The Emerging Church: A Guide for the Perplexed

The growing attention paid to the “emerging church” has certainly got people talking. And whatever the “emerging church” is, it seems to be quite a chameleon. Depending on who you talk to, it’s either the latest threat to biblical faith or that which will save us from two thousand years of error!

I don’t think either the alarmists or the triumphalists are right on this score, for a variety of reasons. The “emerging church,” first of all, is not really an “it.” It’s not a new denomination or organized fellowship of churches; it’s not even properly a “movement.” It’s better understood as a growing sensibility in the contemporary church—a sensibility that finds manifestations across the spectrum of (mainly Protestant) traditions, from mainline to non-denominational evangelical congregations. More specifically, it is a postmodern sensibility.

Now, for some, explaining the emerging church by describing it as postmodern will be a bit like explaining quantum theory by invoking Heisenberg’s transcendental algebra—only compounding confusion! However, postmodernism is very important for the emerging church. What it refers to is a deep dissatisfaction with a number of ideas and practices that became dominant in modernity—roughly an era that began in the sixteenth century with the philosopher Descartes and persists until today.

Descartes famously reduced human beings to “thinking things” and thus devalued the emotions, the arts, and even community. As the church slowly adopted the outlook of modernity, the faith was reduced to a kind of individualistic “talking head” Christianity, mainly concerned with ideas and propositions, rather than practices, formation, and community. While “postmodernism” means many things, it certainly means a rejection of this limited notion of human persons and a revaluing of concrete practices, a central role for the arts, and focus on relationships and community.

The core of the emerging church “sensibility,” we might say, is a deep affirmation of the Incarnation and a desire to translate that into our understanding of the church’s ministry, worship, and discipleship. So “emerging churches” are very interested in recovering ancient embodied practices of worship and even a more robust understanding of the sacraments. In such churches we find a significant recovery of more Eucharistic worship, a renewed appreciation of the liturgical arts, and intentional focus on worship practices that form us as disciples of Christ. This incarnational emphasis also translates into a deep concern for ministry “where we are,” and specifically a desire to minister to those in the urban cores of our cities, along with a concern for the concrete realities of justice. We might say that the emerging church is recovering a sense of “parish,” and some emerging churches (like Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis) are intentional communities that embody this in radical ways.

Learning from the Conversation

There is much to be learned from the emerging church discussion. Noted here are some resources that will help you join the conversation.

One of the most important catalysts for the emerging church has been the work of Brian McLaren, pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Maryland. His early work, including The Church on the Other Side: Doing Ministry in the Postmodern Matrix (Zondervan, 1998, 2000), provides an accessible introduction to some of the core themes of postmodernism and then “translates” this into specific ministry practices. But the book that put McLaren—and the emergent conversation—on the map was A New Kind of Christian (Jossey-Bass, 2001). Written as a kind of quasi-novel, this book traces some of McLaren’s own struggles with what it means to be the church for a postmodern world. It is a very honest, even confessional book that includes insightful cultural exegesis and makes for an excellent introduction to the conversation. It would be a good book for a worship team to read as a group for discussion. For those interested in going further, the book has now grown into a trilogy including The Story We Find Ourselves In (2003) and The Last Word and the Word After That (2005). McLaren’s most mature statements can be found in A Generous Orthodoxy (Zondervan, 2004), an engaging read which situates the emergent conversation in the broad tradition of the church catholic.

The emerging church’s interest in recovering liturgical practices from the tradition means that it embodies what worship guru Robert Webber has called an “ancient-future” faith. In fact, Webber’s book Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World (Baker, 1999) anticipates a number of themes that have become central to the emerging church. Thus it’s no surprise that Webber became interested and provided a wonderful chronicle and survey of these developments in The Younger Evangelicals (Baker, 2002). In this must-read book, Webber considers the differences between what he calls “pragmatic evangelicalism” of the seeker-sensitive variety and the “younger evangelicals” who comprise the emerging church—with specific attention to the practices of worship, arts, and community. He suggests that pragmatic evangelicals have, in fact, bought into the disembodied visions of modernity, and he specifically sees the emerging church recovering a deep sense of what it means to be “incarnational.”

Many of those in the emerging church have come from pragmatic evangelicalism. As such, their experience—and what they’re reacting against—is shaped by that background. In Stories of Emergence (Zondervan, 2003) you will find a number of testimonials from pastors and worship leaders who have tried to make the transition. They are honest about some of the bumps and bruises that attend trying to rethink our paradigms of worship and discipleship.

Doug Pagitt provides a very concrete picture of an emerging church “at work” in Reimagining Spiritual Formation: A Week in the Life of an Experimental Church (Zondervan, 2004). Drawing on his experience with Solomon’s Porch—a holistic, missional, Christian community in Minneapolis—Pagitt introduces us to core concerns of the emerging church by sketching the practices of the church in action. In particular, this reimagined church rejects the talking-head paradigm of “education-based” ministry and embraces a more central role for worship, physicality, hospitality, and creativity. If McLaren’s book introduces us to key ideas, Pagitt’s work sketches key practices.

Finally, for specific examples of liturgy that have emerged from the emerging church, you will find an invaluable resource in Alternative Worship: Resources from and for the Emerging Church (Baker, 2003), compiled by Johnny Baker and Doug Gay. This resource comes from the UK where the emergent conversation draws on Anglican tradition, Celtic spirituality, and the resources of the Iona community. Organized around the liturgical calendar, the book provides some wonderful, creative examples of postmodern liturgy that owes much to tradition—what the authors describe as “faithful improvisation.” A helpful foreword by Sally Morgenthaler provides a nice overview of the contemporary scene, and the book includes a CD-ROM with a wealth of resources, including images, litanies, music tracks, video loops, and more.

From left: Westport Presbyterian Church in Kansas City was founded in 1835.

Once a month the congregation celebrates “choir Sunday.”


“Helping well-dressed families in SUVs find the next available parking space isn’t my spiritual gift.”
—Spencer Burke in Stories of Emergence

“Dealing with a homeless man who wanders into the service shouting expletives or cleaning up vomit from the back steps is a long way from parsing Greek verbs in seminary.”
—Spencer Burke in Stories of Emergence


Emerging Church Web Resources

As you would expect of a Gen X phenomenon, important pieces of the emergent conversation are unfolded in cyberspace, including some excellent websites and a host of blogs. Here are some highlights:

The Ooze []. This is “the” site for thinking about the “emerging church.” Includes articles that are regularly updated and organized under the categories of Culture, Faith, and Ministry. Also provides information on new books, upcoming events, and opportunities to connect with others via online forums and blogs. Excellent design to boot.

Emergent Village []. Recently redesigned to be more clean and intuitive, this site contains very helpful resources, including articles, online forums, and information about upcoming “Emerging Gatherings” conferences and events, including online conferences and lectures. You can also sign up for an Emergent Village e-newsletter. []. Hosted by Sally Morgenthaler, a leader in helping churches rethink worship in ways that are both ancient and postmodern. Lots of wisdom and some beautiful images on this site.

And some favorite blogs:
Tony Jones []
Jonny Baker []
Jordon Cooper []


“One of the distinctive features of alt worship has been a revival of interest in the worship traditions of the church. This contrasts with trends in the charismatic renewal, which was a ‘modernizing’ move within church life and tended to take a more negative view of tradition. The interest in tradition was one of the factors in alt worship being labeled ‘post-modern.’”
—from Alternative Worship

“The Spirit of Pentecost is the Spirit of translation, enabling fresh and faithful incarnations of Christian practice in our times and places.”
—from Alternative Worship

Jamie Smith ( is associate professor of philosophy at Calvin College and is very interested in the intersection of philosophy, theology, and liturgy. His most recent book is Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping Post-Secular Theology (Baker Academic, 2004). His next book, on postmodernism and the emerging church, will appear next spring with Baker Academic. He's a member of Oakdale Park Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 77 © September 2005, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.