Few publishing categories are as confusing to bookseller and customer alike as what has come to be known as the emerging church; the category has become so unwieldy that even publishers and authors have trouble grappling with it. And the problem stems almost entirely from confusing the emerging church with other nontraditional forms of Christianity.
“The term 'emerging church' is so loose that one moment you can apply it to a specific book, and the next moment, you can just as easily decide it isn't emergent at all,” says Dudley Delffs, Zondervan's v-p and publisher of trade books.
One author who has separated the emergent from the nonemergent is Tom Sine, whose InterVarsity book, The New Conspirators, released earlier this year. In it he makes a clear distinction among four streams of alternative Christianity: emerging church (emphasizing the gospel as story, community, experiential worship, the arts, and much more); missional (an outward focus on mission); mosaic (intentionally multicultural); and monastic (a radical communal lifestyle, often lived out among the poor).
What Is—and Isn't—Emergent
Many in the emerging church “conversation,” the preferred self-descriptor, distinguish among three terms: emerging church, an umbrella term for the category; emergent, referring to an unorthodox interpretation of scripture; and Emergent, shorthand for Emergent Village (EV), a largely online community. Most of the publishers PW spoke with used the terms interchangeably, as does the Christian community at large.
Other forms of alternative Christianity are often mistaken for emerging/emergent, but are not. One cause for confusion, says Al Hsu, associate editor at InterVarsity Press, is that many books that are not theologically emergent still resonate with emergent readers, such as IVP's The Circle of Seasons (Nov.), a title about the liturgical year from Presbyterian writer Kimberlee Conway Ireton.
And then there's the mistaken assumption that to be young and edgy is to be emergent. “A traditionalist in a younger body is not emergent,” Hsu says, pointing to Shane Claiborne as an author who is frequently referred to as emergent but is not. Claiborne, who with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove coauthored Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers (IVP, Oct.), lives in an intentional community in inner-city Philadelphia.
Other well-known CBA authors often miscategorized as emergent are Zondervan's Rob Bell (Jesus Wants to Save Christians, Oct.), who eschews labels altogether; and Thomas Nelson's Erwin McManus (Wide Awake, July), pastor of a community called Mosaic, and Donald Miller, whose Blue Like Jazz became a national bestseller.
So who actually is emergent? Without question, Doug Pagitt (A Christianity Worth Believing, Jossey-Bass, June), Tony Jones (The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier, Jossey-Bass, Mar.), who founded EV, and increasingly less so, Brian McLaren (Finding Our Way Again, Thomas Nelson, May), who serves on EV's board but has moved beyond emergent.
Matt Baugher, v-p and publisher of spiritual growth and Christian thought at Thomas Nelson, avoids using the emergent label. “Anyone who has come out of this postmodern decade is now being thrown into that category,” he says. Zondervan does not use the term internally, while Baker Books acquisitions editor Chad Allen also resists using the label—ironic, since Baker and EV partner in publishing books under the Emersion imprint.
Delffs, who calls the term “almost meaningless,” says manuscripts for supposedly emergent books fall into two categories: those that try to proudly exist in the spotlight of emergent, and those that are “fresh, innovative, culturally engaging and not self-congratulatory. Those are more appropriate, more of what we want.”
NavPress senior editor Caleb J. Seeling also sees manuscripts from authors who are self-consciously emergent. “Usually they're just entering the conversation, struggling and trying to find freedom from the traditional church. They're just catching up,” he says.
A Changing Category
What everyone seems to agree on is that no matter what you call it, the category is changing.
“Emerging church books are evolving to be not just topic driven but perspective driven,” Hsu says. “Before, we saw a lot of books on the nature of church or theology in general. Now, we're seeing books on a particular topic from a certain perspective.” One example for IVP is Julie Clawson's Everyday Justice, which releases next year (see sidebar).
Caleb Seeling, who joined NavPress 18 months ago, brought to the job a sensibility stemming from frontline work with a homeless ministry. At first, he headed NavPress's Deliberate line. “Then the emergent conversation started to change, from critique of the conversation to a 'What's next?' approach,” he says. Seeling sees in emergent theology “a disconnect between good works and good theology. I wanted to bring deeper theology and a more active engagement with scripture to my job.”
One NavPress book that ties works and theology together is Ed Cyzewski's Coffeehouse Theology (Sept.), which focuses on the everyday theological conversations people have without realizing it. “When someone wonders if [serial killer] Jeffrey Dahmer, who became a Christian the day before his execution, is now in heaven, that's a theological conversation. We need to look at how we form our theological thought, how we engage the world in a theological way.”
Matt Baugher agrees that the conversation has shifted: “It's become a much larger conversation than even a year ago. There are conversations happening that have nothing to do with what emergent is.” Like others, Baugher is frustrated when the emergent label is misapplied to his authors, including Ken Wilson (Jesus Brand Spirituality, May) and Brian Tome (Welcome to the Revolution, Sept.). These and other titles satisfy Baugher's interest in acquiring books that “add to the conversation and reflect a more open conversation.”
One upcoming book that has already generated some buzz is Phyllis Tickle's The Great Emergence (Emersion, Oct.), which Chad Allen says “gathers up all the major strands of contemporary Christianity and relates them to this massive cultural shift we're going through.”
Tickle, an Episcopalian and former PW religion editor, is a favorite among “emergent and beyond” readers, in part because of her books on liturgical practices—a topic that resonates with emergents. Liturgical publisher Paraclete Press has published two authors in this category: biblical scholar Scot McKnight, whose blog, JesusCreed.org, is “immensely popular” among emergents, and Pete Rollins (The Fidelity of Betrayal, May), who “articulates the postmodern principles of this new paradigm better than just about anyone else,” according to associate publisher Jon Sweeney. Paraclete will release a 55-minute teaching DVD for McKnight's 2004 release, The Jesus Creed, in September and host a 20-city book tour for Rollins during November.
At Eerdmans, Jon Pott, v-p and editor-in-chief, says the company's interest in early church life intersects well with this audience. “We've also been very interested in the so-called 'missional' church, and this has been very close to the hearts of many who have been associated with the emerging church,” he says.
Eerdmans also publishes books that run counter to emergent thinking. One such title is David Wells's The Courage to Be Protestant (Apr.), which looks at a number of unorthodox approaches to faith, including the emerging church. “Emergent is coming to a time when it is ripe for critique, and not just knee-jerk reactions” from both critics and defenders of the conversation, IVP's Hsu points out.
It may be hard to imagine an emerging church topic that hasn't been written about. But publishers believe there's room for more.
“There may be a saturation of books that focus on or use the term 'emergent.' But the category is so broad, so nuanced and has so many points of entry that now we have this postemergent category,” says Delffs. “I don't think we're saturated with books about the conversation, about the culture and how we do church.”
Serving to an Amorphous Audience
One challenge publishers face is marketing books in a niche category that spills over into the general Christian populace. “You can assume that only emergent people are interested in these books and you could just go after them, but you'd be making a mistake,” says Matt Baugher. “You can go to any church and find an emergent book under someone's arm.”
NavPress discovered another challenge when it conducted a forum with 12 of its authors: their target audience was a psychographic and not a demographic, as had been thought. The psychographic included two age groups, the 18-to-35-year-olds who were the expected demographic, and those 50 and older. Realizing the difficulties this presented, NavPress scrapped its Deliberate line. “We found the line to be more confusing than helpful,” Caleb Seeling says.
Meanwhile, some emergents are redefining the book tour. This summer Jossey-Bass authors and self-described “postmodern Emergent hipsters” Mark Scandrette (Soul Graffiti, May), Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt took to the highways in a biodiesel-powered RV on a 32-city, old-time “Church Basement Roadshow: A Rollin' Gospel Revival.” Says executive editor Sheryl Fullerton, “It was very emergent, a complete reinvention of what a book tour is.”
Is the Future Post-Emergent?
Some publishers, like Westminster John Knox Press, have been keeping a wary eye on the emerging church. “We've been watching... carefully to see how we might best make a contribution,” says David Dobson, executive director of publishing and editorial director. “There are a lot of questions—how long will it last? What will the next stage of emergent look like? Who will be the leaders?”
Until those questions are answered, WJKP is content to publish nonemergent books that may appeal to emergents, such as Greg Garrett's The Other Jesus (based on his blog, TheOtherJesus.com), a spring 2010 release; and Erik Kolbell's The God of Second Chances and Bob Ekblad's A New Christian Manifesto (both spring 2008). “They also work well with a more traditional mainline Protestant audience,” says Dobson.
In any event, no one is predicting the demise of the category, though terms like emergent may have a shorter life span—perhaps less than 10 years, Jon Sweeney believes. Fullerton calls the category “virtual, viral and organic,” which means it will evolve in unexpected, unpredictable ways. “It will be what they want it to be, and there's no telling what that is,” she says. No matter what it will be, one thing is certain: it won't be Christianity as usual.