the term “missional” vs. the term/s “emerging/emergent”

I’m sure there are others with a more precise handle on this than I. But I seem to hear/read “missional” and “emerging” in reference to postmodern theology/practices of church as interchangeable terms. This bothers me. I like very much the term “missional” but I’m not as keen on “emerging.” Here’s why…

Basically, it seems to me that “missional” defines itself constructively, regarding what it is for/about. Being “missional” or engaging the “missional” conversation means a certain approach to the gospel, Scripture, theology, church, the kingdom of God, spirituality, and ministry that is trying to work out God’s cross-formed, Spirit-animated mission in the world.

“Emerging,” however, defines itself negatively, by what it is moving away from or leaving. In many cases, it seems that “emerging” people, ministries, churches, etc are basically saying, “We’re not like this or that conservative evangelical or fundamentalist _______ in our theology, or practice, or whatever. We are emerging from that.”

That statement could be true and could be good, but that doesn’t seem to change the fact that it is necessarily negatively defined in reference to what it isn’t instead of by reference to what it is. “Missional,” on the other hand, says what it is or seeks to be about. This just strikes me as a better, more healthy way to talk about oneself.


Published by Guy M Williams

Christian | Husband, Father | Pastor | 8th-Gen Texan | Texas A&M ‘96 | Asbury Seminary ‘01 | Enjoy family, reading, running, golf, college football

6 thoughts on “the term “missional” vs. the term/s “emerging/emergent”

  1. I honestly hadnt thought much about why I don’t like the term “emerging”…I’m not crazy about the movement – mainly because I see it as a bandwagon that many don’t even know what they are following except for what you termed – moving away from where we are. I really agree with what you have said. The term missional seems to be a lot more positive way of growing. We must be very careful to realize that every place that we are spiritually builds on the movements of the past. If we disrespect those and place as ourselves as “above” those or beyond them…we are only saying that God was not as Big then and is bigger now with us – in this generation.
    That’s a scary and extremely inaccurate view!
    Great distingushing point.

  2. I agree with your point. “Emerging” is a negatively defined movement.

    The other issue with calling yourself “emerging” is that at some point you stop “emerging” because you have either found a comfortable place to be (and you stop changing) or everyone else has joined you (and you have become mainstream).

    Kind of like “Alternative Rock.” Not the same sound it was 10 years ago!

    Much better to use a term with a concrete definition, such as “missional”.

  3. I think it is a fair criticism to recognize that many in the emergent conversation define themselves by what they are not. However, I do think that the growing conversation is moving from this to what we are genuinely becoming as followers of Jesus in our shared post modern context.

    In these conversations I see ideas like being “missional” being appropriately married with the ideas like being “incarnational”. What does it really mean for us to be the body of Christ in the world we live in?

    I have found a lot of hope in these conversations even if they sometimes start with having to wrestle through some unrest and dissatisfaction. I pray, and have seen my prayers answered, that God will and has moved in these conversations to continue to transform us according to his image.



  4. With JAy I see the advantage of terms with concrete definitions. The first problem then is whether or how long or for whom they’re concrete.

    At one time a new group emerged with a strong missional sensibility. They decided to call themselves Methodists, after an insult based on their methodical approach. While we know what a Methodist is today, I don’t think it has much concreteness in any sense other than the organizational.

    The second problem with these concrete definitions is how they fit reality. Do they exhibit a “word to world” or a “world to word” direction of fit? We call ourselves UNITED Methodists. Is that because we ARE united (word to world – that is, our word, “united” is seeking to fit the world) or because we WANT to be united (world to word – our word is trying to make the world, in this case these folks called Methodist, “united”)?

    Guy, you’re right to observe that Emerging has a notion of separation built in. I think much of their trouble comes from the fact that what they think they’re emerging from (the captivity of [evangelical] Christianity to modernity) is not what their former compatriots think they’re emerging from (the orthodox faith).

    But maybe it’s all too much navel gazing by us over-educated folks. I’ve been attracted to some of the emergent/missional stuff over the years, but it sure doesn’t seem to resonate with folks here in Pittsburg yet.

  5. Nice critique. I have been trying to get a handle of the “emerging” worship terminology and this conversation helps. Interestingly here in England somewhere there is a graduate degree in Emerging Church/Worship. I met a lady last night who led our Circuit Praise service who just got this degree. From where, I don’t know. She is also a candidate for ministry in the British Methodist Church.
    I wonder if Dan Kimball, Brian McLaren or other folks in the emerging movement have tackled the terms and their limits and connotations?

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