This conversation, held at the annual event of the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators here, is attended by pastors and church educators wondering just what the “emergent” church is all about. Or is it the “emerging” church?

And why do those involved seem to be pierced or tattooed or using mild expletives in conversation while scribbling in moleskin notebooks?

It all seems a little hard to define. Exactly.

This is the nature of the emergent church movement — trying to create tomorrow’s church today.  It is fluid, a bit elusive and ever-evolving. Or it may be dead altogether. Those most closely involved seem least sure. Or so says Neal Locke, who is leading the conversation today.

The movement within the Presbyterian Church — Presbymergent — has less to do with what emergent looks like than it does about the underlying theological assumptions and structure. An emerging church is normally not a pastor driven church. There is openness to structure and theology. They call themselves “loyal radicals.”

As Locke put it, “there is a transparency, a flattening of hierarchies, and openness to theological inquiry. There is a willingness to allow people to question, a place for doubt and room for ‘tinkering’ with theological ideals. The faith community can come around this and self-correct. What is necessary is a level of trust.”

Locke, a 34-year-old student at Princeton Theological Seminary, has been involved in the Emerging Church movement for several years and helped organize emerging minded Presbyterians into Presbymergent. The website is a forum for bloggers, like-minded Presbyterians and church leaders interested or involved with the much larger international and ecumenical Emergent Church movement.

Locke led the workshop for those who were hoping to understand what it’s all about. Gathering were young, old, men and women. A few women in their late-20s to early-30s were there, already involved in emergent congregations.

Some older people, curious, asking everything from “what is it?” to “do these people believe in scripture?” Present too were middle-aged pastors, both male and female, wondering if this movement could help re-energize their more traditional congregations. 

This whole movement, Locke believes, is part of a larger shift driven by changes in technology. He refers to author Phyllis Tickle who in her new book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, claims that rather than a generational shift, this is a 500-year shift.

Just as there was a great shift in technology, the introduction of the printing press that allowed for the Reformation, there is a great shift in technology now. People no longer simply receive information, as from the radio or television. Now individuals are involved in broadcasting information. Think Wikipedia where the readership actually edits the material of the encyclopedia.

For believers accustomed, say, to active participation in the internet, sitting passively in a pew, listening to a sermon from an authority figure is not going to do it. These emergents plan worship together.  Some emerging churches have open pulpits where any of the members worship and the Holy Spirit speaks through the community.

And this movement is not outside the “official” structures of the denomination. As South Bend, IN pastor Lindsey Carnes commented during the workshop, “I am watching it happen to a congregation in our community. They might not realize it is happening, but it is.”

This once traditional Midwestern congregation, in responding to the needs of the community, is growing or emerging into something less highly structured, more egalitarian.

There are also new churches growing that are emergent churches and have received New Church Development funds from the PC(USA). Covenant Community Church in Louisville is one such church. Ten years from the first gatherings to the church being chartered, they have no building and a worship team plans worship. Pastor Jud Hendricks shares the pulpit with church members.

For emergents, this is all centered in Jesus Christ. The adventure is in exploring together what a Christ-centered life really means for faithful living and for the faith community.

For Presbyterians who are also emergent, there is a feeling that the polity of the denomination is uniquely suited to the movement. For an approach to church that is not top down, the PC(USA) has a democratic polity. It is already intended to be non-hierarchical.

Locke says the longer he stays with both approaches, the more he appreciates his Presbyterian heritage. “Five years ago, I was mostly excited about being Emergent. Today, I am mostly excited about being Presbyterian. The more I learn about the history and structure of our tradition, the more I value it.”

As for the Emergent Church Movement being dead, it seems that it is actually doing what it is intended to do.  Allowing new expressions for faith community, such as Covenant Community Church in Louisville, to in fact emerge.

The APCE annual convention takes place Jan. 27-30 here.