Will the Emerging Church Fully Emerge?

I am writing this article to my sisters and brothers in Christ, both leaders and non-leaders, who belong to what has come to be called “the emerging church conversation.”

The influence of this conversation has been no less than incredible. So much so, that at least to my mind, it can be better described as a phenomenon. And it is picking up steam with each passing day.

I am a student of church history. My studies have led me to make the following observation: Every phenomenon and movement that has set out to reform or renew the church was born with profound shortcomings and weaknesses. And these shortcomings and weaknesses were never addressed until it was too late for them to be corrected. In my own lifetime, I have seen this to be true for the charismatic movement, the Jesus movement, the third-wave movement, and the house church movement . . . just to name a few.

Because the emerging church phenomenon is still in its infancy, its shortcomings and weaknesses can be addressed now. As Christians who have grown tired of the modern church, we have a brand new opportunity to change the course of church history. I realize that this may appear to be an outrageous statement. Nonetheless, it is true. We have been given a small window to see a complete overhaul of our Christian faith and to be faithful in honoring the heart of Jesus and the vision of the earliest apostles in our own time. This is why I write today.

Major Strengths of the Emerging Church Phenomenon

The following are themes within the emerging church phenomenon that I wholeheartedly applaud and am thankful for: 

1. The emerging church phenomenon is exploring fresh ways to revamp and recontextualize the gospel message to postmodern people. Not only do I applaud this new emphasis, but I shamelessly admit that I have a great deal to glean in this area. Thus, I would like to learn more from those who have plowed further in this field.

 2. The emerging church phenomenon has placed a long-awaited emphasis on community and relational faith.

 3. The emerging church phenomenon has placed an emphasis on rethinking the modern church . . . its methods, its programs, its traditions, and its structure.

 4. The emerging church phenomenon has placed a new emphasis on the Jesus of the Gospels opposed to the exclusive emphasis on the Jesus of Paul’s writings.

 5. The emerging church phenomenon has placed a rightful emphasis on the importance of Body functioning.

 6. The emerging church phenomenon has placed a new emphasis on the importance of narrative. 

7. The emerging church phenomenon has dumped the modern penchant to always be certain in answering every spiritual question under the sun. Instead, it has rested content to embrace mystery and paradox in our God.

8. The emerging church phenomenon has re-ignited a healthy interest in the Christian mystics who emphasized spiritual encounter over against mere academic knowledge of God and the Bible.   

I am absolutely thrilled to hear “ordinary” Christians, and even leaders talk about these themes openly and unashamedly. All of them point to crucial changes that the Body of Christ desperately needs today. Add to that, I become nearly euphoric whenever I hear of pastors leaving their entrenched positions to rethink the entire basis for their Christian existence. Such a courageous step is both impressive and worthy of deep respect.

      Let me again repeat: We are in a season of church history where we face a small window of time for real and lasting change. A window for revolution in the modern Christian mindset and in the traditional practices of the modern church. A window that Christians 1,000 years from now (should Jesus tarry, of course) can turn their heads back to and behold the beginning of a drastic paradigm shift from an old leaking wineskin to a new wineskin hand-crafted by the Spirit of God.

      But note . . . that window will eventually close. And it will close soon.

      The emerging church phenomenon is promising, for it embodies many necessary contributions to a fuller embodiment of Christ and His church. At the same time, the weaknesses of the phenomenon, if not honestly and directly addressed, will reduce it to the status of all past renewal movements. Namely, it will end up spawning a new denomination or “movement” which simply puts a few Band-Aids on the church’s ills rather than excavating the root of its problems.

I would now like to list what I find to be the weaknesses of the phenomenon along with some bold questions that I hope will foster serious and open dialogue among leaders in the emerging church. Please note that this list betrays the essence and burden of my own ministry and the vision which drives me. Since I have written on these matters extensively elsewhere, I have cited where one can find these threads more fully unraveled. 

Serious Weaknesses of the Emerging Church Phenomenon

       By my lights, the weaknesses of the emerging church phenomenon are as follows:

 1. The emerging church phenomenon has wonderfully articulated some of the major flaws of the modern church, yet like all of its predecessors, it has failed to identify and take dead aim at one of the chief roots of most of its ills.

I firmly believe that the taproot of most of the problems that plague the church in modernity is the clergy system. To put a finer point on it, Protestant Christians are addicted to the modern pastoral office. The pastor is the all-purpose religious professional in the modern Protestant church, both evangelical and mainline.

      Please note that my critique is not an attack on pastors as people. Most pastors in the emerging church are gifted Christians who have a heart for the Lord and a genuine love for His people. It is the modern pastoral office and role that I believe is profoundly flawed, and few of us have ever questioned it.

 Let me unpack that a bit. My experience in this country and overseas over the last seventeen years has yielded one immovable conclusion: God’s people can engage in high-talk about community life, Body functioning, and Body life, but unless the modern pastoral role is utterly abandoned in a given church, God’s people will never be unleashed to function in freedom under the Headship of Jesus Christ. I have had pastors vow to me that they were the exception. However, upon visiting their congregations, it was evident that the people did not know the first thing about functioning as a Body on their own. Neither were they given any practical tools on knowing the Lord intimately and living by His life. The reason is that the flaws of the modern pastoral role are actually built into the role itself.

The pastor, by his mere presence, causes an unhealthy dependence upon himself for ministry, direction, and guidance. Thus, as long as he hangs around delivering sermons, the people in the church to which he belongs will never be fully set free to function on their own in a church meeting setting. Further, the pastoral office typically destroys those who populate it. Jesus Christ never intended for anyone to shoulder that kind of enormous responsibility and power.

      In the first-century church, there was no single pastor. The Protestant pastor (which includes the evangelical pastor, the mainline pastor, and the non-denominational pastor) evolved out of the Catholic priesthood. The pastor is essentially a reformed priest, and his role has no root in the original vision and story of the people of God.

  In Century One, some of the churches had elders who played a shepherding role. But they did not dominate the ministry of the church, nor was the direction of the church exclusively placed into their hands (as is the case with many elder-led churches today like Presbyterians and the Plymouth Brethren). I believe that we are in desperate need to return to these first principles.

Time and space will not permit me to give historical and pragmatic evidence for the above statements, but I have addressed them elsewhere in great detail. I heartily invite my readers to explore both Scripture and church history for themselves and draw their own conclusions. (See my article Where Did the Modern Pastor Come From? along with my books Rethinking the Wineskin and Who is Your Covering?

 Pastors can wax eloquent all day about “facilitating,” “mentoring,” and “equipping” the saints. But here is the proof of the pudding: Let that pastor leave his congregation on its own without any stated leaders for six months to a year, and he will quickly learn how well he has equipped the church. Will that congregation be able to lead its own songs without a song leader or worship team? Will they be able to have gatherings that are under the Headship of Jesus Christ like the early church did? Will every member of the church be equipped to provide life-giving ministry to one another in those meetings? Will they be able to solve problems and make decisions together as a community?

Perhaps this thought has never occurred to you. But what I have just described is precisely what the church planters of the first century did routinely. They worked themselves out of a job. Not in pious rhetoric, but in reality.

Paul of Tarsus had a deliberate habit of spending anywhere from three months to three years with a church, equipping it to function in his absence. He would always then leave those churches on their own without a clergy. More on this later.

 Question: Is it possible that in our efforts to bring renewal and change to the traditional church, we have never seriously taken a biblical, historical, and practical look at the legitimacy of the modern pastoral office? Can we at least experiment with another alternative . . . the ministry paradigm that we find in our New Testaments? For those of us who are inclined to delivering sermons and providing “leadership,” do we have the integrity to freshly examine if the modern pastoral role and the giving of sermons week after week is truly equipping God’s people to function as members of His Body in a coordinated way?

2. The emerging church phenomenon has neglected the role of the itinerant church planter.  

      Over the last few years, I have observed a number of “laymen” leave their present congregations to start new “emerging churches.” Strikingly, these laymen always become the pastors of these new churches. With a few minor exceptions, the wineskin proved identical to the old wineskin that they had left.

      Let me enlarge this observation into a principle. The clergy-led institutional church is like a rubber band. No matter what it experiences in the way of renewal or reform, it will always bounce back to the same structure. It lives on fads and gimmicks. But when the smoke clears, it will always return to a pastor who preaches sermons to a passive congregation, a prescribed order of worship where God’s people are not free to function unhindered in the gatherings, and a building whose structural arrangement encourages people to be muted spectators.

 With all of our emphasis on being faithful to incarnate the Kingdom of God in the world today, we have overlooked one important ingredient for having authentic church life that is clearly envisioned throughout the entire New Testament: The paradigm of how healthy churches were planted when the church was young, free, and pure.

 I have addressed this matter in great detail in my book So You Want to Start a House Church? First-Century Styled Church Planting For Today To summarize very briefly, we discover the following compelling ideas given to us in the New Testament:

A. Church planters were men who have previously lived in an organic expression of church life as non-leaders before they were sent out to plant churches. One main reason: They needed to first experience that which they would pass on to others elsewhere.       

B. Church planters were specially equipped to bring people into a living encounter with Jesus Christ, to teach them how to function in a church meeting, and to solve problems that the church would face in the future.       

C. After the church planters had properly equipped the church to function under the Headship of Jesus Christ, they left those churches on their own without any stated leaders! (In some cases, the church planters would later return to acknowledge elders in the advent that God’s people would face a personal crisis, but elders never monopolized the ministry nor took the direction away from the church.) 

Question: Is it possible that the emerging church phenomenon has neglected to look at the way churches were planted in the first century, and instead, has opted to follow the path of modern missionary movements and traditional pastoral systems? For those of us who are considered “church leaders,” are we confident enough in our ministries and in the ability of God’s people, as well as the Holy Spirit, to abandon our congregations without stated leaders like Paul of Tarsus did . . . and really test the effectiveness of our ministries? Can we, pray tell, at least begin to dialogue about this matter openly and seek to discover if in fact God has rooted some unchangeable principles of church planting in His Word? Principles that may be worth returning to in our time?

3. The emerging church phenomenon has overlooked what Paul calls “the eternal purpose” (Eph. 3:11), which is God’s ultimate intention in creation and redemption.

       It has been my observation that the entire thrust of the emerging church phenomenon is rooted in how best to meet people’s needs. Consider the hot topics in the emerging church conversation today: “How can we better evangelize the lost?” “How can we better live out the ideals of the gospel of Jesus,” “How should we treat the homosexual?” “How can we better articulate the gospel in a postmodern context?” “What is the place of artists in the church?”

All of these questions have as their underlying root the meeting of human needs. I do not mean to demean this, for the gospel certainly addresses the needs of humanity. However, there is a need in God, too. That need does not correspond to a deficiency in Himself (for He is all-sufficient), but it rather flows out of the desire of His nature. Paul calls this need “the eternal purpose” or “the purpose of the ages.” And the church, as dreamt in the heart of God, stands at the heartbeat of this ultimate intention. I have read reams of emerging church articles, but never once have I seen an article (or a chapter from an emerging church book for that matter) that discusses or brings light to the eternal purpose of God.

Describing the eternal purpose of God is beyond the scope of this article, though I have addressed it elsewhere. But I wish to end this section with some searching questions:

 God conceived a purpose in eternity past. And that purpose was the very motivation for the creation wherein we stand. Do you know what that purpose is?

God’s eternal purpose is His magnificent obsession . . . it is that which drives and consumes His very being. Can the emerging church emerge from emphasizing how to better meet the needs of humanity to a conversation on that all-governing purpose which stands at the center of the beating heart of God? 

4.  The emerging church phenomenon shares a common trait with most of Christendom in that it is largely built on theory with little practice. For instance, there is a great deal of high-talk about Body functioning, community life, and equipping the saints for ministry, yet I have seen little to no fleshing out of these spiritual realities in any form among those who carry on loudly about them. While I applaud the gains that some emerging churches have made in providing more freedom to their members during a church service than the garden-variety institutional church, in my assessment, these churches have moved just a few inches forward on a very long road.  

      Allow me to enlarge this point a bit. About two months ago, I received a phone call from a well-known leader in the emerging church. His words to me were, “Frank, I’m really discouraged. There’s a lot of talk about community life, Body functioning, and Body ministry among us, but I have not been impressed with what I’ve seen along these lines.”

      I agreed with him totally. But then I responded, “I believe this is a major weakness of the emerging church conversation. I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers, but I’ve been emerging from the institutional church for almost 20 years now. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and failures, but I have also made many wonderful discoveries along the way. This journey continues till this day. But I can say this without flinching: For the last seventeen years, I have been gathering with Christians outside the organized church. Without exception, all of the groups that I have gathered with or have worked with personally have known the pains and joys of community life in bed-rock reality, they have all had consistent meetings under the Lord’s Headship without a leader or facilitator, they have made decisions together, and they have solved their own problems . . . all without a pastor, or a group of selected men to rule them, and without a song leader or worship team.”

The man never inquired further.

 This leads me to a set of thorny questions: If we are humble enough to admit that a great deal of the emerging church conversation is arm-chair philosophy, can we be humble enough to sit with those who have had some practical experience in these matters and openly dialogue about them?

Is it possible for those churches that have traveled a few feet in the right direction in “liberating the laity” to not excuse themselves from examining the vast remaining tract of land to be traveled?

How will the church of Jesus Christ ever be visible on this earth in any wide measure if those whom God has called and gifted to help equip God’s people are never willing learn from one another and seek to put into practice the vision that burns in their hearts? Are we each left to independently reinvent the wheel . . . every-man for himself? Or does this really boil down to a blatant unwillingness to abandon the clerical system which continues to control God’s people? Are we blithely opting for more Band-Aids simply because it is convenient?

5. While the emerging church phenomenon has placed a much needed emphasis on the Jesus of the Gospels, it has focused on imitating His outward conduct instead of exploring His internal relationship with an indwelling God which was the source of His conduct.

       Studying the earthly example of Jesus Christ and trying to imitate it is like trying to create an orange out of whole cloth by studying the composition of a natural orange in a laboratory. An orange is the fruit . . . the natural outcome . . . of the life of an orange tree. In the same way, Jesus’ earthly conduct was simply the fruit of a life lived in communion with an indwelling Father.

  Jesus said clearly that He could not live the Christian life: “Without my Father, I can do nothing.” What, then, was the taproot of His selfless lifestyle? He gave us the answer in John 6:57, “As the Father has sent me and I LIVE BY MY FATHER, so he that eats me shall live by me.” Jesus Christ had an internal relationship with His Father who indwelt Him.

 For you and I to try to live the Christian life is like expecting a cat to set a dinner table, bake a cake, eat it with fork and knife, and wash dishes. The cat is the wrong life form to carry out these activities; hence, it is impossible for a cat to display human conduct. Jesus said as much when He told His followers, “Without me you can do nothing.”

 The secret to Jesus’ extraordinary life on earth was in His partaking of His indwelling Father and living by His life. In the same way, the secret to imitating Jesus is no different. It is found in partaking of our indwelling Lord and living by His life. 

Can we be honest enough to admit that trying to imitate Christ’s earthly life is a study in failure? Is it possible for us to take a fresh look at the Lord’s earthly life by examining His internal walk as the pattern for us to imitate? For what the Father was to Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ is to you and I. Note His words: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21) . . . “As I live by the Father, so he that eats me shall live by me.” (John 6:57). It is my opinion that these words embody an entire world for Christians that has been virtually unexplored.

6. While the emerging church phenomenon has done a stellar job in emphasizing narrative in the Gospel story, it has neglected to take seriously the value of the narrative of the entire first-century church as a necessary model for interpreting the New Testament.

Most of us who are part of the emerging church phenomenon take the New Testament seriously. Nevertheless, we are all handling a New Testament whose letters are out of chronological order and whose books are divided up into chapters and verses. This makes understanding the social-historical context and setting of the New Testament writings virtually impossible to grasp. And it opens the door to such spiritual hazards as isolated proof-texting to “prove” doctrines and theological systems.

      Since the Protestant Reformation, we Christians have been taught to be reductionists when it comes to Bible study and individualists when it comes to applying the words of Scripture. The emerging church phenomenon has not fully shed itself from these two misguided tendencies. Consider these two thoughts which are open to challenge and dialogue:

A. The New Testament must be approached holistically if it will be understood in its right context. That is, we must step back and see the whole picture before we can properly understand the frames which make it up.

B. The Christian faith is intensely corporate. For instance, the vast bulk of the Epistles in the New Testament are written to churches . . . corporate bodies of believers who knew a shared life together, and not to individuals. (Out of the 21 Epistles in the New Testament, only 5 were written to individuals. And 4 of those 5 were written to Christian workers.

Point two opens up another universe altogether that I believe must become part of the emerging church conversation. That is, living the Christian life does not work except in a shared-life, face-to-face community of believers.

When a person understands the first-century narrative, they are keen to learn that all the passages in the New Testament on transformation are not addressed to followers of Jesus as individuals. They are instead addressed to communities, a la, “churches” in the first-century sense of the word. Consequently, warming a pew and listening to sermons does not transform us. Neither does standing near a pew or chair, with hands lifted, and singing praise songs led by a worship team or music director. Transformation occurs when a community of believers discover how to behold the Lord together and live their lives in a shared way.

It seems to me that what is needed, then, is a brand new approach to the New Testament. A holistic approach wherein we understand the story . . . the narrative . . . that lies behind all of its writings. Unless we have a good grasp on how the story of Acts chronologically interacts with Paul’s letters and the other letters of the New Testament, we will continue to make the common mistake of taking verses out of their historical context and misapplying them in a misguided quest for relevance. (For more details on this subject, see my article Needed: A New Approach to the New Testament and The Bible is Not a Jigsaw Puzzle I have also created a reconstruction of the entire narrative of the first century church in chronological order in my book, The Untold Story of the New Testament Church, from Destiny Image Publishers,

This leads me to some terse queries. Would it be worthwhile for those of us who are “emerging” to also emerge in the way we approach the New Testament? Is it possible that grasping the narrative of the story of the early church as a background to all the Epistles can revolutionize our understanding of God’s written Story and bring us further along in the church renewal/restoration effort? Is it possible that if we continue to take the individualistic, reductionist approach to the New Testament that has dominated the Christian landscape for centuries, that we will continue to make the same mistakes that our forefathers have made? Can we . . . and should we . . . utterly abandon the “cut-and-paste-stitching-verses-together-proof-texting” method of Bible study and sermonizing, and seek to embrace something better?

7. The emerging church phenomenon, like all preceding reform/renewal movements, has emphasized a bundle of Christian “its” and “things,” instead of the Person of Jesus Christ. 

In my opinion, if we were to examine the broad canvas of Christian movements and denominations throughout church history, we would discover that each one paints with a very fine brush. For one movement, the brush is evangelism. For another, it is social justice and acts of mercy. For another, it is praise and worship. For another, it is Bible study and doctrinal/theological accuracy. For another, it is the power of God, the gifts of the Spirit, signs and wonders. For another, it is changing the political system. For another, it is spiritual warfare and intercessory prayer. For another, it is personal prophecy. For still another, it is end-time theology (eschatology). And on and on it goes.

All of these brushes represent Christian “things.” And they are just that . . . “things.” They are Christian “its.” Subjects about the Lord with which to become engaged, at best. Or with which to become obsessed, at worst.

But where are those who paint with the all-inclusive brush and talk about the Person of Jesus Christ? Where are those who are not talking about “its,” “things,” and “subjects” . . . but who are talking about HIM in depths little known and explored? And not just talking about Him, but who are presenting and ministering Him to His people?

Earlier I stated that I have read reams of emerging church articles. While many of them reveal fresh thinking on many subjects, I discovered something missing in virtually all of them:

The centrality of Jesus Christ.

I remember reading a few emerging church articles not too long ago, and I actually counted how many times the Lord was mentioned. In one article, which was quite lengthy, He was mentioned once. In another, He was never mentioned at all!

By contrast, if one were to read the letters of Paul with a careful eye, they would find his pen dripping with Christ. Take, for instance, his letter to Ephesians and Colossians. Try counting how often Paul mentions His Lord in a single chapter. It is mind-boggling!

What is my point? Paul had a living encounter with His Lord that shook him to his foundations. A ministry was born out of that encounter. And that ministry was a Person! Paul did not occupy himself with Christian “things.” His occupation was the Lord Himself. And this glorious Lord embodies all things spiritual.

May I venture a searching question to my fellow ministers in the emerging church? Is it possible that we have missed the main point of our faith? Are we simply passing on the worn out tools we have been given by our evangelical forefathers on how to know the Lord? (“pray and study your Bible” . . . “pray more and study your Bible more!”) Could there be new tools to know our Lord deeply and practically? If there are, are we open to discover them together? And are we willing to experience them before we preach them to God’s people?

Do our writings and messages betray an intimate familiarity with the One who indwells us, or are we merely engaging in subjects, issues, topics, things, and its? Are our ministries one of giving LIFE . . . which is Christ Himself, or do we betray a vague familiarity with this glorious Person? Are we educating God’s people on “subjects” about the faith, or are we bringing them into a living encounter with Him . . . the likes of which will consume and captivate their hearts for the rest of their lives?

Challenge and Invitation

  In the mid-20th century, Swiss watchmakers had the corner on the world market share of watches. But that changed when one of their own countrymen came out with a revolutionary new idea: The quartz watch. He presented this idea to the Swiss manufacturers and they laughed at him. They con­cluded it could never work, so they refused to patent the idea. Seiko, on the other hand, took one look at the quartz watch and the rest is history.

 The power of a paradigm had so influenced the Swiss watch manufacturers that they could not understand the new concept of the quartz watch. Because the quartz watch had no gears, no mainspring, and no bearings, they rejected it. Their present paradigm did not allow for the new innovation. The net effect was that they lost the leading edge on watch making and they were forced to lay off thousands of workers. It was all because the quartz watch did not fit into their world view. It did not fit within their paradigm. They did not appreciate the new way because they were blinded by the old way.

It is my strong conviction that a similar paradigm shift concerning the structure and practice of the church as well as church planting is absolutely crucial if the Body of Christ will reflect the dream in God’s heart and have any significant cultural impact. Or to put it another way, a serious rethinking of the modern pastoral role, the way that churches are planted, the centrality of Jesus Christ, the taproot of Christ’s earthly conduct, the narrative of the first-century story, and the eternal purpose of God are all necessary if the emerging church has any hope of fully emerging.

 So consider this article as both a challenge and an invitation for patient dialogue and fellowship among leaders, authors, bloggers, and members of the emerging church community.

It would bring me great joy to have the opportunity to discuss these matters with those who have been captured with the call to emerge. For perhaps in doing so, we can learn from one another and take advantage of the present window of change that God has set before us.

Frank Viola writes for Present Testimony Ministry – dedicated to the restoration of the pristine simplicity of first-century Christianity