Emerging for the Rest of Us

By Josh Tandy

In 2003 I was in college and reading Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian. It was unlike anything I had ever read in Christian literature. The book simultaneously bothered and encouraged me. I thought I understood about half of the issues discussed, but I actually grasped far less. Despite my ignorance, I was hooked—even though I didn’t fully know why.

To varying degrees I think many church leaders, whether paid or unpaid, have had a similar experience with their first contact with the emerging church movement. Perhaps you were like me and had no context to process what McLaren and others were proposing. Or perhaps you were well versed on the rise of postmodernity and its seeming contradictions to Evangelical Christianity. The emerging church is in many ways an enigma (perhaps intentionally) that even those within the movement have a hard time defining.

Opposite Reactions

Reactions to the emerging church are incredibly polarized. Many of my contemporaries embraced the ideals and postures of the emerging conversation and have sought to live it out in their various contexts. Sadly this move toward emerging postures is commonly dripping with cynicism and bitterness toward the existing church.

In the last few years as I have served in paid church ministry, I have found that nearly all existing church leaders are at least leery of the movement and, in more than a few cases, downright hostile toward it. These reactions do not give me hope. Cynicism and hostility are simply not acceptable options toward any tribe of Christians.

This brought me to this question: “Is there an ‘emerging’ for the rest of us?” Can we embrace the good challenges coming from the emerging church movement without giving up on the existing congregations we know and serve? I’ve learned that the answer to this question doesn’t come easily. J.P. Jones at First Christian in Champaign, Illinois, shared his frustration with me:

“Overall, I think my attitude toward the movement is fairly open; however, in some of the materials I’ve read it seems the movement has some spirit of cynicism toward the local church that I don’t believe is appropriate.”

It’s clear many emerging church leaders have little hope for the existing church. Their writing shows an explicit and implicit pattern: leave the existing church and start over with something new, because the modern practices of the established church are far too entrenched to be changed. I, however, have no interest in a model that gives up on local churches.

Maybe you are like many who are not open to the emerging church and the postures it embodies. For many (myself included), the postmodern characteristic of relativism is a sticking point. When carried to its fullest conclusion, all truth becomes subjective to the individual. Student pastor Ryne Isaac of First Christian Church in Moweaqua, Illinois, describes this tension:

I think the greatest challenge of postmodernism is relativism. Relativism is a complicated cop-out. It allows us to do what we want and warrant it as OK because it is “right for us” . . . Relativism is a stark contrast to the message of Christianity. It would be a great challenge to get a person to lay down the comforts of relativism when it allows him to justify any action or decision in his life.

The challenges of relativism are a stark reality in a postmodern age. Interacting with people who hold this perspective will be incredibly difficult, but no more difficult than evangelistic challenges faced at other times. Even for those suspicious of the emerging church movement, it is hard to deny it has been successful in communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ to people of all ages who aren’t darkening the doorways of many existing churches.

And so the traditional church can choose to fully embrace or completely condemn the emerging church, or we can try and forge a third way in which we learn and selectively apply principles. If choosing the latter, I would suggest three basic concepts that the emerging church seems to be living out well.

Rediscovering Mission

Many churches have a mission statement, a sentence or two that seeks to summarize the essence of your church’s ministry. However, for many of us our mission statement highlights an unrealized goal—only occasionally do we come close to living it out.

Our local churches should serve as base camps to engage the local community and hospitals for the spiritually wounded. Too often, however, churches become museums, preserving something good from the past. Museums are important, but hospitals are essential.

D.A. Carson characterizes the emerging church as a protest movement. One of the main critiques the emerging church leaders have lobbed toward the rest of us has been that many in our churches are compartmentalizing their faith. These “Sunday Christians” attend church regularly, sing along, and even take a few notes, but lack any discernible changes come Monday.

I resonate with this charge because, although not universal, it is accurate. Paul Mumaw, lead pastor at Genesis Church in Noblesville, Indiana, talks about getting away from the Sunday “Big Show” mentality. The Sunday performance mentality is great for drawing new people in, but it can forestall development of spiritual depth.

To counteract this, many churches, both emerging and modern, have advocated the mission field approach. Shawn Case, the weekend experience leader at Southbrook Christian Church in Miamisburg, Ohio, said, “It is my hope we can help people understand and embrace that they are the church and are already in their mission field and that buildings and programs are tools and resources and not the end goal.”

The emerging church is/has been associated with the missional movement because it stresses community involvement so strongly. Our churches need to start taking those mission statements and living them out.

Honesty and Humility

Several recent studies painfully describe just what those outside the local church think about those within it. Justly or unjustly, many who visit our churches enter with negative preconceptions.

In modernism, certainty is king. We learned the scientific method as the tool to understand the world around us. If it couldn’t be tested or valued, it was suspect. Ultimately this has been a great thing for society. Without the scientific method we wouldn’t have the Apollo program or the polio vaccine. In contrast, postmodernism is much more accepting of mystery and uncertainty. Postmodernists are OK with not having all the answers.

As modernism sought out certainty and answers, much of the ecumenical structure was concerned with transferring the correct information. Postmodern contexts value correct action, at times more so than correct belief. This may be a leap too far for many, but I think we all can see value in a church that elevates deeds that match beliefs.

Titus Benton, associate student pastor at First Christian of Florissant, Missouri, put it this way: “An emphasis on personal relationships is classic emerging church movement, but it’s also classic New Testament.”

Share Authority

The professionalization of ministry has led to more qualified leaders and preachers, but it also has instilled a sense that ministry is done only by the pros. Those in paid ministry realize the danger of this unintended consequence. And emerging churches have embraced various models of egalitarian authority that engage unhealthy perspectives on who does ministry.

The natural tendency for leaders is to hoard authority, but successful leaders must empower others with responsibility if they want to be sustainable. Shawn Case says his church is “exploring how we can shift our church culture from one that relies heavily on the staff to provide programs people can benefit from to a culture where we (staff) can help equip people as they live out the reflection of Christ in their communities.”

Live in the Tension

It is easy to draw boundaries and walls, but those boundaries limit you and your church. You may not agree with what the new church down the street or across the country is doing, but I know you can learn something from them. Maybe their critiques sting for a reason. Working through something is harder than writing it off. It might be just what you and the church need to hear.

Josh Tandy serves as student pastor with Genesis Church in Noblesville, Indiana. You can read his blog at joshtandy.com.

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  4. Avatar
    Tim Hazlette
    February 1, 2011 at 11:16 am

    After reading this article I have pondered it for sometime now, contemplating whether to write a perspective on it. I feel lead to offer some observations. First of which, these notions were around in Bible days – just not called emerging.

    What I notice most about many of the authors and respondents is that they engage in an “intellectual debate” or “academic debate” concerning the Bible and the topic at hand. There is a tendency to ask for studies, data, more research, etc. to help enlighten the subject. The emerging church movement seems to assume this approach in total. Lest we never forget that Satan (the devil) uses two approaches to combat Christianity; intellect and lust. It was intellect he used in the Garden of Eden; eat of this tree and you’ll be “as smart as God”. The devil is still alive and finds his way into the Church (in some cases I think he’s invited in).

    Please allow me to highlight just a few of those;
    1. Surveys: I recognize the benefit of these in the business world, for academics, government, and secular culture. However, I’ve never found in the Bible where anyone conducted a survey. What is confusing and offensive is the survey of the “lost / unsaved” to determine why they don’t attend Church and what would it take to get them there. How comfortable would you be if the U.S. Military did a survey of the Talliban to determine how best to win the war with them? Well, I can show you the results of this – if you haven’t already observed it for yourself. Church services – in general – have become…. ? you fill in the blank. Historically, the Church affected and changed the culture – only recently, has that reversed. Instead of conducting surveys, the Church (members) should be witnessing to the lost sharing the “plan of salvation” and allowing the Holy Spirit to then work on the “seed” planted and bring the person to Salvation.
    Acts 2:46 – 47: 46And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart,

    47Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.

    2. New Age: A friend coined a phrase the other day that is near prophetic – he called it “Pastoral Arrogance”. I am amazed that McLauren and others (Warren, Hybels, etc) come boldly before the congregations and profess “we’ve finally figured this out”. All of our forefathers had it all wrong – near on to 2000 years – but take heart – we’ve figured out how all this works now. They profess “deeds instead of creeds”. Without a “creed”, the Church is no different than the Red Cross or the Knights of Columbus. That saying “doctrine divides” is another misguided use of words by someone trying to sound spiritual. Doctrine may divide them who don’t want to accept it – but the reality is Doctrine Defines” – and without it – the Church is incapacitated.

    3. Mission Statement: Too many Churches have decied to become businesses. Its more about “filling seats” than “saving souls”. The mission statement was written by Jesus in Matthew 28:18-20. No need to waste time writing another.

    In closing, I share these scriptures to ponder as you contemplate the merits of the emerging church movement;
    1 John 4:1
    Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.

    Ephesians 4:14
    That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive;

    2 Timothy 4
    1I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom;

    2Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine.

    3For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears;

    4And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.

    Jude 1:3-4 (King James Version)

    3Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.

    4For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ.

    Just remember, we should not get all tangled up in this Postmodern talk and “culture” and “change” – because that kind of “intellect” is straight out of hell. Be not deceived.

    If Jesus were to come next Sunday – I predict most Churches would not let him preach the way He preached in the Gospels……….. saying He’s too narrow and blunt !!!
    Matthew 7:13-15 (King James Version)

    13Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:

    14Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

    15Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.

  5. Avatar
    February 7, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    Josh – first of all, well-written and balanced article. This is a HUGE topic and I appreciate the encapsulation.

    Tim- thank you for your perspective and that great menagerie of verses. In addition, you said, “If Jesus were to come next Sunday – I predict most Churches would not let him preach the way He preached in the Gospels……….. saying He’s too narrow and blunt !!!”

    My question to you is: if Jesus DID come, would he spend his time in the church buildings preaching?

    Just a thought. I don’t claim to know anything except Christ. It has just been interesting to grapple with and pray through this issue.

  6. Avatar
    February 7, 2011 at 9:15 pm


    First of all thanks for taking time to engage the article and to articulate your thoughts.

    You cover a lot of ground here, but let me engage two main issues you propose. Let me apologize for combining some of your numbered points, but this is how my mind organized the information:

    1. That using business practices such as surveys to interact with culture change.

    2. Creating mission statements as opposed to using the Great Commission. Which is symptomatic of “pastoral arrogance” and stressing attendance numbers over discipleship.

    Your concerns are common and helpful in the conversation. Without asking important questions of motive and purpose the church can wonder aimlessly.

    1. While in general I have heard similar comments before I haven’t been exposed to many people worried about the danger of performing surveys. It appears you would disagree with the assertion that culture isn’t undergoing change. The surveys and other intellectual pursuits you cite do indeed give evidence that supports what many people have experienced.

    I am of the mind that we are entering into a postmodern era. However I don’t believe this is a positive or a negative, but a variable in the equation. Paul preached the same core message in the Synagogue, marketplace, and at Mars Hill but he changed how he preached the Gospel.

    2. I serve in a church that has adapted the Great Commission for our mission statement. Not because the GC needed improvement, we wanted to not only speak in the vernacular (just like updated Bible translations) but it was important for us to convey the need for evangelism/discipleship and the fact that God is always trying to overcome the separation that began in the Garden.

    I agree that when I sense pride or arrogance in any realm I am turned off. That said I don’t agree that the pastors you have mentioned exude that sort of arrogance. They share successful principles that have worked in their context or ideas they are proposing to drive the conversation, but not to tell others how to lead. Even if you felt that way that shouldn’t make you write off them and their ideas, what’s wrong with picking and choosing?

    I feel as though I am rambling and I don’t want to scatter the conversation here, so I’m going to hit pause in hopes that you or other readers will comment.

  7. Avatar
    Cameron Sprinkle
    February 8, 2011 at 9:35 am


    Regarding surveys…I never saw in the bible where they used the internet, or blogs…does that mean that we as Christians shouldn’t use those valuable resources also? Many of them walked everywhere…they didn’t use electricity, so how far do you want to take this early church argument? Don’t you think that at some point someone in the early church engaged in a conversation with someone about why they didn’t attend services? So doing it in an organized and efficient manner is where acquiring that perspective crosses the line?

    Comparing the lost-saved relationship to the taliban-US relationship is quite a stretch, bordering on audacious. We’re not trying to murder the lost. Asking people in our community what they think about church or Jesus is completely different than asking someone how best to literally attack them.

    Having grown up in the traditional church and now being part of a more “emergent” church, I have seen how both can be ridiculously stereotyped. To say that all traditional churches are irrelevant or closed-minded is wrong, and to say that all emergent churches are liberal or loose is wrong.

    Personally it pains me to go to a church that functions as a time machine where things haven’t changed for 30 years and it’s the same people singing the same songs and doing the same things they’ve always done, with no regard for reaching those who are not like themselves.

    About changing things that have “worked” for 2000 years…has not the world changed in the last hundred years more than it changed in the previous 1900? When my great-grandpa founded a church in the 70’s, he elected to have theater-style seating instead pews, and that was RADICAL. And why? Is it wrong to make guests and attendees more comfortable than they would be sitting on a rock-hard, wooden pew? Or is it just about doing things the way they’ve always been done?

    What’s ironic is that in your attempt to dismantle those who say “we have it all figured out” you end up sounding yourself like you’ve got it all figured out. (Did they actually say, by the way, or did you grossly mis-paraphrase them?) I’m amazed when Christians criticize Godly men who are following the Lord into wisdom and then sharing it with others for the sake of Jesus’ name.

    Even traditional churches do things to promote themselves and to appear attractive or welcoming, so where do you draw the line? The key word in that sentence is “you”. Somehow people have determined that they know the line between Godly and unGodly with regards to church marketing. I think God looks at the heart in it. Certainly there are those who are misguided, but they’re not all in the emergent churches.

    The lost are hungry for Jesus…not modern worship methods, not hymns, not clever marketing, not tradition…Jesus. Those things listed are just things the church has always used to draw people closer to Him, and as long as that is their intention, how can either the “new” or the “old” be right or wrong?

    Lastly, what is your answer for all of the people who have been legitimately brought to Christ through “emergent” means? That it doesn’t count because they played a U2 song in church the morning they were saved?

  8. March 4, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    […] next month an article I wrote is going to appear in the Christian Standard.  After I submitted my thesis my advisers encouraged me to turn it into an article and the […]

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