A Comparison of “Resident Aliens” with “The Emerging Church”

About: this paper was delivered to Dr. Libby Vincent at Fuller Theological Seminary during my first year for a class in systematic theology.


Much ink has been spilt on the relationship between the church and the world. Many authors have written books on how we ought to change the church in how it relates to the world. Two such books, Resident Aliens and The Emerging Church, fall into this category. The first book, Resident Aliens, written by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, focused on distinguishing the church from its surrounding culture. The second, The Emerging Church, written by Dan Kimball, focused on conforming the church to cultural preconceptions on spirituality. Although these two books are similar because of a common audience, subject and goal, they are very different due to their main agendas, ministry focuses and warnings. In comparing the similarities and differences, and positives and negatives, we will see that both books give a good reality check for the church, but that one of them, The Emerging Church, presented a better overall case and had a greater impact on the reader.  It is to the comparison of these two books that we now address, starting with their similarities.

Resident Aliens vs. The Emerging Church

Comparing and Contrasting


Both of our books were written to pastors. These books were written to pastors to help encourage change within the church. The first book, Resident Aliens, was written in the 1980s to exhort pastors to care for the Christians in their churches. Likewise, The Emerging Church, was written within the last five years to exhort pastors to effectively reach out to the emerging culture. Both of these books share a similar audience. Both of our books were written with role of the church in the world in mind. Although they take different approaches, both books have the same subject. Both of our books have goals to change the church. The differences are that they want do change the church in different ways. Even though our books, Resident Aliens and The Emerging Church, share similar audiences, roles and desires, they are quite different from each other. Now that we have addressed their similarities, we can now examine the differences between these two books.


The main agendas for our books seem to be opposites. Resident Aliens seeks to distinguish the church while The Emerging Church seeks to conform it. The former defines the church as a colony and Christians as resident aliens, and as such it argues that the American church needs to distinguish itself from its surrounding culture. The latter presents its case that the church needs to adapt to the changes in culture in order to be optimally effective missionaries in the emerging world. These main agendas are opposites–on the one hand, the church should get uninvolved with culture, and on the other, the church should get involved in the culture. However, when we consider that the objects of culture are different in these main agendas, we have to maintain that they are not truly opposites, because they are not focused on the same exact things. Therefore, we can say that they have exhortations that seem to stand in tension with each other, but they are not opposite or contradictory arguments. They are in fact different but not opposites. Our books’ main agendas are different, as we have now seen, but their ministry focuses and roles for the church are different as well.

Unlike the main agendas, the ministry focuses of these books are complete opposites. Resident Aliens is focused on ministering to Christians whereas The Emerging Church is focused on ministering to non-Christians. The goal of Resident Aliens is to change the church for the purpose of helping Christians fulfill what they are called to–to be “faithful to their promises, love their enemies, tell the truth, honor the poor, suffer for righteousness, and thereby testify to the amazing community-creating power of God.” This book does not lack a missional focus, as it identifies the importance of the church determining to worship Christ in all things, to be faithful and effective as it brings new people into the alternative “countercultural social structure called church.” The goal of The Emerging Church is to change the church for the purpose of helping non-Christians come to Christ while still allowing for the edification of believers. These books identify different roles for the church. Resident Aliens identifies that the role of the church is to be different than the world, but The Emerging Church identifies that the the church’s role is to adapt to the world. Proclaiming different roles for the church could seem to be contradictory, but we have to remember that these two books have different ministry focuses. We cannot examine the proclaimed role for the church without looking at the proclaimed ministry for each book, otherwise we will make the mistake of believing these two books to contradict each other. By looking at the role and ministry incorporated in each book, we can see that the agendas are truly different but not contradictory.

Now that we have compared and contrasted the two books, we should examine the positives and negatives of Resident Aliens and The Emerging Church, so that we can determine which book has the better overall case for their different agendas in an effort to identify the book that had the greatest impact on the reader.

Considering the Positives and Negatives

Resident Aliens did a fantastic job of presenting a correct understanding of the role of the church members as witnesses of God. A church without witness would be pointless, so it is imperative for a book that deals with the role of the church to include such a vital understanding. However, it did not do so well in presenting a clear theme of distinguishing the church from the world. It seems to either neglect or be ignorant of a dual kingdom citizenship for believers in the church. The idea of “already but not yet” is hard to find in this book, leaving its main agenda somewhat incomplete and unclear.

The Emerging Church did an exceptional job of demonstrating a correct understanding of church leadership from a biblical perspective. The way that it used the contemporary analogies from Star Trek to portray its understanding of the true biblical portrait of church leadership was brilliant and stimulating. The one thing that it lacked was that out of all the examples it gave for reaching the emerging culture, it failed to give any suggestions outside of a worship gathering setting. It identified the importance of discipleship, but in the end no concrete examples were given, at least not in the same way that concrete examples were given for worship gathering sets and room structures.


Resident Aliens and The Emerging Church, with their different agendas, ministries and church roles, and similar audience, goal and subject, had different impacts on the reader. The first book was good, but the second was better for three reasons.

First, The Emerging Church is much more contemporary than Resident Aliens. It is up to date and much more relevant. Resident Aliens is much older and is incapable of relating to the current reader in the same way that The Emerging Church can. Therefore, The Emerging Church is more desirable because it is much more impacting as it reaches into and attempts to affect a time that the reader is currently familiar with.

Second, The Emerging Church has a much more fluid presentation than Resident Aliens. It seemed to have a textbook feel to it. It was easy to follow because of its small sections and well-thought out structure. It was aesthetically pleasing with fun graphics and colorful design. Most importantly, its content was lively, interactive–especially with the discussion questions at the end of each chapter–and well-written. Its content was not any more important than what we find in Resident Aliens, but much of what we read depends on how it is visually, artistically and logically presented. Therefore, in respect to the overall presentation of the books, The Emerging Church is superior.

Third, The Emerging Church has a much better argument for the role of the church as witnesses than Resident Aliens. Although the role of the church as witnesses is not foreign or nonexistent in the latter, it is clearly the dominant focus in the former. As a result, the entire book is built on the role of the church to adapt to the culture for the purpose of being a witness in an effort to reach the emerging culture.

In sum, Resident Aliens and The Emerging Church are similar but different books written for different times. Therefore, it is hard to simply compare them side-by-side. However, we can compare them in terms of personal impact. Even though it was much longer, The Emerging Church was the book that had the greatest impact because it is more contemporary and relevant, it has a better overall presentation and it has a better argument for the role of the church. Both books are good and both serve the church well. Resident Aliens is a valuable resource in talking on how the church should continue to exist in relation to the American culture as a colony, and The Emerging Church is a valuable resource in talking on how the church should continue to reach out to the American culture as a witness.


Hauerwas, Stanley and Willimon, William. Resident Aliens. Nashville: Abingdon, 1989.

Kimball, Dan. The Emerging Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003.