Emergent Spirituality

Paul M. Dubuc

10 December 2006


My faith journey has been a varied one. I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church, became an intentional follower of Jesus Christ when I was 16, left the Catholic Church to join the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) when I was a college student and spent 2 years in that denomination. In the late 1970's, I joined a second wave charismatic church plant which became Christian Community Church in Columbus, Ohio. I spent 10 years with this church as a teacher, small group leader and occasional preacher. The experiential and community aspects of Christianity were well lived out in this environment, but I began to feel the need to be more well grounded doctrinally and theologically, so my family and I joined Bethel Presbyterian Church which had an excellent teaching ministry. We have been members of Bethel Church for the last 19 years.

I've ended up at Ashland Theological Seminary for a number of reasons, I think. Since becoming an intentional Christian, I have always been interested in reading, studying and learning how to follow Jesus Christ as a disciple in my particular life situation. My degree in electronics engineering and training as a computer software developer gave me a stable, challenging and rewarding career that provided well for my growing family's needs, up until about 11 years ago. Then things became very unstable at the company where I had worked for 16 years and for the particular profession that I had chosen. I began to realize that I no longer fit very well into the world that had been rapidly changing around me. This began a long struggle with depression and anxiety. My profession no longer seemed to be able to provide the meaning and purpose that it once had for my life. I took a radical reassessment of my life calling and fell back upon my neglected faith in Christ for strength and guidance to face my uncertain future. I determined that I needed to give my life more fully to being a disciple of Christ in some form of ministry, helping other struggling disciples do the same in whatever place they have been called to follow and serve Christ. Seminary always seemed like a remote possibility for me before, but it became a real one 2½ years ago, confirmed by God in my heart that I was called to study here and that spiritual formation was just the focus that I needed for my study and training. It all seems to fit with where I have been in the past and what I feel called to do with the rest of my life. I look for such continuity as a major component of God's guidance for me. Life changes and I must change with it, but I believe that my past offers clues from God as to where I fit into his plan for the future.

I take the same approach in seeking direction for the church and ministry in general. The past is never irrelevant. If we have been guided through it by God, it offers important clues to where he would lead us in the future. We should never try to preserve the past in the sense of freezing it (Bell 2005, 013; Sweet 2003, 225) in the form that we feel most comfortable with it and isolating it from the surrounding culture and letting it become "stagnant, stale and bitter" (Sweet 2003, 238). Instead, we should draw strength and guidance from it, applying what is timeless in it to our present circumstances. This is the attitude I take toward what the emerging churches offer us. I share many of the same values that the emerging churches are trying to express in their communities. I also have a deep appreciation for the Christian Scriptures and what time has proven to be the best contributions of faithful disciples and teachers that have gone before us and given us benefit of their work, insights and example. As Robert Webber says, "The way into the future, I argue, is not an innovative new start for the church; rather, the road to the future runs through the past" (Webber 2004, 11). So, I would like to devote this paper to exploring some ways that more traditional churches can benefit from what the emerging churches offer and help insure that what is important in their legacy gets passed on to the next generation. Similarly, I hope my thoughts will uncover ways that the emergent church can benefit from the experience and practices of more traditional churches.

Scripture and Truth

A high regard for the Bible as the revealed Word of God is essential to Christian belief and practice. The Bible preserves for us the earliest accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and his apostles. As a written account, it is a uniquely and divinely inspired book which has no peer in any other writings. It is true that Christians can also be enlightened by the Holy Spirit, but the revelation in scripture is a common ground that all Christians share; it provides background and a framework for discernment of the Spirit's work. The Holy Spirit will always work in ways that are consistent with biblical revelation. The Bible is an anchor in history for our faith. Without it, Christianity would be rootless, deficient in guidance and meaning.

It is characteristic of traditional evangelical churches to approach scripture primarily as an object of study. Biblical literacy is highly prized and correct doctrine is important, but becoming more like Christ is seen as a project for the clergy or the "super spiritual." The emergent churches approach scripture as a living narrative. They seek to live out that narrative in their own lives. Spiritual formation and practice are more important than correct doctrine or the propositional truth of scripture (Gibbs 2005, 68-70). These two sides need each other very much.

The more experiential approach to the value of scripture in the emergent church is illustrated by Rob Bell in his book, Velvet Elvis. For Bell, "the Bible is open-ended. It has to be interpreted" (Bell 2005, 046). This is true enough, but traditional evangelicals would say that it has to be interpreted carefully and according to sound hermeneutical principles. This is something Bell certainly does in his sermons, but in his book he seems to present two false alternatives: "Is the greatest truth about Adam and Eve and the fruit that it happened, or that it happens?" Bell's answer is that it happens (Bell 2005, 058-9). In this case, many could easily go along with him. Even some of the most conservative Bible scholars have no trouble seeing this story as an allegory rather than a historical event, but Bell's readers might easily assume that his point applies to everything in the Bible. In a previous chapter, Bell illustrates faith as a wall of bricks or a trampoline. If our beliefs are like the springs of a trampoline, they are flexible, open to question, and faith still functions if a few of the springs are removed. The problem pointed out by the brick wall analogy is that if our beliefs are like bricks in a wall, they are inflexible; the wall begins to weaken and crumble if a few bricks are removed (Bell 2005, 022-8). The problem that Bell doesn't address is that some beliefs really are like springs (e.g., creation in six literal 24-hour days) and some are like bricks (e.g. the resurrection of Jesus). How do we tell the difference?

Charles Colson sees the problem of propositional vs. personal truth differently. Summarizing a point made by D. A. Carson (Carson 2005, 218-9), he says, "Of, course truth is relational, ... but before it can be relational, it has to be understood as objective. Truth is truth. It is, in short, ultimate reality." The problem of getting Christians to live out their faith is one that Colson has struggled with for years in trying to get people involved in prison ministry. He sees no dichotomy between propositional and personal truth but considers the knowledgeable existence of the former to be a necessary basis for the latter. So, Christians must be willing and able to make "a solid apologetic defense of the knowability of truth" (Colson 2006, 72). But many Christians, unlike Colson who works full time in prison ministry, spend so much time in Bible studies, classes and in reading books that they have little time to live out their faith in community and ministry.

I think that both perspectives represented by Bell and Colson are important. There is no need to undermine propositional truth in order to live out its relational aspects. Which side you emphasize would depend on the questions being asked by the people who need this truth. Apologetics serves two purposes: to defend the reasonableness of the Christian faith to those who might think it unreasonable and to help Christians understand the implications of their own faith with respect to people who do not share it. This can help many people remove barriers in coming to Christian faith or help those in a faith crisis to keep from abandoning it and see the crisis through. But this is not all there is to faith. If faith only has to do with beliefs, then it will surely grow stale. If these beliefs have no effect on the way we live--sacrificially for the sake of God and others--then they become an apologetic burden that must be maintained by larger and larger doses of knowledge. Only lived experience can reinforce truth in such a way as to make it self sustaining. The emergent church understands that many people do not care what we believe so much as how we live (Gibbs 2005, 89-108). For them, the test of truth is not so much in the consistency of argument, but in its congruity with our way of living. If we are hanging our lives on the truth that we say we believe, then it's easier for others to believe that this truth must have some basis in objective reality.

I think the emergent church has the more relevant approach to the surrounding culture. I think it is more authentic and honest than the "seeker sensitive" or "purpose driven" approaches to evangelism because it's not a program or a façade. Those outside the community can get a fairly accurate assessment of how people in the church actually live because they are welcomed into the heart of the community right from the start. But I think that the longer one lives as a Christian and the more one tries to live out that faith in the world, the more he or she will be confronted by the kinds of questions and doubts that apologetics tries to answer. I think that emergent church leaders ought to be concerned and able to provide the sort of defense of the Christian faith that Colson advocates when it is required. Rob Bell rightly says that, "It's possible to believe all the right doctrines and not live as Jesus teaches us to live" (Bell 2005, 035). It may also be possible to live as Jesus teaches and not believe that he is God. Is this okay?

Traditional evangelical churches must not give up the emphasis they place on doctrine and propositional truth, but they must go further than that if they want to have a significant impact on the surrounding culture. They can't stop at knowing and believing the truth. They must live it and emphasize that living it is not an option. This is the way of discipleship.


Dallas Willard makes a very good case for the necessity of discipleship in his recent book, The Great Omission (Willard 2006). Willard's writing appeals strongly to both emergent Christians and more traditional evangelicals so his approach may be a good bridge to join the strengths of each. Willard connects belief and practice on a personal level by emphasizing that "there is absolutely nothing in what Jesus himself or his early followers taught that suggests you can decide just to enjoy forgiveness at Jesus' expense and have nothing more to do with him" (Willard 2006, 13) with the importance of behavior for spiritual growth:

We enter into each of the teachings of Jesus by choosing different behaviors that are relevant, finding the space--making the arrangements--in our lives to put them into action, and re-visioning the situation in the new behavioral space that includes God. The interaction between new uses of the body and inward re-positioning toward the context is essential. Learning to do what he taught is not just a mental shift without assistance from a modified use of he body, for behavior and life are not mental. (Willard 2006, 88).

The aim is to grow in Christlikeness. The true disciple of Christ is one who wants to be like Christ not just know his teaching. Achieving and maintaining this connection between belief and practice involves discipline. Spiritual disciplines are a necessary means by which God changes lives to be more like Christ. Willard divides the list of disciplines into those of abstinence which deal with the individual's inner life: solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, sacrifice and those of engagement which involve serving God and others: study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, submission (Willard 1988, 156-91). Many of these--especially the engagement disciplines--bear a strong resemblance to the missional activities of the emergent church. Sadly, many of both kinds of these disciplines are neglected by the more traditional evangelical churches. Emergent churches tend to take an approach to discipleship that is inspired by Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship (Gibbs 2005, 57), which scares off more traditional evangelicals. But Willard pushes them toward discipleship from the other direction, pointing out the cost of nondiscipleship:

Nondiscipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God's overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil. In short, nondiscipleship costs you exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring (John 10:10) (Willard 2006, 9).

The traditional churches can benefit from the example of the emergent churches and come to appreciate their mission through discipleship. To effect this, leaders of the more traditional churches must promote discipleship through their traditional means of teaching and preaching but also through personal example. The leaders must go first in the direction of discipleship. If they don't, their congregations will not follow. In other words, church leadership must provide the same witness to living out the Christian faith to their congregations as the emergent church does for the surrounding culture. Just as emergent churches invite outsiders to become a part of their community in order to experience the truth of the Gospel on a personal level, traditional church leaders must invite their congregations to be disciples of Christ by practicing spiritual disciplines and by the example of their own spiritual formation.

Of course, the pastors ought not to be the only ones leading the way; they should be concerned also with raising up other spiritual leaders in the church. This can be done well by following the example of the way emergent church leaders share leadership with others and make room for other people to use their gifts. The roles of leaders should be based on the gifts they have, and they should be given a high degree of freedom to exercise those gifts for the benefit of the congregation and surrounding community. Pastors should not "micro-manage" the various ministries of the church but provide spiritual direction to the leaders. While the emergent idea of "leaderless groups" may go a bit too far for more traditional churches, leaders of these churches need to share power and control with those who may be more gifted in certain ministry areas than they are or who show promise of growing to be so. Pastors and other paid staff will naturally feel a great responsibility for what goes on in the church within the purview of their job description, but the congregation that is paying their salaries ought to see the development of other leaders as part of the ministry of the paid staff. They are being paid to make disciples; to help others make disciples. Disciples are led by the Holy Spirit and express their discipleship in various forms of ministry. The idea, popular in modern traditional churches, that paid staff are paid to do all the ministry work of the church has to be debunked (Gibbs 2005, 191-215).

Church members should understand that they are not just consumers of the ministry of the church. Membership implies discipleship which implies growing in ministry according to their God-given gifts and abilities. Neither should the ministry of the church be a self-justifying enterprise. Traditional churches should transition from the model of trying to get the world into the church to the more emergent one of getting the church into the world. The ministry of the church should therefore extend as much as possible beyond the doors of the church building and into the surrounding community.


A real sense of community is one of the most difficult and essential things for a modern church to develop. Many Americans live a fragmented, mobile existence. We often live many miles from where we work or attend church. We exercise a freedom of choice, which our mobility allows, that allows us to be members of several separate communities (work, school, church and neighborhood) that are to our own liking rather than what may be God's calling on our lives. This leaves the church open to the danger of becoming merely a group of relatively autonomous individuals, brought together by common spiritual interests and beliefs, meeting together for a few hours a week but seeing each other little otherwise.

Intentional community is one of the great strengths of emergent churches. They seek to live out the gospel by being embedded in the communities they serve. This often means living and worshiping in parts of the city where people have limited mobility and greater basic need: in the poorer neighborhoods (Pagitt 2005 ,201-9). Traditional churches have been moving in the opposite direction, following the suburbanization of their membership. The best that such churches may do for the neediest of their city is to support urban ministries financially or with volunteer help. Living among those they serve is not seen as a practical move for them. Often members of the same church don't even live very near one another. Still, traditional churches can do some things to foster a stronger sense of community among their members. The most practical, and likely to be successful, thing for them to do is to encourage the formation and growth of geographically based small groups.

Small group ministry has been tried at various times and in various ways, with varying degrees of success, in traditional churches for quite some time. But many of these efforts promote small groups as programs for Bible study, fellowship or neighborhood evangelism. This is a fine use for small groups, but the emergent church offers a more essential model that points to small groups as being the foundation of the church rather than an outreach of it. Small groups, meeting in homes or other venues, can sustain a meaningful sense of community among members that the congregation as a whole cannot.

Howard Snyder has outlined the essential qualities of small groups that function as the basic structure of the church, not as an optional method. Small groups offer many advantages over the traditional church structure: flexibility, mobility, inclusiveness, intimacy, growth by division, effectiveness in evangelism, lower leadership requirements while being adaptable to the institutional church. This arrangement will certainly have an impact on the structure of the institutional church, but the small group "must be both supplemental and normative--supplemental in that it does not replace corporate worship; normative in the sense of being basic church structure, equally important with corporate worship." The small group structure fits the model of church functioning described in Acts 2:46 as well as being a major component of spiritual revivals in early Pietism, the Wesleyan Revival in England and the more recent Pentecostal and Charismatic movements (Snyder 1975, 139-48).

The emergent church also relies heavily on small groups, but, in many cases, the small groups are the church. They have replaced the institutional church. In some ways, this can be seen as a failure of Snyder's model of small groups within the institutional church. Emergent churches view the institutional church as more of a hindrance than a help in their mission. If small groups have failed as a part of more traditional churches, it may be because they weren't given the essential place in the church structure required for them to succeed. Small groups may have a tendency to become "churches within the church," giving rise to conflicts which lead to their demise. For small groups to be effective, it's important that the church leadership allow small groups to have as much autonomy as possible. They must resist the urge to exercise control when things don't go the way they would like and save any intervention for problems that present a true spiritual danger to the church or small group. They must also work closely with small group leaders to give them the spiritual guidance they need to be good leaders. Small groups should be encouraged to function as a small church since they often are more conducive to the reviving ministry of the Holy Spirit than is the larger church (Snyder 1975, 140). The whole point of ministry is to see God's work and will done on earth as it is in heaven, not to preserve or protect our own work (1 Cor. 13:5-6).


Bell, Rob. 2005. Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Carson, D. A. 2005. Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding A Movement and Its Implications. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Colson, Charles. 2006 Emerging Confusion. Christianity Today. June 2006, 72. This article can be accessed on the Internet at http://www.christianitytoday.com/biblestudies/areas/biblestudies/articles/061122.html

Gibbs, Eddie, and Ryan K. Bolger. 2005. Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community In Postmodern Cultures. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Pagitt, Doug. 2005. Church Re-Imagined: The Spiritual Formation of People In Communities of Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Sweet, Leonard I., ed. 2003. The Church In Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Snyder, Howard A. 1975. The Problem of Wine Skins: Church Structure in a Technological Age. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press.

Webber,Robert E. 2004. Ancient-Future Time. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Willard, Dallas. 1988. The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. New York: HarperCollins.

________ 2006. The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus' Essential Teachings on Discipleship. New York: HarperCollins.