Ecclesiology of the Emerging Church

Author: Rebekah Zorgdrager

The emerging church. What is it? Who is it? And what exactly do they mean by church? In other words, what is the ecclesiology of the emerging church? It seems like “the church” should be easy to define. Yet throughout time and across various Christian movements people’s definitions of church – what it is, what it is for, who makes it up – have varied widely. How does the emerging church fit into this varied tradition? Is this a movement that defines church differently than it has ever been defined before? Or is the emerging church something old packaged in something new? 

I believe the emerging church movement is a shifting back to old ideas in a new way.

I believe the emerging church movement is a shifting back to old ideas in a new way. Most, if not all, of the ideas and values held by those who write about the emerging church are not revolutionary or new, yet they combine to form an ecclesiology different than any mainstream ecclesiology at least since the reformation, if not before. That being true, however, it is very difficult to define an emerging church ecclesiology because those writing about it are generally preoccupied with other questions and concerns; ecclesiology is not in the forefront of anyone’s mind or conversations. (Several books have informed my understanding of the emerging church as discussed in this article. They are indicated in full detail at the end of the article. They will be referenced throughout by author’s last name and page number.)

There are many ways in which church is talked about – in terms of what it is, what it is not, what it should be, etc. – that work together to form an understanding of what church is in the emerging viewpoint. The emerging church as a movement began, exists, and thrives as a response to postmodernism. Postmodernism is a somewhat vague concept since it is defined as opposed to modernism. For the purpose of this discussion postmodernism will be viewed as a mindset which, “holds there is no single universal worldview. All truth is not absolute, community is valued over individualism, and thinking, learning, and beliefs can be determined nonlinearly” (Kimball, 49-50). Postmodernism is not something the emerging church teaches, it is a cultural mindset that they are responding to, seeking to reach those who buy into the postmodern worldview (Kimball, 27, 36; McLaren, 8, 24). This is an important distinction to make and understand, for the leaders of the emerging church movement are not seeking to make people with a modern worldview switch over to a postmodern worldview, yet they are challenging those with a modern mindset to realize that some of their beliefs and assumptions are not hard and fast truths (Kimball, 49).

A strong emphasis in the emerging church conversation is that the current popular model for churches, the seeker sensitive model, does not reach people with a postmodern mindset; in fact such an approach is a turn off to people with such a worldview. This helps explain the impetus behind much of the emerging church movement. It is an effort to reach those with a postmodern mindset while acknowledging that there are good and bad things about such a mindset. The purpose is to reach out to such people where they are, as well as to learn what ought to be challenged and what can be affirmed within this newer worldview (Burke, 63; Kimball, 63).

Postmodernism, when talked about in the world of church, is often coupled with post-seeker-sensitive or post-Christian. There are a couple implications that go along with these shared labels. As stated above, people that view the world through postmodern eyes will not be reached, may even be turned off by, seeker-sensitive styles. In other words, these are people who were not brought up to believe in the Bible or go to church – convincing them to come back to church through a flashier style will not work because they were never part of church in the first place. This group of people was not raised as Christian; they do not automatically accept the Bible as an authority. There are people who were brought up in churches that fall into this category as well since they have bought into the cultural movement of postmodernism and do not credit the Bible with any sort of authority. These distinctions are made because the postmodernism that has swept much of America shows that America is no longer a Christian nation, more and more people here were not raised as Christians, or do not see the world through the lenses of Christianity or the Bible, and have either never heard the gospel, or think they have heard it but do not believe in it (Kimball, 68, 245).

In many ways the emerging church defines itself in the ways above as well as in opposition to other models of church, such as church as it was defined in the reformation and church as it is viewed within a modern worldview. Some offer the critique that trying to boil down a definition of church can result in oversimplifying things and distorting what the church truly is – something they believe happened during the reformation when the “marks of the church” were defined resulting now in many seeing church as an institution or something that is done, as opposed to seeing church as the people of God (Kimball, 93; Pagitt, 30-31).

The emerging church is defined in large part as something different, a move away from, the modern view of church. While some acknowledge that the modern church effectively reaches out to those with a modern mindset there is still quite a bit of antagonism towards the modern church and the inherent values it has/teaches. One of the major critiques of the modern church that the emerging church is seeking to distance itself from is seeing the church as a vendor of religious good and services. This is the market mentality where research is done, people are targeted, and the church makes its decisions based on those to whom it is marketing. Within this view, the church is simply there to offer people the kinds of religious services they need (or think they need) and initiatives are considered successful by the number of people reached, the size of a budget, etc. In other words the modern church has been run in ways very similar to a secular mindset of marketing and offering what people want in order to get them to partake in the services an organization has to offer. This model is not driven by any overarching value; it is driven by consumers and what consumers want (Burke, 39; Kimball, 105, 112, 115, 201, 215; McLaren, 189, 197; Pagitt, 40, 42). These things have nothing to do with what the Bible teaches or the kingdom of God, but much to do with our modern world and the way in which secular companies get people to purchase their products or become involved in the causes they support. The critique of the emerging church movement is that these are modern values that have no inherent place in the church and may actually work against what the church is supposed to be.

The emerging church does not simply define itself as opposed to modernity. There is also much discussion about what church is about – the elements that ought to be there in a healthy church. One element is church as a place where the body of Christ is healthy and in proportion. This means that in any given church there are not simply one or two people who wield all the power, but a group of people are being the church together, all seeking to use their gifts in service to God. Church then becomes a place that is not highly controlled but allows room for the Holy Spirit to lead people into significant encounters with God (Burke, 64-65, 93).

Language such as “going to church” is shied away from because it puts the focus on a physical place of gathering rather than on the people who together make up the church. The people of God who come together to worship God and serve him in mission, they are the church, not any particular building or place (Kimball, 91, 94-95). There is an eagerness to acknowledge that church will look different in different places; the emphasis is that all churches are those groups of people joining the Holy Spirit in the work of God’s kingdom. As one person put it churches ought to be concerned with, “More Christians, Better Christians, Authentic missional community, For the good of the world” (McLaren, 28). The emerging church has a focus on mission, community, worship, and mystery (Pagitt, 17). These, in some ways, are the new marks of the church.


The church is missional. The emerging church movement began as an effort to reach people who were not currently being reached by the efforts of the average, or modern, church. This movement began not as an effort to get people already at church more involved or more committed, but to reach out to people who previously had nothing to do with church and no desire to change that. There is a strong emphasis that church is meant to produce disciples, people who live out the mission of living into God’s kingdom on earth (Burke, 119; Kimball, 15, 17). The church is not just missional; however, it is a missional community—that is, people who come together to live out the mission to which God has called them on earth. People not only engage in this mission individually, but as a community called by God to serve God together as well (McLaren, 36, 197; Pagitt, 17, 146). In some ways, people are living into their missional call most fully when they are living into it as part of a community of other believers.


This leads to another mark of the emerging church, the church as a community. The community and missional impulses of the emerging church cannot be completely separated from one another, although they are two different ideas. The church is a community of faith; people living out the things Jesus taught in such a way that non-believers will naturally be drawn in. There is a focus on being together, on genuine fellowship, on conversation and being together as what the church is supposed to be (Kimball, 204-205). The church is supposed to be a place where people actually live their lives according to the teaching of the gospel; a place where those who are not valued by society–the poor and undesirable–are welcomed, supported, and affirmed in their love and worth in God. The community of the church is called to be a place that lives not by the world’s values but by the values of God’s kingdom (McLaren, 183-184).


Worship is another clear value of the emerging church. It may be more accurate to say that re-defining worship is a value of the emerging church. What is highly valued is being willing to view worship in new ways that lie outside of singing along with a band that plays up in front of people (Burke, 61). Oftentimes in the modern church people use the word worship to refer simply to gathering together to sing songs and maybe pray a little. There is a church service during which people worship (sing songs) and then listen to a sermon. However, the emerging church movement seeks to redefine worship in a more biblical sense, talking about worship as giving honor to God, humbling ourselves before the Lord, glorifying Jesus. In this sense worship is not something that is done at a certain point in time, it is a focus of life together, it is present throughout any particular gathering, it is a way of life that brings honor and glory to God (Kimball, 114-115; Pagitt, 17, 50). In terms of a church service, this means that the entire service is viewed as worship, instead of just one portion of the meeting.


This brings us to the last mark of the emerging church, valuing mystery. Within the modern church/mindset everything is put into neat categories, the world is black and white and everything can and should be systematically explained and understood. A postmodern mindset, as well as the emerging church, reacts strongly against such suppositions, seeing this modern point of view as an unrealistic way of viewing the world, one that cannot sustain much scrutiny without falling apart. This emphasis on mystery is not simply about allowing there to be fewer answers, it is about experiencing rather than just knowing God (Burke, 54). For the postmodern there is something freeing about allowing for mystery; it feels more, not less, religious, which is a good thing (Kimball, 49). In the emergent church the focus is not on easy and simple answers to questions about the meaning of life or things such as creation and the trinity. The focus is on developing faith as the context in which such questions and mysteries are to be explored (McLaren, 78-79, 89). This type of focus allows people to have faith without thinking that they are then obligated to have all of the answers as well.

redefining church in a more biblical, less modern way

Those involved in and writing about the emerging church movement emphasize that they are not arguing for one particular model or way of doing church (Kimball, 14; McLaren, 28). What they are looking at is redefining church in a more biblical, less modern way. I imagine the lack of a direct discussion defining the ecclesiology of the emerging church is because that would not be a very postmodern thing to do. In defining what or who church is, concrete decisions are made; in a postmodern worldview it is difficult to make such a definition without becoming suspect. This is probably why the discussions surrounding church are very abstract and open. Church is defined by what it is not. Church is also defined by the elements it ought to include; yet this type of definition is far from concrete. There may be some danger in the emerging church movement defining itself, at least in part, by what it is not. In focusing so much on who you are not, it can be difficult not to become those very things. Questions much be asked, such as, Is the emerging church simply a vendor of religious goods and services marketed towards the postmodern, and not a new movement at all? If the modern church movement were to fade away would the emerging church movement have enough of an identity to stand on its own?

Yet, despite the necessity and validity of such questions, I believe that those involved in the emerging church appear to have an underlying ecclesiology of their own. The ecclesiology is not a new one, yet it does not totally fit into any past ecclesiology either. It argues for going back to the vision and values of the early church. The early church was birthed into a non-Christian society, when the values and goals of the church were not the norm or generally accepted truth – those who are part of the emerging church movement argue that this is the kind of society in which we are now living. The leaders of the emerging church do not argue that no one is around anymore who has a modern mindset or who assumes the truth of Christianity; but they do argue that fewer and fewer people have such a worldview, and that increasingly children are being raised into a postmodern, post-Christian worldview. These are the people the emerging church is working to reach.

Essentially, the ecclesiology of the emerging church defines church as people who gather in community to worship God and come together following the missional impulse of joining the work of the Holy Spirit in the spread of God’s kingdom on earth.

The ecclesiology of the emerging church is old and new at the same time. Its values and goals are not new to the Christian faith, yet the ways in which these things are talked about have in mind where the church has been and where the church is going. The ecclesiology is unique to our current situation, which makes it distinct from what has gone before. Because of the mindset and values of postmodernism, trying to define the ecclesiology of the emerging church in one sentence is like trying to hike the entire 2160 miles of the Appalachian trail in a single day. Maybe it’s not quite that difficult, but the point is made. However, I will try anyway. Essentially, the ecclesiology of the emerging church defines church as people who gather in community to worship God and come together following the missional impulse of joining the work of the Holy Spirit in the spread of God’s kingdom on earth.

NOTE. The following books have informed the understanding of emerging church discussed in this article:  Spencer Burke, with Colleen Pepper, Making Sense of Church: Eavesdropping on Emerging Conversations about God, Community, and Culture, Grand Rapids, MI: emergentYS–Zondervan, 2003; Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations, Grand Rapids, MI: emergentYS–Zondervan, 2003; Brian D. McLaren, The Church on the Other Side: Doing Ministry in the Postmodern Matrix, Grand Rapids, MI: emergentYS–Zondervan, 2000; and Doug Pagitt, Reimagining Spiritual Formation: A Week in the Life of an Experimental Church, Grand Rapids, MI: emergentYS–Zondervan, 2003.