03 Historical: Differentiation into Streams

On This Page:

  • Emerging Ministry Movement as Postmodern Babel: Seeking to Find Who Speaks for Our Tribes
  • How “EmergING” Became “EmergeENT”
  • What Makes a Ministry “Safe/Hospitable,” Regardless of its Emerging Stream Paradigm?

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Emerging Ministry Movement

as Postmodern Babel:

Seeking to Find Who Speaks for Our Tribes

INTRODUCTION. I believe we may, right now, be witnessing some of the last gasps of an ironic twist of circumstances in what started out 20 years ago as what I have been calling the “emerging ministry movement.” I was part of the origins of that countercultural shift back in the mid-1990s, and was trying even back then to sort things out about where they might lead us. And, sadly, some of where those multiple streams have taken us have become destructive, not just deconstructive. That is why I produced a fairly extensive case study on the meltdown of Mars Hill Church in 2014, and established this Diagnosing the Emergent Movement in 2015. There are important lessons here for preventing similar mistakes that have toxic real-world impact when we fail to deal with them.

The Unfolding of “Emerging”

The global paradigm shift to postmodernity, plus the coming-of-leadership-age for next generations in the evangelical church, contributed to that movement. Part of what sparked this was a dissatisfaction for the conventional way things were still being done. Older generations (Boomers and Builders) were holding down the modernist fort, and holding back the postmodernist generations. They were banking on their hoped-for stability through continuity instead of investing in the next generation’s transformation through creativity. Even if elder generations wanted their legacy to last into this uncertain new situation, they too often harnessed any “change” efforts to the same models of the past. They wanted to hold control and “guarantee” the outcomes, instead of letting go blessing the possibilities. This did not bode well for evangelicalism remaining as a viable force in the future.

The emerging ministry movement was born out of that the anger and angst, those dissatisfactions and desires among younger generations and some cultural creatives among their chronological elders. These men were tired of being told no or told to go. (And it was mostly men; we’re talking theological conservatism and evangelicalism here.) If these guys stayed within the existing structures, they had to attempt connecting with postmodern-oriented people but under the constrictions of modern-oriented tools. Seen this way, the postmodern would-be leaders were an underclass, undergoing colonization to keep them conformed to the norm of their in-power modernist elders.

So – when the Spirit moved in and the emerging ministry movement broke out – there was a sort of wild sense of freedom (finally). Revolutions and evolutions in both theology and methodology were taking place. There were few “answers,” but many questions.

Unfortunately, some of the key questions still had a modernist paradigm stuck to them and holding them back. “What does GenX ministry look like where you’re at?” “What are postmoderns like where you live?” It seemed to be a search for “THE” formula to crack the code of postmodern philosophy and cultures, in order to figure out “THE” top 10 tips to create the perfect solution to the end of your search for the postmodern church. In other words, modernist uniformity still tainted the process. Sometimes lost was the whole notion that “creativity” required coming up with possibilities that fit contextually with one’s particular local culture actually was – not with some generic global prototype cultural profile.

Still, progress was being made. There was experimentation going on with different ways of organizing theology, and dealing with emerging topics of ministry concern. There was experimentation going on with different ministry methodologies and models, and new ways of balancing the dynamic tension between personal growth and social change. At that point, it was still a swirling whirlpool of ideas and experiments and intuitions and models about what to do and how. It was moving too fast to figure out where you fit. This primordial mass had not yet sifted itself out … but that was about to begin.

It took a few years, but by the early 2000 decade, there was a growing sense that this larger “emerging” ministry movement actually was hosting multiple different movements. You could sense the unease between certain prominent people, and how different approaches to doctrine made some people’s eyes open wide while causing others to scrunch their eyebrows. What were the differences? How could you identify them? Where did the movements that embodied these distinctives seem to be going?

And out of that initial essence of unity came multiple streams of diversity. That process of people sorting themselves out could be called differentiation – finding the sorts of magnetic distinctives that attract us to some concepts and connections, and repel us from others.

It was like being in a postmodern Babel …

The Connections of Understanding and the Forming of Our Tribes

You remember the Tower of Babel, right? Where everyone worked together in a mega- community project to build their way to God – and then something surprising happened …

Imagine if you and I were friends when God confused people’s language. One moment, we could’ve been working on the tower, or walking through the market, or drawing water from a well, enjoying small talk between ourselves and with others nearby. Suddenly, a rift. The words you are saying to me make no sense. Confused, I try to respond. But I see on your face that my words are just as much garble to you. We try another exchange. Same thing. Again we try, only louder! But neither of us is deaf, we just can’t understand each other anymore.

Frustration transmutes into fear. I grab a man near us and ask him what’s happened. His face is blank from shock. He responds with sounds that clearly neither one of us understand. We scan the crowd. Everywhere, this set of interactions is being repeated. Quickly, the former murmur of pleasant conversations becomes an emotionally-pitched cacophony. You and I and everyone else – we’re all screaming, trying to find anyone who can understand these new sounds each of us is making. But we find no one. Our arms grasp, our eyes meet one last time to say a wordless farewell. We separate, each running toward another street, trying to find someone … anyone … who can understand us.

You run from street to street, screeching to let your voice be heard. Then – you hear it, and stop. A boy’s words – understood! You hug the child, both of you with tears streaming down in relief. Hope!

His frantic parents look on, and in one last expression of anguished love, they motion to you to take their son. You cannot understand their words as they look again in each others’ eyes and attempt to speak across the void with each other, and with you. But neither can connect by words any longer. Man and wife embrace, then separate. On they go in their own search for someone … anyone … who understands each of them.

Their son looks dazed, but you console him with words that make sense to him in the midst of chaos … the only words that now make sense. He takes your hand, crying, as you move toward the outskirts of the city. Perhaps at the gates, there will be others. As you go, you see exhaustion descend, as people crumple under the reality of not being able to communicate, of losing cherished relationships, of not knowing which way now to go. Skirmishes break out here and there, as greed and fear drive people to take what they want from others. Fewer and fewer show kindness in the midst of their mission to find those with the same link of language. Suddenly, above the fray, some words your ears understand reach you, and now you follow after them …

[For a movie that captures that angst and relief of Babel well, see John Huston’s The Bible. It’s part of what inspired the above portrayal, along with the fact that my formal training is in linguistics, so I’m regularly reflecting on the role of language in how we organize ourselves socially and culturally.]

What happened in a condensed time frame at Babel is far more dramatic than what actually happened over a few years of time with the emerging ministry movement. Still, it does capture some of the emotional and relational intensity of many people’s search for a tribe whose concepts and codes made sense.

At first back then (mid-1990s), it was just a relief to find anyone who felt that what was going on in the conventional church – evangelical or mainline – was confining and uncreative. That point of commonality was just what the doctor ordered as a remedy for the sense of spiritual isolation many were feeling. We thought in “emerging,” we’d found our tribe! But there was more “spiritual DNA” at work, shaping the genetics of this movement, and morphing it into something unexpected … something not exactly comforting or nice.

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How “EmergING” Became “EmergENT

How “Emerging” Divided into Streams

Our emergING tribe was pretty much all interested in leadership issues, in theology, in social justice, and in arts. That was kind of a core that the Young Leaders Network recognized and honed in on as “the major,” along with explorations of evangelism and mission in various cultural contexts in a postmodern world as “the minor.”

But as things began settling out over the next few years, things weren’t always sitting right with various people. Some strong differences were “emerging” within emerging. For instance, something in Mark Driscoll and his eventual New Calvinism/Resurgence approach longed for hierarchy and centralization. Something in what turned out to be EmergENT Village with Doug Pagitt and Brian McLaren and Tony Jones and others leaned toward flat structures and decentralization. Others were bent more toward incremental changes in ministry methods, while yet others wanted to take far more radical leaps in their ministry models. Some were more intent on personal growth and the mystical route, others on social change and the activist road. The common core still seemed to be there, but the interconnections seemed to be eroding.

We shouldn’t look at these differences so much as issues of right-or-wrong, but options along particular scales. And people were just sifting themselves out according to what “words they heard” that now made sense to them in coming out of the emerging “Babel” where all had once been together in unity. The differences created diversity that actually could mean the Kingdom spreading out and seeping into a broader range of cultural settings and people groups. Not an issue of good-or-bad, but of a movement of the Spirit to scatter seeds of the Kingdom. But what happens when someone or some group tries to keep together what was meant to be scattered apart?

How “Emerging” Got Absorbed by Emergent

The way I see it, six distinctive paradigms in faith and practice spun off of the emerging whirlpool to create independent streams for theological thinking and action: Emergent, New Calvinism/Resurgence, Progressive, Emerging, Post-Evangelical, Missional. (For brief descriptions of them, see page 02 Historical: Tracking the “Emerging Ministry Movement.” If you want the extended version, see my Taxonomies of Emergence category. And, for some deeper detail into how to unearth what is in those different streams’ paradigms, see Paradigm Profiling in the Missional Zone.)

[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.]

I get it that the following description is a gross oversimplification of what happened with the emerging movement, but I feel it’s important to take a look at the big picture. Maybe sometime I’ll work on articles that get into far more detail and nuance.

The catalyzing of emerging was sort of a surprise. But then something unexpected happened again. In my opinion, as these streams spun off, people who led one particular stream tried to act like it was The River of Emerging. And that was the Emergent Village/Emergent Movement. Even the title of “Emergent” gets confused with “emerging.” Is this making a mountain out of a molehill – or were leaders in Emergent trying to remake a river out of some of these six streams?

And that’s the way I see it. It came across that they were all about “the” conversation of modern-to-postmodern shift. It was dialogue, it was deconstructive, it was daring. But the idea of them as sole providers just did not resonate with everyone, nor did their particular set of approaches to faith and/or practice. I’ll speak for myself here, knowing for long-standing conversations with other friends that they would concur with these opinions, in various parts or even in whole. (And I know Emergent insiders who disagree with me, which is fine. I’m sharing observations and opinions as an outsider who watched the fall-out and tried to help those whose faith suffered therefrom.)

Emergent focused on abstract theology and deconstruction of current paradigms. I cared about concrete action and reconstruction. And I saw fall-out from this as people who did dialogue to death dropped out, because they were in orbit around deconstruction instead of on a trajectory that made real-world changes. Lack of forward motion brought disillusionment.

Emergent touted being decentralized and leaderless, and yet revolved around a dozen or so celebrities who served as an oligarchy. “Leaderlessness” led by elites … a tedious contradiction that led to a sense of staleness and stasis.

These celebrities were apparently so entrenched in the minds of media sources, that they were the ones being published (which I don’t mind), but as if they represented everyone who considered themselves “emerging” (which I did mind). And publishing houses were investing obscene amounts of money into promoting key people in various national tours and other publicity campaigns. (For instance, the summer 2008 Church Basement Roadshow, featuring Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, and Mark Scandrette. It had 32 stops a nine-week period – with typically about 10 in each of three US regions, with one or two weeks off in between regions. How much did that cost?) So, the publishing industry had a vested interest in these celebrities’ success.

The volume in the constant intellectual and media battles between the camps of Mark Driscoll’s New Calvinism/Resurgence versus JoPa/Cana/Convergence drowned out other voices who had important differences with both of those camps. So, these eventually came across as the major contenders for the legacy of “emerging.” Meanwhile, participants in other streams continued doing what they had been. And though some of them got published, and spoke at events, and started formal networks – these typically went relatively unnoticed. They served outside the attention of the conference industry, which now had a vested interest in the success of the same set of celebrities.

Subsequently, to be considered legitimate, your emerging or missional or post-evangelical gathering-event-conference did not have at least one of these major known-name speakers. After all, to the denominational or organizational leaders who were paying the bills, this ensemble cast of celebrities represented the real face of the future in terms of ministry. So, the distinctives of other emerging streams were minimized, and the hard work of men and women in those other streams tended to be marginalized.

So – bottom line in 2015 – it seems to me there’s been an ongoing “brand war” for at least 10 years to promote the Emergent Industrial Complex and its Emergent/Progressive play list of leaders as “the” spokespeople for the post-fragmentation era of evangelicalism. Which makes it very inconvenient when you have one or more leaders with personal issues that raise questions about their legitimacy and whether they are disqualified from being in the spotlight as public role models. And even more inconvenient when neither you nor your followers can silence contrarian stories bursting into public consciousness on the internet. And still more potentially disastrous when the situation drags in both first- and second-generation stakeholders in the Industrial Complex.

And that is what has happened, at least as I see it: The celebrity spotlight has turned into a social-media searchlight. And most in the primary and secondary cast list for the Emergent/Progressive brand have done some embarrassing things. And nothing has yet staunched the flow of disclosures.

Bringing the Emergent Controversy Up to Date

If you find any of this matters to you personally, then you’ll still have to decide for yourself whether you believe the brand development and Emergent celebrity/product placement was just incidental happenstance, or intentional hijacking. But here is a “revisionist” example that brings it all up to date. It is a description on Amazon, an “About the Author” blurb for Doug Pagitt’s forthcoming book, Flipped: The Provocative Truth That Changes Everything We Know About God. [Click on image for larger version.]

Flipped, by Doug Pagitt - Amazon's "About the Author" - Captured February 4, 2015

Flipped, by Doug Pagitt – Amazon’s “About the Author” – Captured February 4, 2015

I focused in on the first sentence: “Doug Pagitt is widely known as primary cofounder (with Tony Jones) of the emerging church, a movement that responded to stasis in the traditional church.”

I believe it is inaccurate to state that Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones co-founded the emerging church movement. The Emergent Village/Emergent Movement, yes – but even that leaves out other key parties, such as Brian McLaren, and many others who served on the earlier Emergent Village Boards of Directors, or authored highly influential books, etc. But they didn’t originate the emerging movement/church or possess it, though there is now the faulty appearance that they own its origins. It seems to me more about their colonization than creation of the movement, even taking as a given that they were some of the influential initial figures in the emerging ministry movement. So, either that description was written in ignorance, or with an agenda – I’m simply not seeing other alternative scenarios at the moment. But, if the author or publicist or publisher does not change that claim of cofounding the emerging church, aren’t they actually perpetuating a lie?

And, for what it’s worth, I’m not writing this article on differentiation because of that description about Doug Pagitt. I’ve had the majority of this article in mind for over a week, and many of the observations about Emergent for years. I just happened to run across this blurb when I was updating and checking a comprehensive list of all books published by every Board member of the now-defunct Emergent Village. (I’ll be posting some analysis of that later.)

Some Final Thoughts on the “So What?” of it All

Why does this even matter? Am I just bitter because I wanted to be one of those prominent leaders? (Maybe … I can be prone to being a celebrity. But if you know me, you know that the history of my ministry work involves mostly labor in obscurity.) Does it really even affect anyone else?

I think it matters because, back in the day, people were trying to figure out where they fit in following Jesus as disciples on a foreign frontier. But some opportunists from Resurgence and Emergent (and even in some of the other streams) attempted to co-opt that process to their own benefit of prestige and power, and finances that often went with it. The past few years, we’ve been seeing what looks like the decline of their impact with the dead-end of some of their theology and methodology, or the emerging of their pathology. With some of these individuals, I’m not sure they ever should have been considered leaders, as continued questions about their character and behavior now show.

Also, I think what got lost in the industry of Resurgence and Emergent were some people who were sincerely searching for how to move forward. They ended up in spinning in orbit around a movement, instead of following after a move of the Spirit. And other pathways forward were obscured by the image that the Emergent Way was the only way. Ironic, given that creativity and diversity were supposedly the possibilities that were there at the awakening in the early emerging movement.

But now, that carefully groomed Emergent/Progressive Industrial Complex seems to be falling apart. Being called into question are not only the reputations of many of its originating celebrities, but of the next wave as well. That is sad. But that looks to be the reality. The current eruption of the unresolved Emergent issues highlights some of the potential consequences of interlocking one’s reputation and livelihood with others – as we’ll explore on page 11 about the Social Media 2015 Exposure of the Emergent Complex.

Finally, if my analysis is even close to accurate, what do you see as potential larger messages and lessons for the Church in this?

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What Makes a Ministry “Safe/Hospitable,”

Regardless of its Emerging Stream Paradigm?

OVERVIEW: I have long held the opinion that it is not enough to critique what is wrong with something, if you are not interested in figuring out what is right with it and extending that, or doing something to help fix and then keep improving what is deficient. Much of my research and writing for the past seven years on futuristguy has been about evaluating problems and moving toward solutions.

This article on what makes a ministry or system “safe” versus “sick” introduces four core questions to guide our thinking. Detailed versions of the questions and contrasting responses are part of a forthcoming curriculum for social transformation agents, “Do Good, Plus Do No Harm.”

Introducing the Four Core Questions of “Safe” versus “Sick” Systems

1. Are we treating people with humanization and hospitality, or objectification and hostility?

  • Humanization places objective value on people simply for their existence, regardless of what they may or may not be able to do for the institution. Objectification values people for what they can do for those in power or for the part they play in keeping the organizational machine going.
  • Hospitality welcomes people in and lifts them up. Hostility keeps people out or holds them down.
  • A good indicator of humanization and hospitality is how we divide people into categories or classes, and treated some differently based on those factors (e.g., age, race, marital status).

2. Are our leaders qualified, unqualified, or disqualified from service in a responsible public role of authority, influence, and decision-making?

  • Leaders are qualified by reason of mature personal character and consistent moral/ethical behavior.
  • Individuals who seek leadership are unqualified if they are personally immature, and/or are under-skilled for the specific requirements of the role sought.
  • Individuals who seek leadership are disqualified by reason of bad personal character and harmful/evil behavior (i.e., immoral/unethical).
  • A good project for figuring out what constitutes role-model-worthy maturity is to create “must-have” and “can’t-have” lists of character qualities and behaviors for leaders, based on Galatians 5:19-26 (the desires of the flesh versus the fruit of the Spirit), and leader profiling in 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5.

3. Are our organizations structured to dominate and control, or develop and give freedom?

  • With domination, the resources flow from people-as-pawns to their exploiters. With development, the resources flow from and among participants.
  • Control conditions people into functioning outside the demands of their personal conscience and the dreams of their personal direction, and puts the responsibility for directives of “good” versus “harm” on external/organizational sources and forces. Freedom releases people to function responsibly according to their personal conscience and direction, within communal norms of “good” without inflicting “harm.”
  • Very different kinds of organizational structures can still be used to dominate and control its members. For instance, control can be through compliance (like the former Soviet Union), chaos (like the Maoist Cultural Revolution), or charisma (Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple). Authoritarian leaders can control centralized, hierarchical organizations or can co-opt decentralized, “flat structure” networks. And it does not matter whether the scale of the dominated enterprise is small, medium, or large.

4. Are our collaborative social involvements designed for sojourners or colonizers?

  • Sojourners travel together as interdependent people of equal value who serve one another for the benefit of all. Colonizers take over with some people being more important/valuable, and make the rest subservient to those few.
  • Sojourners share, listen, and teach. Colonizers take, tell, and indoctrinate.
  • Either set of dynamics seem to be able to drive any scale of collaborative enterprises from the small and local (projects), or medium and regional (partnerships) to large and global (politics).


A “safe/healthy” space is one where people are treated with humanity, welcomed with hospitality, leaders are role models for their character and behavior, the organization serves to help people develop and find their wings, as the group travels the road of life together to the benefit of both individuals and the group as a whole. A safe space nurtures hope, helpfulness, and human flourishing.

An “unsafe/toxic” space is one where people are viewed with contempt and treated as cogs in the machine that benefit the few, where those in control consistently harm others, where the organization diminishes the personhood of the many to benefit the power-prestige-greed of the few, and it imposes its limited views and unlimited desire for control wherever possible. An unsafe space inflicts despair, learned helplessness, and abuse.