Emerging Church Movement Refuses to Be Defined

It's almost nearly impossible to define "emerging church," says one Christian author. And if there ever is a time when "emerging church" makes it to Webster's Dictionary, the movement would probably fail at that moment.

Ever since its debut onto the Christian scene in the 21st century, the emerging church movement has been a puzzle for people to firmly categorize.

But in one aspect, that may be the whole point of the emerging movement – to not be institutionalized.

"The typical mindset is to try to very rigidly define something," says Jim Palmer, author of Divine Nobodies: Shedding Religion to Find God , "and then it's not long before it's institutionalized into its own hardened rule of practice or something of that nature."

Nevertheless, the movement may be a "generational thing," Palmer says. Emerging Christians largely come from younger generations. They are a people who are looking for a spirituality that has "some depth and width to it" and that is not confined within a lot of the typical or traditional forms of doing church, he notes.

The emerging church provides that. The movement came during a cultural shift called post modernity, Palmer explains, and a part of that shift is a general skepticism about traditional religion and organized church. Amid the skepticism, the emerging church gives believers "permission" to step outside the boundaries of tradition for more creative expressions of worship.

"I think the danger's always focusing on the form or style of worship when really, it's a spiritual hunger that wants to press beyond a shallow and narrow faith to something that's deeply relevant to their day-to-day lives," Palmer explains.

The emerging church, however, does not necessarily mean creating something "new," he notes. Rather, the movement is recovering some of the original aspects of authentic Christianity and looking for ways to live them out in the times of today.

Palmer just came out of a conference at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., where Dr. Robert Schuller launched a three-day forum with one of the broadest group of thinkers speaking on the forward movement of Christianity. Speakers ranged from Pentecostals to Calvinists as well as emerging church thinkers and scientists.

More than a preacher’s conference, it was a "conversation," as Palmer describes it, which also characterizes the emerging church movement.

"They (emerging church leaders) really want to open a conversation and connect with people who are different and learn," Palmer says. "Honestly, I think it may be one of the great contributions that the emerging church serves."

Conversations will continue and it is unlikely the emerging movement will disappear anytime soon, according to Scot McKnight, professor of religious studies at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, Ill., in Christianity Today magazine.

And emerging Christians are not looking for a hard and fast definition to categorize them into a certain sect of Christianity any time soon.

"In the end," Palmer says, "one of the characteristics among emerging folks is the refusal to be defined."