A Typology of Emerging Churches

bE-CollageA photo from one of the .bE Alternative Worship Gatherings I used to host

Attending the Emergence Christianity conference last week put me back among a lot of friends I hadn’t seen in awhile.

It also put me in the middle of conversations surrounding language, specifically the question of what exactly to call this new movement. Is it the emergent church? Emerging church? Emergence Christianity? What exactly is it?

For many, they want a single label/term they can use to describe these types of churches. For some, the downside to not having a term that is easily definable, is that you have such a wife array of churches and groups who then claim the term, and they might not be anything like each other at all.

So, Solomon’s Porch, the community that Doug Pagitt helped to found, could be described as an emerging church. But you could also attend a small, conservative Baptist church that also describes itself as an emerging church.


Or you could see a car in Memphis with a personalized license plate and decals that claim to be an “emerging church…” But do these terms have any value, then, if anyone can use them?

I’d like to offer a typology that one could use to describe emerging churches, that I’ve found to be a little bit helpful over the years. Or it may not be helpful to you, in which case you can just forget I mentioned it.

Aesthetically Emerging Churches: I don’t know about you, but I’ve walked into this kind of a church before. It looks cool. It’s hip. It might even have some mochas and cappuccinos in the back of the room if you’re lucky, and certainly a few candles…but something doesn’t feel quite right about it. Something feels eerily similar to other conservative evangelical churches you’ve been in…clearly, they’ve heard that churches are trying new things, and they want to be “relevant” and hip and reach the younger, edgier generation. But, underneath the surface changes, it’s the same old church. You’re going to get a pretty hip worship band, but then you’ll probably be stuck to your seat while your hip pastor preaches for 45 minutes about the need to return to orthodox Christianity and remain true to “biblical” faith. You might see some young people being drawn to churches who will advertise these as “postmodern” services or “alternative” services…but they will not stay long when they realize that these churches are failing to connect with any part of them other than just their coffee-cravings.

Methodologically Emerging Churches: These churches might look like the aesthetically emerging churches, because they too have realized that some things need to change. But they’re also going to mix up the worship and delivery of the message for the day. So you might have churches that are engaging in more experiential/participatory worship, or they might be toying with different models for preaching. Maybe it’s not even a typical sermon, but more of a discussion format. The methodologically emerging churches have sensed the need for something “different” for awhile, and they’re willing to make the aesthetic changes, as well as changes to the methods they’ve used in ministry in the past. However, once you peel back both of those layers, you will still see churches with fairly traditional mindsets when it comes to the theology and beliefs.

Theologically Emerging Churches: I think this is the direction in which many of us desire to see more and more churches head. These are churches that might be making aesthetic and methodological changes, for sure. They realize that those things are important to a generation of people losing interest in the church. For example, for many people, sitting on couches in the round is more conducive to building community and fostering conversation than sitting in incredibly uncomfortable wooden pews in straight lines. They realize that we need to rethink the ways we’ve approached leadership in the church, our worship, our theologies of mission and evangelism…the world is changing, and we need to be interacting with that. I remember the early days of the Emergent Conventions, when Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones led a seminar called A New Theology for a New World. Obviously, the world is not the same today as it was 50 years ago. And I think that’s what we’re called to do. As our world changes, we need to be interacting with scripture and our theology, and being open to the Spirit moving us in new and different directions.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this typology. Is it helpful? Does it connect with any experiences you’ve had? What needs to change about it to make it more useful?


  1. says

    I like where you are going with this. When I think aesthetics I tend to think of the incorporation of art and poetry and thoughtful crafting of the worship experience. St. Lydia’s in NYC comes to mind but there are others. My first take is that I’d add another category and maybe call it “liturgical” or call it aesthetic and the one above something else.

  2. Rocky says

    Can it be said that the aesthetic and methodological changes are actually more difficult than the theological ones in mainline contexts?

    • says

      Yes – I’d say so. I think when I was originally thinking of this post (this was a remix of a post I wrote about 10 years ago), I was thinking more of how evangelical churches might label themselves.

      But yes, for the mainlines and us Presbyterians…I think that we may be moving in the right directions on some of the theology stuff, but for us, it’s tough as hell to pull off the aesthetic/liturgical and methodological changes that we need to, in order to continue to be effective.

  3. says

    A young Presbyterian Pastor friend of mine, who has had several experiences in attempting to plant a new emerging congregation within an aging traditional church, suggests that to change the DNA is so slow and fought with conflict that it is easier to partner with an outside church that is already successfully doing the aesthetic/liturgical/methodological thing well. I.e. Open Door Church/Cafe in Mountain View, CA.

Leave a Reply