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America's 'Emerging Church'

By The Rev. Howard Bess
May 26, 2009

Editor’s Note: Over the past several decades, Evangelicalism has reshaped the U.S. political process, challenging the traditional American principle of separation of church and state – and often demanding a more judgmental attitude toward those who don’t accept Christian fundamentalism.

Now, however, that movement appears to be in a state of flux, giving way to a more tolerant “emerging church,” as the Rev. Howard Bess notes in this guest essay:

In the last half of the 20th century, Evangelicalism swept the American religious scene.

This period of American religious history will go down as the age of Billy Graham. He may have been light on theological prowess, but he was a spell-binding preacher and an organizational genius.

His call to Christ was supported by the establishment of new colleges, new seminaries, parochial schools, home schooling, new publishing companies, new magazines, radio and television networks, and new ministries such as Campus Crusade, World Vision, Youth for Christ, and Pioneer Boys and Girls.

Evangelicalism changed the face of America. Predictably the change is not permanent and the next phase is setting in.

Church historians and sociologists are now talking about post-Evangelicalism. The most popular buzz term is the emerging church. Change is constant and the American religious scene is not static.

Talk about the emerging church is appearing in significant journals and periodicals. To keep up with what is happening, I spend a lot of time reading. I have my favorite publications. I read Christian Century, Context, and Christianity Today to name three. 

I also read an array of other periodicals that represent a broad diversity of perspectives.  The emerging church is becoming a common topic.

Scot McKnight, Professor of Religious Studies at North Park University, has been studying the phenomenon that is pervasive, but as yet little noticed by the general public.  He calls the change ironic.

This new breed of Christian is a product of Evangelicalism and appears to be carrying on the Evangelical tradition; but serious scholars are asking “Is this a subsection of Evangelicalism or is it something quite different?”

The developing ironic faith takes the believer to a fork in the road. Will the believer abandon the Christian faith altogether or will the believer redefine the meaning of being a Christian?

Dr. McKnight identifies eight characteristics of the emerging church. In condensed form I am sharing his observations:

First, emergents cannot accept the idea of Bible inerrancy. Verbal inerrancy will not stand modern critical examination in the study of languages. To assign fixed inerrancy to ancient documents written in the Hebrew and Greek used thousands of years ago stretches credibility.

Second, emergents have come to believe that the gospel that they have been taught is a caricature of the message of Jesus, rather than the real thing.  Increasingly they are putting other Biblical writings in the background and have shown increasing interest in what Jesus said and did.

They ask “If we are followers of Jesus, why do we not live and preach his message?” In short, they are looking for a much more radical Christianity than they have found in the Evangelical (and mainline) churches.

Third, exposure to science in public education, universities and personal studies has led emergents to disown the conclusion that when the Bible and science appear to collide, science must take a back seat to the Bible.

In this conflict, emergents are not abandoning the Bible, but are raising critical questions about the Bible’s nature and content. This new bread of Christian remains quite committed to the Bible but they are very open to new ideas and understandings.

Fourth, emergents have become disillusioned by the clay feet of church leadership. It is not just the Jim Bakkers and the Jimmy Swaggarts, but the rank and file of church leadership.

Emergents compare what Jesus had in mind and what is going on in churches, and they see a need to start over. They want a fresh start with serious intent to follow Jesus.

Fifth, our public schools and our nation in general are insisting that we be truly multicultural. The churches’ teaching, that people not like us, are doomed, is not acceptable to emergents. They want a much broader definition of what it means to be accepted in the family of God.

Sixth, emergents are insisting that God be understood as totally gracious and loving. The angry, vengeful God that is sometime presented in both Old and New Testaments is not acceptable. 

Seventh, acceptance of homosexuals in the family of God is common. Being pro-gay or anti-gay is not the issue. Emergents recognize that sexuality is far more complex than is generally recognized. To live in harmony with gay and lesbian friends and family members is a part of the emergent’s perspective.

Eighth, echoing the first named characteristic, emergents recognize the role that language plays in their understanding and practice of the Christian Faith. Theology is language bound. Language is a limited tool of communication.

If theology is language bound, it is also culturally shaped. To be rigidly exclusive does not make sense to emergent Christians.

In writing about the people who are leading the emerging church, I have served as a reporter. I want my readers to be aware of what is happening.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is           

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