Thursday, December 13, 2007

Emergent or Emerging?

I'm taking a breath before continuing with the next installment of the What Is The Emerging Church? series. Why? Well, in part because I have been asked to take a shot at clarifying the distinction between emergent and emerging.

You could very well hear or read statements like these in many places where you interact with people or observe other people's interactions:

  • The emerging church is redefining discipleship for our contemporary culture.

  • I've started attending a different church that is emergent.

These are obviously two very similar forms of the same root word, so do emerging and emergent mean the same thing in the two hypothetical statements above? Grab your secret decoder ring, and let's take a look!

D.A. Carson, in his book (Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), states at the outset that he will use the two words interchangeably in that work. So, it's settled, right? Hardly.

If you've been following along, you've seen the name Scot McKnight in recent days. McKnight is part of the movement, and delivered a lecture in October 2006 at the Fall Contemporary Issues Conference of Westminster Theological Seminary. In a portion of this lecture (PDF transcript) where he was critiquing D.A. Carson he said:
[C]onstantly misused in the debate today are the terms “emerging” and “emergent.” But, “emerging” is not the same as “emergent.” Please listen. “Emergent” refers to Emergent Village – an official clearinghouse for this conversation where there are cohorts across the world who officially associate themselves with [Emergent Village]. Emergent Village, or emergent, is directed by Tony Jones, a PhD student at Princeton, former youth minister, and now an energetic traveler on behalf of [Emergent Village].

“Emerging,” on the other hand, is bigger, broader, and deeper. “Emerging” is connected to [Emergent Village] the way [Westminster Theological Seminary] is connected to Reformed Christianity in the world (in all its brands). So, when you say “emergent” you should be thinking of Emergent Village and Tony Jones; when you think of “emerging” you should be thinking of … well, that is what I have to get to soon.

No, don't click away yet - it's just about to get really interesting! McKnight obviously feels this is important. In fact, if you read the transcript of the lecture, he inserted a note after delivering it indicating that he does not plan to give up on hammering this distinction, insisting that people get it right.

McKnight, who is a member of the Coordinating Group of Emergent Village, mentions Tony Jones, who is the National Coordinator (the top dog, as near as I can tell) of the same organization. What is Emergent Village? According to the organization's web site,
Emergent Village is a growing, generative friendship among missional Christians seeking to love our world in the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

So now you're trying to decipher what that means! There is no emerging denominational structure, but I think most observers would tell you that Emergent Village is as close to a hub of the movement as there is currently.

Now, then, read the following quote from Tony Jones, taken from this interview, and seemingly offered unprompted by the interviewer:
Personally, I'm a little fuzzy on the supposed differences between "emerging" and "emergent." Some want to make a big deal of the differences, but they're used interchangeably by all but the most inside insiders.

There you have the top guy at Emergent Village taking essentially the complete opposite position on the question from one of the members of his Coordinating Group. This would be more understandable if McKnight was an outsider to Emergent Village, and didn't want to be lumped in with them, but both Jones and McKnight are insiders, making this ambiguity that much more surprising.

Glad I could clear that up for you…


Blogger Steve K. said...


I'm also a member of the "National Coordinating Group" for Emergent Village, but I don't presume to speak for Tony Jones or EV as a whole. I would just make this observation -- "emerging" is the broader movement (or "conversation," as Brian McLaren and others prefer to call it) and "Emergent Village" is a subset of "emerging." However, the terms "emerging" and "emergent" (lowercase E) are virtually synonymous. And I think when you read a quote like the one from Tony, what you're hearing is more of a recognition that these terms are (and will be) used interchangeably, so it's impossible to try and argue for any distinction to be made in every circumstance. There just is no "emerging church" council to go around and police people's usage of these terms and constantly correct people ;-) So, the way I read Tony's comment is not so much that he's arguing that there shouldn't be any distinction between "emerging" and "Emergent" (capital E), but that the distinction between "emerging" and "emergent" is so fuzzy and impossible to make that it's not worth exerting the energy to try and do that. I hope that makes a little bit of sense.

Related to this is an interesting discussion about the term "emerging church," which is going on over on the Emergent Village blog:

Steve Knight

December 13, 2007 at 3:18 PM  

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