The Great Emergence: A Book, An Event, A Phenomenon

For more information and to register for The Great Emergence event  December 5-6, 2008, in Memphis, visit the Great Emergence Web site.


An Interview with Tony Jones

on the many facets of the Great Emergence


Tony JonesTony Jones is an author, national coordinator of Emergent Village, and doctoral fellow in practical theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. 

explorefaith asked Tony about the emerging church phenomenon and what visitors might expect at the December gathering.  

For those unfamiliar with the emerging church, it’s a bit difficult to get a handle on this phenomenon. Phyllis Tickle’s new book, The Great Emergence, gives an amazingly insightful historical perspective and plainly indicates that the thing that has been birthed is taking on a variety of forms. Can you give us your definition of an “emergent” Christian?

You’re right, “emergent Christianity” is notoriously difficult to define, and most of its proponents like it that way.  I think the best way to understand might be to think of it as the Christian version of what sociologists call the “New Social Movements.”  Unlike previous social movements (like Marxism, for instance), NSMs are less about economic change and more about cultural change.  The green movement, the GLBT rights movement, and the local food movement are all examples of NSMs in which the middle class is attempting to change our culture.  Within Christianity, many people are rethinking the structures of Christianity (prevalent on the “left”) and the dogmas of Christianity (prominent on the “right”).  So an “emergent” Christian would really be anyone who is pushing against the traditional hierarchies and theologies of 20th century Christianity.

Emerging, emergent, Emergent…. Is there a real difference, and is that important?

I personally think that the debates over these terms is a silly, internecine waste-of-time.  We’re all pushing in the same direction and, as we’ve learned during the death of modernity, labels are less than helpful in many instances.  I hope Phyllis’s book will help put this silliness to rest.

What do you consider to be the most significant distinctions between emergent and traditional Christianity?

I was reared in a mainline, Congregational church.  The theology there was pretty progressive, but the bureaucracy was depressingly entrenched—in fact, it still is.  By “bureaucracy,” I mean committees, policies, parliamentary procedure, votes, ordination, etc.  Emergent Christians are likely to question all of these accoutrements as extraneous to the gospel.  But many of my emergent friends grew up in evangelicalism, so it’s the stultifying theology of conservatism that they’re challenging.

You are the national coordinator of the Emergent Village community. Who makes up this community? What ties the Emergent Village together?

Emergent Village is a relational network that started over 10 years ago under the auspices of another organization.  Really, it was just a couple dozen of us who were interested in church and also in talking about postmodern theology, innovative missiology, and cultural change.  Our little conversation grew beyond what we’d ever considered, and we decided to name it, per se, in 2001 so that we could have some definition and something to invite others to.  In the intervening years we’ve hosted some events, co-published some books, and developed a pretty robust website/podcast/blog.  But, the future of the organization is under discussion—it’s very likely that we’ll deconstruct ourselves, as any good postmodernist should!

Can you describe a “typical” emerging church worship service, if not as to particulars then as to the guiding principles that determine the different elements of worship?

You’re right to guess that the particulars vary wildly.  You could find an “emergent” worship gathering that’s got a United Methodist minister in a robe, another that’s got a goth rock band, and a third in which everyone’s sitting on couches in a café.  And they might all be in the same area code.  But as to “vibe” or “ethos,” I can name a couple characteristics for you.  One is a very flat structure, and an egalitarian posture toward leadership; there might be clergy, but they might not be the ones preaching or serving communion.  Another is a true openness to questions; nothing’s off limits—not the church’s view on the literalness of the Bible, or the church’s stance on gender issues.  Lots of churches in America hold their ideologies as sacred, but emergent churches tend to have an ideology of idol-smashing.

Yet, this goes beyond the worship service, doesn’t it,  embracing a whole new way of living. Can you comment on that?

That’s right.  In an emergent church, you’re likely to find lots of conversation about holistic living—eating, shopping, child-rearing.  At my church (Solomon’s Porch, Minneapolis) we’ve got weekly yoga, chair massage during worship, and we recently had a Saturday gathering for women who take anti-depressants.  In other words, the entirety of life is taken as spiritually significant.  We’re also an “abolitionist church” in the Not for Sale Campaign.

How do most emerging churches view scripture?

I’d say that, in general, emerging churches tend to be on the progressive side of biblical interpretation. But there are exceptions—I know of a few churches that have all-male elder boards, for example.  I think you’d find a great affinity in emerging churches for scholars like NT Wright, Walter Bruegemann, and Richard Hayes.  You’d likely see little from the far right and the far left, since they often seem more ideologically than theologically driven.

Since hierarchy and institutional structures are not important in the emerging church, who are the teachers, the guides in spiritual and theological learning?

The general consensus in an emerging church is that we’re all experts…at something.  In other words, the lawn mower repairman, the lawyer, and the clergyperson each brings something to the table when it comes to interpretation and application of scripture.  The pastor may know Greek, but that does not make her the final arbiter of biblical interpretation.  Instead, interpretation is seen as the responsibility of the entire community gathered.

Can you tell me about the conference in Memphis on December 5 and 6? What is the focus of the event? Who should plan to attend?

Well, the release of Phyllis’s book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why is cause for great celebration.  This book will introduce many to the seismic shifts that are taking place on the American church landscape, and for many others, it will answer questions, and provoke new questions.  Plus, those of us who’ve heard Phyllis know that she is a wonder to behold—everyone should get the opportunity to hear her present the material from this book, to ask her questions, and to do it all in the beauty of the Cathedral of St. Mary in Memphis, festooned with Advent greenery.

What do you hope to happen over those two days?

As well as Phyllis’s four presentations, we’ll also be praying the daily office from her amazing book, Christmastide: Prayers for Advent through Epiphany from the Divine Hours. We’ll have music, readings, and prayers thrice daily.  Plus, there will be presentations from some of the most renowned proponents of emergent Christianity.  Truly, it’s an event not to be missed.


Books by Tony Jones include The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier and The Sacred Way: Spiritual Practices for Everyday Life