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Spring 2010 · Vol. 39 No. 1 · pp. 32–40 

The Emergent Church: A Methodological Critique

Travis I. Barbour and Nicholas E. Toews

Since bursting onto the American scene in the 1990s, the Emergent Church has been hailed as the next Great Reformation, condemned as nothing short of heretical, and dismissed as a passing trend that will soon fade away. Opinions of the Emergent Church are both varied and numerous and held by equally intelligent and thoughtful persons. It is thus with a healthy dose of humility that we will add our own voices to this chorus of opinions by offering a critique of this controversial movement ourselves.

If the Emergent Church remains committed to its current understanding of emergent principles, it will be unable to have a positive impact on North American culture

We begin by addressing, in a preliminary way, an important and oft-asked question: What is the Emergent Church? In The New Christians, Tony Jones says that critics have compared defining the Emergent Church to nailing jello to the wall. 1 Nevertheless, one important feature can be identified. The Emergent Church is first and foremost a sub-stream of the larger Emerging Church movement. 2 In simple terms, the Emerging Church movement is about forming church communities that fit the postmodern cultural context. 3 The Emergent Church is one popular North American variety of postmodern (emerging) church communities.

The Emergent Church is thus a species of Emerging Church, a sub-stream of the broader movement. Of course, being a sub-stream makes it no less important as an object of critical attention. In fact, we have chosen to critique the Emergent Church rather than the larger Emerging Movement because its American origins, popularity, and intellectual leaders (Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones, Brian McLaren, and others) have made it a powerful force in North American Christianity with the potential to bring radical changes to churches across the continent. It is only prudent and wise to consider carefully the shortcomings of such a movement rather than react against it thoughtlessly.


Before examining the Emergent Church more closely, a few other terms need to be defined. First, “emergence.” At a general level, emergence can be defined as a process of appearing, of coming about, or of coming into view. By implication, the thing emerging is incomplete, immature, and/or in a state of development. Emergence has a special meaning for biologists. They tell us that when an established form is unable to absorb new information, an emergent system adapts to this situation by assembling parts of the established form in a new and self-organized way. 4 Precisely these three aspects of the biological phenomenon are pertinent to understanding the Emergent Church: first, emergence is triggered by changes in the environment; second, there is a pre-existing form from which the new system emerges; and third, emergent systems are self-organizing.

The Emergent Church acknowledges its self-organizing nature when it describes itself as an organic movement. The term “organic” is intended to emphasize the “natural” growth of the movement. The Emergent Church understands its activity and growth as occurring almost spontaneously from the bottom up. 5 For this reason, emergents do not see the need for centralized, pastoral leadership. Some Emergent churches have even experimented with leaderless communities. 6 Tony Jones likens the church to Wikipedia: “Emergents believe that church should function more like an open-source network and less like a hierarchy or a bureaucracy.” 7


The Emergent Church is self-consciously “postmodern,” a term which also requires some unpacking. Postmodernism is a cultural phenomenon in societies that have challenged the values and practices of the modern world. 8 Postmodern communities, however, do not simply reject modernism by retreating to a pre-modern worldview but rather move past it even while maintaining and adapting some of the components contained in the modern. 9 This can be illustrated through the examination of an epistemology called foundationalism.

Foundationalism stems from the quest for certainty and seeks to provide an unassailable basis on which all other knowledge can be built. 10 The modern archetype of foundationalism is René Descartes, who identified his foundation in his famous declaration, “I think therefore I am.” The rest of his philosophy was built on this single premise. Since Descartes, many other foundations have been suggested, such as experience and the inerrant Bible.

Foundationalism has come under intense scrutiny in the postmodern period and the belief that this epistemology is fatally flawed has come close to reaching scholarly consensus. 11 The main reason for its demise is the realization that rather than being built on a single foundation, knowledge is actually formed more like a web where knowledge is drawn simultaneously from a variety of sources and fitted together. 12 What is significant here is that even though postmodernism rejects foundationalism, it does not necessarily reject its “parts,” including reason, experience, or Scripture. Rather, these parts are assembled in new creative ways in order to answer the postmodern critique and so develop an improved epistemology.

Post-foundationalism is just one manifestation of postmodernism, which is more than simply a development in the field of epistemology. Postmodern criticism can be found across humanities disciplines, and through them leaves its mark on all facets of Western culture. But to the extent that postmodernism still makes use of elements of the modernism it rejects, it can be considered an emergence. Modernism is the old form, whose inability to meet a host of challenges caused it to break apart into fragments, and postmodernism represents the fragments re-assembled in a new, more adaptive form.

Emergent churches likewise see themselves as a genuine emergence out of the established form of the modern church, which accepted too readily the assumptions of secular modernity and is now going down with the modernist ship. The new church is attempting to adapt to the new cultural environment, taking with it from the old church what is useful and leaving behind what is not. It is in this sense that Emergent churches are profoundly postmodern church communities. 13


Finally, a fuller definition of the specific Emergent Church brand of the larger Emerging Church movement: The Emergent Church does not define itself in terms of any particular ideology or theology but in terms of a “shared commitment to robust, theological dialogue.” 14 The movement can therefore be described as methodological in nature rather than theological. 15 It places much weight on a particular postmodern shift, namely, “the move from a realist view of the world to a constructionist view,” which maintains that “there is no objective view of the world but rather only particular perspectives that depend on the person’s or group’s viewpoint.” 16 This perspectivist position is supported by a related postmodern conviction that Emergents share: that foundationalism promises a certainty about the truth that it cannot deliver and so it must be rejected. 17 In place of foundationalism, emergents embrace a post-foundational epistemology that redefines the “knowledge” we ought to seek. The defining activity of the Emergent Church is not a quest (usually of experts using logic or reason or biblical scholarship) for indisputable theological truth, but (more modestly) a broadly inclusive, open-ended conversation that, ideally, fosters both community and theological insight.

These characteristics of the Emergent Church—self-organizing rather than hierarchically administered, emergent from a dying modern church, a robust theological conversation—do not exhaustively define the Emergent Church, but they do provide us with enough material for critical reflection.


A primary problem for the Emergent Church is its failure to be true to its organic or evolutionary nature. Instead, the movement takes a revolutionary approach, which makes for a significantly different relationship to the church from which it has emerged. This revolutionary posture is described by former national coordinator of the Emergent Church, Tony Jones. The Emergent Church, he says, desires to form a “third way” between the conservative/liberal divide: “Liberals are resolutionaries, conservatives are reactionaries. Emergents are attempting to be revolutionaries.” 18 The attempt to reconcile the two sides of the political or religious divide is indeed a worthwhile project, not only because the ministry of reconciliation is part of the Christian ethic but also because the categories of liberal/conservative seem inadequate to many who do not wish to identify with either side. 19 The critique here is therefore not leveled at the attempt to form a third way; rather, it is targeted at how the Emergent Church is going about it—namely, by revolution.

Revolution implies overthrowing the old guard and replacing it with a new one. The former regime is deemed corrupt or inadequate and so is tossed aside. According to Jones, this is exactly what needs to be done with the church. The established way of doing church is “dead,” he says. It is like a pay phone—an obsolete technology. 20 An evolutionary theory, by contrast, does not merely throw out the old or dead but rather re-examines the parts, keeping and adapting those that still serve a purpose.

The contrast between evolutionary and revolutionary approaches has not escaped the attention of British Emerging writer Kester Brewin. 21 On the one hand, he notes that in order for true organic (evolutionary) emergence to occur, the emerging organism “must become embryonic and re-evolve within a host culture, learning from it, feeding from it, and growing to understand it from the inside out.” 22 On the other hand, revolution fails to bring real change since it involves a radical break from the whole and leaves the rest of the body unaltered. 23 Moreover, from an organic perspective, revolutionaries justify their radicalism on the mistaken belief that they know, prior to the organism’s emergence, that nothing short of revolution will produce the desired change. 24

The implications of Brewin’s points are significant. He suggests that organic emergence should be patient and should take place within the larger church body rather than breaking away in the fashion of revolutionaries. The revolutionary attitude also entails a faulty understanding of what constitutes organic emergence. The Emergent Church would be more consistent with its commitment to emergence if, rather than a revolutionary disruption, it would participate in a gradual evolution of the church from a modern to a postmodern worldview. 25 In advocating revolution, the Emergent Church betrays its commitment to being an authentic “third-way” and instead polarizes the larger church into emergent and non-emergent churches. A truly organic approach to change would resist this kind of alienation.


A second concern stems from the failure of the Emergent Church to recognize the significant role played by form. Its emphasis on naturally occurring, bottom-up growth seems to have led it to reject form altogether. Examples of the disdain of emergents for structure are plentiful in their writings. 26 The Emergent Church’s response to structure is not entirely without merit. There is some legitimacy to the argument that the larger the structure, the more red tape it produces. However, the alternative suggested by the Emergent Church proves to be less than satisfactory.

Emergent Village’s decision to decentralize leadership in 2008 illustrates the depth of Emergent’s rejection of structure and form. From 2006 to 2008, a growing unease began to loom over the Emergent Village 27 as it dawned on Emergent leadership that their positions were becoming formalized. In order to combat this tendency the Board decided to decentralize, a decision that included having Tony Jones step down from his position of National Coordinator (the only paid Emergent position). 28

The decision has had two unfortunate but revealing consequences. First, it has demonstrated a serious lack of consistency. At Emergent’s beginning, prominent figures popularized the Emergent movement through blogs, books, and podcasts—which is to say, they functioned as leaders. This point seems to be recognized even by Tony Jones who in a recent blog hints that he and others in the movement played the role of charismatic leaders. 29 Thus, decentralizing Emergent Village leadership is not only highly ironic considering how important strong leadership was to the founding of the movement, but the Emergent movement must live with the tension between knowing that centralized leadership has been vital to their community and their firm commitment to natural, almost spontaneous (i.e., unplanned, non-hierarchically orchestrated), growth.

A second, related consequence of leadership decentralization is that it has left the movement without clarity regarding its mission and purpose. Disdain for structure and formalization has led to a growing sense of aimlessness. There is ample evidence to support this conclusion. The Emergent Village’s website lists numerous posts by people questioning the very purpose of the Emergent Church and wondering how it provides anything different from the established church. 30

To drive the point home, consider the Emergent’s preferred model of decentralized authority: Wikipedia. Although Wikipedia is decentralized in terms of leadership, it has a clear mission: to offer a free, online encyclopedia. 31 Wikipedia serves as a good example of an emergent system. It began with a leader but transitioned to its current decentralized form by empowering subscribers to become leaders themselves by participating in the writing and editing of wiki articles. In this way subscribers directly influence the form of the work. The Emergent Church, on the other hand, seems to have merely knocked out its top leader without adequately empowering emergents to become leaders themselves. It also failed to provide any clear rationale for the church beyond the vague goal of conversing about theology. In doing so it neglected to recognize a key attribute of successful emergent systems: form. Ironically, the commitment of emergents to one aspect of emergence (the self-organizing principle) keeps them from more fully appreciating what true emergence means. It should come as no surprise, then, that even former leaders are beginning to argue that the movement is coming to an end. 32


Its rejection of form is perhaps a symptom of another problem with which the Emergent Church struggles: its failure to produce constructive theological insights. As a consequence, there is a serious risk that the movement will be reduced to a mere cultural phenomenon rather than a powerful spiritual force. There is nothing wrong with being committed to theological conversation per se. Nevertheless, their emphasis on natural growth and rejection of formal structure leads emergents to place few or no parameters on the direction or aim of their conversation. It thus becomes a problem to define a church, as the Emergent Church does, as a mere conversation without further qualification.

But conversations, especially those claiming to constitute the essence of a church, should be more than chatting or sharing opinions. Stanley Grenz has argued that constructive theological conversations are not ones where “anything goes” but rather ones that emerge “through the interplay . . . of an ordered set of sources of insight.” 33 In other words, in order for theological conversations to yield constructive results, agreement between parties in regard to what topic will be discussed and what sources of knowledge are acceptable is necessary: some sense of order, planning, and critical thought is demanded. The constructive model of conversation offered by Grenz and the wide-open, natural conversation offered by the Emergent Church thus differ in important ways, most importantly, in what they yield. The former has the potential to produce constructive, positive results. The formation of the Apostles’ Creed is an example of the result of a constructive conversation that takes seriously the primary role of Scripture for knowledge of God, as well as the challenges faced by the church of its day. But open-ended dialogues, such as blogs or online forums, while they may offer interesting and valuable insights, are by nature unable to arrive at conclusions on issues, and so generate less than satisfactory results. At the very least, the Emergent conversation needs to incorporate some of the discipline of the constructive model if it wants its dialog to be fruitful. If it fails to do so, the conversation that defines the Emergent Church will be reduced to mere jabbering, and it will have rejected the monologue of modernity without being able to offer a viable alternative.


It is our view that this weakness in its conception of what conversation can be, its revolutionary stance in relation to the inherited church, and its rejection of form and structure have caused the Emergent movement to fall short in providing an adequate postmodern way of doing church. All is not lost for the movement, however. The seriousness with which it takes postmodernism, its innovative use of the Internet to draw people into the movement, and its disdain for the conservative/liberal divide demonstrate an understanding of the shortcomings of the larger church and of the need for change. In this way the Emergent Church has served as a trail-blazing movement, helping to bring issues to the surface that many people would otherwise be unaware of. However, as long as the Emergent Church remains committed to its current understanding of emergent principles, it will be unable to produce the kind of changes to its corporate life that could make for growth and maturity and empower it to have a positive impact on North American culture. Whether it has the creativity, intellectual resources, and wisdom to meet those challenges remains to be seen.


  1. Tony Jones, The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 39.
  2. For a broad description of the Emerging Church, as well as its distinction from the Emergent Church, see Scott McKnight, “Five Streams of the Emerging Church: Key Elements of the Most Controversial and Misunderstood Movement in the Church today,” Christianity Today 51, no. 2 (February 2007),
  3. Cf. Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger. Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 28. For a description of the key impulses of the Emerging Church movement, see McKnight, “Five Streams.”
  4. Cf. Yaneer Bar-Yam, Making Things Work: Solving Complex Problems in a Complex World (NECSI: Knowledge, 2004), 31, 49.
  5. Jones, xvii.
  6. Gibbs and Bolger, 192.
  7. Jones, 180.
  8. Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth, “Postmodernism,” Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v.
  9. Stanley J. Grenz, “Articulating the Christian Belief-Mosaic: Theological Method after the Demise of Foundationalism,” in Evangelical Futures: A Conversation on Theological Method, ed. John G. Stackhouse, Jr. (Vancouver: Regent College, 2000), 108.
  10. Ibid., 110.
  11. Ibid., 112.
  12. Ibid., 113.
  13. Cf. Jones, 37–38.
  14. Ibid., 82.
  15. For this reason attempts to critique the movement based on the theological convictions of prominent Emergent leaders is misplaced.
  16. Grenz, 108.
  17. The significance of conversation is highlighted by the uncertainty that has resulted from the failure of foundationalism. For the Emergent critique of foundationalism, see Jones, 18–21, 103. For a definition and description of foundationalism and its problems, see Grenz, 110–12.
  18. Jones, 21.
  19. Ibid., 22.
  20. Ibid., 4.
  21. Technically, Brewin is an Emerging leader, not Emergent, since he is not North American nor a part of Emergent Village. For a statement of Brewin’s organic convictions see his Signs of Emergence: A Vision for the Church that is Organic/Networked/Decentralized/Bottom-Up/Communal/Flexible {Always Evolving} (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 43.
  22. Ibid., 85.
  23. Ibid., 43.
  24. Ibid., 47–48.
  25. This also indicates an inadequate understanding of postmodernism, which retains the modern as it moves past it. Cf. Grenz, 108.
  26. See, e.g., Jones, 9, 180, 187–8. See also Brian D. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 42–44. McLaren avoids identifying himself with any particular label but rather tries to define himself in the broadest Christian terms possible.
  27. Emergent Village, “Changes at Emergent Village,” Emergent Village Web Site, MP3 File,15:10/15:59/17:6.
  28. Ibid., 26:20/27:35.
  29. The implication of this comment is that if the movement grows stale and is domesticated this is the fault of the second generation of emergents. Tony Jones, “Lonnie Frisbee and the Non-Demise of the Emerging Church,” The Tony Jones Blog, entry posted December 30, 2009,
  30. Emergent Village Website, “Moving Forward: Hopes for the Future of Emergent Village.” Weblog, posted September 8, 2009.
  31. “Wikipedia,” in Wikipedia,
  32. See the exchange of blogs between Tony Jones and Andrew Jones (no relation), especially Andrew Jones, “Emerging Church Movement (1989–2009)?” Tall Skinny Kiwi Blog, entry posted December 29, 2009. (accessed January 5, 2010).
  33. Grenz, 124.
Travis I. Barbour and Nicholas E. Toews are currently enrolled in the Master of Christian Studies program at Regent College. Both graduated from Columbia Bible College in 2009. This article is the product of a four-month research project completed for Gay Lynn Voth at Columbia Bible College.

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