Post-1960, Western Society has been undergoing a slow shift from conservative traditionalism, with its policed protection of permitted norms of behavior and religiosity to experiential individualism, which provides more permissiveness within and without church walls in the self-focused choices of people (and kinder judgments upon those actions). This evolution has involved the acceptance of alternative spiritual/theological avenues, divergent spiritual social norms (specifically concerning personal piety, vocational choices, gender roles, and sexual preferences), but truthfully, it has affected the whole of society. As Robert Pope states,

[Tradition] has been swept aside in postmodernity, where the existence of a single, organizing principle has been denied and the complexity of life, with its contradictions, plurality and ambiguity, has been asserted. All areas of human activity have been affected by this shift, including art and architecture, literature, music, politics, and religion.

Understandably, mainstream churches have even-more-frequently found themselves playing the “bad cop” in the past three decades or so pushing back against the new norms of the Emergent Church, admonishing people to restrict their human desires and religious expressions. Such warnings have been presented based on the authoritative statements in the Bible on sin and its consequences, submission to authority, and the dangers of being in the World.

Jim Belcher asserts, “The bottom line is that the emerging church, for many traditionalists, is guilty of accommodating the world. They are syncretistic.” This attitude puts them at odds with a growing segment of post-modern believers in Western society whose expectations of church are expanding.

Countering the negative assessment of the Emerging Church, a myriad of post-modern pastors and religious thinkers have offered explanations and evidence for this new religious manifestation. Kevin Ward states,

As the church splintered into greater and greater variety as the culture became more and more diverse, it was seen as a hopeless task to try to presume there was any true form. This was reinforced by a developing culture that was suspicious of any insistence on adherence to one particular form or expression in any area of life. Indeed ideology became the enemy, grammar was fascist, theory was irrelevant, praxis was what mattered.

Stephen Hunt claims, “For both liberal and conservative evangelicals, the principal issue has not just been a matter of the secular world impinging on the increasingly separate sphere of religion, but the way that Christianity negotiates and adjusts to Modernity.”

Traditional church culture is now considered anachronistic by many post-modern seekers, which the Emerging Church movement seeks to capitalize on with special attention and toleration given to the growing individualism in the post-modern world.

The majority of this paradigm change can be attributed to the post-modern emphasis on the “One,” which has progressed to such a degree that individual power vastly outweighs institutional or community authority for most religious bodies. Attesting to this is a 2007 sociological study of religious life in McMinnville, Oregon (called ‘The McMinnville Project’) that surveyed members from several churches, New Age groups, and even atheists, wherein substantial evidence was gathered and analyzed, which pointed toward a new, radical, individualized expression of faith, also termed, “Sacro-Egoism.” More than ever before, people feel religiously empowered to do what they want, regardless of former Church or Biblical mandates, which is evidenced in several ways.

First, a radical authority/priority of the self is embraced cross-culturally in Western churches. According to sociologists Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead, “The subjectivities of each individual become a, if not the, unique source of significance, meaning and authority.” With this personal prominence, subjective interpretations are not immediately considered illegitimate if they disagree with traditionally conceived thought. As Ray Anderson states, “The boundary of emerging churches will of necessity need to be porous and somewhat ambiguous even as the center is clear and truthful. Jesus had a high degree of tolerance for those who pressed in close to him.” Each individual has a prized position in the New Kingdom of God—there are no jesters or marginalized.

Second, people in post-modern churches, in general, feel an antagonism or ambivalence to institutionalism in society. With the empowerment of the individual, it is not surprising that the institution of the Church is losing its control on Western Society. The Church can no longer enforce moral edicts as strongly as before in history. Church membership is declining, and the social control once enjoyed by the Church institution is long gone except in a few pockets of Christian culture.

Third in the Sacro-Egoistical approach, a personal or pragmatic commitment [implicit] to the spiritual journey (specifically concerning Jesus and the Bible) is sought after and cultivated. People do care about God and have clear, distinct views on the Deity and the Bible. As Scot McKnight suggests, “A notable emphasis of the emerging movement is orthopraxy, that is right living. The contention is that how a person lives is more important than what he or she believes.” Dan Kimball adds, “I am, however, all for designing our worship gatherings in a way that resonates with our hearts and culture while expressing our worship as believers.”

Finally, an openness to and toleration of non-traditional beliefs and practices is promoted. As Anderson suggests, “Forms of contemporary spirituality cross a wide spectrum, embracing outright secular and humanist expressions of spirituality as well as intensely religious forms.” The embrace of individual religious freedoms means people will be experimenting and reevaluating what it means to have a relationship with God. They choose whether an alternative approach works for them (or not) and then can choose whether to integrate it into their own life (or not). Wade Clark Roof remarks, “Eclectic styles of religion and spirituality flourish within the region. Partly this is because of the openness toward diversity and the fact that people within religious communities feel free to absorb aspects of other traditions in their spiritual lives.”

Discussing the “marks” of emerging church communities, Frambach states, “Emerging church communities are not afraid to experiment and embrace the practice of faithful innovation.” Creativity is promoted and embraced. He [Frambach] continues, “There appears to be a genuine appreciation of diversity—of age, gender, race, economic status, religious background or lack, sexual orientation, ethnicity—not only in theory, but also in practice [as mentioned earlier].”

The foundation of Sacro-Egoism is the individual; likewise, the Emerging Church allows for the spiritual reins to be personally grasped and thereafter directed by private choice(s). In post-modernity, the church is not the only (or final) voice in religious matters; the individual has been awarded the right (or perhaps it has been forcefully grabbed) to choose the spiritual path to the divine. This leads to transformation–not just secularization, which is becoming more and more manifest in the Pacific Northwest.

Stay tuned for part two…addressing Transformational Possibilities and Congregational Realities…


  • John Knox

    Dr. John S. Knox is an assistant professor of biblical studies at George Fox University in Newberg, OR. He has taught on the Bible, Church History, and Religion for over a decade in traditional and online environments. He recently wrote a Christian History fiction novel called The Letter of Alon. He and his wife, Brenda, have been married for 22 years, and have two amazing boys.

    View all posts