To Those Who Want to Ignore “Emerging” Terminology

There seems to be a lot of chatter around town about the end the term “Emerging”/”Emergent” Church. Folks are claiming these categories are no longer relevant to what’s happening today in American Christianity. To be honest, I’ve always had a hard time with calling myself “emergent” but I’ve always felt compelled to be friendly with all the participants. Over the course of the last 8 years or so I’ve been lucky enough to meet or befriend a lot of folks in and around emerging Christianity. These folks come from a substantially diverse spectrum and getting to know them and to hear their perspective has enriched my faith greatly.

In a way, I can truly relate to those who are find the descriptor “emerging” to be troublesome. In Jimmy Eat World, we’ve always struggled with the word “emo.” While we’ve never once called ourselves “emo” and have always loathed the term, we have continually been linked to the term by journalists and well-meaning fans. As a band, we just chose to ignore it. Our hope is that the term is sort of like a young puppy that continually jumps up your leg. If you pretend the puppy doesn’t exist, it will realize it’s efforts to get your attention is a pointless exercise. If you freak out and yell “No!!” each time the puppy jumps up, it’s learned how to get your attention.

The problem with the term “emo” is that it tends to mean everything and nothing at the same time. To a significant degree, the terms “emerging” and “emergent” have suffered a similar fate. The value of those descriptors are found in the eye of the beholder. The spectrum of differences found among the cast of characters in emerging Christianity is broad and it was only an inevitable development that a need for distinctions would arise.

The big problem with making these distinctions is that they are being made by folks that have previously embraced and benefited from the “emerging”/”emergent” terminology, some of them even being the key players who’ve planted the seeds of the categories they now want to uproot. The problem is once you attach yourself to a descriptor like “emerging” or “emergent,” there’s no going back. This reminds me of when “ska” music was huge in the late 90s and all of the sudden, ska bands were popping up everywhere, trying to capitalize on the wave of popularity. But then as the fad subsided, so did all the newly formed ska bands. Because they associated themselves with the genre, they were anchored it’s inevitable demise. It becomes extremely tricky to navigate a way out of that problem.

My sense is that many of the folks trying to marginalize all things “emerging” are doing so because the term has gotten in the way of their task at hand. It’s understandably much easier to detach oneself from whatever “emerging” or “emergent” has come to mean for folks than it is to explain what YOU mean by the word “emerging” and how that’s different from what THEY mean. From a church leader or pastoral perspective, you must guard and protect from creating confusion and misunderstanding among your church community and if for you that means hitting the eject button on “emerging christianity” then that is understandable. If you are a missionary seeking support for your ministry, these descriptors can also be problematic. You have potential supporters who see you writing about “emerging church” and wonder, “Are they talking about good kind of emerging or the heretical kind?” It might be a smart move to distance yourself from the terminology and call yourself something a bit more vague like “missional.” Or you might be a college professor who is beholden to certain articles of faith your institution holds dear and all of the sudden, the “emerging church” you’ve been writing about is doing a bit of exploring outside the bounds of what your institution deems appropriate. At that point, you might want to distance yourself as to not cause confusion among the faculty and students.

What’s interesting is that these folks aren’t just dropping the term. Instead, they insert a qualifier that they are not using the term every time they use the term. The issue isn’t so much they’ve stopped using the term because they can’t seem to avoid using it. It’s just that when they do use it, they say they aren’t GOING to use it anymore. The main reason for this is that the terms they seek to avoid are turning out to be unavoidable. In the marketplace of ideas in American Christianity, emergence Christianity is getting a great deal of attention and sparking much debate.

In many ways, I really do understand the desire to define more clearly what guides you and what kind of movements you’re participating in. Maybe this is just a failure of language. But if you want to these terms to stop bothering you, then simply ignore them like the over excited puppy. If you keep saying, “No emergent!! Down emergent!!!” then the puppy will keep following you around, nipping at your heals.


10 thoughts on “To Those Who Want to Ignore “Emerging” Terminology

  1. 1. Wait, you guys aren’t emo. Damn, I feel like a jerk, I am heading to iTunes right now to fix some tagging.

    2. I couldn’t agree more with these word games. Using a qualifier devalues the argument that you want to get away from a term. Drop the term all together and find something that works if you want to be apart from it, that can be done in a way that isn’t saying, “Screw you people.” You can just change your terminology. But I don’t like the qualifiers.

  2. if emergent is a brand it, like all brands, gets tired. all branding is mutable and goes through cycles. what’s bad is when we confuse this kind of brand with the substance that it is supposed to symbolize. when that happens, it’s about the most post-modern thing we can do, but not in a good way.

  3. Well done, Brother Zach,
    I’ve found that labels like “emo”, “emergent”, “progressive”, “fundamentalist”, “conservative”, “liberal” etc. aren’t definitive and serve to confuse rather than increase understanding. When those labels come up in dialogue, it’s helpful to ask “what exactly do you mean by that term?”
    Regardless, here is how you can deal with the “emergent” label and an unruly dog:

  4. whoa. it’s an honor to have both of emergent’s greatest podcast represented in the comments. not to mention the greatest young life ninja on the planet. i’m not worthy. thanks for the comments everyone.

    drew, i think there’s an element of “emergent” that will suffer the fate of being a brand but it most certainly is not limited to that. that’s kind of why i think it’s amusing that folks are trying to sweep it under the rug. emergent is the cat that is already out of the bag. it’s impact will continue to shape American Christianity in big ways.

  5. Interesting post. I have never thought about the title that people give emergents. I am against some of the stuff that they are doing, but yet I have a lot of friends that are “emergent” only in the term of trying to engage people, cultures, and their church, and unfortunately these people get associated with some of the other guys that I don’t quite agree with.

    What do you think Emergent means?

  6. I think it’s interesting to see the different “factions” try to label movements within Christianity and within the country as a whole. From an evangelical point of view, emergents are this new thing that’s playing fast and loose with the gospel. But in reality, I’d say “emergent” thinking is probably closer to a modernized mainline Methodism/Episcopalian/Presbyterian theology.

    The trouble with labels is that they are hard to stick. Inevitably, there are gray areas and places where people can fall out of a particular label category. It’s like the VERY conservative southern baptist church that my parents attend, among it’s membership is a long term committed gay couple. They aren’t rainbow flag flying guys, just old school, quiet, small town gays. They haven’t been confronted by the church or denied membership, they sing in the choir and attend sunday school as “roommates.” Rarely are any politically charged comments made from the pulpit and they are welcomed and loved by the fellowship. Yet, the Southern Baptist Convention remains a remarkably backwards and messed-up organization.

    I’ve always ended up describing my faith and philosophy with a zillion labels and the suffix “-ish” It’s the “-ish’es” that help us to identify us with others and help describe our beliefs. So, I guess I’m Emergent-ish…

  7. I second Matt C.’s thoughts on “ish”. It softens the sweeping generalizations that may come with a label like “Emergent”, or even “Christian”. Anyone else hesitant to label themselves with that word?

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