Emergent Church: Denomination or Common Grammar?

So my friend and former fellow communard, Johnny T commented on yesterday’s Why We’re Not Emergent post:

I dunno man…“Emergent” seems like just another denomination to me. As a group, they have their own “common” (more so than not)way at talking about and looking at things…just like everyone else…and like any denomintaion, they fall into the same traps that they make for themselves. (Just like individuals who place too much importance on why they are different)

While I agree, Johnny, that we all have traps we lay for ourselves (no matter what labels we share or shun), I’m not sure if it’s automatically a bad thing when lots of people (in this case, friends and followers of Jesus) begin thinking similar thoughts and taking similar actions and conversing amongst themselves. And I think the emerging conversation is actually more analogous to the charismatic movement in the 60’s-80’s than a denomination per se. The charismatic movement, interpreted by most participants as a move of the Holy Spirit, by and large touched people in whatever churches they were in. Whereas the early Pentecostal revivals made people leave their established churches (mainly because the ‘mother churches’ ostracized them, but no doubt too because the newly spiritually-gifted and enthused were likely quite fanatical in cases), the charismatic movement renewed already-existing churches for the most part. And a couple of denominations were also founded, like the Vineyard. But many stayed Catholic, Episcopal, Baptist, Methodist, etc…

Similarly today, most of us see ’emergent’ as the life emerging on the spiritual trees we’re already on–the fresh life budding on Lutheran, Anabaptist, Presbyterian, Quaker, Anglican, house church, etc… trees. The outermost rung of the bark, as it were. Check this directory out to see what I mean. And it’s not just an insular kind of “We’re sticking to our tree” kind of thing. For me, one of the most beautiful and helpful things about the emerging conversation has been its function as a common ‘grammar’ if you will, a way of speaking that’s allowed me to respectfully dialogue with Christians from across the traditions spectrum–and it’s even taught me how to share and converse with people who (gasp!) aren’t even Christians. It’s an open table where nobody’s trying to convert, which was rare in all of the heavily denominated churches where I grew up, where everyone thought they had a corner market on “Truth.”

I might be into fulfilled covenant eschatology, but I still don’t see how Jesus’ prayer in John 17 has been realized with any kind of tangible fullness. “That we all be one” has been my heart’s longing for 15 years now, ever since I first found that passage as a teenager. On its best days (when we aren’t spending all of our energy trying to defend ourselves to a tiny-but-vocal group of online critics that we have zero actual relationship with), the emerging conversation is a stunning example of grassroots ecumenicism and unity-building in our shared living amidst God’s kingdom. And of course on its worst, we can be as prideful, cantankerous, quarrelsome and unhelpful as anyone else out there.

Here is Josh Brown’s take on whether emergent faith is ‘becoming another denomination.’ His whole series on this is worth reading–see

1 – An Introduction, 2 – A White Man’s World, 4- A Public Service Announcement on Friendship, 5 – We Hate Scripture

6 – The Bastard Child of Evangelicalism

Anyway, here’s the thing: I consider myself an emerging contributor and an emerging beneficiary. I think that the emerging conversation (and Emergent Village in particular) often get an undeserved bad rap among those for whom the conversation is not helpful. But all the same–unlike Michael Vick–I don’t feel like I have any particular dogs in any particular fights. I can let all this go tomorrow; it’d be sad, but my guess is it’ll eventually happen–whether next year or in 10 years. Addiction to permanence is not my goal. Like I said yesterday, “I’ve been on a journey in, through, and toward a Christ-transformed reality before I began naming it in this way, and will likely be if and when this way of articulating things ceases to be helpful. But right now, that I do find it helpful.”

5 Responses to “Emergent Church: Denomination or Common Grammar?”


  1. 1 blake April 1, 2008 at 8:30 pm

    i agree. and it seems to me that any focus on ’emergent’ becoming some sort autonomous denomination, that seduces person to abandon their original tradition, misses the point altogether. it’s about have an ongoing, sustaining grassroots conversation that never seems to end. and having it with a ‘common grammar.’ i love that image. thanks.

  2. 2 Chris Pridham April 1, 2008 at 9:54 pm

    Mike,
    How are things going with ya-all? I like your statement about the emergent church relating it to the charismatic movement. I would agree with this. We know, or we should know that their is no way besides the “Way” Jesus Christ. I think those about of the emergent church (or emergent dialog) have and will continue to do good in breaking down some of the old way of thinking and open up hearts and minds to a living Christ and not simply look to the Christ of history. Keep up the talking and hopefully people will begin to believe and live.

  3. 3 Brittian Bullock April 2, 2008 at 2:05 am

    Well put Mike-E. You’re cool. I attempted to describe my own emergence and joining into the conversation at large (even though I now consider much of what we did in the Edwardian house church movement as extremely valuable DECONSTRUCTION pushing the very boundaries in order to see exactly what remains true, pure, noble, and worthwhile…guess what…YHWH and his good dream remained!!! How cool), http://sensualjesus.wordpress.com/2008/01/28/i-should-coco/. Today I am far more interested in reconstruction than deconstruction…I am exhausted by attempting to describe and detail what I am NOT about and find myself craving discovery of what I AM about. http://sensualjesus.wordpress.com/2008/02/03/de-evolving-or-not/

    Well anyhow…good stuff. Come on join the joy ride!

  4. 4 brotherjohnny April 2, 2008 at 9:21 pm

    Hello again, Mike (and yes, I also think you are cool).

    I don’t think using common language and sharing common thoughts automatically qualify as ‘bad’ either. On the other hand, I know from first hand experience how subtle a ‘thing’ can take on it’s own momentum and identity, steamrolling over any genuine move of the Spirit, …and you rightly give a good example of this in mentioning the charismatic movement (not saying that the Lord is totally absent from all of it, but He is certainly not the author of much it).

    “Hey, watch it!I’m a part of the charasmatic movement!”
    No your not. Not really.🙂

    What?!
    Mike, you converse with infidels?! :-O
    You should be killed!

    (My shot at comedy, in case anyone was wondering.)

    This may sound heretical to the emergent conversation, I honestly do not know,….🙂, I know that those who have a genuine God given faith in Jesus Christ DO, in fact, have a corner market on “Truth”. But the thing is, the market should be about giving that Truth away to those desperately in need, not selling it.
    It’s not about “Join my religion.”
    Honestly it should be in the witness of our very own lives, on every level:Thought, word and deed. A living relationship with God through Jesus Christ should be enough to transform us into Living fountains of the waters of Truth, freely giving to those who are without, which you have already alluded to in your own desire in your own journey.

    As far as unity is concerned, Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth pretty much sums up why it doesn’t happen.
    God’s people are a very carnal people.
    To use a reference you pointed to elsewhere, one can even say, “But I’M of Christ!” and it totally be uttered from the depths of his little self centered “I”.

    And this is what happens:
    “I’m charismatic…
    I’m baptist…
    I’m house church…
    I’m emergent…
    I’m a lone ranger christian…
    (etc…)
    …and so I’m more IN than you.”

    Whatever.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not condemning anyone or anything.
    There are wonderful, sincere believers in Christ in all of these things, and probably just as many sincere seekers not sure as to just what they believe…

    …but when the unredeemed self is the ruler of our hearts, and not Christ, there is no hope in genuine Christian unity, only building more religion with more shackles and chains to go along with.

    {and who hasn’t been in that mindset at one point or another?}

    I have personally enjoyed much of the stuff you have passed in my direction,…although not all (of course), and thank you for sharing.

    I guess in conclusion to this stream of consciousness, I just want to say to one and all (myself included):
    Be careful to walk in the Spirit.

    So…
    There’s my contribution to “the conversation” at this point in our lives, but as for now, there are other conversation in which I must engage.

    Peace.

  5. 5 jc April 3, 2008 at 4:53 am

    yeah. it’s really hard to understand what it is we’re even talking about anymore most of the time. i’m lost and yet i have Christ. i would like to believe in one herd of sheep and the Lord as our Shepard, but it seems there are many herds and many shepards and many stupid sheep. that’s my identity too, the latter most. i also think the shepards are the ones screwing up the herds these days…or lack thereof. why doesn’t the Lord produce workers in His own mysterious ways and give us all a true sign and new life? wouldn’t that be nice? would i even see it? would it be on fox?

    if anything actually is ’emergent’ than the Lord is behind it…that would be for sure. we need not even speak of it actually.🙂 our spirits always testify to His truth. but for some, the dialog is more enjoyable than for others. good stuff mike!


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