Four Models of Emerging Churches

four models

I’ve had a lot of vested interest in the emerging church for a number of years now, partly because of my own previous experience in communities that reflected many of the qualities present in Bolger and Gibb’s “Emerging Churches,” and partly because upon reading that book I was better able to organize my own disparate thoughts on the future of the “emerging” Friends church, or what we now convergent Friends. But there is often a too complicated debate over who and what the emerging church (EC) is, whether it is a good thing, and who really represents this “movement.” I am not really interested in defending or critiquing this movement, though I am personally in favor of at least some of the expressions within these groups, because I think the church should always be contextualizing its message the best it can. But this doesn’t really help us understand the who and the what of the EC. That said, I have been playing around with various ways of categorizing these various emerging groups, and I wanted to throw out this very early, proto-typology and see how it flies.

A Couple Disclaimers

But before I give them, let me offer a few disclaimers. First, these categories are not necessarily mutually exclusive, I’ve seen some of these groups sharing practices, and thinkers and are influenced by a variety of theological and philosophical positions. So my “proto-typology (if you will allow me the designation),” is meant to offer a really broad stroke to start a conversation, about the rich variety in this post-modern church. Hopefully, the conversation will be one that will in fact help make this list more accurate and better yet, help us be more faithful to the Gospel in our world. Second, I absolutely hate typologies. Absolutely and completely. Third, these categories are not based on new field research, but rather my own readings (and interpretations) of a variety of authors and positions. In other words, I am not trying to create a final word on this, but rather a (really) rough guide. Fourth, my stock is ultimately not in the emerging church, it is in the Quaker tradition so if anything my bias lays with the peace church.

Wow that’s a long list of disclaimers!

The way I’ve tried to construct these categories is around a) philosophers and theologians who have influenced these groups, and b) their stance towards Western culture.

Four Types of Emerging Churches and their Thinkers

  1. Deconstructionist Model: Probably the most well known group of emerging churches these churches are truly postmodern in just about every sense of the word. These are Christians influenced mainly by deconstruction, a philosophical approach invented on the continent. In their holy readings of philosophical discourse Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault and Caputo would be there. Much of the focus is on adopting postmodernity, and contextualizing the Gospel accordingly. Peter Rollins’ Ikon in Ireland would be a good example of one such group. I think Tony Jones and Brian McLaren would also fall under this category. I would say they are accommodating to postmodern culture, against modernism, and often against the institutional church making them lean towards a sort of non-denominationalism.
  2. Pre-modern/Augustinian Model: This model would be the second most influential within the EC, and can be in (friendly) opposition to the first group. Instead of understanding postmodernism in terms of Nietzschean philosophy as group one would do, this model leans more towards a Renaissance styled post-modernism (similar to what is represented in Toulmin’s Cosmopolis). Whether this group is truly early modern or whether it reaches back further to the pre-modern era I am not quite clear on, but St. Augustine and St. Thomas are key figures for this group. This is the where the Radical Orthodoxy of John Milbank, James K. Smith and others would fall. We see some catholics here, as well as other theologians that tend towards placing a higher emphasis on tradition within the overall framework of the Christian faith, rather than simply contextualization. This group would be see history as having shown us a better way, and if we reach back far enough we may be able to find wisdom that will help us in our quest of faith today. They would be more favorable towards institutional church, and have a pretty clear understanding of what kind of church we ought to become, but would also be seen as nostalgic and trying to uphold an institution that has often oppressed and violated those we are called to help.
  3. Emerging Peace Church Model (Or Open Anabaptism): This model of the emerging church stresses the non-conformist tendencies of Jesus, and thus the church should follow in his footsteps through non-violence, love of enemy and caring for the poor. This one may be closest to a kind of new monasticism that has so often been written about in recent times. While there are people from the various peace churches involved in this type of church, there are also people from a variety of traditions who are seeking to contextualize the Gospel within our culture. This group does not accept any one style of culture as being good, thus their non-conformist attitude is directed at modernity and postmodernity alike. They see Jesus (and his incarnation) as their primary model for engaging culture. They are influenced by Wittgenstein, Barth, Bonhoeffer, John H. Yoder, McClendon and Nancey Murphy to name a few. In this group you will find people like Jarrod McKenna and the Peace Tree, Shane Claiborne, some Mennonites, Rob Bell’s Mars Hill, Submergent, Jesus Radical and convergent Friends, to name a few. This group is counter any kind of Christendom styled church and thus would be sometimes for and sometimes against institutionalization, and would see contextualization as important only up to the point that it remains ultimately an extension of Jesus’ ministry and message.
  4. Foundationalist Model: This model of the emerging church is more conservative in their reading of Scripture and modern approaches to ecclesiology (standard preacher-centered teaching, music for worship, etc) while seeking to be innovative in their approaches to evangelism. This may come in the form of people meeting in pubs, having tatoos, cussing from the pulpit, playing loud rock music for worship and adding a layer of “alternative-ness” to their overall church service. These churches can be found within larger church communities, or can be on their own, sometimes as a large (possibly mega) church. They follow standard Evangelicalism in that they aren’t attach to traditions, and come out politically and theologically conservative, while maintaining a more accomodational stance toward culture in the name of evangelism, they will ultimately look similar to older church communities theologically. This is where I think theologians like Millard J. Erickson or D.A. Carson have a lot of influence.  And where practitioners such as Mark Driscoll, Dan Kimball, Erwin McManus and many “emerging services” within mega-church congregations like Willow Creek might be found.

How These Are Connected To Local Bodies

Within these four models (are there more?), there are also a variety of ways for understanding what “church” is and how (and where) worship should be conducted. Just because it’s an EC doesn’t mean that it isn’t a part of a traditional church, Presbymergent (Presbyterian), and Tribal Generation (Anglican) are two examples of a mainline model of church being a part of the above groups. Then there is the mega-sized churches (like Mars Hill in Michigan and Seattle) who even though the church is huge they are able to maintain a number of qualities that make their communities fit within the groups above. Then there are the more blue-collar churches, or lay-inspired groups, like Kester Brewin’s Re-Imagine and Ikon mentioned above. In these communities what is most important for these groups is connecting with those outside the church, involving as many people as possible in as many ways as imaginable and being creative with whatever you have. They tend to be small in size and spread out in terms of leadership and often won’t have much in the way of paid staff. Then there are the groups who see themselves within a narrative unity of a larger tradition, but radical enough to be innovative and often times break outside the hardened mold of that tradition. Here (I think) would be more of the Radical Orthodoxy and Emerging Peace church groups. They may meet in tradition church buildings, or elsewhere, and worship will often take its cues from its tradition but then seek to build on that tradition in a variety of ways.

I hope this is somewhat helpful, and if you have some suggestions by way of clarification please feel free to chime in. I am not trying to make one look better than another (I’ve already said my biases). This is simply to help frame who is in the conversation and where they are coming from.

EDITED: 3:50pm 1.16.2008 (Added content to #4)