Last year (on the way to a babysitting gig) I was introduced to the movement known as the emerging or missional church (let's just call it the EM church from hereon in). Hearing just a few examples of what it can be like had me salivating; this was the kind of thing I had been dreaming about creating in my church-to-be. 'You mean to tell me there are other people out there who have these kind of crazy unusual random ideas about doing church differently?! Like really differently??!' So Shane suggested I do an independent guided study....which means a whole subject's credit for reading and writing about the things I dream about, plus an excuse to go on a research trip to Melbourne! As you can guess, I did it! So what follows is my essay, broken into a five part series. Part 1 deals with the (lack of) definition, parts 2 and 3 look inside the EM church, examining its strengths and weaknesses; parts 4 and 5 look at its environment, noting opportunities and threats; and part 6 is a conclusion which I may have to rewrite depending on how much you and all your comments enlarge me! So, read and comment away on part one...
A major challenge in researching the EM church is simply in the definition. For example, in ChurchNext, Eddie Gibbs simply describes the EM church using the twelve empirical indicators of a missional church proposed by the Gospel and Our Culture Network (GOCN). However, these indicators merely point to the ideals of any church – for instance, if we try to decide whether or not a church is missional by the standard of “a church that proclaims the gospel…where all members are involved in learning to become disciples of Christ, [where] the Bible is normative…[and] Christians behave Christianly toward one another”, we would find that most churches would agree that they too share these ideals but are sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing to bring them to reality.
To further complicate the issue, exclusive use of the terms ‘emerging’ and ‘missional’ has become so controversial in some conversations that people are rephrasing and broadening their definition so that the entire church’s call to mission can be discussed more inclusively. For example, in the UK Anglican Church Report Mission Shaped Church identifies “Twelve Fresh Expressions of the Church”, with a diverse range of examples of what a mission shaped church could look like: including alternative worship communities, café and cell churches, multiple congregations, seeker church, traditional church plants and youth congregations. While the authors admit that some of these expressions aren’t exactly fresh or new, they focus on showing how each expression can be mission-shaped, and give stories and snapshots of the strengths, weaknesses, probable demands and demographics that tend to be reached by creating and maintaining each style of church.
So the question remains: what style of church does fit into the EM category, and what style of church doesn’t? Michael Moynagh’s short and simple description is “a culturally authentic expression of church”. But what does cultural authenticity entail for the church, and how is it achieved? If these churches are all authentic to their local target cultures, then what will they have in common? Perhaps a more helpful way to identify EM churches is to look at some of the ideology that drives their goal of cultural authenticity.
In The Shaping of Things to Come, Frost and Hirsch also subscribe to the same set of ambiguous indicators from the GOCN, but their understanding of the EM church becomes more specific in their addition of three further hallmarks to the definition: incarnational ecclesiology, messianic spirituality, and apostolic leadership. The term ‘incarnational ecclesiology’ refers to a priority of cultural contextualisation to a host community so that the church can infiltrate and transform from the inside, rather than drawing converts out to a separate community and culture. By ‘messianic spirituality’ they mean that EM churches pursue discipleship with a holistic worldview that avoids the dualisms of Western society and emphasises the power of symbols and good works as vital signs of living Christian faith. They then use the term ‘apostolic leadership’ to describe a community that is not structured in the form of a pastor-dominated hierarchy, but instead led by a team of people representing the fivefold ministry gifts described in Ephesians 4, and thus empowering the whole church to operate in each of these gifts (although ‘apostolic leadership’ is a somewhat problematic choice of words, considering other authors have used it to describe a hierarchical model that the EM church would critique).
While Frost and Hirsch’s three hallmarks of the EM church clarify major ideologies that have birthed and are propelling the movement into the future (‘shaping it into things to come’), Steve Taylor’s A-Z of the Emerging Church identifies more specifically some of the common features of the EM church in the present. He points out that a majority of people involved in the EM movement place value on being artistic, blogging, experiential, participatory, questioning and visual. He also draws attention to some of the present realities of the EM church that will hopefully be overcome in the future: that it is mostly male, middle class, under-resourced, white and Western. But none of these features are built into a static definition for the EM church – as Taylor reminds us, it is “open ended. We don’t even want to define ourselves. We’re not even sure we are a movement. Let’s keep things … open”.
It is this open-endedness that makes the EM church difficult to define, yet exciting to watch and flexible to adjust and change. So in this paper I describe the EM church through the categories of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. This enables me to present both the ideals and the current realities, and some suggestions that may help the ideals and realities be utilised or overcome in order to achieve maximum effectiveness for building the church and God’s kingdom as a whole.
 Eddie Gibbs, ChurchNext: Quantum Changes in How We Do Ministry (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP) 2000, p.52
 The Gospel and Our Culture Network, “Empirical Indicators of a Missional Church”. Online: https://www.gocn.org/indicators.htm
 Graham Cray (reporting team chair) et al., Mission-Shaped Church: Church Planting and Fresh Expressions of Church in a Changing Context (London: Church House) 2004. Online: https://cofe.anglican.org/info/papers/mission_shaped_church.pdf
 Ibid., pp. 43-81
 Ibid., p.71
 Michael Moynagh, emergingchurch.intro (Oxford: Monarch Books) 2004, pp.9-10
 Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson) 2003, pp.11-12.
 These additions are suggested on page 12 of Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson) 2003, and then elaborated upon for the rest of the book. See also p.30.
 See, eg., David Cartledge, The Apostolic Revolution: The Restoration of Apostles and Prophets in the Assemblies of God in Australia (Sydney: Paraclete Institute) 2000
 Steve Taylor’s blog. Online: https://www.emergentkiwi.org.nz/archives/a_to_z_of_emerging_church.php
 A helpful outline of how to conduct a SWOT analysis is online with MindTools: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTMC_05.htm