Explaining 5 streams of church in a post-christian world

In doing this PiE work, I often struggle with words – particularly the religious/spiritual language.

How do we identify our faith?

We’re Christian, but what about the baggage with that term?

Jessica and myself are Mennonite as individuals, but that doesn’t mean PiE is just for Mennonites. PiE embraces Anabaptist principles, but perhaps Anabaptish might be a better way to describe what we do.

So I’m going to present some emerging “Christian” streams in North America (I use scare quotes, because some of the most Christian people I know hesitate to call themselves Christian).

Perhaps the one piece, if anything that unites all of these, is at some level they believe that ultimately it is a calling of loving “God” (I use scare quotes, because some of the most godly people I know shutter at too much public God language) and loving neighbour that they are trying to live it out – they just have different ways and language of showing that love.

They are also tied in with the Christian tradition in some way, shape, or form – but to varying degrees.

Another thing that is important; unlike the modern divisions of Christianity (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Mennonite, Anglican, Lutheran, etc.), these are movements that parallel and overlap each other frequently. These are for the most part not centrally organized and they don’t pretend to confess commonly agreed theological beliefs. These might be best described as movements, fluid & flowing, rather than categories. A person today may define themselves as one of these, or be involved in many or all of these circles.  Even terms like liberal or conservative are quickly being rendered obsolete because they are too restrictive.

The way I figure it, if we’re assuming that there is fluidity to identity pieces such as professions, community, ethnicity, culture, sexuality, gender, why not assume the same fluidity in spirituality & religion?

Can we not start producing some general & loose terms, just like the others, that can help us with language to help explain the movements we are a part of to others?

There are no gatekeepers for these movements. Hierarchy is often intentionally kept to a minimum to facilitate people’s freedoms.

Also with anything I say about these movements, these are my best articulations, they’re not categories – they’re observations. Each one of these pulls me in a certain way – I think there is validity in all these expressions. I would argue there is a significant piece of Christ in each one of these.

It is also important to not forget that some traditional and liturgical expressions of Christianity are gaining new life as well, particularly traditions that claim a history that is older than modernity itself (i.e., Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and others).

Some of the characteristics might be shared by multiple movements, but I’m trying to get at the core of each one. And they are all in relationship with one another. Rare is the “Christian” young adult who won’t have been influenced by at least one of these.

New Monasticism

Ironically this is what the early Anabaptists used to be called with some vitriol by Protestants and Catholics in the 16th century. The term  “New Monasticism” in its current usage was popularized by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove in his 1998 book Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World. The movement itself is also deeply inspired by Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement. As The Jeremiah Community in Toronto articulates, New Monasticism is the deep marriage and integration of faith and action, often called as “contemplative action”.

This movement seeks to follow Jesus in everything they do; often living in intentional communities in parts of the world abandoned and oppressed by empire. They may or may not go to church, but often worship happens in community. New monasticism often has a Jesus-centric view of the Bible as well. There is a lot of overlap with the activist movement, except for New Monastics the Christian/Jesus identity within a spiritual community is the explicit driver of the activism. Prayer is crucial, as is simplicity.

Popular Examples: Shane Claiborne, Common Prayer for Ordinary Radicals, Reba House Fellowship, Catholic Worker Movement, Iona Community, intentional communities,


Theologian Karl Rahner once said, “The Christian of the future will have to be a mystic or they will not exist at all.” Most of these mystics may have gotten their start in the Christian tradition. They may enjoy terms, but gravitate away from terms and language to describe their religious or spiritual experience. They are perhaps the most flexible in their beliefs and thinking, and will try a varying amount of prayer practices to try and connect with the divine. Mystics embrace the mystery of the divine, and grasping onto things from the Christian tradition only if they help their mystical pursuit. They will go into Eastern traditions to fully express unity with the divine (or universe) depending on the language. They may or may not participate in formalized worship – individual spiritual growth and experience is the main driver here.

Popular Examples:  Thomas Merton, Sufjan Stevens, Bede Griffiths, mewithoutYou, 

Emergent Church

The grand experimentalists, throwing everything topsy turvy, flipping worship upside down and coming to new truths and understandings. Often referred to as the hipster wing of Post-Christendom, this movement is artistic, creative and existential. They will freely incorporate technology or media into their worship as outside-of-the-box expressions. Or they might not – it depends how the creative spirit leads.

The main difference between emergents and mystics is that they try new structural ways of worship in a gathered setting; and the difference between emergents and activists is that there’s a more spirited attempt at common communal worship in community. Nowhere does post-modernity practically overlap more with Christianity than with the emergent church.

Popular Examples: Rachel Held Evans, Peter Rollins, The Liturgists, Gungor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell


Those standing up for justice towards a more peaceful and harmonious world. Activists might be inspired by Jesus example before worshipping him; inspired to fight for justice and to stand up for the oppressed and the marginalized. They also try to live out justice in their life as much as possible. Activists can sometimes be the most adversarial with traditional Christian language, but mainly because it is inconsistent with the real good news of Christianity which extends beyond exclusively Christian identity and practice.

They are always working to deconstruct oppressive narratives – and push against the injustices in the status quo. Activists are the instruments trying to bring the mountains low and raise the valleys. Humanity (and even creation) is universally equal in the eyes of the divine.

Popular Examples: Desmond Tutu, Rosa Parks, Christian Peacemaker Teams, Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King Jr., Sister Megan Rice, Daniel Berrigan

Contemporary Church

For those who prefer structure (including around beliefs) while still embracing and engaging with contemporary culture. This is the home of the mega church, where you will see a standard contemporary worship service, with worship music, and a sermon that combines some cultural reference with scripture. Contemporary also loves the small groups that break out from the larger church. They might spend a big budget to get a slick production on a Sunday morning. Seeker-friendly. This is what mainstream Christianity continues to evolve into, and as a result have a lot of resources and influence.

Popular Examples: The Meeting House, Kari Jobe, Chris Tomlin, Hillsongs

But if there’s one my generation hates, its being defined. I probably am inaccurate at many points – but my point is not to be an expert on these movements, but to give some articulation to the different directions in which Christianity is evolving and spreading in the 21st century.

Do any of these resonate with or describe where you’re at?

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