what do you like about emergent?

My new book, Don’t Stop Believing:  Why Living Like Jesus Is Not Enough, just arrived.  I drove to Zondervan’s warehouse on Friday and picked up over a thousand copies for myself and then spent the weekend reading through them.  The first thirty or so were great, the next twenty just seemed like more of the same, and by number 54 I wanted to take Tad’s advice and start punching myself in the face (if you’re reading this, Tad, I only mean this to be a funny poke at our misunderstanding).

As I drove home with a van full of boxes stuffed with my books I tried to assess my motives.  I determined quickly—perhaps too quickly!—that I didn’t write Don’t Stop Believing to make money or raise my profile.  I am entirely content with my socio-economic status (I don’t covet a cell phone or DSL or other modern conveniences that come with monthly fees—though I do have high definition cable TV) and I’m not interested in being away from my young family on extended speaking tours. 

On the other hand, I have invested two years of research and writing into this book.  I gave it my best shot, and so I do hope that it is well received.  This book is an extension of me, and so any unwarranted or mean-spirited criticism will feel like a personal attack.  But I do welcome respectful, helpful criticism—as I don’t claim to have it all figured out and am still learning with everyone else. 

Most important, I pray that Don’t Stop Believing will help the church of Jesus Christ.  I sense that many Christians and churches are at a tipping point, and I hope that my book will play a role in pulling some back from the brink.  I will have reached my goal if readers say that this book gave them a third way through the postmodern culture wars—and showed them how commitment to the historic doctrines of the Christian faith are necessary for the social action they desire. 

Since my book addresses the weaknesses I find among postmodern innovators (my term for what is roughly the Emergent crowd, and my way of avoiding getting hung up on labels on who is in what group—I’d rather give them a generic title so we can focus on the issues they raise), I think it is appropriate to begin our discussion with their strengths.  Let’s take this week to discuss what is good about Emergent.  Let me know what Emergent authors say that you enjoy or agree with (Zach, I promise I’ll give equal time to the other side).

I’ll start.  Although I haven’t seen him develop the concept as far as I would like (i.e., into the restoration of creation on the new earth), I find myself about half of the time saying “Right on!” and writing “worldview” in the margins when I read Brian McLaren’s books.  He rightly reminds us that this life and this earth matters and that the Christian life starts now, not just after we die.  I often cite his line that getting saved is the starting line, not the finish line, of our life with Christ.  In fact, I think that his recovery of living for Christ explains a big chunk of his appeal to younger Christians.  While I have important reservations about where he starts from and where he ends up, I applaud Brian’s efforts to recover what I would call a Christian worldview.


15 responses to “what do you like about emergent?”

  1. Emergent represents to me a holistic approach to the Christian faith — that it is about beliefs AND actions, that Christianity is an all-encompassing way of life rather than merely just a belief system.

    In reading a brief description of your book, it sounds to me like you’ve embraced a caricature of Emergent (e.g., “it doesn’t matter what we believe as long as we live like [Jesus]”). I do appreciate that you’re opening up this dialogue and inviting positive reflections on Emergent.

    I look forward to reading the comments here (both positive and negative towards Emergent).

  2. One of the things I find refreshing about emergents is their passion for justice for the poor and their willingness to respond to it in a radical incarnational way. For almost 20 years I’ve felt like I was speaking a different language when I would share at fundamental and evangelical churches about the 2000 verses in the Bible that talk about the people of God’s response to the poor. However, with emergents, they look for practical ways to live out that response, which is often quite radical (the new monastics).

  3. Hey Mike – this is the first I have visited your page, or heard of your book, but I look froward to reading it. I saw a link posted by Steve Knight from Emergent Village – so here is why I (an Evangelical Lutheran by upbringing, and currently a conservative Evangelical Christian high school Bible teacher) love Emergent.

    When I am in typical evangelical denominational settings, I feel pressure to always give the “right” answers and avoid the difficult questions. In Emergent conversations (online, in our local cohort, reading books) I am given the freedom to be honest with myself, with the questions that I really have, the truths I really experience in my own life, and what it seems the Bible is really talking about when I read it. I am given the freedom to “breathe” theologically – and I love theology! It’s what I enjoy the most, but I also hate more than anything being forced to give the “right” answers that just don’t seem to fit anymore. Emergent has opened up for me the possibility to believe in God the way I have always felt was how I wanted to believe, but didn’t think I was allowed to.

    Basically, as a friend succinctly stated it, I have been “Mr. Schroeder” for a long time – but in Emergent, I can just be “Jesse.”

    Thanks again for your book – blessings on your career –

  4. eyesofhope

    Oh my, where to begin? Emergent authors, some of them good friends of mine, have changed my life over the course of the past few months. Which is impressive to me, since they were not good friends of mine (I didn’t even know they existed) before this past Spring.

    I have found that the controversy surrounding Rob Bell and Brian McLaren for supposed “universalist” beliefs stems from a belief that we cannot put God into a box and believe that he abandons and ignores the cries of those who have not “heard the Name of Jesus.” That would mean that people unreached are without any interaction from him, and that they are destined to hell because we didn’t make it to them in time. Even people on the opposite side of the world from Israel when it was literally impossible to go tell them the good news. That line of thinking takes us down the path of thinking that maybe, just maybe, that proverbial “good Muslim” has actually encountered God in his lifetime and is not completely without him. If that is true, then what follows is that when said Muslim accepts the good news that Christ offers, we should not strive to rip from him every semblance of spirituality he had before, swearing all of it came from Satan. This is important because after all, good missionaries go to isolated tribal villages and proclaim that their God, the one they serve and love, has a Son named Jesus, etc. They do not say to them, “you have wasted your spiritual life away following the devil,” because they would be martyred rather than received. Yet we create a fictitious chasm between ourselves and people of other religions, resulting in exclusive behaviors rather than community living like Jesus calls us to. Billy Graham himself recently said (Newsweek Mag) it is not up to him to decide if the “good Muslim” goes to hell…. It is God’s choice on an individual basis. There is a huge difference between universalism, which claims all roads lead to God, and inclusivism, which is a way of loving your neighbor that does not involve “us and them” prejudicing. Also, Tony Jones has a wonderful book called “The Sacred Way” which explores ways people have reached out to God historically, the context and background of each of several methods, and suggestions for how we might draw near to him today through the inspirations of these traditions. Often misquoted and lied about, this book is a very holy read. Also, his humility simply makes the book the work of art it is.

    Another favorite of mine in the EC is the encouragement to be the church rather than attend it. The institution of “church” in the Western world has become a business structure, rather than a life-transforming community of believers living the gospel message, loving our neighbors as ourselves, and going without so those in need can rise up. There is an encouragement to stop putting the tithes into facilities and wordly structures, and begin spending it the way Jesus would have us do – giving to the poor, the needy, the widowed. And not just tossing money at them by offering and living our lives same-same. Actually, I have been encouraged to actually live side-by-side with people in need, being there for them, being friends with them, rather than just baiting-and-switching them with false friendships, or on the flip-side, give the church our money so they can do it for us.

    I love the candidness in which Doug Pagitt discusses his own experiences in the church, and with God. His honesty and open-conversation writing style make his books very personable and easy to read. He, along with others, has helped me to see we do not serve a God who is cut and dry by any stretch of the imagination. He is alive and active and way more complex than we will ever understand. He and Tony especially have encouraged me to not simply take the teachings I have been given by historic men of God, but to study and know and love the Bible deeply and personally and seek God for the multi-faceted truths found there myself. They do hearken back to historic men of God for insight and truth, as should we all. But they do not just take in what is given us as solid truth, because of the fact that the Bible has been so misunderstood so many times historically (ie, justifying slavery in the past in the South). They urge us to always bring it back to the Bible, especially to the life of Jesus, for clarity. This is not dangerous, heretical ponderings, rather this is a means of practicing discernment and of seeking the Lord freshly every day. I love it.

    Jeremy Bouma has a new book just out regarding the offensiveness of the gospel message, and the fact that what we perceive as offensive in our selfishness is in fact not offensive in itself, but rather glorious and beautiful.

    Frank Viola and George Barna have a book called “Pagan Christianity” which explores the origins of our practices in the traditional Sunday morning church setting. Part two to that book is about Reimagining better ways, but I have not gotten to it yet.

    Oh, I could go on like this for hours. I will stop now out of respect for the readers…. Thank you for the opportunity to share. God bless you in your journey, each one of you!
    -Theresa Seeber

  5. I forgot to mention the author (Shane Claiborne) who has inspired many emergents in this area, even if I disagree with his sacramental theology of the poor. His first book, Irresistible Revolution, tells many different stories of a 21st century monastic way of living incarnationally among the poor. I always try to keep this book handy for my urban ministry students and/or interns to borrow because it graciously steps on people’s toes.

  6. mikewittmer


    Thanks for your comment. Regarding the caricature, I am not saying that everyone who calls themselves Emergent thinks that we may follow Jesus without necessarily believing in him, but I heard it enough that I thought I should write a book about it. I do carefully document my sources, so readers can easily determine if I am misquoting someone or caricaturing their position. I hope not!

  7. mikewittmer


    Thanks for sharing–that is a liberating feeling to be able to be yourself and explore the edges of theology. I want to affirm what you said but also say that this is fine so long as we know where the boundaries of the Christian faith are. I don’t know you and so I am not saying that this applies to you at all, but I have witnessed cases where people used their freedom to “leave the reservation.” I think it is essential, and I devote an entire chapter to this in DSB, to determine what if any are the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. The existence of these essential doctrines are not meant to throttle our wondering, but they are indispensable for determining whether our wondering is still Christian. Thanks again for your comment–I resonate with your experience.

  8. I was going to begin by challenging you to send a few copies of your book to Grand Ledge, but now I feel bad that you don’t have a cell phone, so I’ll just buy one.

    There is a lot that I love about Emergent. I’ll just mention a few:

    1. Emergent understands that the world has changed and North America is now Post-Christian. While I don’t agree with every response to this new culture, Emergent is at least attempting and challenging us to respond.

    2. Emergent is humble. You mention some concerns about a humble epistemology, which I agree, but I do appreciate the “conversation.” I grow through the conversation even when I disagree. It is important that we expand our horizons a little. McLaren is great on this, as is the Manifesto.

    3. Emergent has changed my ecclesiology, primarily by pointing me to the missional church movement, but in focusing on the church as being not as doing.

    4. In many ways I view Emergent as an extention to my conversion to Reformed theology (helped by Heaven is a Place…). Their view of kingdom etc, while not as unique as McLaren claims, is more holistic and biblical.

    Finally, I think they are just more fun than a lot of the old conservative theologians I used to read!

  9. steve

    In a nut shell, I say Emergent is about finding a relationship Christianity. Realtionships with God, people, people against or differant from me, and relationships with the earth, government, society and yourself etc.

    We are emerging out of “Belief system” Christianity which, depending on which system you choose, determines if you are safe depening on the way you said the prayer, got baptised, lived the right way or spoke with tongues. “belief centered Christianity divides us at some point.

    Emergent is way of doing life together as we all try to discover Gods plans for our world. Emergent lines up with Christs personhood and His way of spinning religion to give it life. Emergent is attractive to those that are not interested in a belief system much like Jesus attracted a following of sinners who wanted His way of life.

    Jesus was sent to redeem man of sin and one of those societal sins was a belief system that focuses on whats wrong with man. It was a solid biblical belief system yet, when managed with the wrong intent, took life away and kept most people out.

    steve murray


  10. Michael

    I don’t care too much about Emergent. I do care a great deal about the people with first and last names who I have met, either in person or remotely while standing in a tent with the Emergent logo on it.

    If you insisted that I pick something, it would be this: These people are dear to me because they are trying understand the complexity of God’s voice enough to have room for discomfort and disagreement, while not giving up on the idea that God wants to be known and for people to have definite and particular opinions about Him. In Emergent, everyone brings their own “third way” to the table, their own balance between the extremes of God that are beautiful to them and somehow we are able to eat and laugh and dream together, even when we disagree on “central” things.

  11. I think what Emergent folks do well is point out things that many in the church have been avoiding claiming responsibility for (what a terribly constructed sentence that was!)–specifically caring for the poor and caring for the earth. Both of these are BIG problems with complex causes and complex solutions and because of their complexity the church often avoids them.

    In the case of the poor, we are good at treating the symptoms with mercy ministries (charity) but not so good at addressing the causes (social justice). We use Jesus’ statement that the poor will always be with us as a cop-out for doing nothing to fight poverty (which we should recognize is a cause of many sins that the church then judges people for).

    In the case of the environment it seems like some go with the “it’s all gonna burn anyway” mindset (thanks to the dispensational futurists, I think). And the rest just ignore it because they need to focus on “things that will last” like evangelism (and apparently building upkeep falls into this category because SO much of our time is taken up talking about buildings–building them, expanding them, maintaining them, etc.). You should see us trying to recycle styrofoam at our church–it’s ridiculously hard to get people to just read the sign that is right in front of their faces.

  12. Without saying the words missional, incarnational, or Claiborne, let me say that I appreciate the emphasis on helping the least of these, the emphasis on the raw teachings of Christ (even the hard sayings), and–most of all–the embracing of ancient hymns and liturgy, mystery, incense, candles, Tenebrae, etc. in worship. In fact, way back before emergent was played out, when it was new and fresh and nowhere near gaining a foothold in Grand Rapids, I was very interested in vintagefaith, Dan Kimball, etc. because it seemed to be mostly about forms. The janky fringe theology and left-wing politics were a late add-on, taking advantage of the disenfranchised status of most pomos. I’d like to think that their identity is wrapped up more in the things that we can all agree on. I do appreciate much about emergent in the same way I can love Green Day’s music, while despising/disregarding their political blathering…even when said blathering occurs within a song I like.

    And, Joel: from what I know of you (all those intense small group sessions, everyone crying like little girls…heh) and Shane Claiborne, it seems to me that you do a lot more for the Kingdom through UTM than S.C. does. Even though you don’t have nearly the following.

    BTW, there’s a little red squiggly line under “missional” and “incarnational”; wordpress’s way of confirming that they are not real words and don’t mean anything.

  13. Tyler Robinson

    In response to the barb about the language of certain emergent or even emerging groups (missional, incarnational, etc):

    Language is not static; it is constantly in flux and is actually not a definer of culture but a reflection of it.

    Was the term “internet” even in the dictionary 20 years ago?

    How about the term “automobile” 100 years ago?

    When people are wrestling with new concepts, this requires not just rewording or twisting the same old content, it requires the creation of new ways to describe something new. I’m not saying that I agree with their conclusions, but I applaud them not just reordering the old content.

    How about the term “existentialism”?

    I point to modern linguist Stephen Colbert, who coined the term “truthiness,” which was then declared “Word of the Year” by Webster’s Dictionary 2 years in row, and is now recognized as an actual word:


    How about the term “Calvinism”?

  14. I have not read every comment, but I will reply to some and give my take so far.

    In regards to Emergent, I have personally conversed with several national leaders and can honestly say that their stories and thoughts have been monumental in my personal journey with Christ. It was through hearing their voices that many of my questions regarding the church were validated. I felt alone in my questions (and even shunned in multiple ways), and to find out there were others saying the same thing made me realize I wasn’t crazy.

    It also allowed me to probe further into my questions, experiment in ministry practice with some of my ideas, and see results of students (I worked with teens) resonating with these methods and ideas.

    With that said, I see different language coming forth that has been rightfully embraced (the word “missional” comes to mind). I found many in the emerging church conversation reacting to the lack of mission in most of our proposed methodologies, or embracing any new ideas at least.

    I also saw some theological presuppositions being challenged as well. This is where language about God becomes more important; while there is never enough language to contain God, it helps to have a starting point in discussing these complex issues. I think we might get hung up on definitions; we assume we know what “this word” means, but someone else may misinterpret. Defining our language is always important in these conversations. Wittmer does a good job of that.

    Lately, the recent writing of Emergent Village has started to provide more definition to theological terms. And while I read one comment that said, “…I applaud them not reordering old content,” I believe Dr. Wittmer is arguing (because of his extensive knowledge of historical theology), that there are many that are. I believe this new book is calling out those things. Not only that, Dr. Wittmer is proposing this “third way” that Brian McClaren has always mentioned but never elaborated on. Emergent is starting to say things that have been labeled heresy in the history in the church, and THAT is reordering old content. I believe Wittmer brings that out in the new book (I just received it, so i can’t comment any further).

    With all of that said, Emergent has made a huge difference in my life. And many of the comments stated above regarding its good notes resonate with me. However, lately, I am getting wary of what I’m reading (such as in the Emergent Manifesto of Hope and A Christianity Worth Believing) that make me think that recent Emergent thinking is just tapping into old liberalism. I think this book will shed good light on that.

    I don’t think we should discredit Emergent, but we must be aware of some things that are said (even the language that is being promoted) that historically have been dealt with, and in some instances labeled heresy.

    I’m looking forward to reading the book.

  15. […] You can check out his blog as well. Today’s topic: what do you like about emergent? […]

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