Poloma and Hood Book Review: Blood and Fire – Is this the Emerging Church?

image Margaret Poloma and Ralph Hood’s recent book, Blood and Fire: Godly Love in a Pentecostal Emerging Church (NY University Press, 2008), left me feeling more than a little uncomfortable. Poloma and Hood offer a sociological account of a church that has ‘failed.’

By ‘failed’ I mean that Poloma and Hood’s research coincided with a time when the Atlanta-based congregation they were studying abandoned its downtown premises. The homeless they were trying to attract were seemingly forgotten about.

What made me most uncomfortable were:

  • The behaviour of prominent leaders at the congregation
  • The book’s assertion that this congregation should be considered an ‘emerging church’

Leaders’ Behaviour

There’s plenty of uncomfortable reading in Poloma and Hood’s ethnographic descriptions of what went on at Blood n’ Fire (BnF), a congregation with roots in a desire to engage with Atlanta’s poor.

BnF’s engagement with the poor involved establishing a shelter and food kitchen. Initially, Poloma and Hood say this was rooted in the vision of BnF leader David Van Cronkhite, who had given up a lucrative job in the corporate world because of his desire to see the poor enter the ‘kingdom of God.’

Their early research seemed to provide some confirmation of this, as they noted how the ‘Warehouse’ shelter and food kitchen was one of the safest in Atlanta, and allowed people to stay there with some dignity.

But as the research progressed, they found little evidence that BnF’s self-acclaimed programmes for drug addicts were actually getting results. The board of corporate funders that had been brought in to oversee the work got increasingly frustrated with Van Cronkhite’s inability to provide clear answers about where their money was going.

They described Van Cronkhite and his wife as living in an expensive lake home outside of Atlanta, rarely if ever engaging meaningfully with the poor who frequented the Warehouse.

Rather, they befriended the middle class white suburbanites who had been attracted by BnF’s vision or its charismatic practices, devoting much of their love and attention to them.

At the time of publication, it was not even clear if it would be Van Cronkhite and Van Cronkhite alone who would benefit from the sale of the property where the Warehouse once stood.

Poloma and Hood’s account of all this is impressively frank, especially given Poloma’s admission that she was at first so impressed by BnF’s work and her confession, from a spiritual rather than sociological perspective, that she had discerned the work of God there.

Is This Emerging Church?

But beyond the behaviour of some BnF leaders, I was troubled by Poloma and Hood’s characterisation of BnF as an ‘emerging church.’

They say BnF was a ‘new paradigm’ congregation that shifted to an ‘emerging church’ as it began to engage more deliberately with the poor. Using Miller’s definition, Poloma and Hood characterise new paradigm churches in this way (p. 12):

‘Appropriating contemporary cultural forms, these churches are creating a new genre of worship music; they are reconstructing the organisational character of institutional religion; and they are democratizing access to the sacred by radicalizing the Protestant principle of the priesthood of all believers.’

Poloma and Hood say that what makes BnF – and the emerging church – different from new paradigm churches are its emphasis on:

  • Critique of consumerism (or as Van Cronkhite might have called it, the ‘American dream’)
  • A generous orthodoxy (drawing on Brian McLaren’s work)
  • Extravagant giving
  • A closing of the divide between the natural and the supernatural
  • A public – not privatised – faith that ‘was intended to be taken out into the streets and parks to share with the poor and broken’ (p. 13)
  • Community

I was certainly uncomfortable by the inability of the Van Cronkhites to convincingly live out their verbal critique of the American dream and their stated desire to come alongside the poor – not to mention their attitude towards ‘extravagant giving’ that bordered on the worst excesses of the ‘prosperity gospel.’

So as I read I found myself protesting – but BnF isn’t an emerging church! To me, BnF seemed more like a Pentecostal/charismatic congregation that was trying to be socially engaged. It could be that because I appreciate the ideals of emerging Christianity, that I didn’t want what had happened at BnF to be associated with it.

But I think there’s more to it than that, and it’s important that sociologists are careful with the labels they put on congregations. I think there is a difference between the emerging church and socially engaged charismatic Christianity.

For example, in a recent issue of Ethnopolitics, I compare the Belfast-based emerging church group Ikon with a charismatic congregation in Harare, Zimbabwe, Mount Pleasant Community Church (MPCC). I identify parallels between the ways they organise themselves and the ways in which they challenge ethnic boundaries.

image What I found most interesting about MPCC was the ways in which, in the context of great social and economic challenges in Zimbabwe – it was increasing its engagement with the poor. When my students read the article this past semester, one commented that MPCC seemed to be doing what Ikon was talking about – but without all the ‘philosophical fuss.’

But just because MPCC and Ikon are similar in some ways I don’t think that makes MPCC an emerging church. In fact, what may be the most important distinguishing maker for the emerging church is the ‘philosophical fuss.’

MPCC and BnF both retained, I think, fairly orthodox views of Christ, the Bible, and the importance of conversion, as well as the place of charismatic gifts within Christianity.

Emerging Christianity, at least in its Ikon incarnation, seems to me to be about using the tools of postmodern philosophy to challenge such accepted orthodoxies. I think we’ll advance our understanding of emerging Christianity if we grasp that it is not simply about developing a Christian social conscience.

5 thoughts on “Poloma and Hood Book Review: Blood and Fire – Is this the Emerging Church?”

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  3. Interesting post.

    I did go to a few emerging church events when the idea was, erm, emerging about 8 years ago or so. While I quite like debate, philosophising and theorizing I would have to admit that it is often an easy substitute for action. Unfortunately the emerging church paradigm seems to play well to self-obsessed post-moderns. All that old fashioned church stuff is pretty square, wheras all the social engagement stuff seems quite cool and exciting. The coolness and excitement however quickly vanishes however when confronted with the reality of actually doing something.

    I was on the bus earlier this week and a homeless guy got on. I was 15 feet away and I could smell him; I don’t have a strong sense of smell. Working with people like this hardly fits the cool, stylish image that many emerging churches seem to crave. This must be especially so if there are few results to be seen from a particular program.

    Unfortunately, this is where I think that a particular type of left-wing politics adds an additional unsavoury element to the mix. Empty merely verbal political activism gives the impression of action without the need to dirty ones hands with actually doing anything.

    I suppose when the Salvation Army was founded they knew that the work would be difficult and unpopular and the rewards few. Today people seem to expect instant results and instant acclaim from others.

  4. I was there before the warehouse was even cleaned out. I was there at the very beginning. I could tell you about people being healed, demons cast out, the Gospel being preached and taught to the poor, the youth and the castaways. I could tell you about sidewalk Sunday School educational work and full scale March for Jesus parades in the inner city of Atlanta. This was a very radical move of the God of the Bible. The work got off track with the connection to the Kansas City Prophets and David’s abandonment of the covering BnF had while it was still operating under and connected to the local VINEYARD Church community from which it grew.

  5. I knew of Blood ‘n Fire before it ever made it into a ministry downtown… they were just serving the poor from The Atlanta Vineyard. It soon became apparent that the Lord was giving vision that was more specific and larger than the local church. I was there while the Warehouse was being acquired. I spoke there regularly and led worship there on many occasions. I know the Van Cronkhites and many others who were there during the years of such incredible release among the poor. To fault your assessment. I watched homeless who ministered. I saw something emerging from the city that was not simply a “socially engaged Charismatic Christianity”… there was a constant flow of “suburbanites” simply because no other ministry I had seen up to that time, was engaged in any kind of social reform… and they were welcomed to come help.

    The issue of it’s failure, is an issue related to many ministries and is sad that it would become a focus of this critique. There were some, few, who thought they carried the same leadership and evidently favor of God that was on David. It’s pretty evident they were wrong, but because of stubbornness, pride, and carrying some things that should not be evident in a believer… they stole… from what God was doing in Atlanta… in the Van Cronkhites… and the poor … and the battle of Ai was lost… the casualties are proof. But having said that, I believe the battle of Ai will be fought and won again… just as it was in Joshua.

    I don’t think the vision of Blood ‘n Fire was David’s vision… I don’t think it was General William Booth’s idea either (both carry that name)… I believe it was God’s idea… and I think it’s larger than either of them has ever seen.

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