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’
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)
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.
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.