What is the Emergent Church? According to Tony Jones

Here’s a brief history of the “Emergent Church”, excerpted from the paper presented by Tony Jones at a 2007 Wheaton Theology conference but rejected from the publication of the conference proceedings::

What Is the Emergent Church?

First off, the name: Emergent. The tags, “emerging church” and “emerging leaders” were being used by organizations like Leadership Network in Dallas back in the late 1990s, particularly as they sponsored some of our early work; under Leadership Network, we had been called the “Young Leaders Network,” the “Theological Working Group,” and “Terra Nova.” By 2001, we were out on our own, and felt that we needed a name, a banner, of sorts, under which we could gather. In May of that year, about six of us were on a conference call, brainstorming possible names.

Then Brian McLaren, a devoted environmentalist, said, “You know, when a forester visits a forest to determine its health, she doesn’t climb up into the old growth trees. Instead, she gets down on her knees and digs around in what they call the ’emergent growth’ at the forest floor. In the ecology of the American church, there are lots of organizations who are tending to the old growth trees, but we seem most interested in what’s taking place on the forest floor, at the emergent church level.”

So, we settled on the name “Emergent” and bought the domain name, “emergentvillage.org.” And we started connecting with others around the globe who were examining the same shifts from modernity to postmodernity that had so intrigued us and had, really, brought us together starting in 1997. The alt.worship crowd in the U.K. became friends, and we made connections with people in Australia and New Zealand. The success of Brian’s book, A New Kind of Christian, brought a great deal of attention, too, and increasingly, Emergent Christianity has become a “brand” of its own, for good and for ill.

Both Emergent Village, the organization with which I am affiliated, and the broader emerging/emergent church movement have grown steadily in recent years. But the growth has not been particularly quantifiable, as other ecclesial movements might be. In fact, some (like Dwight Friesen) have suggested that church growth in the 21st century might not reflect the linear, organizational growth structures of the industrial age, but instead the open source growth typified by the Internet and by pandemic viruses. In open source–also known as “scale free networks”–growth looks more like a non-hierarchical web, with hubs of potency that, in turn, foment new strands of growth.

Download the full paper (and accompanying powerpoint) from Tony Jones’ Theoblogy blog.

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