New Wine, Old Wineskins: The Emerging Church, Ethics, and the ELCA

[1] Religious groups perpetually dialogue with their sociocultural contexts as they seek to define and maintain their identities as communities of faith. In other words, religious communities are constantly balancing continuity and change.[1] Recent decades have brought a series of rapid political, economic, philosophical, social, and spiritual shifts, and there is a growing movement of individuals and churches, known as the emerging church, that feels that the Christian church has failed to adapt to these significant changes. Primarily birthed from within conservative evangelicalism, the emerging church has also attracted the attention and participation of parishioners in mainline denominations and even a limited number of Catholic and Orthodox Christians. One impulse at the heart of the emerging church’s ethos is a renewed commitment to social justice and radical generosity. On this point, emerging churches have much to glean from their mainline elders. However, the emerging church’s distrust of traditional institutions, keen awareness of postmodern shifts in culture, and emphasis on being authentic communities of ethical formation could be instructive to more established denominations like the ELCA as they grapple with falling numbers and seek renewed vibrancy and relevance.

[2] In the words of one emerging church website, “the modern colonial world is giving way to an emerging postmodern, postcolonial world,”[2] and in the eyes of a growing number of Christians, this calls for the church to rethink numerous aspects of Christian faith and practice. More than simply affecting superficial, stylistic elements of church life, many within the emerging church believe that this rethinking involves “new ways of doing theology and living biblically, new understandings of mission, new ways of expressing compassion and seeking justice, new kinds of faith communities, new approaches to worship and service, new integrations and conversations and convergences and dreams.”[3] In other words, nearly everything seems fair game for reexamination given the postmodern turn.

[3] Postmodernity connotes such things as mystery, ambiguity, community, complexity, and symbols[4]; it involves indeterminacy, diversity, and decentering; and knowledge is contextual, perspectival, and interpreted.[5] This is a radical departure from traditional evangelicalism, a movement heavily shaped by Cold War politics and the philosophical tenets of modernity and characterized by a foundational and presuppositional epistemology that posits the existence of objective, universal truths and their accessibility through reason and revelation. While the emerging church may share some common elements with their evangelical parents, fundamentally “they differ… on how Christianity is presented and practiced in a twenty-first century culture.”[6]

[4] A fundamental part of the emerging church’s reexamination of Christian faith and practice has involved an awakening to issues of social justice, which flows from a rethinking of Jesus’ life and ministry. Brian McLaren, one of the preeminent thinkers of the emerging church movement, argues in The Secret Message of Jesus that Jesus might not have come to start a new religion, but to “start a political, social, religious, artistic, economic, intellectual, and spiritual revolution that would give birth to a new world.”[7] Jesus’ “secret” message, according to McLaren, is the kingdom of God.

[5] This “revelation” may seem like old news to many Lutherans, whose faith in many instances is defined by a commitment to social justice and desire for God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven.” Lutherans have a long-standing witness of being God’s hands and feet in the world, from the work of Lutheran Social Services and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services down to acts of charity and justice in local congregations and communities. August’s ELCA Churchwide Assembly not only brought much debated changes on sexuality, but public commitments to reforms of our health care and immigration systems, new levels of dedication to addressing HIV/AIDS and malaria, and commitments to the further study of justice for women and persons with disabilities. In these actions, this 2009 Assembly confirmed this church’s on-going commitment, as stated in the opening paragraph of the ELCA social statement on Church in Society, “to defend human dignity, to stand with poor and powerless people, to advocate justice, to work for peace, and to care for the earth in the processes and structures of contemporary society.” It seems that Jesus’ “secret message” isn’t such a secret to Lutherans, and on this point (among others), our “emerging” brothers and sisters might have pause to listen and learn from their mainline elders.

[6] In the same way that the emerging church can learn from Lutheran public theology and the church’s long history of social concern, the ELCA would do well to learn from our emerging church brothers and sisters. Another primary characteristic of the emerging church is a distrust of institutions, including the institutional church, which might seem to put this emerging ethos at odds with the ELCA. As Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger, professors at Fuller Theological Seminary, write in their foundational treatise, Emerging Churches, “[t]he answer [to finding the kingdom of God] does not reside in church structure but in the way of life modeled by Jesus and what that life looks like in our context today.”[8] While all ecclesial communities, institutional or otherwise, can seek to discern faithful living in their time and place, emerging churches are those that have shifted from a modern to a postmodern approach to ministry, meaning – in part – a move from ethics as hierarchical to ethics as communal. Denominational and theological treatises and labels matter much less than how one relates to the gospel and culture, and the “how” of that “relating” is only formed in local Christian community.

[7] It would be a mistake to understand the term “Christian community” in the emerging church context as simply “church.” This conception of community is much more than weekly worship or the church’s well-intentioned programs. In fact, for the emerging church, that is precisely the problem: the church is primarily a people, marked by a deep identification with Jesus and a commitment to living out the ethic of the kingdom of God in a world in need of redemption. All ethics is contextual, but that context is not just broadly cultural and historical; ethics is set within a local ethical community seeking to be faithful together. The nature of those communities of ethical formation matters greatly. As Gibbs and Bolger describe in more detail:

Jesus was not a church planter. He created communities that embodied the Torah, that reflected the kingdom of God in their entire way of life. He asked his followers to do the same. Emerging churches seek first the kingdom. They do not seek to start churches per se but to foster communities that embody the kingdom. Whether a community explicitly becomes a church is not the immediate goal. The priority is that the kingdom is expressed. Inherent to kingdom activities is that the community will reflect the local context, and therefore forms vary greatly.[9]

[8] While emerging churches might not end up looking as radically different as denominational churches as this description might indicate, the emerging church’s self-understanding of its mission remains instructive for an ELCA that saw a loss of 76,000 members from 2007 to 2008. Lutheran theology may say “Amen” to an understanding of church as a people marked by the Cross, but is this reality truly reflected in our institution or congregations? What can the ELCA learn from this new religious movement? It would be misguided to simply shop for particular emerging church practices to artificially drop onto our congregations to attract young people or become “hip” – candles, guitars or youth programming do not an emerging church make. In fact, prescribing one template would be antithetical to the emerging church project. In the end, it is not about a certain congregational structure or worship practice, but it is the authentic formation of a missional body, with ethics rooted in communal life, reaching out to a postmodern culture that itself is distrustful of institutions but still seeking authenticity and community.

[9] As someone raised in conservative evangelicalism who found a spiritual home in mainline Protestantism, I have particular interest in dialogue between the ELCA and emerging forms of Christianity. The writings of many emerging church leaders found me at a formative time of questioning, and they helpfully articulated many of the changes I saw in myself and broader culture that the faith forms I knew were not adequately addressing. And it was a lay-led, ecumenical, storefront congregation in Washington, DC, that spoke to those sensibilities and drew me in, which I only later realized was a congregation of the ELCA. While I wouldn’t necessarily characterize our small worshipping community as fully emergent, as an informal, ecumenical, creative, communal, justice-seeking congregation grounded in common mission and centered around Christ’s table, I think it is a unique “expression of church” that combines many emerging elements while still remaining firmly rooted in its Lutheran identity. As my congregation understands, the label or building or institution should never become primary or obscure our foundational identity as a living, breathing community of ethical formation and action reaching out to the world beyond our doors. The future looks bright if emerging churches and mainline congregations have eyes to see one another fully and sit at one another’s feet.

[1] David A. Roozen and James R. Nieman, eds., Church, Identity, and Change (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005) 18.

[2]  [link broken]

[3], retrieved June 30, 2006.

[4] Robert E.Webber as quoted in Tony Jones, Postmodern Youth Ministry (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2001) 25.

[5] Craig Van Gelder, “Mission in the Emerging Postmodern Condition,” in The Church Between Gospel and Culture: The Emerging Mission in North America, eds. George R. Hunsberger and Craig Van Gelder (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996) 134.

[6] Robert E. Webber, The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2002) 41.

[7] Brian D. McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything (Nashville, Tennessee: W Publishing Group, 2006) 4.

[8] Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Communities in Postmodern Cultures (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2005) 60.

[9] Ibid., 61.

Robert D. Francis

Robert D. Francis is the Director of Advocacy and Policy for Lutheran Services in America.