Review of The Deconstructed Church in Journal of Contemporary Religion by Matthew Guest

DSC05229My latest book, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity, co-authored with Gerardo Marti, has been reviewed by Matthew Guest in the academic publication Journal of Contemporary Religion (October 2015, pp. 544-546).

You can read the review in full on, but I have reproduced some excerpts below:

Review of The Deconstructed Church in Journal of Contemporary Religion by Matthew Guest

The tendencies that have matured into what is now called the ‘Emerging Church’ can be traced at least as far back as the mid-1980s, with proto-movements discernible even earlier. What was once a scattering of small progressive worship groups, largely the projects of young adults disillusioned with the evangelicalism of their youth, has now spread across the globe (or the English-speaking world at least) and developed something of a sense of its transnational identity. As ‘emerging churches’ have achieved greater public profiles, not least through the books, festival appearances, and online presence of figures like Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, and Nadia Bolz-Weber, sociologists of religion have paid closer attention to this ‘movement’ and what it might represent. Gerardo Marti and Gladys Ganiel’s The Deconstructed Church is by no means the first sociological analysis of the ‘Emerging Church Movement’ (ECM) but, building on a now significant secondary literature and fresh empirical research in a range of contexts, it is the most expansive, the most recent, and, in my view, the most impressive.

The book builds on a range of interview, survey, and ethnographic data, the latter including an abundance of fascinating vignettes that capture colourful illustrations of the ECM as a vibrant, living phenomenon. The opening chapter includes such descriptive ‘snapshots’ to introduce what the authors see as four manifestations of the ECM that are in evidence transnationally: pub churches,
Emerging Christian conferences, online networks, and neo-monasticism. All emerge through the book as sites in and through which ECM participants attempt to ‘deconstruct’—i.e. openly challenge, re-think, re-configure, re-imagine —the Christian church as they see it. The main emphases here are an urge to be anti-institutional and ecumenical, to facilitate shared leadership, to celebrate experimentation and creativity, and to foster a “neutral religious space” (39) in which tendencies towards polarisation and conflict may be positively negotiated.

… However, one of the great achievements of this volume is its painstaking effort to understand what constitutes the ECM as a movement—what are its distinctive features and how does it function as a socio-religious entity? The authors marshal a wide range of examples and, while driven by where the evidence takes them, nevertheless attend to this evidence with a deft and discriminating use of social theory. As a consequence, the reader is left not only with a greatly enriched understanding of the ECM, but also with new questions to put to theoretical debates about the re)formation of religious identities in late modernity and the shaping influence of the cultural, ecclesiastical, and ritual contexts in which they are embedded. This conceptual nuance is also reflected in the authors’ eloquent and subtle descriptions of the ECM as a movement that crosses cultural boundaries. As they state in the Introduction, “Emerging Christians are a discernible, transnational group who share a religious orientation built on a continual practice of deconstruction” (6, emphasis in the original).

… In distinguishing the Emerging Church as an ‘orientation’ rather than an ‘identity’, Marti and Ganiel recognize both its internal diversity and the fact that its participants accord varying degrees of importance to the ECM, some not self-consciously embracing this label at all and many holding multiple identities simultaneously. This makes for a subtle account, one that admits various modes of engagement and resists the temptation to reduce the ECM to a simple counter-reaction to evangelicalism (many of those involved in the US are actually from mainline Protestant churches). Moreover, it captures the ECM emphasis on inclusivity and openness to a range of Christian traditions, which participants view as “essential to their personal spiritual growth” (42).

Unfortunately, the authors do not pursue this line of analysis by mapping the multiple alignments that distinguish those involved in the ECM. What kinds of spiritual resources do they engage alongside the ECM? Are there patterns of compatibility that reflect demographic tendencies in favour of the ‘creative middle classes’? And what do emerging trends in prioritisation and mode of
engagement tell us about the role the ECM plays in their lives? I look forward to future ethnographic research that may probe these questions further. But this is not to take away from what is a thoroughly engaging read and a highly impressive sociological analysis, persistently astute, careful, and well-evidenced. This is by no means the last word on the Emerging Church, but it is the best book available on the topic. It should be the first point of call for all students and academics serious about understanding the ECM in all its complexity.
Department of Theology & Religion, Durham University, Durham, UK
© 2015 Mathew Guest

3 thoughts on “Review of The Deconstructed Church in Journal of Contemporary Religion by Matthew Guest”

  1. There is a possible parallel between the ECM and Baha’i ism which emerged from Islam in the 19th century. While the EC at present appears to be a modernized religious Movement, Baha’i ism appears to be more socio-political. Has anyone researched the parallels, similarities and differences?

    Dennis Golden

  2. Hi Gladys,

    I think that the Emerging Church Movement, Baha’i ism and similar movements may be symptomatic of a developing maturity within the human race in general. But we have not yet come-of-age.

    21 is the traditional age of maturity of an individual person. Will the 21st century mark the coming of age of Humankind in general?

    Using the Christian analogy/metaphor/parable; God died on a cross 20 centuries ago, having first become Man in the person of Jesus who, having died as God, and having been buried, rose as Man.

    Man* is the Manifestation of Godness.

    Christians in particular, and Humankind in general, have not yet come to terms with the death of God and have been unable, reluctant or unwilling to accept their inheritance and its inherent awesome responsibility towards one another, all life forms, the planetary environment, and ultimately the entire universe. The stone was never replaced across the tomb. They await the return of God as a god. They have missed the meaning of the story.

    The present chaotic social, economic, political and environmental state of our world demands that we grow up, re-seal God’s tomb, accept our inheritance, shoulder its awesome responsibilities and act appropriately.

    (* Man implies WoMan and HuMan collectively)

    Dennis Golden 27 October 2015

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