‘cool’, providing slick services and using the best movie clips and multimedia environments. The danger is that some think that there is little depth or substance to what we are doing. This article aims to introduce some evidence of some of the thinking in fresh and emerging expressions of church coming out of my as yet uncompleted MA research dissertation entitled “Fresh and emerging expressions of church: how are they being church and Anglican?”

Whilst the traditional church continues to battle between the conservatives and the liberals, and between the catholics and the evangelicals, the emerging church has been emphasising the need for right engagement in context – or what has been called orthopraxis (right action) rather than orthodoxy (right thinking). It has avoided getting involved in this tennis match over orthodoxy. The emerging church has been focusing on ‘doing’ church in a post modern context, which is all about being and doing church in our liquid modern times, which has created a new context of a culture of the spiritually restless and spiritual searching, or the openness of many to be spiritual tourists. Many emerging churches, have sought to draw on the best of the old and reframe it for our current post-modern context, in what has been called ‘ancient-future’. But what does this have to do with theology?

Well, I am arguing that the emerging church has been creating a significantly new approach to doing contextual theology, which is about living out being Christian and church in a post modern culture. Contextual theology has been defined as:

A way of doing theology in which one takes into account: the spirit and message of the gospel; the tradition of the Christian people; the culture in which one is theologising; and social change in that culture.

Traditionally, there is a continuum in the Church roughly defined at one end as being ‘conservative evangelical’ and at the other, ‘catholic’ which take very different views of how you do contextual theology, see chart 1 where I want to build a bit of a typology. Yes this will hold over-generalisations, but I think in essence, the following analysis stands.

Conservative EvangelicalCatholic
Redemptive theologyIncarnational theology
High regard towards God and ScripturesLow regard towards God & Scriptures
Low regard toward Human CultureHigh regard towards Human Culture

So to summarise, for sometime now, the Church has been largely divided into two outlooks. Evangelical and Catholic. Evangelicals have stressed personal salvation, and the need for God-centredness and personal piety, but have paid very little regard to social, economic or ecological injustice, or the sense of God’s presence in human culture and the world. This has resulted in a neglect of what is good in human nature, or the sense of God’s involvement in the world. Strong on sin and repentance, low on grace. So when thinking about the significance of Jesus (both man and God), the emphasis is on Jesus as God and his ministry regarding repentance and redemption.

At the other end of the continuum, is a Catholic and incarnational theology, which focuses more on the significance of Christ as a human being and the love of God. Focus of this approach is on God’s love and the call for social, ecological and economic justice not just for salvation, but for here and now. This approach therefore neglects the significance of Christ as God, and in having a high regard to the scriptures.

These two approaches have been battling it out for sometime, believing that one was right and the other was wrong, which has split the church catholic and protestant for centuries.

So what has this got to do with the emerging church? Well to start with, the emerging church tries to hold to the tension of having a high regard towards God and the scriptures AND having a high regard towards culture and being human. In other words, it is trying to hold onto a ‘both and’ scenario, on holding both an incarnational and redemptive theology simultaneously.

Why, because it attempts to hold onto the best of all traditions, and live with the tension and inconsistencies of this position. Why – because in the above analysis of the significance of Jesus, we have to live with the tension of Jesus being fully human and fully God. From the beginning, the Church had to live with this synthetic approach or fuzzy thinking, which it seemed to jettison in modernity, only to be refound in postmodernity. So the Emerging Church, does have a distinctively new, or can I say old theological approach to what it does, modelled on a synthetic model of doing contextual theology. This model attempts to listen to culture for basic patterns and structures, analyzing culture in order to discover its basic system of symbols. Out of such a “thick description” will emerge basic themes for the local theology. At the same time, however, these themes need to be in dialogue with the basic themes in gospel and tradition, which has a mutually transforming effect. This form of emerging contextual theology, holds to a sense of “ancient future” faith worked out with a synthetic model of contextual theology.

So going back to the chart, the emerging church attempts to position itself at the ‘V’ point on the continuum in its attempt to ‘both and’.

So why is this signficiant. Well firstly, because it opens up the possibilities to significant encultured approaches to being a ‘missionary church’. To my own shock, I found a book dating back to the 1970’s that summarised a vision for the ‘Emerging Church’ which resonates with this position and outlook, and therefore I will state it in full

Larson & Osborne themes

  1. Rediscovering contextual & experimental mission in the western church.
  2. Forms of church that are not restrained by institutional expectations. Open to change and God wanting to do a new thing.
  3. Use of the key word…”and”. Whereas the heady polarities of our day seek to divide us into an either-or camp, the mark of the emerging Church will be its emphasis on both-and. For generations we have divided ourselves into camps: Protestants and Catholics, high church and low, clergy and laity, social activists and personal piety, liberals and conservatives, sacred and secular, instructional and underground.
  4. It will bring together the most helpful of the old and the best of the new, blending the dynamic of a personal Gospel with the compassion of social concern. It will find its ministry being expressed by a whole people, wherein the distinction between clergy and laity will be that of function, not of status or hierarchical division.
  5. In the emerging Church, due emphasis will be placed on both theological rootage and contemporary experience, on celebration in worship and involvement in social concerns, on faith and feeling, reason and prayer, conversion and continuity, the personal and the conceptual.

In this way, the emerging church has a distinctive approach to theology to aid it as it engages in a world and culture, which is complex, multifaceted and fluid. So there is depth and substance to what is going on…..

For further info on this subject and the significance of the emerging church, watch out for my research dissertation, which I hope to release in book form next year.

Ian Mobsby is an ordained NSM Anglican priest licensed to work with the Moot Community, an Anglican Church of England Fresh Expression of Church Project in Westminster, Central London. Ian is completing a research dissertation for the award of an MA in Pastoral Theology at Cambridge. Moot can be found at and