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dangreesonpic.jpgHas the Emerging Church begun to recede? I say yes, and here are five reasons why.

1. The Emerging Church does little evangelism.

Surely the Emerging Church is not the only segment of Christianity that fails in the evangelistic task. So I’m not throwing stones here. I am merely pointing out that which some Emerging leaders (Scot McKnight, Dan Kimball and others) have been saying for a long time. The Emerging Church isn’t making many converts.

What the Emerging Church has succeeded at is reaching young, disgruntled Christians who are fed up with the problems in traditional evangelicalism.

Another issue that affects evangelism is the lack of clarity and focus regarding the nature of salvation. With traditional doctrines such as the exclusivity of Jesus Christ and the existence of hell being questioned (and, in some quarters, outright denied), evangelism is no longer a priority. Saved… from what? Saved… by whom?  

2. Some Emerging leaders have embraced a disturbing lack of clarity on key doctrinal and social issues.

The unchurched twenty-somethings that I meet and talk to want answers. They don’t get excited about how Christian theology is mysterious. They are not impressed with people who talk about how “they don’t have the answers” and just want to “journey” with them and ask questions.

Some Christian twenty-somethings are a different story. Reacting against the narrow, cookie-cutter, Sunday-School answers they have been fed in evangelical circles, some Christians enjoy the embrace of mystery and the idea that no one has all the answers.

But most of the non-Christians that I meet with (and most of the Christians I minister to as well) want to do business with serious theological issues, like Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do Christians believe that Jesus is the only way to God? How can a good God send people to hell? Isn’t it intolerant to proselytize? They don’t want to hear pontifications on how “these are complex questions… maybe we can search together and eventually find some answers.” They want to know what Christians believe.

In a world of gray, black-and-white answers are not a turn-0ff to unbelievers. They are appealing if explained with grace and love.

Some Emerging leaders consistently refrain from speaking out on important moral and theological questions of our day. Asking for a moratorium on making pronouncements the Bible has already made may sound humble and gentle, but in reality, it leaves people struggling with sin and guilt without a clear word from God. 

3. Many who initially intrigued by the Emerging conversation are now distancing themselves from Emerging theology.

The whole “missional” movement is a case in point. Here you have young, hip pastors in their thirties who might be called “postmodern” in their style of worship, but who no longer want to the baggage of theological liberalism that the term “Emerging” is beginning to connote.

When dozens of successful pastors/writers/bloggers who were initially intrigued with the Emerging Church begin shedding the name and throwing off the baggage, it’s a clear sign that the conversation is ending (or at least becoming more narrow in its tendency toward liberalism).

4. Some aspects of the Emerging Church look faddish and fleeting.

The Emerging Church is about contextualization and practice. How do we contextualize the gospel for a postmodern world?

Unfortunately, some Emerging Churches look like the continuation of the Seeker movement, even as they decry the Seeker-focused mindset. Incense, candles, icons. These aspects of worship might be helpful for ministry to postmodernists somewhere. They would look silly in rural Tennessee. Contextualization does not always look the same, something the Emerging Church conversation affirms in theory, but often ignores in practice.

Now that the Emerging Church is becoming known a “style of worship” or a “way of doing church for young people,” the movement has moved out of the realm of contextualization and has joined the evangelical faddishness it once protested.

Think of Jesus Movement of the 1970’s. Replace Vietnam with Iraq, beards with goatees, and contemporary music with liturgy. (I’m overstating my case here, but you get my drift.)

5. Evangelicalism is beginning to address the good questions raised by the Emerging movement.

The Emerging Church is a protest movement and some of the protests have been good and necessary. As I’ve written before about fundamentalism, movements that find their identity in protesting usually find smaller and more insignificant things to protest about.

Now that evangelicalism has begun listening to the Emerging Church’s concerns about ecclesiology, Kingdom theology, incarnational spirituality, ancient rituals, etc., we are beginning to see the best that Emerging has to offer being incorporated into the larger stream of evangelicalism. As that happens more and more over the next few years, the Emerging Church as a movement will be more and more unnecessary.

Is the Emerging Church gone? No. Not yet.

Has its influence begun to wane? Yes.

Is the movement on the wrong track? Many of the leaders have deconstructed orthodox Christianity so much that there is no foundation on which to build. That’s a problem. And that’s why so many are jumping off the Emerging bandwagon.

The early Emerging leaders saw that traditional evangelicalism looks a lot like the Titanic, slowly taking on water and sinking towards irrelevancy. So the leaders shot up some flares and boarded a life-raft. Unfortunately, the life-raft seems to have more holes in it than does the big ship. Let’s hope the conversation ends before the boat sinks with people on it.

Has it accomplished anything good? Yes. Perhaps that’s the best news of all. We’re seeing the receding of a movement that has served its purpose – reawakening evangelicals to the necessity of the Church and the importance of being the Church to the world.

written by Trevin Wax. copyright © 2008 Kingdom People Blog.

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32 thoughts on “5 Reasons Why the Emerging Church is Now Receding”

  1. Steve McCoy says:

    Trevin, I like a lot of what you say here. I’ve actually been thinking about this subject lately as I see much the same thing happening. Let me add a few tweaks of my own that I hope will help.

    The EC is much broader than you say it is. You have said that evangelicals are taking some of the good critiques, but I’m not sure you mean that evangelicals are also taking some of the EC and people in it with it. There are very EC guys who are now being recognized by “evangelicalism” as trustworthy voices, guys like Mark Driscoll. This is why saying the EC doesn’t do much evangelism isn’t a helpful way to say it. It’s too narrow a definition of the EC. You may be talking about the Emergent end of it, but you aren’t talking about the whole thing.

    What’s happening is what a lot of us have been saying for some time, namely, at some point the EC begins to bifurcate into at least two different camps. It’s not just that evangelicalism hears the “protests” but that some of the protesters are accepted and some are not as the evangelical camp splits into those willing to change and fundamentalists.

    So the EC isn’t really receding. Their influence isn’t “waning” but winning. It doesn’t merely rise up, critique, and then disappear. It rises up with younger generations, makes corrections to the Christian movement as a whole, and then ends up splitting itself and splitting the Christian movement since all of it will not submit to biblical correction. So some of “evangelicalism” (a word I think will pass soon, at least it needs to) will be an evangelical/EC hybrid (you are seeing that with Keller and Driscoll and Darrin Patrick joining up with Mark Dever, John Piper, CJ Mahaney and such) and some will be a fundamentalist camp (MacArthur, Mohler, much of the SBC, etc), and then the more liberal EC’rs will be on their own.

    I think that came out right, but if not let me know.

  2. trevinwax says:

    Good points, Steve.

    I still hold, though, that the Emerging Church as a movement (though it doesn’t like to be called that) is fading, similar to the way the Jesus Movement faded thirty years ago. Of course, we still can feel the influence of the Jesus Movement today (think CCM, contemporary worship, etc.) even if the movement itself has passed.

    You’re right though; the EC/evangelical hybrid is causing people to move in one direction or the other.

  3. Vince says:

    Great post. True the ‘emerging church’ is waning. I would say they really brought some great things with them. They made us re-think what we are doing and we are seeing two other ‘fads’ waning …the ‘seeker service’ and the purpose driven stuff.

  4. David says:

    Something in me really resonates with Phyllis Tickle when she says that the emerging church is a very small portion of an epochal change that has been building up during the last century.

    The reason it seems that it is ‘winning’ is because the world is progressing through this emergence.

    Wishing for an end to conversations seems to me just a signal of insecurity with the motion of the world. We all wish things would just go back to being easy, but on the other hand, where is the fun in that?

    Frankly, I couldn’t disagree with you more about this perceived waning of emergence. There may be temporary stillness in the movements where you are situated, but overall, the progression is going to happen; both inside and outside of the church. Keep your head up!

  5. Steve McCoy says:

    Trevin, the question isn’t whether or not it’s fading, in my opinion. The question is, Which part of the EC is fading? There is a segment fading (that you name in your post) and there is a segment that is embraced and growing even louder.

    The conversation/movement question is crucial to this. The conservative end of the EC has never been about a movement outside of evangelicalism. It’s always been about a better evangelicalism. So in that sense it’s intended to be a “conversation” about how the Christian movement needs to change, and therefore rightly called a “conversation.” The more liberal end of the EC is a movement because they not only protest the current state of the Christian movement, but find it uninhabitable even with some changes. It thinks of itself as a movement that redefines the authority of Scripture, theology, ecclesiology, missiology, etc. So while the conversation end can and is changing the current state of things, that doesn’t mean it’s fading. It’s being embraced. The conversation has never been merely protesting what’s wrong. It’s about discussing what’s best, what’s biblical, what not, etc. Evangelicals are talking about having less programs and more relationships, the need for authentic community, being missional not merely sending missionaries, and so on. This isn’t a fading conversation, but an increasing one.

    The evidence on this is, for example, Mark Dever at an Acts 29 boot camp and Mark Driscoll at a Desiring God conference. Dever’s 9 Marks has been talking about missional theology and contextualization and such. His topic at Acts 29 was church planter evangelism which included a prominent section on the church as corporate witness, a big EC topic! Driscoll is often speaking on Reformed theology and complementarianism. So while you see it as fading or waning, it’s actually blending in with some parts of evangelicalism, which means we are more likely a hybrid whether we admit it or not.

    As for the movement end of the EC, it’s fading because we found the part of the EC worth embracing and listening to and conversing with as we work “together for the gospel.” That makes the influence of the movement side wane because they are asking many of the same questions as the conversation side, and the conversation side is working with the larger Christian movement to find the answers together.

    By the way, did the Jesus Movement fade? Or did it blend with the larger Christian movement? Didn’t the Jesus Movement spark Calvary Chapels? I hardly see that it faded. It just blended in the good parts (and bad…CCM!) which changes the Christian movement as a whole. You seem to want to retain a pure evangelicalism that outside things influence rather than seeing them as things that are really influencing from the inside, which then changes evangelicalism. I think the latter understanding is the only way to actually make sense out of all this.

  6. trevinwax says:

    Steve,

    I think you’re right. I’m looking at the movement side of this and seeing the influence that McLaren, Jones, Pagitt once had in evangelicalism beginning to wane.

    At the same time, on the conversational end, evangelicalism has begun to change (I think for the better) as we incorporate important biblical aspects from the conservative Emerging/missional (whatever we want to call them) side.

    The Jesus Movement (as a movement) did indeed fade, but it left us with a different kind of evangelicalism. The Emerging Movement (as a movement) is fading today, but it is leaving us with a shift in evangelical identity.

    The critique of evangelicalism from within (the conversationalists) are encouraging us to a better, more robust understanding of our missional identity. The critique of evangelicalism from outside (the Emergent crowd, though they began their critique from within) is no longer as influential. That is the movement that is receding. Driscoll & Dever, Patrick & Keller, etc. are just getting started.

  7. Steve McCoy says:

    Agreed Trevin. That “Emergent” folk began from within it a valid point. That’s why I think “conversation” suited the EC from the beginning and often argued for it, but can’t say that it’s all a conversation anymore.

  8. David says:

    Trevin, what is your take on Phyllis Tickle’s thoughts regarding what she terms “the great emergence”?

  9. trevinwax says:

    I recall reading something about Phyllis Tickle and the “great emergence” a few weeks ago. Do you know where I can find the substance of her talk?

  10. David says:

    I think this article is pretty good summation

    The great Emergence is the content of seminars phyllis is doing right now and it will be the topic of a book being published in late 2008.

  11. ryan couch says:

    Trevin,

    great insight…I’m a Calvary Chapel pastor. We aren’t exactly known for being all lovey dovey with the EC but I have learned a great deal by reading some of the authors and observing some of their practices.

    We are not emergent…although some of my peers give me a hard time about crossing over to the darkside :)

    at least in our theology…we are very fundamental in our theology continuing to teach through the Word and holding to all the major tenents of the Christian Faith.

    However in our praxis we might be considered a tad emergent…thus the dark side reference. But if feeding the homeless, reaching out to sinners, and embracing the culture rather than hiding from it means “emergent” than so be it.

    I resist titles…but I’m trying to get my peers to see that you can have it both ways…you know have your cake and eat it too. :)

    You can remain solid Biblically and reach your community effectively. It doesn’t have to be either or. We can equip the saints without being isolated in our little bubbles.

    blessings…ryan

  12. Ken Hobday says:

    This discussion reminds me of Dr. Richard Lovelace’s “sodalities” perspective on church history (Lovelace was a professor of church history at Gordon-Conwell). His thesis is that all renewal movements (sodalities) either vanish into irrelevancy or become absorbed into the larger stream of the church. Jesus Movement –> Calvary Chapels –> “contemporary worship” is a great example.

  13. Ken:

    Or you can look at the reformation and the restoration and those movements were “kinda big”. I think that in 30-50 years from now, you will take a look at the emergent and you will compare it to the REFORMATION.

    Yes, the “traditional” church will still be around; just as the Catholic church is around but there will be a “new” form of church.

    I do not think that we know what that new form will be.

    I am sure that back in 1520’s; the “reformationalist” had no idea what would transpire over the next 500 years and I am sure the CC thought that they would just quietly go away.

  14. adhunt says:

    Hello Trevin, I am relatively new to your site but I appreciate your perspective.

    But I too must disagree with your conclusion that the ‘so called EC’ is fading. For one there is not even a casual and mildly comprehensive study or survey that you use to back this assertion up. It is more like you say it matter of factly with no supporting evidence. Well, I for one would like to call you on that. If you could demonstrate why you believe the EC is fading I would be glad to hear, but simply to entitle a blog does not make it so.

    One demonstrable fact against your assertion may be the continual release of books from people who identify with the EC. Not all of them are rants for post-modernity. Andrew Perriman has released a scholarly book entitled “The Coming of the Son of Man” and a companion volume, “Re:Mission” sketching out a mission forward. Tony Jones, Brian McClaren and Peter Rollins have all recently released books as well. Scot McKnight’s blog is still incredibly influential and he is quite prolific as a blogger.

    I would agree with you though, that if you could take a temperature it would seem the buzz about the EC has settled out. This is possible, although difficult to demonstrate. Nonetheless I feel that your conclusion that it is fading is still incorrect. I believe that you will soon see a renewed rise in the EC because many of it’s young adherents; kids who when they were 16 or 17 read “A New Kind of Christian” are beginning to get out of Seminary. Many of them are seeking not MDiv’s, but MTh’s and other such academic degrees. D A Carson’s famous critique of the EC chastised it for not being academic enough and I personally know many kids who decided to take up his challenge. After all, the majority of people who identify with the EC desire to remain Evangelicals and have resisted going off into Protestant Liberalism. And I find your calling some of the more prominent voices “liberal” to be a misnomer. Grey, perhaps, but what do you expect E-Free pastors to sound like? They have not ever bought wholly into the Westminster Confession, or read through Calvin’ commentaries; “Statements of Faith” tend to be the order of the day for us and those were never as clear and systematic as Reformed Theology.

    Which brings me to Driscoll etc… I am not one to just start railing on Mark, although I do often find his rhetoric deplorably anti-christian. There is a rise in people integrating into Reformed circles, but this seems to me to be a grasp at the solid, the unquestionable, where before they were finding it difficult to confidently navigate a pluralistic society (or Evangelicalism!). Reformed voices say “biblical” so many times in a sentence it becomes heretical to consider other interpretations, or to suggest they are themselves biased, they just respond with “biblical, biblical, biblical.” Anyway, I do not see Reformed Christianity rising indefinitely. Mark continues to overstep his bounds by calling the ESV the only English bible ordained by God (what is this, a renewd KJV argument? please), and by using Reformed theology to get around exegesis in favour of ‘ordained women.’

    I am not so sure that I would compare it to the Reformation, although one might be forgiven for such a hope.

    Thanks,
    Tony

  15. Jacob says:

    I’d like to know of some evidence that might exist to back your theory up. Can you direct me?

  16. Trevin Wax says:

    Google “emerging out of emerging.” Scot McKnight, Dan Kimball and others are doing what I predicted way back when I wrote this post. They’re distancing themselves from the Emergent label quite intentionally. Others have also been remarking at the narrowing of Emergent’s sphere of influence.

    My thoughts on evangelism are not new. McKnight has written about this on his blog before. I don’t know that there’s any specific proof that says one way or another how the Emerging Church is receding or growing… but there are definitely signs in the recession direction right now.

  17. aworthydiscussion says:

    Really like what you say here Trevin. Very early on I saw this was just a fad. You can’t continue on a diet of cotton candy forever can you?

  18. Ron says:

    Yeah, I agree it’s receding. And I praise God for that.

    I’ve always been on the outside of EC. So my observations are not that grounded in experience, beyond reading thoughts by Brian McLaren, Spencer Burke, and Doug Pagitt. And it seems a lot like they’re the new Athenians, just sitting around (probably with cigar in hand) conversing about the latest theological ideas that came into their brain. And not about devotion to Jesus Christ, transformation to His likeness by the Spirit, or being his agent of love and peace in the world (both individually and corporately). But “how can the church be more accepted by the world?” (Never mind that the Scripture says at one point, “Don’t be surprised if the world hates you.”) But it’s almost like they enjoy discussing the questions without ever coming to any answers!

    They’re not all wishy-washy, though. Some do come to conclusions. Anyone ever ready Burke’s “A Heretic’s Guide To Eternity”?

    I’ve been Pentecostal all my life, and a few years ago switched to doing house church. I still have many friends in what HCers call “Babylon”, though, including my extended family. And as recently as last year, I’d mention “emerging church”, and most people had never heard of it. Here’s where EC departs from the Jesus Movement comparison: I was only 5 when the Jesus Movement hit, but from what I gather, it rocked the church. It was controversial. And while the faddishness of the Jesus Movement faded away, the good things about the movement strengthened the church as a whole. Meanwhile, the EC has felt more like the student at Bible College needling his professor with trivia questions, partially to show that he doesn’t buy what he’s hearing, and partially to piss off the professor. And shortly after the semester ends, the kid leaves, and is forgotten.

    Look, I could care less about a new form for the church. I care about Christ. And how we as His body can impact this world. It won’t happen with beautiful buildings, or 3-point sermons given by a man in a suit, or pack-a-pew contests, or Karate for Jesus. It’ll happen when we draw near to God and He draws near to us, we connect with each other in intentional mutual discipleship, and we share this divine love with a world that’s all shook up. If EC helps with that, then praise the Lord. Let’s just keep the focus right, though . . .

  19. Ted says:

    I appreciated Ron’s comments from Dec…the emergent church is not fading..they are being absorbed into churches that were once Christian…there’s nothing good that will come from the emergent movement…the leadership network is nothing more than a liberal think-tank, with sole intentions on creating a controllable one world church…amazingly, all they had to do was convince a few churches that there were a few good ideas and some truths to what they were saying in order to gain a foothold…if only we would have had the courage to totally dismiss these false teachers when they “only added a few small heresies”…then this would have never taken root in our churches…it’s high time we held everything we see and hear to the scrutiny of the scriptures alone…we are a peculiar people…the world will hate us for our faith and without that stark contrast…no one would ever be convicted or saved…even a mini-poularity contest will end in utter failure…love God not the world…there’s no middle ground…

  20. Trevin,

    Just seeing this. Good job.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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