02 Historical: Tracking the “Emerging Ministry Movement”

On This Page:

  • Ancient-Future History: Background on the Pool of Emerging Paradigms
  • Vocabulary of the Emerging Movement and How I Use These Terms

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

Ancient-Future History:

Background on the Pool of Emerging Paradigms

INTRODUCTION. This section was adapted from my post, A Brief Timeline for Young Leaders Network and Terra Nova Project, for Understanding Ron Wheeler’s Open Letter to Mark Driscoll. I would suggest that to understand what happened with the Emergent stream of the larger emerging ministry movement, we need to see it in its larger context, and ask questions about how the parts interrelate.

I find it intriguing that a slowed-down meltdown of the Emergent Village movement of Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt and others, has paralleled the speeded-up meltdown of the “Resurgent” movement of Mark Driscoll’s New Calvinism. Emergent and Resurgent long functioned as foils for each other through opposing doctrines – progressive versus conservative – and opposite practices – decentralized and “flat” structured versus centralized and hierarchical. Their spiritual DNA may have differed substantially, but many aspects of their implosion processes and timelines have significantly overlapped.

  • However could they have started in the same pool of emerging ministry?
  • Why couldn’t they collaborate well, if not at least coexist?
  • What eventually distinguished each stream?

These kinds of questions are where we begin in diagnosing Emergent, and as our doorway to that discussion, I’ll use the breakdown of Mars Hill Church.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

Challenging Mark Driscoll

In the ongoing efforts to call Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church to account for past and present behaviors, his former colleague and protégé Ron Wheeler posted the following open letter: I. Am. Not. Anonymous. In it, Mr. Wheeler details his early history with Mr. Driscoll and then says:

Soon I began traveling the nation with you, speaking at various conferences, seminars and events. It was such an honor. We became involved on the ground-floor of this new movement that was shaping the landscape of evangelical Christianity. We were on the board of Young Leader network together. We were on the Terra Nova project together. We were working with some pretty amazing people. These were the early days when there was talk of the postmodern era, and the Emergent church started “emerging” and New Calvinism had yet to emerge as a thing. It was heady stuff. It was also dangerous, as some of it started wandering far from historical orthodox Christian belief and practice. [Emphasis added.]

But then I listened as you slandered and maligned the men and women we worked with behind their backs -who though we didn’t agree with some of them theologically- were wonderful people, and never deserved to be spoken of, or treated the way you did. People who I know would have considered you a friend and have no idea how you really felt about them. I have personally tried to go back and apologize to people who were “kicked to the curb”, along the way, and yes, I do feel I was complicit to your actions; guilty by way of association and being silent.

For that, I could not be more sorry.

I believe this section of the open letter holds some significance, but would be hard to interpret. That’s because the history of Young Leaders Network (sponsored by Leadership Network) and its subsequent transition into the Terra Nova Project aren’t generally known. The purposes of this post are:

  1. To offer some background on the timeline of these Generation X-oriented networks.
  2. To overview some of the relevant terminology for ministry during that early part of the modern-to-postmodern transition.
  3. To suggest how that era relates to various “streams” in contemporary Christianity that came out of that period and have been coming into fruition over a decade later.

In a later post, I may summarize the ongoing controversies about Mr. Driscoll and Mars Hill Church, from my perspective as a research writer with backgrounds in studies of spiritual abuse, organizational dynamics, recovery ministry, and social transformation. But for the moment, I’ll focus on this material about Young Leaders Network and Terra Nova Project, so that section of Mr. Wheeler’s open letter has more context.

Timeline of the Early “Emerging” Movement in Evangelicalism

I’ve just recently been writing about this for another project I’ve been working on about a movement that came out of the “emerging church” movement. So, here’s an overview of that research, focusing in on the timelines for relational networks, and leaving out a huge amount of details on the people involved, issues, and controversies.

The Young Leaders Network (YLN) was incubated by Leadership Network. The first YLN “GenX Forum” event was in 1996 in Colorado Springs, CO – “Ministering to Generation X.” To the best of my knowledge, it was limited to 250 attendees and there were fewer than 10 people there who were age 40+ – most were in their mid-20s to 30s. At the 1997 GenX/Postmodern Ministry Forum, Mark Driscoll was the featured preacher at one of the evening general sessions. The 1998 “Re-considering Postmodernity” national conference at Glorieta, NM, was the last national event for YLN; in 1999, it hosted a series of “Ministry on the New Edge” regional events.

By the year 2000, the overall “tone” of the dialog was changing, and settling out after five years of general discussions on how to minister in an increasingly “postmodern” culture. So, YLN morphed into the Terra Nova Project (TNP), still under the sponsorship of Leadership Network. Terra nova is Latin for “new ground,” and the core topics of this emerging-culture“project” distilled down into four areas: theology, leadership, justice, and arts. (There wasn’t always cross-pollination or integration among the four topics, such as “How do you use arts in your social justice ministries?” but that critique is a whole other issue!) The original plan was for “working groups” to spend time developing those four areas and then officially launch TNP at a national conference in September 2001.

It proved more difficult to plan that event, as the approach was to shift from traditional proclamation (speakers and workshops) to demonstration (activities and interaction). So the TNP national conference was postponed to at least spring 2002. Meanwhile, things were starting to shift, and different specific groups began to emerge from within what generally emerging within church and culture. So, 2001-2002 is a murky transition period that I’m still trying to find facts about, but at some point, Leadership Network released what had been YLN/TNP; their role had traditionally been to host, facilitate, and incubate what they see as key resources for the North American Church. But out of this came multiple streams.

“Emerging” Terminology and Various Streams

Backing up a bit, several terms were used for this increasingly large movement of primarily GenXers (born 1965-1982) who sought to make a difference in/through churches and ministries. It started as GenX ministry, then more often was expanded to postmodern ministry, and then to emerging church or emerging ministry. Occasionally you heard this all called emergence or emergent Christianity. And, when Emergent Village entered the picture, the language horizon became even more confusing, as some people falsely assumed that the entire emerging movement, or perhaps the majority of it, had aligned with that entity.

At first, there was relative unity within this movement, based on deconstructing conventional Builder and Boomer generation ways of running (or perhaps ruining?) church. As time went on, though, it became apparent that there were some significant differences in theology and methodology within this larger movement. It took time for these to surface and for the insiders to differentiate themselves, find their tribe, and flow away from the larger generic lake of emerging as a separate and specific post-emerging stream.

As the differentiation took place, sometimes people left quietly, sometimes with animosity, but it isn’t always clear when exactly some of these split-offs occurred. What became Emergent Village started lifting off, and in fact that entity had set up a website at least by 2001, assumed another non-profit corporation. What became “New Calvinism” was lifting off by then, with Mark Driscoll dominant in that movement. There were other groups that simply didn’t fit with either of those groups and their theologies and/or methodologies. In my analysis, that included Emergings and Post-Evangelicals, Progressives, and Missionals. For details on my take of six streams, see the following post, and this link for half a dozen other writers’ views on “taxonomies of emerging.”

Let’s assume that contingents of all six of these streams were present in that original lake called “emerging” that started coming together in the mid-1990s. It takes time to find your tribe – seemingly about five years here to figure out there were substantial differences within the larger group. So, when you no longer comfortably fit with the rest of the crowd, you get to the point of splitting off … sometimes congenial, sometimes not. Then, if we start tracking the streams, we begin to see new associations forming in about another five years when critiques start appearing on prior streams.

So, we find the following milestone indicators of core theologies and/or methodologies. I’ve listed them in the chronological order they seem to have gained traction, starting in the early 2000 decade. There seems to be a sort of stair-stepping continuation of differentiation through the early 2010 decade as various subgroups find they still don’t fit with what’s gone before, they critique the others, and then seek to create their own niche in contemporary Christianity. (I have listed here only a few milestones of construction and critique that help anchor the timeline for development of each stream. If I can, I’ll add to these lists later.)

EMERGENT VILLAGE STREAM. Emergent Village Values and Practices (2001, and revised in 2006). “A Response to Our Critics” (2005). Both of these documents are available in the Appendices in The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier, by Tony Jones (2008).

NEW CALVINISM STREAM. Book, The Radical Reformission: Reaching Out Without Selling Out by Mark Driscoll (2004). Major changes in the structures of Acts29 Network for church planting (approximately 2005). Book, Young, Restless, and Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists by Collin Hansen (2008). Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed: Black Holes, Love, and a Journey In and Out of Calvinism by Austin Fischer (2014).

PROGRESSIVE STREAM. This is a specific movement I haven’t tracked the timeline for closely in the post-emerging era. At this point, I’ll simply suggest that their overall bent is toward justice and social activism – perhaps the more concrete and constructive mirror image version of the more abstract and deconstructive Emergent Village paradigm.

EMERGING + POST-EVANGELICAL STREAM. Formation of The Origins Project (2009) with Dan Kimball, Erwin McManus, Scot McKnight, et al. According to Dan Kimball, it was renamed the ReGeneration Project in 2013.

MISSIONAL STREAM. Formation of Missio Alliance (2011), with an emphasis on sensitivity to cultural context and community development. [This happens to be the stream with which I have the most affinity.]

[UPDATE MARCH 2015. I am likely to update my analysis eventually to add a seventh stream, that of monasticism/mysticism. I have come to see it as a distinct paradigm, and not just a different ministry methodology. To pursue a more mystical lifestyle typically requires a higher value on being reflective and engaging in spiritual disciplines that nurture a more personal and devotional side of Christian faith and practice. The monastic side brings in the more social sides of spiritual disciplines, and a more Celtic theological approach to monasticism results in engagement with people at the crossroads of cultures rather than an isolative approach of other approaches to monastic orders. Because of its more engaging nature, this type of monasticism likely finds a partnership with the missional stream of what was originally the emerging ministry movement.]

Some Closing Thoughts and Resources

First, I’d suggest that each one of these streams has some strengths and weaknesses – some of the streams far more extreme than others. But that is a topic for another time because it means extensive paradigm analysis, not just a look at theologies or methodologies.

Then, back to the original topic if the open letter from Ron Wheeler, hopefully these hints on timeline and terminology help put into perspective what he is talking about in relation to Mark Driscoll’s behaviors. In terms of the debate over whether Mr. Driscoll is disqualified by character and behaviors from serving in the role of an elder/overseer, the evidence given here (assuming Mr. Wheeler’s account is substantially accurate) offers snapshots of what can only be called contemptuous behavior going back to about 15 years ago, to at least around 2000-2002.

Meanwhile, it is relevant to see if there is evidence of apologies from Mr. Driscoll for those actions. However, the even larger question is whether there is substantive evidence of the fruits of repentance and ongoing transformation toward Christlikeness from him – that he has changed his ways significantly enough, if at all, during that time. Sadly, the evidence seems to lean strongly in the direction of little substantive change. But even to overview that is another post.

If you are interested in summaries and resources on the specific questions of a timeline of behaviors that demonstrate character, I would suggest the following nine sites as important sources:

  1. Mars Hill Refuge
  2. Joyful Exiles
  3. Wenatchee the Hatchet
  4. We Love Mars Hill
  5. Musings from Under the Bus
  6. Reddit: Mars Hill Church
  7. Summary of allegations of disqualification against Mark Driscoll (a Reddit page posted August 8, 2014).
  8. Warren Throckmorton
  9. The Wartburg Watch

The first seven are helmed by former members or attenders of Mars Hill Church, some of them by former lead pastors/elders and staff members. The last two are mostly research writing blogs that include major sections on Mars Hill. Some of these blogs include archives of documents; some include numerous personal accounts that testify of abuse; and some include articles analyzing the history, organizational structure, theological perspectives, etc., of Mars Hill and its leaders. You will find a vast amount of documentation of evidence, plus verification by personal testimonies – many of them from individuals who sought to go through a Matthew 18 confrontation and reconciliation process with Mars Hill leaders, but got nowhere with it.

There is only one source for the most comprehensive and accurate information available on the history and prominent people involved in the Young Leaders Network and “emerging church” movement, before it morphed into the Terra Nova Project and other streams. It’s by Steve Rabey, a former Associated Press reporter. If you follow up on the various people Rabey mentions, you’ll see where they often end up in different places 15 years later, even if their trajectories coincided for that relatively short span of time in the beginnings of the emerging ministry movement.

For a mostly Emergent/Progressive perspective on the origins in emerging ministry movement, see:

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

Vocabulary of the Emerging Movement

and How I Use These Terms

I am noting only a few essential terms, so you can be aware of precisely how I am using them on this site.

I use emerging or Emerging as a label for the entire Emerging Ministry Movement that encompassed multiple streams of paradigms and practices – though we didn’t really know that at first, and it took about 10 years to sort itself out.

I use Emergent and Emergence Christianity as synonymous, with both standing for the more theologically progressive stream in Emerging, and as the core of what became embodied in Emergent Village, the organization.

I understand that other people use many of these terms interchangeably. I do not. As a trained linguist, I care about words and attempt to use them carefully when it matters. And I believe this is one place where making distinctions among these terms really does matter. What if you were part of Emerging, but felt no personal-theological-sociological resonance with Emergent – but got the distinct feeling that people within the Emergent wing of things were always trying to act as if they represented the whole of Emergingdom entire? So, words became part of a battle about turf … as they always do when power dynamics and differentials enter the picture, and they did here.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

Why do I use the term Emergent/Progressive Movement? In part because that is similar to how some of the more recent documents by key leaders inside the movement refer to it. For instance, the CANA Initiative uses the term emergence/progressive in their list of network actions/goals (emphasis added):

The CANA Initiative will pursue a series of tangible and meaningful actions in 2013-2015.

This is the current list of those activities, which will be updated regularly as CANA develops.


1. Articulate a robust emergence/progressive Christian ethos that integrates spiritual vibrancy, theological depth, and holistic mission.

2. Establish a social and mass media partnership to promote spokespeople for emergence/progressive Christianity

3. Launch a collaborative branding/messaging strategy for emergence/progressive Christianity

4. Create a church locator / organization-locator / ministry-locator site/App for activism and engagement

5. Establish an online/App news aggregator linked to action

6. Facilitate engagement for college students in emergence/progressive Christianity

7. Facilitate ongoing training and equipping for a new generation of transformative leaders

8. Organize regional connectivity via face-to-face gatherings

9. Develop and strengthen key alliances for action

10. Focus on “the work of the church” rather than “church work”

11. Develop funding for CANA key functions

Also, in tracking the overall development of this movement, it seems like more people that initially identified with the emergent side of Emergent/Progressive came out of the post-evangelical “emerging ministry movement,” while more who identified with the progressive side first came out of mainline Protestant denominations, and also some wings within Catholicism. While some people from mainline backgrounds were involved early on with the post-evangelical emerging movement, it seems more got involved in the mid-2000 decade when the two sides were discovering they had more common ground with each other than – such as in concerns for social justice and environmental care – with the more conservative/conventional wings within their originating streams of Christianity.

For instance, an October 11, 2007, article posted at Faith in Public Life (an eventual successor to the CANA Initiative) uses the term non-evangelical progressives to reference the origins of some of those involved in seeking common ground for the common good.

So, the eventual composite term of Emergent/Progressive becomes a reasonable way to self-identify for those with a more “progressive,” change-oriented social, environment, and economic agenda who tend to no longer refer to themselves as evangelical, and for those from a more traditionally liberal background who are seeking a larger collaboration.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *