The Emerging Church Phenomenon

By Gary Zustiak

A new church movement is sweeping across the country. In many ways it is much like the beginnings of the Restoration Movement. It freely crosses racial and economic boundaries and knows no denominational ties.

It has no headquarters or officials who make binding decisions about doctrine or church polity. Its advocates rabidly insist they are not a new denomination, preferring the terms movement or conversation. Some have observed a likeness to the old Jesus People movement of the ’60s and ’70s. What am I referring to? The emerging church movement.

The Beginnings

The emerging church movement informally began when a number of evangelical pastors and church members across the United States became dissatisfied with the status quo of traditional church worship and involvement and simply wanted more from their church experience—more commitment, more community, more involvement, more challenge, and more of an impact on the surrounding culture. Spencer Burke and Doug Pagitt are representative of those who have pioneered this movement.

Burke was on staff with Mariners Church in Irvine, California, when it was a megachurch on 25 acres with a $7.8 million budget. Burke was “successful” by the traditional way of thinking, but he began to be troubled by things like “parking lot ministry”—helping well-to-do families in SUVs find the next available parking space. After 18 years of serving in the church he found himself in a state of unrest and disenchantment.

Burke’s discontent could be boiled down to three things:

1. He rejected the CEO model of the megachurch and desired more shared leadership.

2. He was concerned about the spiritual isolationism of the typical church. It seemed that most churches wanted a “neat and clean” style of Christianity. They didn’t really want to be bothered with the plight of the homeless or other social ills.

3. He was tired of success always defined as being bigger and better. He set out looking for something more authentic.

Burke resigned as a pastor of the church and started one of the most influential Web sites for postmoderns and those sympathetic to the values of the emerging church:

Similarly Doug Pagitt, seminary graduate and megachurch youth pastor, questioned his church experience. “There was no big dramatic shift in my thinking,” he writes, “but rather this lurking sense that there were levels of faith I knew nothing of and yet needed to enter if I were to remain a Christian at all. It was a feeling I couldn’t shake, and yet I also felt like I couldn’t fully articulate what I needed. I just knew I needed something to change.”2

At about the same time Pagitt and Burke were rethinking how church should more effectively reach out to the culture, an organization called Leadership Network began hosting conferences with a focus on Gen X ministry. The key leaders for these conferences included Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Chris Seay, Mark Driscoll, Pagitt, and several others. Dan Kimball wasn’t part of this original group, but later became a key player. The tagline for Leadership Network was “Advance Scouts for the Emerging Church.”3

After several years of hosting conferences geared toward Gen X ministry, the leadership core discovered the key issues they were dealing with were not just generational in nature, but represented an entire cultural change. These issues were the result of a philosophical shift in thinking from modern to postmodern. The leadership core realized these issues were much larger than just the style of music one used in worship or simply turning the lights out and lighting candles and incense to create a worship “experience.”

In order to more accurately define this new movement the term emerging church was chosen because it was non-age specific, better described churches and ministries that focused on younger generations, and acknowledged the culture was really changing and shifting.

Dan Kimball was one of the first to write a book describing this new phenomenon; he offered some practical insights on how emerging churches were different from modern churches. For him, the term emerging churches “meant churches who were rethinking what it means to be the church in our emerging culture. It meant churches who were ‘being the church’ instead of ‘going to church’ in our emerging culture. . . . It meant missional churches passionate about seeing the gospel of Jesus communicated and lived out to emerging generations.”4

Emerging Church and Emergent

As it became clear the emerging church phenomenon was greater than a generational issue, the Leadership Network disbanded and a new group formed from some of its key members. The purpose of the new group was to become a kind of theological think tank for postmoderns. They renamed the group Emergent.

This group was comprised mainly of McLaren, Jones, Pagitt, and a few others. Driscoll had removed himself from the original group because he was concerned where the group was headed theologically and his leadership was desperately needed to direct Mars Hill, a new church he founded in Seattle, Washington. Mark Oestreicher from Youth Specialties became very interested and supportive of Emergent and eventually partnered with Emergent to publish books (through Zondervan) and host events featuring Emergent at the National Pastors Convention and The National Youth Workers Convention.

People often use the terms emerging and emergent interchangeably. This is only natural because Emergent was part of the emerging church discussion in the beginning. However, while they share some common elements, there are some very important differences between the two.

Emergent, in its proper sense, refers to the theological think tank of McLaren and others whose focus is more on changing theology in a postmodern world. The emerging church movement is more concerned with methodology—on how the church can more effectively reach out to a culture that no longer feels church has anything relevant to offer. All Emergent churches would consider themselves to be associated with the emerging church movement, but not all emerging churches would agree with the theology of the Emergent movement.

Defining the Emerging Church

Emerging church leaders sometimes struggle when asked to identify themselves. They may look back to what they are emerging from more than they look forward to what they are emerging into. Those who are critical of the emerging church movement accuse them of not loving or appreciating the church and of being nothing more than a collective group of whiners who freely criticize but do nothing to help the established church.

Defenders of the emerging church movement respond to such criticism by saying their goal is merely to replace all modern practices of Christianity that no longer relate to a postmodern culture. The emerging church does not want to remove the faith from the church, only modern expressions of it.

As Gibbs and Bolger point out, it is difficult to identify specific characteristics of an emerging church when there is no centralized authority structure to normalize doctrine or key elements that make a church emerging. It is a movement that is very diverse, and insiders don’t even like to refer to it as a movement as much as a conversation.

However, after extensive interviews and research, Gibbs and Bolger identified nine practices common to emerging churches. They divide the nine practices into three core practices and six that are derivative of the three core practices. The nine practices are:5

1. Identifying with the life of Jesus—Instead of thinking about what form the church should take, emerging churches emphasize what the life of Jesus means in this time and place.

2. Transforming secular space—Instead of seeing only the church building as “sacred space,” the emerging church strives to give all of life over to God in worship, and to recognize the work of God in formerly unspiritual things or activities.

3. Living highly communal lives—Emerging churches stand in sharp contrast to the consumer form of church, in which people shop to meet their spiritual needs. Members are not interested in short-term relationships or meeting a person’s needs, or functioning as a spiritual vendor for people. They want to be a community of people committed to sharing life together.

4. Welcoming the stranger—Emerging churches focus on changed lives rather than changed beliefs. There is a concerted effort to welcome the outsider. This hospitality extends into the world and creates a safe zone where people can dwell.

5. Serving with generosity—Emerging churches do not allow anonymous consumers to continue consuming. All members are encouraged to become active participants who go forth into the community and world to serve others. Emerging churches are highly missional in focus.

6. Participating as producers—Emerging churches are determined to move from a consumer to a producer form of church. This means all services are designed to be highly participatory by all who attend and not just the leadership team on the stage.

7. Create as created beings—Emerging churches emphasize the arts and the giftedness of all Christians and encourage people to use their gifts (whatever they may be) in the worship service or outreach of the church.

8. Lead as a body—Emerging church leaders are opposed to any CEO model or hierarchical understanding of leadership out of the conviction that it inevitably stifles people and creativity.

9. Take part in spiritual activities—Emerging churches have shown a renewed interest in monastic spirituality, in which community is fostered through the practice of daily spiritual disciplines and mutual accountability.

A Critique of the Emerging Church

From my experience, a good deal of the criticism directed toward the emerging church is unjustified in that it is true only of the Emergent movement. The Emergent movement, with Brian McLaren as its chief spokesman, is going the way of theological liberalism. Some Emergents, in their allegiance to postmodernism, have abandoned the authority of Scripture and almost all the main tenets of historical evangelicalism, such as the belief in a final judgment, Heaven and Hell, and salvation through Christ alone.

D.A. Carson has written a book in which he critiques the emerging church.6 While he makes some valid points, he isn’t careful to make a distinction between emerging and Emergent. His criticism is mainly focused on the Emergent churches’ acceptance of a postmodern epistemology and the works of Brian McLaren. McLaren may represent Emergent, but he does not represent all those who are emerging.

While I have definite concerns with some aspects of this new movement, there is much to applaud. I like how the emerging church honestly tries to read the culture and think through the implications of how best to effectively communicate the gospel in a way that will be understood and embraced. Their emphasis on authenticity in Christian faith, spirituality, and Christian obedience, is surely commendable. Emerging churches have a passion to share the gospel with those who may be overlooked by the traditional church or at least untouched by it.


1 Read Burke’s story in his own words at

2 Doug Pagitt, Church Re-Imagined (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 41.

3 Dan Kimball,

4 Ibid.

5 Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger, Emerging Churches (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 45.

6 D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant With the Emerging Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005).



Gary Zustiak teaches psychology and counseling at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.

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