The Emergent Church – Emerging into What?

By: John G. Weldon, PhD; ©2011
The influential “Emergent Church” (also called emerging church or the emerging church movement) is a constellation of movements, churches and people that operate under some dozen different names, including post-conservativism, reformists, the emerging church, young evangelicals, post-evangelicalism and postmodern Christianity.
“If you believe what you like in the gospel, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.” — Augustine

The influential “Emergent Church” (also called emerging church or the emerging church movement) is a constellation of movements, churches and people that operate under some dozen different names, including post-conservativism, reformists, the emerging church, young evangelicals, post-evangelicalism and postmodern Christianity. (For purposes of this article, although oversimplified, “postmodernism” and “relativism” are considered as more or less equivalent.)

Because of its diversity, the movement is difficult to pin down in terms of a commonly accepted description; basically, someone else within the association can legitimately deny anything said about the Emergent Church.

What Emergent Church leaders apparently hope for is to transform the Bible and Christianity in order to make them more “relevant” and more in conformity with the postmodern world in which the Western Church lives. They often hope to do this while retaining whatever portion of biblical teaching they individually choose to retain—a sort of supermarket form of biblical authority: lots of candy and sugary cereal, hold the meat and potatoes. The title of one book on the subject pretty much sums it up: Can We Be Sure about Anything? (2005)

The Emergent Church has actually emerged – unfortunately, it’s evolving into a kind of “Twilight Zone” of Christianity wherein things can be strange and weird and endings are often unexpected or occasionally even tragic. I’m reminded of the title of Phil Johnson’s chapter in a critique of the Emergent Church, “Joyriding on the Downgrade at Breakneck Speed: the Dark Side of Diversity.”[1]

Mark Driscoll, a well-known pastor who was once involved in the early emerging/emergent church movement and has yet separated himself from such leaders, has offered an insightful look at the various “highways” and which ones should receive special concern. The four “lanes” he defines include :

  1. Emerging Evangelicals: “Emergent evangelicals are interested in updating worship styles, preaching styles, and church leadership structures so as to be relevant to postmodern-minded people…The common critique of Emerging Evangelicals is that they are doing little more than cool church for hip young Christians.”
  2. House Church Evangelicals: As the name suggests, these are people whose dissatisfaction with traditional church has led to joining a house church in pursuit of authentic Christian community. (These individuals could also hold to one of the three other views within a house church setting.)
  3. Emerging Reformers: “Emerging Reformers see the postmodern world as an opportunity for the church to practice the semper reformanda or ‘always reforming’ cry of the Protestant Reformation. Emerging Reformers are charismatic in terms of spiritual gifts and worship and aggressive in church planting, particularly in major cities. Emerging Reformers, unlike all of the other lanes of the Emerging Church, are more firm on such things as gender roles that state that only qualified men may serve as pastors and preachers.” (NOTE: This is the category Driscoll chooses for himself.)
  4. Emergent Liberals: Emergent “Liberals range from the theological fringe of orthodoxy to heresy that crosses the line by critiquing key evangelical doctrines, such as the Bible as authoritative divine revelation, God as Trinity, the sinfulness of human nature, the deity of Jesus Christ, Jesus’ death in our place to pay the penalty for our sins on the cross, the exclusivity of Jesus for salvation, the sinfulness of homosexuality and other sex outside of heterosexual marriage, and the conscious, eternal torments of hell.”[2]

Despite its diverse nature, if one single item can appropriately characterize this movement it seems to be an abandonment of biblical authority and inerrancy while theologically compromising with postmodern philosophy and culture. It illustrates the highly negative impact of relativism on the Church. And, potentially, from that compromise can flow virtually any belief and practice.[3]

Those in the more liberal “lanes” of the Emergent Church may claim to be biblical and orthodox but at a minimum that is questionable, and it is definitely not true for many adherents. Such claims are belied by published teachings and pronouncements. They often don’t believe in creeds and statements of faith, they may try to live “incarnationally” by (in fact) not living like Christ. They believe the Church should be less theological and more “relational” and like the idea that language cannot communicate absolute truth.

One is left wondering, Why say anything, even about the claimed value and importance of the Emerging Church? If language can’t communicate anything true, what’s the point of saying anything? Ironically, the Emergent Church is big on “conversation.” Those in the Emergent Church seem to desire more flexibility in theology and a re-analysis of the Bible for greater “relevance.” But relevance for whom? For God? If they don’t accept biblical authority, how would they know what God believes is relevant? “Relevance” seems to be defined by personal preference. Some believe the Church itself should become postmodern to help reach a secular postmodern world, apparently not comprehending that a “postmodern church” is an oxymoron. Unfortunately the movement hasn’t yet realized that beliefs that aren’t true aren’t relevant.

For example, some adherents believe in rethinking and evolving Christianity by redefining its absolute truthfulness in light of modern philosophy and culture – in deconstructing Christianity into whatever form of faith and practice that happens to be preferred, or interpreted as most relevant or helpful or spiritual. This is pure subjectivism. Of course, at this point, what are the boundaries of “true” Christianity?

Some characteristics that may be found in the Emergent Church movement include emphasizing experience over biblical revelation, unhealthy emphasis on interfaith dialogue, a desire for “relevancy,” the importance of relationships over doctrine, experiential church services, “postcolonial hermeneutics,” liberation theology, and mysticism.

If the Emergent Church is emerging into anything, it is, unfortunately, emerging into heresy, illustrated by some of the recent books on the subject. A fair assessment would be that the Emergent Church is not a response to postmodernism, but an accommodation to it. If there is no absolute truth, what is there? Only opinions, one of which is just as good as another—Hitler’s beliefs could be of equal important to Jesus. At least that is where the denial of biblical authority in favor of relativism could logically take someone. As the adage says, “A person who won’t stand for something will fall for anything.”

If the movement has a leader it is perhaps Brian McLaren. The titles of McLarens’ books seem reflective of the movement: “Everything Must Change;” “A New Kind of Christianity;” “The Secret Message of Jesus;” and “Finding Our Way Again: the Return of the Ancient Practices.” Or, consider his: A Generous Orthodoxy: why I am a missional + evangelical + post-protestant + liberal/conservative + mystical/poetic + biblical + charismatic/contemplative + fundamentalist/Calvinist + anabaptist/anglican + methodist + catholic + green + incarnational + depressed-yet-hopeful + emergent + unfinished Christian.

The first chapter of this last book is titled: “The Seven Jesuses I Have Known,including a Catholic Jesus, a liberal Protestant Jesus, an Eastern Orthodox Jesus, and a Jesus of Marxist liberation theology. This is pure postmodernism: an atheist Jesus would also be appropriate, or a Jesus who believes in everything and nothing. In truth, there is only one Jesus in the New Testament and he is none of the above. Perhaps appropriately, McClaren begins the book by saying, “You are about to begin an absurd and ridiculous book.”[4] In his Introduction he warns the reader, “There are places here where I have gone out of my way to be provocative, mischievous and unclear, reflecting my belief that clarity is sometimes overrated, and that shock, obscurity, playfulness and intrigue (carefully articulated) often stimulate more thought than clarity.”[5]

We need to pray for our friends in the Emergent Church. The truth is that postmodernism (in the sense of relativism) died the day it was born and it is sad and grievous to see part of the Church playing so hard with something so dead.[6] As a philosophy it is inherently self-defeating because it rejects any basis for absolute truth and logical communication. It seems something of a spectacle that evangelicals claiming the authority of a Scripture that is absolutely true have adopted theological relativism in such large numbers. Why would anyone who has the genuine Word of God exchange it for anything less? They wouldn’t. Unfortunately, the Emergent Church is but one illustration of the consequences of a lack of theological and apologetic teaching within the Christian home, local church, school, college, and seminary.

In March 2010, popular pastor, theologian and author Dr. John Piper referred to the movement as “a fading reality” with its leadership in shambles (not surprisingly, “immorality is rampant”), which he correctly sees as not unforeseen given “how low their view of truth and doctrine is.” Piper believes the movement will be largely dead within 10 years.[7]

Still, that’s a good 30 years of misdirection. Given the overall thrust of the Emergent Church, its “fading reality” seems to be its most hopeful bearing. If it emerges into anything, may the Lord enable it to return to biblical reality.

“We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?” (Hebrews 2:1-2)
“His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, …” (2 Peter 1:3-4)


Recommended Reading

  1. John McArthur, The Truth War: Fighting for Certainty in an Age of Deception (2007)
  2. Bob DeWaay, The Emergent Church — Undefining Christianity (2009)
  3. Gary L. W. Johnson, Ronald N. Gleason, Eds, Reforming or Conforming?:Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church (2008)

Sources for Further Reading

Over 125 articles on a variety of aspects of the Emergent Church and its leaders are available at “Emerging Church,”;

“Postmodernism and the Emerging Church Movement,” Apologetics Index; (17 separate resources.)

“John MacArthur on the Emergent Church,” YouTube;

“Emerging Church,” Theopaedia;

Berit and Andy Kjos, “The Emerging (Global) Church;”

“Emerging Church,” Wikipedia;

“John Piper – The Emergent Church,” YouTube;

D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications

Millard J. Erickson, Paul Kjoss Helseth, Justin Taylor, eds., Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times

Kevin DeYoung, Ted Kluck, Why We’re Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be (may be good for Emergent Church members)


  1. In Gary L. W. Johnson, Ronald N. Gleason, eds, Reforming or Conforming?: Post-Conservative Evangelicals And the Emerging Church.
  2. Mark Driscoll, “Navigating the Emerging Church Highway.” Accessed at
  3. For example: “While Rick Warren, Dan Kimball and Dr. Robert Webber and others may be excited about the “Emerging Church” and the direction it is presently headed, I am concerned the “Emerging Church” may actually be a re-emergence of what has already occurred in church history. If the pattern continues expect to see evangelical Protestants become more and more Roman Catholic.” (Roger Oakland, “The Emerging Church: Revival or Return to Darkness?” Understanding the Times International; But various forms of liberalism, neo-orthodoxy, green (environmental) spirituality, neopaganism, so-called (Marxist) “social justice” or liberation theology are also potential directions. Once the absolute truth of the Bible is abandoned, any belief and practice may merge, depending on the focus of emergent church leaders.
  4. A Generous Orthodoxy, p. 27.
  5. A Generous Orthodoxy, p. 23.
  6. Dennis McCallum (Ed.) The Death of Truth: What’s Wrong With Multiculturalism, the Rejection of Reason and the New Postmodern Diversity; Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism; Frances J. Beckwith, Gregory Koukl, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air (emphasizing moral relativism); R. Scott Smith, Truth and the New Kind of Christian: The Emerging Effects of Postmodernism in the Church; Roger Oakland, Faith Undone: The emerging church – a new reformation or an end-time deception.
  7. “John Piper – The Emergent Church,” YouTube;

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