What is the Emerging Church? (Part 1)

I have had several questions lately about the emerging church. Questions about the theology behind it, the churches involved, and how Cornerstone fits into the bigger picture. It is hard to pin down a definition of the emerging church. It started out as a discussion among several church leaders about how to reach the new postmodern culture. There is no unifying statement of faith and there is no structure to the movement, so it is hard to clearly list the beliefs of the emerging church leaders. I want to give a general overview with this first post. I will share more about the terminology, the focus, and how Cornerstone fits within this in later posts.

I read a book by Ed Stetzer, called Breaking the Missional Code, that did a good job of characterizing the different schools of thought within the emerging church. Not everyone agrees with his assessment, see here for a rebuttal, but I think it is a good starting point to discuss the emerging church. There are different ways to categorize the groups within the emerging church. Another good list is found here. Stetzer groups the emerging church into 3 main groups. You can read more of his thoughts from an article he wrote for the Baptist Press website. The definitions below are used from his article.

1. The Relevants

They are simply trying to explain the message of Christ in a way their generation can understand. The contemporary churches of the 1980s and 90s did the same thing (and some are still upset at them for doing so). However, if we find biblical preaching and God-centered worship in a more culturally relevant setting, I rejoice just as I would for international missionaries using tribal cultural forms in Africa.

2. The Reconstructionists

The reconstructionists think that the current form of church is frequently irrelevant and the structure is unhelpful. Yet, they typically hold to a more orthodox view of the Gospel and Scripture. Therefore, we see an increase in models of church that reject certain organizational models, embracing what are often called “incarnational” or “house” models. They are responding to the fact that after decades of trying fresh ideas in innovative churches, North America is less churched, and those that are churched are less committed.

3. The Revisionists

Much of the concern has been addressed at those I call revisionists. Right now, many of those who are revisionists are being read by younger leaders and perceived as evangelicals. They are not — at least according to our evangelical understanding of Scripture. We significantly differ from them regarding what the Bible is, what it teaches and how we should live it in our churches. I don’t hate them, question their motives and I won’t try to mischaracterize their beliefs. But, I won’t agree with them.

Revisionists are questioning (and in some cases denying) issues like the nature of the substitutionary atonement, the reality of hell, the complementarian nature of gender, and the nature of the Gospel itself.

Most of the concerns about the “emerging church”, are due to the outspoken people that are lumped into this revisionist category. To make things even more confusing, the term “emergent” is usually used for the more liberal views within the emerging church. Knowing these different groups will help you understand the emerging church. I’ll share more of my thoughts in a future post.

The following short video by pastor Mark Driscoll is also helpful to learn more about the different “streams” of the emerging church.


I am a former design engineer who now pastors Cornerstone Community Church in Galax, Virginia. I'm passionate about following Jesus and I love technology. I've been married to Jennifer for 28 years, and we have three adult children.

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3 Responses

  1. Mark says:

    Hey Mike! This is your fellow engineer friend Mark from Fort Worth needing some guidance. It’s interesting that you talk about the emerging church and how it applies to the post modern culture of today. I joined a small church that has been struggling financially for years. They bought 10 acres of land 5 years ago that is located in a very affluent neighborhood and in 6 months will have it paid off. The church we’re currently in is run down because of the lack of funds, contributing mainly from the land payment, and the congregation is small to boot. I play in a praise band and also took on the leadership role as outreach director. Throughout the week, I go door knocking trying to pull more people into the church but there seems to be less people inclined in going to a church that doesn’t fit the new generational look. Before I joined a year ago there was no outreach program which I think is the essence in growing any church. I know in 6 months we’ll pull in more money having the land paid off but we’re a long way from building our new church. What recommendations do you have to offer to help stimulate our outreach program? Since we do live in a secular society, many people are looking at what a church has to offer instead of looking at what they can offer the church. I left a huge mega church in Fort Worth because there was no room for me to teach and grow. I joined the church I’m in right now because of the opportunity to contribute and I saw that it was struggling! I do realize that in this post modern culture many tend to look for the secular aspects of a church instead of growing” The Body” as a whole but I hope there is a way thru my outreach program I can bridge that gap!

  2. Mike says:

    Mark, I would urge you to focus on several things. To grow, you need to focus on outreach (but not just by yourself) and focus on assimilation. I have been involved with outreach programs like FAITH and EE before, but I have never really seen them grow a church. I know they can, but I think a much better way is for a church to get to the point where people are actually inviting their friends. I am a huge believer in relational evangelism. I believe people are much more likely to be saved and start attending church through relationships with people in the church.

    I would urge you and your church to be very involved in the community. We have tried to be at all the street festivals and parades and any other community event, just so people know us. The old adage “that people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care” is very true.

    In our postmodern society today, confrontational evangelism is being replaced by relationship evangelism which is much closer to the model of Jesus. You have got me thinking so I will try to post a blog entry on this topic to go into greater detail. Thanks for the great question!!

  3. Mark says:

    Thanks for the advice. I recently started studying relationship evangalism and I must admit, I’m impressed. The Institute For American Church Growth,who asked over 10,000 people this question: “What was responsible for your coming to Christ and this church?” – Their replies:
    a. I had a special need – 2%
    b. I just walked in – 3%
    c. I like the minister – 6%
    d. I visited there – 1%
    e. I like the Bible classes – 5%
    f. I attended a gospel meeting – 0.5%
    g. I liked the programs – 3%
    h. A friend or relative invited me – 79%

    Wow that’s a huge percentage. I now know where to start!

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