I have mixed feelings about the Emergent Church Movement. In the present early stages, it is somewhat amorphous, or at least one can observe that it has many different forms as individuals seek ways to communicate Christ in a changing culture. The Emergent Church is therefore hard to identify. It is non-denominational in the sense that it cuts across traditional denominational dividers and brings together people from many groups in Christianity. Any effort to define hard categories or descriptions runs the risk of putting the movement in a box.
A second concern is the frequent connection between missional church and emergent church. I heartily accept the missional view-the church must be called afresh to realize that God is sending us into the world seems apparent to me. A terminology developed in Australia and New Zealand is "Emerging-Missional" Church. Frost and Hirsch (The Shaping of Things to Come, 229) connect the Emergent Church and missional concerns: "A missional church is one whose primary commitment is to the missionary calling of the people of God…it is one that aligns itself with God's missionary purposes in the world…. The missional church is a sent church…[incarnating Jesus' life and values in the culture….]."
Some of the characteristics frequently cited of the emerging or emergent church (decentralized leadership and ministry, a call to incarnational Christianity, and a focus on spirituality) have obvious biblical roots and could provide helpful correctives in many contemporary congregations. Institutional churches easily become maintenance-focused rather than mission-focused. Borrowing some of the terminology of Frost and Hirsch, evangelism becomes attractional rather than incarnational-we fish with poles rather than nets. In fact, some understand institutional and missional as antonyms. Where the church has defined itself in institutional terms, it must redefine itself as missional to make clear the challenge to take the gospel to its specific cultural context by living out (incarnating) the good news of Jesus in the lives of individual Christians.
I am uncomfortable with some of the concessions (as I see them) the emergent church movement makes to postmodernism. I also believe that those firmly committed to living out the presence of Christ in our contemporary world as part of congregations seeking to advance his Kingdom (rule and reign) in this world have an opportunity without parallel in recent history-perhaps without parallel since the Constantinian era. The comfortable consolidation of Christendom with the prevailing cultures around it is clearly passing away. The challenge for the church is to recognize the animosity of its surroundings, and to penetrate darkness with light, falsehood with truth.
In the next article, I suggest some of the things we in churches of Christ should consider as we look at our history, our future, and ourselves.