The Case for Not Being Emergent

I thought Evan Curry did a nice job addressing the pitfalls that come with defining “emergent”.  For those of you who don’t like to jump between two different articles, here’s what Evan had to say.

I remember a story about a famous punk rock star, who was walking down the street as he was being interviewed by a journalist. The journalist asked this individual, “What is punk rock?” The rocker, hearing the question, turned to a nearby trashcan, kicked it down, and said, “That’s punk rock!” Believing to now understand the punk rock scene, the journalist kicked down an adjacent trashcan. “That’s punk rock?” he said. The rock star smiled and replied, “No, that’s trendy.”

Part of my original attraction to the Emergent conversation was that I didn’t have to be defined by my theology. Specifically, I didn’t have to do theology in a systematic way. For instance, if I believed in Calvin’s doctrine on atonement, I didn’t have to be a “Calvinist” (whatever that is). Equally attractive was that I could believe in Arminian free will, and those who disagreed with me wouldn’t resent me but actually engage in conversation with me. Thus, I wasn’t defined by my theology, but I was defined by my humanity. I wasn’t seen as an “outsider” because I didn’t hold the exact same theology as those who disagreed with me. Instead, I was listened to and engaged with by others. I guess that means we were “in conversation.”

Our human (modern?) desire is to define each other. “He or she is a Democrat.” That feels good. It’s comfortable. We now “know” who/what they are all about. But the problem is that people are just messier than definitions. We don’t fit in boxes very easily no matter how hard we struggle to. I’m not a Calvinist, but neither is John Calvin. I’m not a mainliner, but neither is Walter Brueggemann. I’m not Anglican, but neither is N.T. Wright. We are not confined to our boxes, but we our defined by our humanity; or better yet, our new humanity. Part of becoming a follower of Jesus is shedding definitions, breaking out of boxes, and helping others do the same. We are under the umbrella of Christianity, but one person sharing it may be different (and is allowed to be) than another person sharing the same umbrella.

This being said, it has become slightly popular to now say, “I’m Emergent.” To which I respond, “What? Doesn’t that kick against everything that is ‘emergent’?” I do understand the purpose of definitions, but my fear is that if we define ourselves by “Emergent” we may exclude those who aren’t. Once we define ourselves as that, we reinforce the lumping of the individual into what other people call “Emergent.” For instance, someone says, “Evan is Emergent;” thus, he must agree with Brian McLaren when he says such and such, and Tony Jones when he says such and such, and Doug Pagitt when he says such and such. If one must be defined as “Emergent,” thenI’m not Emergent.

Like the story above, punk rock isn’t something you are or do, but it’s an “ideal” or a “mindset.” Similarly, Emergent must not be something one is, but rather it must remain a mindset since there are certain Emergent ideals (e.g., missional living). So, if one who follows those ideals is “Emergent,” then I am Emergent. 

Emergent is a working definition (a work in-progress per se). It must refrain from attempting to be fully defined…because it can’t be. It is not defined, rather Emergent is defining and re-defining; and it should remain this way.

Maybe we could say, “If you say you’re Emergent, you aren’t”? You can’t be Emergent. Emergent is a conversation. It cannot be ultimately defined. You can live Emergent. You can embody Emergent, but you are not definitively Emergent. You are a human, a new creation, one created in the image of God.

My prayer is that term “Emergent” will soon phase out and that the ideals of Emergent will become what it simply means to be “Christian” (which I think already does mean so).

Postmoderns are OK with paradox so – I am not Emergent. I cannot be defined. I am messier than that. But I am Emergent. I hold those ideals. I have that mindset. I believe in the missional call of Christ. I believe in conversation. I believe in unity.

Part of being Emergent (I believe) is that you simultaneously aren’t. You are part of something bigger than yourself, but you cannot be defined. You are part of a movement that needs no definition. It has ideals, but it can’t, won’t, and shouldn’t be fully defined.

So, I guess I’m not Emergent because I am.


My inner-Lutheran craves more structure (oops…I said the “s-word”!) with the Emergent conversation.  I’m familiar and comfortable with church councils, constitutions, synods, by-laws, task forces of 60% lay and 40% clergy.  I still find value in these entities, despite their inherent flaws.  Perhaps an Emergent purpose statement, or some guiding principles, would make me feel more at ease.  Maybe a leadership board that helps to shape Emergent identity.  (Even the heralded Emergent book of 2008 – “The Great Emergence” by Phyllis Tickle – refuses to slap a definition on the Emergent movement / conversation / thing.)

I believe it’s entirely possible that such structure is both unnecessary and counter-productive to all that is Emergent.  It  just requires this young Lutheran to embrace a little more ambiguity than what my orthodoxy has allowed up to this point.


3 Responses to The Case for Not Being Emergent

  1. Evan says:

    Thanks for taking time to reference my thoughts. I appreciate it.

  2. Brian Middleswarth says:


    I’ve been reading about the Emergent church for years now. I’ve read Tony Jones, Dan Kimball, Brian McLaren, et al along with numerous articles and posts. I’ve also looked at critiques of the Emergent church. Despite all of this I find myself to be very ambivalent about it. There are alot of things I’ve read that I say a hearty “Amen!”. I find much congruence with aspects of the Emergent conversation that matches our own Lutheran take on the gospel. But there is something that makes me uneasy and I don’t quite know what it is. Is it just my “Lutheraness” showing through or are there some fundamental issues at play here? Would love your thoughts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: