Having discussed the main strengths of the EM movement, we now turn to examine some of its weaknesses and how they may be overcome.
Lack of Clear Definition and Direction
The newness of the EM church and the nature of its reaction against ‘5 steps to church success’ and ‘one-size-fits-all’ models has meant that many EM churches are hesitant to define themselves or lock themselves into a certain method, description or category. While this can be helpful and allow a church to move forward rather than stagnate; it can also be counterproductive to have a lack of direction. As Kim Hammond admits, “my fear for the emerging church is that it defines itself by what it isn’t”. Alan Roxburgh points out, “in too many ways, it is still reacting to the immediate past of the church in the West, and no movement of reaction brings real innovation”. It is all too easy for many EM churches to identify the flaws of other church models and practices, but their real fruit will show as they continue to move from simply protesting about problems to creating and implementing positive solutions.
The strength of newness and experimentation that we discussed earlier has a corresponding weakness in that trying new things is risky – new ideas are untested and there is no hindsight to judge what might and might not work. Yet as McLaren points out, the apostles and disciples had a pattern of misunderstanding and goofing up, and Jesus patiently guiding them nonetheless – we too need to be willing to experiment and learn from mistakes as we rely on God’s guidance for our time. But we are better off if we can learn to take into account insights from history that can minimise mistakes of experiments already tried, and the feedback of informed, constructive critics.
Unfair Stereotyping and False Dichotomies
However, often what we could learn from both history and our contemporaries is limited by unfair stereotyping and false dichotomies by which other churches and methods are prejudged. For instance, we are advised to:
“encourage holy dissatisfaction…rub the discontent raw and then throw salt on it – our times are urgent; Christendom must be brought down and apostolic faith and practice established if we are to be true to our call as followers of the revolutionary Jesus in our day”.
But while the idea that what the EM churches are doing is a ‘revolution’ causes excitement with the ‘revolutionaries’, it also creates friction – producing a ‘them and us’ mentality. If people are then forced to choose between two opposing camps, it often means that “revolution will bring nothing more than shift of power and privilege and changing of the guard”. Doran goes on to point out that revolution “is a work of extraordinary delicacy that calls for a moral superiority found as rarely in revolutionaries as in their reactionary opponents”. So, rather than calling for a revolution, it would be more effective for the EM movement to foster thought-provoking conversation between people in EM and established churches. In this way, ideas can be shared and spread across a non-threatening round table, so we can use both reflections from our heritage and plans for future mission to strengthen the entire Christian movement.
But the exaggerated complaints that are common in EM writings are not conducive to round table conversation:
“sometimes the lived-out values of the inherited church seem staid and stuck, and tell a dreary tale. Self-sufficiency is ingrained in the pews. Caution reigns rather than the thrill of trying something new. Status quo climbs into the pulpit. Comfort replaces sacrifice. Lack of imaginations stunts the ability to reach out. ‘Make space for people who are different?! You must be joking.’ Christian unity gets no more than a nod of the head. There are plenty of exceptions of course, but not enough to slay the despair of many churchgoers today”.
There is also the labelling: Yaconelli speaks of “the illegitimate church” and sets up an extreme dichotomy comparing the church (with a little c) in which he finds the “godlessness of organized religion, the bureaucratic smothering of the institutional church, and the cultural worship of power and money gripping most denominations and church-related organizations” – with the Church (with a big C) – the “glorious odd collection of unimpressive, ordinary, flawed people who make up the community of God, the body of Christ”.
Even types of Christians are labelled: ‘consumer Christians’ are those who see “church as a place to have your needs met and consume religious goods and services” while ‘missional Christians’ are those who see church as where you are mission-centred and “retell the story of the church and how they are in that story today”. Yet if the EM church can move beyond labelling, there is hope that we might gain the more realistic and biblical perspective that acknowledges that the church is a community where people are simultaneously needy and gifted, and therefore the search should be for the balance of ministering and being ministered to, a freedom for all to contribute and receive – male and female, rich and poor, clergy and laity, adult and child. We need to recognise that the church is a divine and human institution, and what is holy and godly within it should be affirmed and pursued, while what is sinful should be confessed, repented of, and forgiven.
Another disturbing dichotomy of the EM church is that their leaders accuse the established church of shunning everything in the world as evil, and thus treating the world as a hopelessly sinking ship from which we can only rescue souls, instead of acknowledging the goodness that remains and the transformation possible. Yet the EM church is often just as guilty of treating the established church as a lost cause. Rather than taking an exhorting stance on the church such as Hybels’ “the local church is the hope of the world”, EM leaders are better known for dismissive statements such as the suggestion that EM churches should be “in the church, but not of it”.
Observing this weakness, Carson warns EM church leaders against using “overkill, sweeping claims and exaggerations that time and sober reflection will eventually discard. Wise and measured warning is helpful, but divisive overstatement is not”. Fortunately, many segments of the EM church are already acknowledging and starting to address this weakness – for example, Mike Frost now admits he would be less indicting if he were to write The Shaping of Things to Come all over again, and Steve Taylor has also been able critique this aspect of his own movement: “So much of the emerging talk is about starting anew. Let me rant. It’s dangerous. It’s disrespectful. It’s dodgy in it’s [sic] theology. If we really believe in the Spirit of God at work in the world, why is it so hard to conceive that the Spirit could be pregnant among the concrete block walls of a church?”
Yet, while some steps have been taken, the journey of overcoming this weakness needs to continue. Much damage has been done to create tension between established and EM churches, which means that more often than not, there are two camps of people relating on the basis of attacks and defences, instead of open dialogue with a common goal of growing in our ability to bring Jesus to a rapidly-changing world.
I think, in light of the tensions created, the onus is on the EM churches to take the first steps in repairing relationships, praying that established churches will then respond in kind. Even if it was a fair statement to say that the “Christendom-mode of church has framed us and set us up for failure”, it was still through these churches that our faith has been kept and passed on, and to entirely dismiss their efforts and insight is to dishonour our parent churches and lose a part of our heritage, which EM churches claim to value.
Furthermore, breaking fellowship and conversation with established churches increases the risk of getting facts wrong and divorcing ideals from reality. Many of the EM writers seem to think they can and should be recreating the early church of the New Testament, living according to the same rhythms, networks, and orientations – Kimball even assumes his orientation is theirs, referring to “the emerging missional Thessalonian church of the first century”. When we lose touch with the reality of our heritage, Christian history is oversimplified into charts like this:
With charts like this, some EM writers are breaking our church history into eras, and then labelling those eras with gross generalisations – ideal, irrelevant, or even embarrassing. Consequently, the EM church misses out on many of the lessons and perspective that history should teach, and assumes they can judge which churches are (and aren’t) operating effectively for our current era.
Another weakness of the EM church is that it is promoted as though it is the solution to reaching everyone, yet its style mostly appeals to and reaches restricted groups of people. Dan Kimball talks about how he felt excluded from the world of pastoring where connection to others in everyday life was achieved through sport – an interest he didn’t share. Yet it seems that the EM church is attracting and networking through other means, such as language, mysticism, and the arts. While it is commendable that they are finding these ways of networking, it means that a potential weakness the EM church will need to fight to overcome is the expectation that everyone should fit into their mould.
Encouragingly, there are attempts to broaden the EM concept to include multiple stratas of society, as Michael Moynagh writes, “Café church, arts-based church, church in a David Lloyd leisure centre…it could sound very middle-class. But emerging church is not for one part of society alone. Alongside experiments in the suburbs, fresh expressions can be found in rural areas, in city centres and among the urban poor”. But the reality is that most EM churches – or at least those which are most vocal or well-known – are suburban middle class, and still largely led by Anglo males.
Yet there is at least awareness of this factor, and attempts to address it. When travelling to EM conferences with her husband Brian, Grace McLaren holds gatherings for women and EM leaders to share experiences and discuss how women might be empowered within the movement. This is just one of many ways EM groups admit and discuss this problem, so we may hope that this awareness will continue to generate enough action to empower a more balanced representation of different genders, nationalities and backgrounds. As Moynagh urges us, the need for diversity is vital: “when you bring lots of people together, usually the more educated or affluent take control. They make the key decisions and set the tone”. Therefore his book includes an afterword by Howard Worsley, which brings the needs of the poor to the agenda, urging the EM church to deliberately and continually think of and care for the poor, considering how they will be affected by different situations. One further area for the EM church to explore is ministry to children and the elderly. Kimball writes a little about the need to consider how to reach and include these groups, but he allocates less than a page to that discussion in the midst of an entire book.
However, sometimes exclusivity is simply a result of concentrating on
reaching a certain people group. Frost and Hirsch argue that since people tend
to come to Christ where there is a minimal cultural gap between themselves and
a church culture, then we should not work against the homogenous unit
principle, but instead, plan that after people commit to Christ, we can then
disciple them to maturely mix with a heterogenous Christian community.
However, the practical outworking is challenging: for example,
 Quoted from Forge National Summit, 2005. Blogged at Signposts. Online: https://www.signposts.org.au/index.php/archives/category/us/
 Alan Roxburgh, “Emergent Church: Filled with Creative, Energetic Potential”, Missional Leadership Institute Newsletter, June 2005. Online: https://www.mliweb.net/newsletter_june05.html
 Brian McLaren, “The Method, the Message and the Ongoing Story” in Leonard Sweet (ed.), The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives (Grand Rapids,Michigan: Zondervan) 2003, p.204-205
 Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson) 2003, p.192
 Robert Doran, Theology and
the Dialectics of History (Toronto: University of
Toronto Press) 1990, p.363; cited in Shane Clifton, An Analysis of the Ecclesiology of the Assemblies of God in Australia (Sydney: Doctor of Philosophy thesis, Australian Catholic University) 2005, pp.101-102
 Michael Moynagh, emergingchurch.intro (Oxford: Monarch Books) 2004, p.37
 Mike Yaconelli, “The Illegitimate Church” in Mike Yaconelli (ed.), Stories of Emergence: Moving from Absolute to Authentic (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan) 2003, p.16
 Ibid., p.14
 Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan) 2003, p.96
 Bill Hybels, Courageous Leadership (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan) 2002, p. 12
 Maggi Dawn, “In the Church but Not Of It”. Online: https://www.emergingchurch.info/reflection/maggidawn/index.htm
 Don Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan) 2005, p.78
 Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson) 2003
 Michael Frost, “Introduction to the Missional Paradigm”, session delivered at “Exploring a New Kind of Christian(ity)” Forge Intensive, February 17, 2006
 Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The
Shaping of Things to Come (Peabody,
Massachusetts: Hendrickson) 2003, p.193
 Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan) 2003, p.15
 Paul Dietterich “What Time Is It?” in Transformation Volume 1, Number 3, Fall 1994. The Center for Parish Development. See also the three sweeping categorisations of church history into ‘Apostolic and Post-Apostolic Mode’, ‘Advance and Triumph of Christendom Mode’, and ‘(Emerging) Missional Mode’ in Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson) 2003, p.9
 Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan) 2003, pp.146-147
 Michael Moynagh, emergingchurch.intro (Oxford: Monarch Books) 2004, p.26
 See also, eg., https://signposts.org.au/index.php/archives/2005/07/05/missional-chicks, https://www.emergentkiwi.org.nz/archives/a_to_z_of_emerging_church.php.
 Michael Moynagh, emergingchurch.intro (Oxford: Monarch Books) 2004, p.51; see also “Community Participants Perspectives on Involvement in Area Regeneration Programmes”, Findings, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, July 2000
 Howard Worsley, writing the afterword “What’s In It For The Poor?” in Michael Moynagh, emergingchurch.intro (Oxford: Monarch Books) 2004, pp.243-250
 Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church (Grand Rapids,Michigan: Zondervan) 2003, p.150-151
 Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson) 2003, p.52