By William R. Baker
See the Sidebar: “The Emerging Church: A Brief History and Helpful Resources”
“Emerging churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures,” say Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger.1 We might wonder, From what are these churches emerging? Simply stated, they are emerging from a modern world to a postmodern world.2
Yet, thinkers about the emerging church also want to place this mantra of “emerging” on the church generally in the past, present, and future.3 Thus, in the New Testament writings of Paul, we see the Greco-Roman church “emerge” from the original church dominated by Jewish culture.4 Later in the 16th century, we see the Protestant Reformation churches “emerge” from the Catholic church,5 and now in the 21st century the postmodern church is emerging from the modern church of the 20th century.
Each emergence comes out of a static situation in which the church got entrenched in its times and needed rethinking and reordering. In this sense, the church never fully arrives; it is always in some state of discovering itself within the varied cultures and communities into which it is striving to be both relevant and authentic. It must continue to question itself both in how to articulate genuinely relevant doctrine and how to live out Christianity within its environment. By this line of thinking, the early Restoration Movement, under the leadership of Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone, qualifies as an emergence as well.
Emerging churches encompass three traits articulated by Gibbs and Bolger6: they identify with the life of Jesus, seek to transform the secular realm, and live highly communal lives. Mark Scandrette7 adds these traits: an open-source approach to community, theology, and leadership; revitalized interest in the social dimensions of the gospel of Jesus; renewed interest in contemplative and bodily spiritual formation; and cultivation and appreciation of the arts. Ray Anderson lists these four traits: missional, reformational, kingdom living, and incarnational.8
These traits of emerging churches do not typically characterize Christian churches and churches of Christ from the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. Since this movement traces its roots to the early 1800s, when America was at the threshold of what many would dub the “modern” era, one would not expect to see many parallels between congregations in this movement and those in the emerging church movement. However, both are driven by evangelism to the common people of their times and both are in search of what is most basic to Christianity.
Some emerging church thinkers are very much aware of the ideals of the Restoration Movement and know about congregations in this movement, and some Christian churches are part of the emerging church movement (for example, Community Christian Church, Naperville, Illinois). This two-part article will identify seven of the most obvious parallels and overlapping interests in early Restoration Movement churches and present-day emerging churches, as well as noting important contrasts.
Mimicking “postmodern,” emerging churches see themselves as “post-Protestant.” They embrace a supra-Christianity that moves well beyond the historic boundaries of Protestant denominations, even beyond Catholicism and orthodoxy, welcoming people from all Christian traditions and drawing from all traditions. Brian McLaren, leading spokesperson for emerging church thinking, declares, “Both Catholics and Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox, too, can come together as pro-testifiers or post-Protestants now.”9 By pro-testifier, he means all being followers of the Christian way who are telling the gospel story through their lives.
The idea of emerging churches becoming some kind of denomination is repulsive to emerging churches; they view themselves as the complete opposite.10 Notably, McLaren quips, “Not a new denomination, but a new kind of church in every denomination.”11
Like congregations of the nondenominational Christian churches and churches of Christ from the Stone-Campbell tradition, emerging church leaders see a prideful elitism in denominationalism that canonizes doctrinal wars in creeds and confessions.12 Such over-enthusiastic pride in “brand identity” is distasteful to postmodern people, both inside and outside the church.
These tribal wars over what people are against are not ours, say emerging church leaders, and they are not the positive presentation of Christianity that postmodern people long for.13 Similar to the all-embracing message of the early Stone-Campbell tradition that was welcomed as a breath of fresh air to those in many denominational traditions, Mark Scandrette notes the attraction to the message of emerging churches by those from an even wider representation: “Greek Orthodox, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Episcopal, evangelical, and even non-Christians.”14
Emerging churches desire to return to “vintage” Christianity. They desire to find models for developing postmodern Christianity in simple times, before “being the church” became entrapped by modernism. Leaping over the doctrinal and denominational battles of later centuries, they search for the earliest, clearest expressions of Christianity. As Dan Kimball, who coined this term for emerging churches, says, “As the emerging church returns to a rawer and more vintage form of Christianity, we may see explosive growth much like the early church did.”15
The quest for vintage Christianity sounds very much like the call by the Campbells and Stone for a return to “primitive” Christianity as a way to dismiss the centuries of denominational squabbles imported from Europe of which American colonials were weary.
Emerging church leaders are interested in biblical Christianity too, but unlike the Campbells and Stone, who confined themselves to a Protestant perspective, they are just as interested in Catholic and orthodox expressions of Christianity. Because McLaren sees these as incorporating forms of Christian worship and tradition that are “less influenced by modernity,”16 they may well offer some avenues that can inform and advance the postmodern, emerging church.
But for these same reasons, McLaren is intrigued by American restorationism, in which he was raised, declaring, “In restorationist circles (churches of Christ, Seventh-day Adventists, Plymouth Brethren, et al.), one finds a beautiful, sincere, childlike desire to follow Jesus whatever the cost and however lonely the road. This positive and often courageous desire can be a bridge to the pro-testifying definition of Protestant.”17 Yet, he also identifies the often sectarian, divisive elitism that can develop by those who believe “by finally getting the last or lost detail right, they now represent a full-fledged restoration of ‘New Testament Christianity.’”18
Emerging churches are interested in the book of Acts. As an essentially evangelical movement, they are rooted in the authority of the Bible.19 They are more interested in the Gospels and the simple message and incarnational life of Jesus to be sure, dubbed the “J-factor.”20 However, they are also very interested in relating what they do to the book of Acts.
Ray Anderson speaks of the book of Acts as “the founding document for the Christians at Antioch and the expanding of God’s kingdom as the continuing mission of Christ.”21 Mark Scandrette fondly reminisces about the earliest roots of his association with emerging church as being “about twenty-five people committed to our vision of a way of being the church similar to the book of Acts. We met in apartments, shared a meal and the Eucharist, held a discussion, and sang together.”22
Focusing on Acts as a contact point for what emerging churches are doing mirrors the early efforts of the Campbells and Stone to restore the New Testament church in their era. Commitment to the authority of the Bible compares well also.
It should be recognized, though, that people in the emerging church want to read the Bible in a postmodern way. Unlike the Campbells and Stone, who, in a typically modern fashion of their day, were influenced by rationalism and read the Bible like a book of facts or raw data, or perhaps a constitution, emerging church people read all the Bible as a narrative, doing their best to “place ourselves within the story.”23
1Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 44.
2Brian McLaren, “Church Emerging: Or Why I Still Use the Word Postmodern but with Mixed Feelings,” in Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones, eds., An Emergent Manifesto of Hope (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 149.
3Dan Kimball, “The Emerging Church and Missional Theology,” in Robert Webber, ed., Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 84; McLaren, Generous Orthodoxy, 322, 323.
4Ray Anderson, An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2006) 21-28; D. A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 46.
5McLaren, Generous Orthodoxy, 323.
6Gibbs and Bolger, Emerging, 45.
7Mark Scandrette, “Growing Pains: The Messy and Fertile Process of Becoming,” in Pagitt and Jones, Manifesto, 24.
8Anderson, Emergent Theology, 17.
9McLaren, Generous Orthodoxy, 140.
10Anderson, Emergent Theology, 19.
11Ibid., 8, quoting from Brian McLaren, Reinventing Your Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 13.
12Leonard Sweet, Brian McLaren, and Jerry Haselmayer, A is for Abductive: The Language of the Emerging Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 52.
13Gibbs and Bolger, Emerging, 38.
14Scandrette, “Growing Pains,” 24.
15Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 29. Picked up enthusiastically by Anderson, Emergent Theology, 13. See also Dan Kimball, “Missional Theology,” 83.
16Brian McLaren, “The Method, the Message, and the Ongoing Story,” 191-230, in Leonard Sweet, ed., The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 215.
17McLaren, Generous Orthodoxy, 141.
19Kimball, “Missional Theology,” 99; McLaren, Generous Orthodoxy, 177-191.
20Sweet, McLaren, Haselmayer, Abductive, 169, coins this term.
21Anderson, Emergent Theology, 32.
22Gibbs and Bolger, Emerging, 304.
23Kimball, “Missional Theology,” 99. See also Sweet, McLaren, Haselmayer, Abductive, 116, 294.
William R. Baker (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor of Stone-Campbell Journal and a professor of New Testament at Cincinnati Bible Seminary—Graduate Division of Cincinnati Christian University. This article is adapted from his presentation at the Pepperdine Lectures, Malibu, California, on May 2, 2008.