what to do with the term “emerging”?

September 18, 2008

So all over the arguments seem to be raging along: What should we do with the term “emerging”? Andrew Jones asked whether to Dump it or Use it a bit longer, and voters said Dump it. Dan Kimball is holding onto an interpretation from 5-7 years ago when he wrote The Emerging Church, and dislikes what has happened to it over the past few years. These two writers seem to opt for the use of the word “missional” rather. Similarly South African theologian, Nelus Niemandt, seems to be merging the words emerging and missional in two recent articles in Verbum et Ecclesia where he explains emerging churches. And more links will be found by the curious surfer.

But switching between emerging and missional might not be that easy. Leading missional thinking Graig can Gelder clearly destinguises between missional and emerging, and sorry Dan (if ever you should read this), but he is using your book as reference for what emerging is, and he doesn’t think that it’s the same as missional. Not that I deny any of you the right to switch terms, but remember that others are also using it.

My honest opinion is that the Emergent Village guys are largely responsible for this. They took the movement to what, in my opinion, was the logical conclusion, but this really upsets people. When the big debates about emerging/emergent started again a while ago, I started getting doubts about how long this can keep together. And you know the sad thing: It’s the same story over again! We might as well admit it, it’s about conservatives and liberals, about those orthodox and those who are heretics. You remember all those wars between evangelicals and ecumenicals (I’m reading the earlier work of Bosch currently, in which this is still running wild), well now some are saying that emerging is about evangelism, and others that they won’t use the word! I said it a few times over the last few weeks; I wondered how long emerging was going to be able to keep everyone part of the conversation… I so hoped that it will be for a long time.

When myself and Jacques was talking a while ago, we reflected on how many of us have moved through Emergent Africa, connected, but left Emergent Africa (which later – was it because of my recommendation Roger? – became Emerging Africa). Yeah, it’s like some kind of post-emergentafrica thing:-) But, when we started to get a few bloggers who “get it” (using Tony Jones’ term from The New Christians) a few weeks ago, emerging was the word which connected us. Everyone kind of knew what was meant when we said that emerging folks are getting together, although everyone also know how wide this is. Reading Tom Sine’s The New Conspirators I realised that we have people from everyone of the 4 streams among the 5-10 people who will be getting together in a few days time, but still emerging seems to be the word that bind us together.

If emerging continue, what will it be? According to Kimball it started out with being about evangelism, and the theological conversations was only there to serve this cause. When South Africa got onto the train, Roger called Emergent Africa “a safe place to talk about theology“. For us, the theological conversation was never something secondary. It never was about evangelism, important as that might be, and when it was, it was about rethinking evangelism. If emerging continue, this would be the place where we talk about the principals behind designing ships, not the place to fine-tune engines, or to rearrange the deck-chairs (you can work with the metaphors yourself). Does this make it a white-male-philosophical conversation? I guess I can only say that I truly hope not!

So, what’s next? Well, I guess a couple more heresy complaints (church history has had enough of those, and maybe one day we will learn that heretics sometimes have a way of standing the test of time, but I guess we can’t tell beforehand which will do that). I guess some will just quitely decide to continue the conversation, not because it’s popular (cause those with the heretic label around them usually ain’t popular, except when it come as prosperity gospel), not because the emerging people have cool hair, but because we help but rethink our theology, we cannot help but ask questions about theology.

I’m gonna finish now, and I feel a bit sad. For two years now emerging has given me a place to find others with whom I can identify, it would surely be a sad day when that ends, but I guess terminology is expendable. But tomorrow I’ll probably tag another post with emerging.


4 Responses to “what to do with the term “emerging”?”

  1. Dan Says:

    Hi Cobus!

    I appreciate your thinking here. As you may suspect, terms have different meanings to different people, and in different areas of the world. When I read the definition of missional that you had linked to, I didn’t see any conflict with “emerging” as I think of it. You mentioned it was “rethinking evangelism” not just “evangelism” and that is exactly what it was (rethinking evangelism). It was the rethinking evangelism because of the urgency of younger generations disapearing from churches at that time. Of course when you rethinking evangelism, you aren’t merely rethinking a method. It forces you to rethink or re-examine and ask what is “evangelism”?. Which forces you to remember and study “what is the gospel”? Which forces you think about ecclesiology, church leadership etc. So it had surface changes of course, but underneath it was about evangelism was still what caused us to dig deeper and of course it was then theology, as evangelism is theology. But the evangelism is why we began thinking about it all.

    For me, and why the term now is defined different (at least in the USA) – is when you used to say “emerging church” it meant those passionate about the gospel and about seeing emerging generations who were not Christians and understanding the grace of Jesus become disciples of His.

    Today you say “emerging church” and that is not what comes to most people’s mind I interact with or hear speak about it. So… in the USA the term has drifted to a lot of other meanings than focused on the church reaching emerging generations.

    “Missional” means radically shifting how one goes about their ecclesiology for the sake of the gospel. So what I like about that is encompasses far more than just changing “methods” it is changing a biblical view so to speak, around mission. But mission, is still the driving undercurrent and seeing new disciples made is in that undercurrent.

    OK, I am rambling a bit, but appreciated your post!


  2. […] Knight where he talks about the whole “end of emerging” thing which I blogged about here earlier the week. You can watch him talking here, the quote is near the end. I think I meant […]

  3. cobus Says:

    For some of us, we didn’t join emerging to find a way to evangelize, we joined this conversation to be part of a community, and/or to save our faith. The reality of the time in which we grew up caused us to ask questions which the church didn’t always welcome, and we found a home in the emerging conversation.

    That doesn’t take away one wee bit of the importance of mission in our thinking, but might clarify why we come to different understandings of the role of emerging.

    And missional is a good conversation! I love it! But OK, I’m starting to ramble myself now…

  4. Roger Saner Says:

    …the emerging church is dead! Long live the emerging church!

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