The Semantic Thrillride: Emerging, Emergent, Missional

Not long after Easter 2006 I found myself staying in a motel north of Nashville, TN. While I can’t remember the name of the town I do remember an unusual message I received when checking my e-mail that night. It read something like this:

Dear Paul,

I discovered the blog for the Wheatland Mission and was wondering, is the Wheatland Mission and Emerging Church?


TR (The name has been reduced to initials to protect Todd Ramsey’s identity.)

My response was, in a word, unintelligible. I had not met my interlocutor and wondered a little bit if the question was a set up, a question kind of like: When did you stop beating your wife? … or, Should we pay taxes to Caesar? Of course, it wasn’t a setup but an honest, friendly question. At that time I had been reading some of the material that was being produced by people who were associated what was called the emerging church conversation. Even then there were critics making judgments, casting aspersions, and, in the case of some, asking important questions.

Instead of just saying yes or no I tried to define what emerging or emergent might be. My response, which I no longer have, started something like this: it all depends on what you mean by emerging… after which I proceeded to offer definitions that undoubtedly muddied the waters. At the time I should have just answered, “I don’t know. Come see us and tell me what you think.”

Now two years later the concepts of the emerging church, Emergent, and missional have all been discussed, defended and critiqued ad nauseam. In a recent post (Flying the Green E) I included several links for those interested. I would encourage you to check those out or simply search this subject at Scot McKnight’s blog: Jesus Creed.

Let me briefly share a few ideas about these words and what they mean for us at Wheatland.

Is Wheatland an Emerging Church?

Probably so. The phenomena that has come to be known as the emerging church is a movement of christians around the world which seek to respond to the challenges of doing ministry in a postmodern, multicultural, and “flat” world. It is a broad, diverse movement that is made up of all kinds of Christians many of whom would not necessarily identify with one another. There are conservative evangelicals who identify themselves as emerging. Many in the new reformed camp would consider themselves part of this emerging conversation along with many house church/simple church folk and many others.

The term “emerging church” best refers to religious communities that are responding to the pluralistic, post-modern experiences of people in the world. It is a response which has generated approaches to ministry that are more organic, holistic and missional. Keep in mind that this group is large, diverse and not necessarily in theological agreement even with itself. It is more a phenomena to observe than an organization to join. It is a discussion to engage rather than a decision to make.

Is Wheatland “Emergent”?

No. There are two reasons for this. First of all, Emergent or Emergent Village, is an organization and a brand and less of a movement than what is known as the emerging church. (Although it is probably best understood as a part of it.) Second of all, the term Emergent has unfortunately become an epithet with which some folks brand others that they disagree with.

Emergent Village remains a diverse group of folk who are asking important questions regarding faith and the future of the church. Many will find that some voices within Emergent Village are making theological and philosophical moves that they can’t follow. However, this shouldn’t detract from an appreciation for the important questions and provocations that this group has provided.

Both terms say too little and both say too much. When asked, “Is your church emerging/ent?” To answer either yes or no provides no real understanding of what one’s church is. It says nothing about the congregation and the heart that they have for God and neighbor. Neither label adequately tells the story of that community of Christians.

Both terms say too much. In the blogosphere and the broader culture these terms have become loaded guns, which when pointed, serve to divide Christians. To the extent these terms can be used positively they are good. But, more often than not, they keep us from focusing on Christ, and him crucified. When this is the case the terms should be strategically abandoned.

Is Wheatland Missional?

Yes. I like to say that Wheatland is now, and is still becoming, missional. To echo the words of the Apostle Paul, we “have not yet arrived”, but are on our way to becoming people who are participating in the missio Dei, the mission of God. Missional is a theological term grounded in the Bible and the idea that as God has sent his Son into the world he is now sending us as missionaries into our cultures and communities.

Now, having mapped out where Wheatland is in all of these various conversations, guess what? All the terms have changed. All bets are off. Enjoy the semantic thrill ride.

NOTE:  I forgot to delete some notes that were not meant to be in this post. I did remove them as of 11PM on the 10th. You got to see how my brain was working as I was writing the original version of this post. Ooops.

7 thoughts on “The Semantic Thrillride: Emerging, Emergent, Missional

  1. labels, labels…
    what brought kristy and i around was this question:
    is wheatland doing something God thinks is important?
    we said “probably, yes…”
    we miss you guys.

  2. I’m pretty embarrassed that I asked such a question (yes, it was me). I think I described myself as Emergent for about two weeks and that was when the fateful email was sent.

    Glad some good came out of it in the form of a thoughtful blog post.

  3. Heath and everyone else who read this post on Friday. Ooops. I left some of my “notes” at the bottom of the post and forgot to delete them. So… the question in #5 was not supposed to be begged. This is me trying to unring a bell.

  4. I’m not sure we would be going to church if we hadn’t found a place to live and learn about an ’emerging’ faith in Jesus. I don’t really care what the word means in the sense that it’s being used today as a church movement. I just know that if we (meaning me and Doug) aren’t striving to do that, we would be dead in the water. To me there is no other way to live a faith in Jesus.

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