The Emerging Church Movement at the Association for the Sociology of Religion Conference: What Matters – structures or ideologies?

Last month at the Association for the Sociology of Religion Annual Meeting in San Francisco, I had the pleasure of chairing a session on “The Emerging Church Movement and the Transformation of ‘Conventional’ Christianity.”

That session, combined with the Authors Meet Critics session on my new book, co-authored with Gerardo Marti, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (Oxford 2014), ensured that the Emerging Church Movement (ECM) received sustained academic analysis at the conference. Given that Gerardo and I have argued that it is one of the ‘most significant reframings of Western Christianity’ in the last few decades, I think that the work presented in San Francisco is really important for encouraging other scholars to test and critique our claim.

Before this session started, we asked those attending if they had heard of the ECM or knew what it was. Most said that they had not, so Josh Packard from the University of Northern Colorado, author of The Emerging Church: Religion at the Margins, opened the session by offering a definition of the ECM.

Packard spoke of the ECM as a series of grassroots groups connected by the worldwide web in a global network, but having no distinct leader, vision or mission. Its goal is to foster a “conversation” about religion and faith.

It is no easy task to define the ECM. As Bradley Wright noted in a recent review of The Deconstructed Church:

This book tackles the difficult task of defining the ECM. Most definitions of religious groups focus on organizational membership, such as denominations, or religious identity, such as being charismatic. The ECM doesn’t fit well with either of these. Marti and Ganiel describe it as a social movement guided by various themes, including being anti-institutional, ecumenical, using young leaders, being experimental and creative, and avoiding being traditionally church-y. They label it as a religious orientation aimed toward the practice of deconstruction (p. 6). In one sentence they write: “The ECM is a creative, entrepreneurial religious movement that strives to achieve social legitimacy and spiritual vitality by actively disassociating from its roots in conservative, evangelical Christianity. (p. ix)”

On the upside, this is about the clearest definition I’ve seen of ECM. On the downside, I’m still not exactly sure what it is. Certainly most Christian groups are not part of the ECM, some clearly are, but there’s a continuum of churches between them. As far as I can tell, this reflects nature of ECM, not any problems with the definition, per se. In several places, Marti and Ganiel describe facets of ECM group organization as “messy,” and to them I would add the simple identification of ECM.

Packard then presented his paper on “The Emerging Church as a Home for the Dechurched,” which was based on research with Ashleigh Hope. He defined the “dechurched” as “ people foregoing corporate worship experiences because they were dissatisfied with organized religion in general rather than with any particular doctrine, teaching or pastor.”

packardIn his research for The Emerging Church, Packard had encountered people who were previously de-churched, who had returned to Christianity through the emerging church. In conducting further interviews for his current project, he found further evidence that some people are giving up organized religion for “spirituality” or an affiliation of “none” because they lacked a “viable option” among existing religious institutions in the US. For them, a viable option, or the “right kind of church” can mean different things. But in general, the key difference is in “structure rather than substance.”

This emphasis on structure resonates with other research on the ECM, which has emphasized its “anti-institutional” nature. Emerging Christians prefer loose organizational structures that are flatter and less hierarchical than traditional religious institutions, where intense participation and engagement is valued and encouraged.

Providing a nice contrast to Packard’s paper, Mark Killian from Whitworth University emphasised the importance of religious ideologies and cultures in his paper on “Ecological Adaptation in Emerging Churches.”

Drawing on his own research (interviews and participant observation) in two urban Christian Intentional Communities (CICs), Killian critiqued the theoretical assumptions of “religious ecologists,” who have stressed the importance of resources as the source of vitality for congregations and religious communities. Resources may include the demographic, financial, skills and political resources that are available in any given context.

For religious ecologists, deprived urban areas lack resources and therefore are not promising sites for religious vitality. But some CICs have turned the lack of conventional resources into assets, creating vital communities that thrive in environments lacking resources.

killianSo, Killian argued that a CIC called Berea adapts liabilities into resources. The most prominent example of this was its purchase of deconsecrated and physically decaying Catholic Church, St Seton, for use by the community. Taking this building and occupying it symbolises what Berea hopes it is doing in the community in which it is located: bringing what is dead back to life. Bereans therefore infuse the deprived environment in which they have chosen to live and worship with religious meaning, and draw vitality from the meanings they have created for themselves.

This ideological preference for the “abandoned places of the empire” (to borrow the phrase widely used by the Simple Way’s Shane Claiborne), is common among CICs, sometimes known as new monastic communities. Both Gerardo and I, and James Bielo in his book Emerging Evangelicals, have argued new monasticism should be considered an expression of the ECM.

I thought Packard’s emphasis on the structure of community life and Killian’s emphasis on religious ideas and cultures provided useful counter balances to each other. This should stimulate interesting debate about the relative importance of structures, ideas and cultures – and how they all interact within the ECM.

Such academic debates can also be instructive for practitioners, who may adopt new structures  — more suited for the networked and anti-institutional nature of much of the public sphere in the contemporary West, or ideas – seeing urban decay as a source of renewal, and conceiving of such environments the exact places where Jesus would want Christians to be.


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