If I had a dollar for every person who has asked me "So, what IS the emerging church?" we could meet our budget this year. Here's my own definition, and it is just that -- my definition. Not the definition. This is descriptive, not prescriptive. When I use the term "emerging church" here's what I mean by that. (I feel like I'm walking into a minefield, but here we go ...)
Christian communities that emerge out of very particular cultural contexts where the traditional church is basically irrelevant. These cultural contexts are more often than not urban, youngish, and post-modern.
Emerging church is not a worship style. I know emerging churches that do traditional liturgy with jazz (Mercy Seat), who use electronica (Church of the Beloved), who are a capella Gregorian chant (House for All Sinners and Saints), and who do nothing but old-time Southern gospel (House of Mercy).
So, when traditional churches in the suburbs are wanting to attract young people (with all the good intentions in the world) and they ape some kind of worship style they read about in a Zondervan book by starting an "emerging" worship service, it's a bit ... ironic.
There is nothing ideal about these communities. Yes, we need more generational diversity. And yes, we have the same number of issues and problems as other churches. All I know is that about 95% of the people who come to my church were not actually going to any church at all when they joined us.
Okay, now before you leave me angry responses let me say that this is not saying there is something wrong with the traditional church. Traditional church is often a faithful expression of Christian community. But people in my scene would have to culturally commute from who they are to who the traditional church is. This is why I want to make a T-shirt that says "light all the candles you want to; they are not coming." The back of the shirt would say, "It's ok to be who you are (traditional, suburban, small town, conservative, Methodist ... whatever it is .... Be it."
For the record: I wanted to start a church in a context that I am native to. I am not "targeting a population," nor have I at any point had to ask myself "What is it they want"? "They" being post-modern urban young adults. I am they. However, with each new person who joins us, “we” are changed. And sometimes we are lucky enough to have people who are older or more conservative or from outside the city join our community, and we are deeply enriched by this.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor living in Denver, Colorado, where she is developing a new emerging church, House for all Sinners and Saints. She blogs at www.sarcasticlutheran.com and is the author of Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television.