Ecclesiological contributions of emerging churches for their parent communities
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This thesis examines the contributions that emerging churches make to their parent communities’ understanding of church. As a work in practical theology, it is focuses on the theology that is deeply embedded within the everyday language, symbols, and practices of ordinary individuals and communities. Thus, the research in this thesis centres on two concrete emerging communities and employs qualitative methods to examine and analyse the actual practices, values, and beliefs of community participants—treating the data generated through the investigation of these emerging churches as theological material. The thesis is structured in six chapters, beginning in chapter one with a preliminary sketch of the wider emerging church phenomenon, a brief account of the researcher’s own earlier experiences with emerging communities, and an initial overview of the research already conducted on emerging church. Following this introduction, the thesis outlines the research methodology in chapter two, taking an approach to practical theology that moves beyond the prevalent models of correlation and recognizes the embodied nature of theology. Identified in this thesis as ‘theology in the vernacular’ or ‘local theologies’, this approach provides a mechanism for bringing two emerging churches into an impactful encounter with their parent communities’ understanding of church. This encounter unfolds through the remaining four chapters of the thesis. Chapter three provides the ecclesial context for this research by outlining the history and development of emerging church, and locating the two emerging communities within that narrative. Chapters four and five offer an in-depth portrayal and analysis of these two communities by depicting their ecclesial contexts and historical development, their weekly patterns, their physical and online spaces, their worship gatherings, the profiles and personal narratives of their participants, and the core practices of these communities. The findings from these separate sites of research are brought together in chapter six, where five key ecclesiological features are drawn from the common patterns present in these emerging churches. These are: (1) the prevalence of an ecclesial eclecticism, (2) the carving out of a space for theological discussion and intellectual enquiry, (3) a resolute fondness for their local cities, (4) the vital nature of the weekly gathering, and (5) a robustly verbal orientation in the worship gatherings. By bringing these five ecclesiological features into an encounter with the parent tradition of these emerging churches in chapter six, the contribution that these emerging churches are making to their parent communities understanding of church is explored. This thesis argues that these emerging communities are offering their parent communities two alternative ways of understanding church. The first is an understanding of church as a space for ecclesial borrowing and blending—which impacts on the formulation of a community’s ecclesial identity. The second is an understanding of church as a space for discussion, enquiry, and doubt—which impacts on the nature of belonging in ecclesial communities.