emergent & liminal


Alan Roxburgh is a wise man that needs to be heard … and his latest interview from Allelon is a gem which touches on hi upcoming book Leadership in a Time of Change (which is now on my wish list.)

His description of the two groups of church leaders in North America is insightful and helpful. In my humble opinion, of course as usual I find myself connected to both groups since Christianity in Malaysia is less polarized if one is in a mainline denomination like the Lutheran Church in Malaysia, and see myself as part of the “mixing” group hinted in his answer here …

“The two groups that you have described above are like two tribes comprising many church leaders across North America today. I would give them two specific names: one we call the Liminals, the other the Emergents. The lines that separate them are not always clear, and determinative. In fact these days there is a good deal of mixing between them although generational differences have tended to play a big role in their differentiation over the last decade or so. The Liminals are shaped by their training and vocations within denomination systems and congregations that have had long histories. Many Liminals now find themselves leading congregations with long histories but are finding themselves in a new social location—the world in which these congregations and denominations were formed and functioned well has suddenly disappeared. These Liminals feel called to a missional future but have little sense of how to do that in terms of their own skills and capacities as well as how to go about cultivating such transformation in existing congregations. “

So, as Bangsar Lutheran Church (BLC) is quite unique because as a “resurrected” church I find myself open to “emergent” values but at the same time, being part of the Lutheran denomination I’m well aware of the “liminal” realities we face. He goes on …

“The Emergent tribe is shaped by a different kind of story. Emergents are reacting to what they see in the churches; they label existing denominational churches as institutional and out of touch with the massive shifts they perceive occurring in our culture. They want nothing to do with these institutional churches because they are trying to push for a new kind of life in the desert with little idea of how to go about it. Their almost ritualized confession to one another is: “we are uncertain about what we’re doing but we’re not going back to denominational churches or existing congregations.” This group of individuals needs to have some coaching, encouragement, and mentoring if they are to reach the dream they envision for the future of Christianity.”

I admit I do react to existing problems I see in denominational churches as institutional but I also react against “insitutional” mindsets very much present in much of Malaysian Christianity not in denominational churches but in mega-churches too (Thus my problem is less with the “insitution” but with “mindsets”)! For me, I resonate some what with the phrase “we are uncertain about what we’re doing” in that I’m open for innovation and experimentation and asking hard and tough questions (with the desire for answers), but I don’t go with this phrase “but we’re not going back to denominational churches or existing congregations.” Maybe my experience in BLC has opened up the possibility to remain in a denomination and “emerge” and “explore” from there. In fact, I’ve been feeling strongly lately that sense of “helplessness” at times felt in our setting may actually put us in a place where we can genuinely re-work ourselves to face the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Thus, I say a big Amen to …

“Each tribe, from different perspectives, is trying to address the question of missional faithfulness in the midst of discontinuous change. One tribe, the Liminals, looks back realizing it was prepared to lead a world that is disappearing. They realize that the skills and habits passed down to them and reinforced in schools of theology fall short of addressing many of the culture’s greatest needs.

“The Emergents look forward to a new kind of church, but in so doing are more and more willing to jettison the church life they have known. However, with this rejection they are also implicitly letting go of crucial pieces of memory and story. The Emergent tribe is full of wonderful imagination and hope. They are huge risk takers. They are brave, passionate men and women who long to experience God’s missional life, but they are also in danger of losing the kind of memory that has given the church its direction forward.”

Missional faithfulness is what’s we are all into … and I want to be part of the solution not the problem. Kyrie Eleison …

7 thoughts on “emergent & liminal

  1. Hi Sivin, I got an e-mail from Alan a while ago. Some delays with the latest book, so we might be waiting a while. Check the link (below) out. It’s his last book – Crossing the Bridge: Church Leadership in a Time of Change. It is simply BRILLIANT. I got the book when it was first published in 2000.



  2. Sivin, i can never get into the Allelon site. Despite having a password etc. Any chance you could copy it as a WORD document and e-mail it to me? Thanks so much. 🙂

  3. Good thoughts here Sivin…thanks. I’m looking forward to that book.

  4. Whitewave


    This is not the “emergent” church that I have come to know (?) and love. I don’t understand. Am I missing something? One of the first things I saw in this movement was the daring re-appreciation of the older forms and signs from denominational days of yore. Stuff that the mods threw out because it was too -whatever-. The weird and funky stuff was coming back – the icons, the creeds, the written prayers, the candles – not because it was cool. It wasn’t cool when all this started. It was dangerous. That stuff was loaded with dangerous implications “Ooooh! If we burn candles, then the church of Smith might think we’re becoming Catholic! We don’t want that!” “If we use icons, the church of Jones might think we’re worshipping idols! We don’t want that!” I thought the E’church was taking the point about bringing the sensation of the sacred back into the church after the Mods dumped it all out. What am I not getting?

    I’m sorry if I sound punky, but I really am confused. Who is this Alan guy and what is he referring to? What is going on here?

    BTW- I think Lutheranism has a very good written foundation for emergence. But like I told my wonderful Lutheran Pastor friend, the ship of Lutheranism is too encrusted with the barnacles of added-on traditions and no longer has the agility she was created to have. I applaud anyone who fights for Luther’s spunky scrape-off-the-gunk attitude from within Lutheranism, instead of just disembarking. Don’t abandon ship!

  5. I agree very much with whitewave. Alan seems to be saying that there are the liminals (still in the denominations but looking to do something new) and the emergers (formerly in the denominations but now turning their backs on it). Most of the movement I think of as ’emerging’ emerges out of local contexts, and many of the people in it are not and never have been linked to historic denominations; they’re open to learning from historic christianity, though, both in theology and in liturgy, in a way that ‘modern’ evangelicalism was not. To such an extent that the liminals like me and the emergers I have described meet somewhere in the middle, trying to learn from each other for the sake of the contexts that spawned us.

  6. I can’t access the article, but I am not sure how the ‘liminals’ are all that different from the ’emergers’? At the point the main difference I see is that one is denominational and one isn’t. If the liminals are those from orthodox ways trying to do new things and emergers are doing new things then isn’t it about the same, except that the liminals have a historical tradition and background? Or maybe I have understood wrongly.

  7. Whitewave

    This cracks me up. Catagorizing is definitely an issue. It is helpful for a bit, but then it must be let go like a booster rocket. But I think we’re all ready to let it go at different points on the journey. Funny.


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