Emerging, Emergent, Missional: What’s the Difference?

By Gary Zustiak

Confused by the terms emerging, emergent, and missional? That would be normal, because many people use the words interchangeably in discussing the current church scene.

I apologize if I unfairly portray any group, but we must do some generalizing if we are to provide definitions for these movements to help guide the average church member through the blogs, magazines, and books that focus on them.

• An emerging church is an evangelical church that seeks to engage postmodern people, especially the unchurched and postchurched, with the story of the gospel and to challenge them to a radical change of life. The emerging church seeks ways to be relevant to a postmodern culture without compromising the essential elements of the gospel.

There is a heavy emphasis upon narrative, or story, as the chief means of communicating the message of God over doctrine or exegetical approaches. Emerging church members seek authenticity and involvement in their worship services as opposed to a scripted service led by a selected few. They are not content with simply attending a church service—they want to be the church in the communities where they live.

• The Emergent church movement is more closely associated with Emergent Village1. Emergent Village began when a group of young leaders were gathered together by Leadership Network to pool their ideas on Gen X ministries. It was soon discovered the issues and changes that many faced were much larger than just a generational issue. They were issues on how to make the church relevant in a world whose worldview was changing from modern to postmodern. The Emergent Village was formed as a loose network of leaders and churches who wholeheartedly embraced postmodern presuppositions and the methodologies of deconstruction to Scripture, theology, and church practice. Andy Jones eventually became president of the organization, but Brian McLaren’s writings probably speak the loudest with respect to the beliefs of Emergent2.

Some in the emerging church movement (such as Mark Driscoll from Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington) have purposely distanced themselves from the Emergent movement because they do not want to be associated with the liberal theological agenda and practices that have come to be associated with it.3

Both the emerging church and the Emergent church desire to engage the postmodern culture, but there is a huge difference in the approaches the two movements take with respect to theology and Scripture. Emerging churches maintain a high respect for the authority of Scripture, whereas Emergent churches feel free to deconstruct Scripture; some have emerged with such unorthodox theological positions they should be considered heresy.

• A missional church is not a new church movement, but simply a characteristic of an outwardly focused church that sends out its members to purposefully live their daily lives as light and salt in meeting the needs of “the least of these.” Rather than the church’s evangelistic thrust being “come and see what we have to offer,” it is shaped around service in the communities where members purposefully live to draw people to him through acts of social justice, feeding the hungry, community involvement, and other social concerns.

To summarize: All Emergent churches would be emerging churches, but not all emerging churches are Emergent churches. Any church, emerging, Emergent, or traditional evangelical, can be missional if it changes its evangelistic focus from one of “come out of the culture and join us in our holy huddle” to “let’s enter and engage the culture and change those within without becoming part of the culture.”

—Gary Zustiak


1 See www.emergentvillage.com.

2 See especially these two books by Brian McLaren: A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004) and The Last Word and the Word After That: A Tale of Faith, Doubt, and a New Kind of Christianity (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005).

3 See the short YouTube video by Mark Driscoll on “Emerging vs. Emergent” found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RcbnGXSYxuIand “The Calvary Chapel Statement on the Emergent Church” found at www3.calvarychapel.com/ccof2/parsontoparson.pdf.

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