"Wow! That's how we do our work overseas" shouted out a seasoned missionary to Southwestern Asia. He was responding to a talk I gave on the patterns of Emerging Churches in the West. For this missionary, stories from the Emerging Church embodied much of he was doing intuitively in his work. What resonated with him? A focus on Jesus stories, yep. All of life sacred, no split -- yep. Church service replaced by hospitality as the primary connecting point, check. Dialog in humility, acknowledging errors, yes. Recognizing truths in the host culture and religion, yes. Holy Spirit was there before the missionary, yes. Indigenous local, almost pagan looking worship, yes. Leadership in teams, yes. Lots of prayer and spiritual activities outside the service, yes, yes, yes. This missionary does not need to be convinced that western categories do not make sense to his hearers. He does not need to be convinced that theology must deeply engage the cultures' questions. The missionary's immediate desire is to see a community formed around Scripture. Imparting 2000 years of church history and theology is not his first priority, and for some missionaries I have spoken to it is not a priority at all.
Sadly, I've seen missionaries grilled by Western theologians. Often there is a great misunderstanding between the two. Frequently, the missionary does not share what she or he learned on the field, simply to avoid these conflicts. I see the same misunderstandings between Emerging Church practitioners and various theologians as well. They talk past each other, inhabiting different worlds. Same problem as the overseas missionaries, different context. However, the reason we hear so much of the emerging church 'heresies' is that this new community is meeting across the street and not across the world.
Missionaries have experienced this sort of misunderstanding, and they understand what it looks like to live within two expressions of the same tradition. For that reason, they nod with understanding when I talk about the emerging church, a missional movement within popular/postmodern/urban cultures...I love talking to missionaries about the emerging church!