The Church is Flat, Book Review – Tony Jones on How to Move the Emerging Church from Critique to Practical Change

imageTony Jones’ new book The Church is Flat: The Relational Ecclesiology of the Emerging Church Movement (self-published, 2011) offers a fresh perspective in its passionate plea for people in the emerging church to start thinking about ecclesiology.

In the process, Jones tries to help emerging churches get beyond their critiques (especially of evangelical Protestantism). He hopes this will lead them to a more substantial theological engagement that just might spark some practical changes in the ways we organise our Christian communities.

For those of you wondering, ‘what on earth is ecclesiology?’, the Wikipedia page on the subject offers a fairly concise overview. Its list of ‘issues addressed by ecclesiology’ is especially helpful. Doug Gay’s recent book on the emerging church is also framed in terms of ecclesiology, which he defines as ‘the Church’s practice of critical theological reflection upon its own practice’ (p.xiv).

For his part, Jones argues for greater engagement with ecclesiology for its own sake. But he also sees engaging with ecclesiology as a practical exercise that will enable emerging churches to refine their own practices in line with what some people might call the movement of the Holy Spirit in the post-modern world.

Both Jones and Gay are responding to a wider sense within emerging churches that their developing practices have been worked out by trial and error, or intuition (or, as others might say, listening to the Holy Spirit), rather than by robust theological reflection.

Jones’ book is self-published, and based on his doctoral work at Princeton Theology Seminary. It is left in the format that is common for a doctoral dissertation. Jones explains that he did not revise the dissertation into a format that would be acceptable for a work of popular theology, because this could delay publication for several years and he was keen to get the ideas out there to be debated.

In fact, some of the material in this book/dissertation has already appeared in Jones’ earlier book The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier (Jossey-Bass 2008). Jones observed and interviewed people in eight different emerging congregations and insights from this work are discussed in both books.

Non-academic readers should not be put off by the prospect of reading a doctoral dissertation, because Jones’ writing is still relatively accessible (although the book does include sentences like: ‘what are the merits of transversal rationality for practical theology?’, p. 177 or ‘this research draws on the principles and methods of phenomenological research, which accords with both the Gadamerian hermeneutic and the transversal methodology discussed in chapter one’, p. 51). But it is not essential to read, for example, the methodological sections of the work which would most likely not have made their way into a work of popular theology.

And readers will benefit from the fact that like any good doctoral dissertation, Jones states his argument in a clear and concise nutshell on the very first page:

‘I will argue that the ECM [emerging church movement] is practising a new form of congregationalism – a “relational ecclesiology,” significant because this burgeoning ecclesiology is not only reflective of the social-media-saturated world in which we now live, but also because it resonates strongly with the ecclesiology proposed by Jurgen Moltmann in the late-twentieth century.’

Jones supports this argument with the in-depth research on the eight emerging congregations. He identifies these congregations’ ‘concrete practices’, including descriptions of how these practices differ from the way they are done in other types of churches:

  • Communion
  • Worship
  • Preaching
  • Community (often virtual, online community)

And ‘practices of virtue’ including:

  • Hospitality
  • Theology
  • Creating art
  • Living out the Priesthood of all believers
  • Cultivating sacred spaces

From this, he builds his case for ‘relational ecclesiology,’ writing (p. 121):

“There is a binding characteristic of all the foregoing practices: these are ultimately practices of relationality. That is, each of these practices has grown out of the fact that, in the emerging church movement, relationality is placed at a premium. By “relationality” I mean the experience of lived relations between human beings, and between human beings and God. By arranging the seating in the round and on couches, the leaders of Solomon’s Porch and Journey are placing relationality at a higher premium than capacity, for each church could seat more people if they opted for a more efficient seating structure. By walking up the center aisle and calling on interlocuters by name, Tim Keel is making clear that voices other than his are also important in the sermon. And by committing to practices of hospitality and a generous view towards other theologies, all of these congregations are vaunting inter-human relationships above doctrinal accuracy or denominational identity.”

Jones’ fourth chapter is a fascinating analysis of how Moltmann’s wider body of work resonates with those core practices, including Moltmann’s work on the social trinity, liberation theology, adult baptism, open communion, the relational (rather than missional?) understanding of church, and the sense that we have entered a millennium of the Holy Spirit.

Jones also argues that the emerging church is heavily influenced by the often competing conceptions of church offered by Moltmann and by Stanley Hauerwas, and urges greater debate on the relative merits and insights of these models.

I suspect that as a practitioner and a popular theologian Jones would be most interested in debate around his ‘Pragmatic Suggestions for a Relational Ecclesiology’ (chapter 5), which include greater and more intentional emphasis on (p. 164):

  • Sacralising the world and de-sacralising the church
  • Developing egalitarian and democratic approaches to church governance (a sort of congregational approach, in which links between Christian communities may be developed by social media)
  • Encouraging interreligious and intra-church relations built on the language of trust
  • Promoting dialogical patterns of preaching and teaching

I agree with Jones that these areas require more sustained reflection and think that without this, the emerging church movement will not realise its potential as a prophetic voice to the wider Christian church.

And as we’ve learned from Doug Gay, these are also areas that have been of concern in the wider and especially European ecumenical movement – partners with which emerging Christians have had surprisingly little conversation.

The most serious concern I have with Jones’ book is that it is so American-centric. In particular its historical discussion locates the origins of the ECM exclusively within the American context and does not consider global or even European trends (discussed with great skill in Doug Gay’s book).

Given this American-centric approach, it is perhaps ironic that Jones chooses to analyse the work of Moltmann, the European, in more depth than the work of Hauerwas, the American. On the other hand, the ECM is most numerous in the United States and Jones –as an American Christian – should not be criticised too much for catering to his primary audience.

3 thoughts on “The Church is Flat, Book Review – Tony Jones on How to Move the Emerging Church from Critique to Practical Change”

  1. Hi Tony, re-reading this blog post as I revise the book Gerardo Marti and I are writing (“The Deconstructed Church”)! I see in never responded to you on the blog at the time, but I hope I dropped you an email or something! Appreciate your feedback. 🙂

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