There is a great deal of confusion among those who are outside these realms of conversation over the emerging and missional church. Some believe these movements are synonymous with one another, while others see them as entirely distinct. In truth, they are parallel movements that have intersection through key figures and ideas.

While there are substantive distinctions, both movements influence younger generations of leaders and churches; therefore, an understanding of both of them is necessary in order to craft a church network or association comprised of those that are influenced by these streams of Christianity.

The Development of the Missional Church

The conversation surrounding the missional church began with a group of theologians working to develop the theology of Bishop Leslie Newbigin.1 In the 1970’s, Newbigin recognized that England was a missional context and posed missionary type challenges.

A group of theologians formed The Gospel and Our Culture Network, and the conversation on the missional church had begun.2 This conversation initially began among predominantly mainline congregations and leaders, but has increased more rapidly and with less controversy than the conversation concerning the “emerging” church. A missional church can be defined as “a reproducing community of authentic disciples, being equipped as missionaries sent by God, to live and proclaim His Kingdom in their world.”3

The churches engaging in this conversation exist with the understanding that they are sent into the world on a mission in the same manner that the Father sent the Son into the world on a mission. They are concerned that the idea of “being the church” should be the fundamental reality that Christians hold to, as opposed to the mindset of “going to church.” They desire to see God’s kingdom manifested in all aspects of life and aim toward the integration of all aspects of life under God’s rule and reign. This means that, in addition to being concerned about church attendance or the number of conversions, these churches place an increasing emphasis on spiritual formation, embodying the gospel in community, and community transformation with regards to matters of justice.4


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Theoretically, everything the missional church does should enable the mission of God. As Andrew Kirk writes, “The Church is by nature missionary to the extent that, if it ceases to be missionary, it has not just failed in one of its tasks, it has ceased being the Church.”5 These types of churches are being planted all across the United States through denominations, newly developing networks, and interested leaders who have interacted with missional church ideas.

The missional church attempts to re-construct and orient the church around a very clear focal point that has gospel advancement in its fullness at front and center. Missional to many also appears more constructive in contrast to the deconstructive nature of many of the “emerging church” conversations.

Popular authors working under this “branding” today include Alan Hirsch, David Fitch, Reggie McNeal, and Ed Stetzer. The danger in this term’s being so widely used is that it is being employed by a wide variety of people to include just about any outward focused dimension of the church (which is true to a certain degree), but many of these churches are in continuity with the formerly popular seeker-sensitive or purpose-driven motif and have simply changed their self-descriptions.

Craig Van Gelder lists these seven aptitudes that should describe a missional congregation and help differentiate it from other congregations or movements:

1. Missional Congregations Learn to Read a Context As They Seek Their Contextuality
2. Missional Congregations Anticipate New Insights into the Gospel
3. Missional Congregations Anticipate Reciprocity
4. Missional Congregations Understand That They Are Contextual and Thus Also Particular
5. Missional Congregations Understand That Ministry Is Always Contextual and Thus Also Practical
6. Missional Congregations Understand That Doing Theology Is Always Contextual, and Thus Also “Perspectival”
7. Missional Congregations Understand That Organization Is Always Contextual and Thus Also Provisional.6

Missional congregations anticipate new insights into the Gospel

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The Development of the Emerging Church

The emerging church is a phenomenon that can trace its roots to both the Gen-X ministry conversation in the United States and the Youth Church movements within England during the early nineties.7 After the initial interest in this “life-stage” approach to reaching a new generation, the conversation broadened into a discussion on postmodernity and its impact on society at large and the church.

In the United Kingdom, the “Visions” worship experience was one of the earliest expressions of a so-called “Gen-X” church. This and many creative worship communities like it began to develop all over the UK and then in New Zealand and Australia.8 These were people experimenting with new patterns of meeting outside the traditional church and a central focus on more varied expressions of church than their counterparts in the traditional or contemporary church community. Dance, sculpture, ambient music, and video-jockeys were also used in worship expression.9

In the United States, the emerging church phenomenon was birthed predominantly from the Young Leaders Network division of the Leadership Network. Initially, Mark Driscoll, Doug Pagitt, and Chris Seay spearheaded an effort to take the conversation beyond generational differences to the implications for the church of a postmodern epistemology and transition.10 Later, voices such as Tony Jones, Brian McLaren, Dan Kimball, Tim Keel, and Brad Cecil were added to the conversation. Soon, an offshoot organization of the Young Leaders Network was formed that came to be known as the Emergent Village.11

It was not long before the discussions in the Emergent Village concerning the implications of postmodernity on ministry and theology. New perspectives on the atonement, Trinity, the authority of Scripture, the extent of salvation, etc. were considered. At this point in the development of the emerging movement a continually widening gap was introduced between the original champions of Emergent. Driscoll became more influenced by a traditionally conservative, Reformed theology, moved himself out of involvement in the “emergent” church, and focused on developing his reformed missional network called Acts 29.

Emergent church: explorations of postmodernity on ministry and theology.

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The primary leadership of Emergent then began to move the organization more towards explorations in theology that had greater resonance with the traditionally understood theology of the mainline denominations and the Christian left.

These developments have led to two primary outcomes: the increased the popularity of the “missional” conversation over and above the “emerging church” conversation; and the void of community and kingdom cooperation among many younger pastors and leaders that did not have a strong affinity with either of those two directions. These were largely (and continue to be) centrist evangelicals. This lack of community and cooperation is still a major void in the wider church landscape today, even though some are beginning to work at developing networks in this space.

As is evidenced by even this small picture of the emerging church and its development, the movement is hard to track and define because various parts of the emerging philosophy find resonances in both new and old congregations and in old and new church associations.

Jonny Baker of Grace in London and a leader of the emerging church within the UK believes the emerging church is a catch-all term. “Church as we have inherited it, is no longer working for vast groups of people. The world has changed so much. So I think the term emerging church is nothing more than a way of expressing that we need new forms of church that relate to the emerging culture.”12

Dan Kimball agrees when he explains that there are so many new “taxonomies” within the emerging church because it is a catch-all term for people wrestling with similar issues.13 Obviously, the various streams relate to the divergent answers or directions that are concluded as a result of this wrestling. Alan Hirsch, in his book The Forgotten Ways, suggests that the term emerging missional churches is the best descriptor for what should be taking place in the church today. A church is missional and therefore it emerges within a context, but mission is the driving factor. This seems to be the strongest means of combining these two streams.14

Emerging missional: what should be taking place in the church today.

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While emerging and missional have different orientations and derivations, it is clear that they are both struggling to represent the changes that are happening within the younger Christian movement.



1 Tom Sine, The New Conspirators: Creating the Future One Mustard Seed at a Time (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 41-42.
2 The Gospel and Our Culture Network, (accessed September 8, 2009).
3 Milfred Minatrea, Shaped by God’s Heart: The Passion and Practices of Missional Churches (San Francisco: Jossey–Bass, 2004), 8.
4 Stetzer and Putnam, Breaking the Missional Code, 49.
5 Minatrea, Shaped by God’s Heart, 18.
6 Van Gelder, The Missional Church in Context, 38-42.
7 Gibbs and Bolger, Emerging Churches, 30-31.
8 Sine, New Conspirators, 34-35.
9 Steve Collins, interview by the author, May 26, 2009.
10 Stephen Shields, “Ten Years Out: A Retrospective on the Emerging Church in North America,” Next Wave (January 2009): 3.
11 Sine, New Conspirators, 38.
12 Gibbs and Bolger, Emerging Churches, 41.
13 Shields, Ten Years Out, 3.
14 Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 66.

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Chris Backert
About the Author

Chris Backert

Working with church leaders to develop new expressions of Christian community is the passion of Chris’s life. In addition to his role as National Director of Fresh Expressions US, he serves with the Baptist General Association of Virginia the area of church planting and serves as the Director & Organizational Architect for Ecclesia, a national network of missional churches. Previously, he served as pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship, a large university congregation in Blacksburg, Virginia. Chris holds a D.Min. in Missional Church Leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary. He lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with wife Rachel, daughter Elliana and son Jase.