Thoughts on the "Edinburgh Error"

Emerging Church Movement (1989 - 2009)?

Update: April 2010. Well this post kicked off quite a bit of discussion and even today that discussion continues. As you read it, please note that I am saying [probably not as clearly as i intended] that i observed the movement to have matured in 2009, and is no longer a "radical and controversial movement, a trend evident in the vast majority of the groups I examined. This is very different from being "dead".  A follow up post called "10 Emerging Church Models that will no longer upset your grandfather" shares a little bit of what I was seeing and may help to clarify where I was coming from. As will this post on the international, global, multicultural nature of the movement. 


Original Post: 2009 marks a turning point for the emerging church. Its difficult to make broad statements about a movement that hit each country at different times, in successive waves, and at different paces. But as someone who jumped into this funky controversial experimental movement in 1985 (if it could be called a movement back then) and has ridden the wave all the way through nearly 50 countries and many ups and downs, joys and sorrows, rewards and sacrifices, here is my take. For what its worth . .

In my opinion, 2009 marks the year when the emerging church suddenly and decisively ceased to be a radical and controversial movement in global Christianity. In many places around the world, the movement has already been either adopted, adapted, or made redundant through the traditional church catching up or duplicating EC efforts. In some countries there have been strategic partnerships during 2009 or a significant rethinking process that has led to a new level of maturity, a sense of completion, or an re-evaluation of original vision and current practices.

In 2009, the emerging church either grew up, stopped being offensive, switched gear from experimental to normal, became the new mainstream, or a bit of each.

During 2009, I can think of 5 or 6 countries where some of the top "emerging church" leaders have been brought on staff to more traditional churches or denominations or mission agencies where it is hoped they will bring new perspective to the traditional streams of Christianity. There are now Bible colleges that offer a degree in the emerging church. I know because I have taught classes at them.

History will most likely mark 2009 as the point of transition and maturation for the emerging church movement. However, various streams within the movement will continue on for many years to come. For example, the biggest global emerging church event on the calender for 2010 will take place in Brazil and be attended mostly by Latin Americans. I have been asked to speak there and if I do, I will not be telling them that their movement is over because it is far from it.

A harder question to ask, and it will be asked as church historians begin to write a decent history of this movement (which no one has yet managed to do), will be regarding the date it all started.

1994 has already been suggested as the start date for this movement. This seems to make sense to a lot of Americans but not other countries. Its true that the trickle became a stream around that time but there was a lot of action in the 80's that led directly to the movement. I go for an earlier date.

1989 is the biggest contender for this date of commencement. At the frustratingly fickle "emerging church" article on Wikipedia, which is currently going through an English mood swing, 1989 is the year of choice. And it is likely that 1989 will stick. In 1989, says Wikipedia, New Zealand baptist Mark Pierson started Parallel Universe with his mate Mike Riddel and the two of them inspired emerging church leaders and alt. worship gatherings around the world from that point on. Which actually is true and both Mike and Mark have been an inspiration to me also. But, as much as I would like a New Zealander to be the founder of the movement, and despite the roundness of the 20 year period from 1989, there are many who will argue for an earlier date.

The first mention of online community appears in 1985. John Wimber rocked the English in Sheffield in 1985 at an event which inspired the Nairn Street Community to start the Nine O'Clock Service some months later. In 1985, Sanctuary launched out as a movement for metalheads and punks. By 1986, the leaders of Matthews Party in California were being criticized for church in a pub and were told that "church should not be a party!" In 1986, a group gathered at Dieter and Val Zander's house that became New Song. In 1988, two guys at school with me (Mutlnomah) had already started a skate church in Portland Oregon. I had already started my first house church in 1985, at the obnoxious age of 21, and by 1989 had started a coffee-shop type church service. Also in 1989 I met up with Dave Andrews in Australia who, inspired by the Christian ashrams in India, already had a network of over 30 houses in a new kind of dispersed community in Brisbane called The Waiter's Union. And some will quickly add Late Late Service in Glasgow and we could go on and on with mid and late 80's emerging churches.

But every movement is preceded with experiments and early examples. And every movement has streams that continue unabated for years afterwards. Such it will be with the EC. But in the meantime, there is room for a lot more stories to fill the pages of the emerging church history if we are to decide on a date.

A quick story to gain some perspective. Sorry this post is going on so long.

Pastor Bob Beeman, who I spent a few days with this month, told me that 1985 was the year that Sanctuary took off. There were so many goths, metalheads, and punks coming to Jesus in Redondo Beach, California, that they decided to start their own discipleship ministry. Bob is working on a video that will be released in 2010 to celebrate 25 years of the movement. At their peak in the 1990's, Sanctuary had 36 parishs ("house churches" Pastor Bob called them) but there came a time when they decide to close them all down (except San Diego with Dave Hart) because the traditional churches were no longer rejecting metalheads and punks. God used the Sanctuary churches for a period of time in which they were needed to preserve wine in new wineskins, and God is using them powerfully today around the world in an advisory role. In many ways, I see the story of Sanctuary as a mirror image of the wider emerging church movement. And 2009 was the year when many emerging church steams realized they had to make that shift.

How about you? Can you add to my list of emerging church models in the 1980's? How would you date it?

What sounds better to you - Emerging Church 1989 to 1999? or Emerging Church 1985 - 2010?

Previously on TSK: Defining the Emerging Church, 2004