Someone recently asked on Twitter just what the emerging church is emerging from. I usually don't think too hard about what we're emerging from, I usually think about what we're emerging to but the from is just as important. Every movement is reactionary or has a reactionary element (even... perhaps especially Christianity). I think the emerging church is reacting to their Sunday school education in many ways--the simple, dumbed down gospel that says pray the sinner's prayer and you're in. I think they've discovered--more like remembered--that Christianity is much more complex, holistic, and beautiful and they're trying to communicate that. They're also reacting against the Evangelical's tendency to discourage scholastic education. In many ways the emerging church seems to be trying to allow cutting edge theological and Biblical scholarship into the conversation whereas it used to be generally ignored or shunned by pastors and congregations.
Among these other reactionary forces, I think what the emerging church is emerging from is 16th century questions to 21st century questions. From the emerging church's perspective, evangelical, fundamentalist, and most other protestant communities have been asking the questions of the reformation since the reformation. To give just a couple of examples (and I don't presume that I can do any true justice to a whole time period) these include questions like, "how do I go to heaven when I die?" and "how can I know I'm saved?" There were many other questions, don't get me wrong, but these are the ones that the Evangelical tradition seems to have kept most sacred since then. These questions are the result of a whole post-enlightenment world view from which our culture seems to have either matured or strayed (depending on your perspective). And these questions resulted in practices such as alter-calls and the sinner's prayer. But things have changed...
During the reformation things were shifting. The use of "reason" (post-enlightenment reason & scientific method) had become the paramount method for coming to conclusions. The printing press made information more accessible than ever before which, for the church, meant that people could read and reason with the text of scripture on their own (without the printing press the idea of doing daily devotionals would never have been practically possible). This meant that proofs were necessary and trust was based on logic rather than traditional ecclesiological hierarchy. Reason was going to be a sort of "savior" to the world and now that salvation was coming to the church through the reformation. The questions of the reformation are the results of such a worldview and today's Evangelicalism seems to be asking those same questions still.
Now, on the other hand, we live in a society that has essentially lost it's trust for reasoned arguments and methodological proofs. We watched as enlightened westerners killed 6,000,000 Jews in the holocaust, as logically thinking Americans dropped a atomic bombs (a product of science) to wipe out whole cities, and as things seem to have gotten worse since the reign of reason began. We simply don't think the same way we used to. Subjectivity and relativism have come to the forefront of our thinking and truth has become much more complex. We come to our conclusions through a blend of reason, experience, and tradition. So of course we are asking different questions now. We're less concerned with whether there is life after death than we are about whether there is life before death. Knowing whether or not we're saved comes second to knowing whether we can know anything at all. We're just asking different questions now and we're concerned about different things.
The emerging church seems to be trying to ask the questions of our culture and in doing so they've become less concerned with the questions of Martin Luther's culture. I guess we're "emerging" from asking 16th century questions (questions from the reformation) to asking 21st century questions.