Cary Gibson Guest Post on Emerging Churches – Beyond Generalisations, Retreats and Institutions?

image Today this blog features a guest post from Cary Gibson, whose thought and involvement have helped to shape the Belfast-based Christian collective Ikon. Gibson originally posted a comment in response to my post on ‘What does the Emerging Church Want?: Reflections on a Dark Gospel.’

With her permission, I’ve reproduced that comment here, to draw more attention to the points and questions she raises. She argues that the debate about ‘what the emerging church wants’ is getting bogged down by generalisations, and that it is misleading to frame debate in terms of a ‘retreat’ to the institutional churches.

Gibson also prompts us to ask whether emerging churches harbour what might be thought of as hidden institutions. Hidden institutions is a term I’ve imposed on Gibson’s writing, so I hope it does it justice.

In her comment, Gibson called her thoughts ‘provisional.’ I have done some editing of the comment, usually marked by brackets.

Cary Gibson – Let’s Get Specific

I think the wider conversation of which this is a part, would be greatly enhanced by a greater level of specifics and less generalisation.

I wonder if when we talk about "churches" we’d do well to be clear about what we mean when we use expressions like "institutional churches". Because all churches are not alike.

Further, I fear too much of the conversation is decontextualised and that much of ’emerging’ conversation risks synecdoche. For example, we say "institutional church" when actually we have a specific kind of church in mind. It makes the critique sound universal, when actually it’s probably far more partial.

For example, comments that actually are directed towards the Church of England context are implied to mean all institutional churches. Or Joel Osteen style mega ministries get to be the definer of how we think all churches understand ‘good news’.

So when expressions like ‘institutional church’ are used we’d be well served to ask:

  • What churches specifically are we talking about?
  • What actual denominations and congregations are people returning to?
  • And what characterises those diverse congregations?
  • Or indeed, should we ask people why they are ‘retreating’ rather than assuming they are ‘retreating’?

Are Emergent Christians Retreating?

If "emergent Christians" are retreating – and I’m not entirely convinced of that thesis yet – I’m not sure whether it should be framed in these broad terms or even as a ‘retreat’.

‘Retreat’ suggests or infers that the defining characteristic of emergent Christians is that they left "institutional church”. I’m not sure that actually describes the majority of people defining themselves as emergents or who identify with emerging themes.

Many never left the churches, [because they didn’t belong in the first place]. Thus, the “retreat” is only speaking about a specific group of people. Not all.

‘Retreat’ Unfairly Implies Cowardice

[Further, this debate] doesn’t speak to what motivates people who have left to return to church except to frame them in ‘retreat’ – which implies it’s a lack of bravery/energy/will to keep going outside of an existing structure or community.

Or that they have been co-opted rather than it’s a choice of agency made in positive terms by an individual who desires to make (potentially transformative) contributions in a very specific context and within a personal narrative.

At the end of the day, when ‘returning’ to church one is first and foremost entering a congregation. This is not simply an institution, but a community of people this becomes part of a personal narrative. And that’s the point at which we need context, and specifics. I am increasingly finding that kind of context to be lacking and the conversations or approaches on the table are weaker for that lack.

I think the ‘retreat’ thesis risks denying resistance and agency on behalf of the individuals it purports to be describing, and also makes far too generalised assumptions about the shape or theology of churches.

Hidden Institutions in the Emerging Church?

[We must be careful when we characterise emerging churches as de-institutionalised]. The idea that there is no institutional structure in emerging groups is potentially a red herring. It allows new forms or shapes or leadership styles to avoid the issue and not necessarily self-critique the form they take, simply by virtue of not being ‘institutional’.

If emergent Christians don’t define success by numbers, then the issue of filling stadiums is perhaps a moot point.

Further, that itself is a goal of a very specific kind of Christianity [i.e. a brand of evangelicalism that some emergence Christians define themselves against] and does not speak for all.

One could apply the same critique of [Peter Rollins’] good news/dark gospel.

So we must ask, what exactly do we mean by ‘institutional’?

How we define that often depends on where we’ve come from or where we are for that matter.

I’ve for some time been fairly convinced that definitions of what ’emerging’ means all too often reflect the traditions of those defining it. But that goes unstated and thus unquestioned for its partial perspective.

The ’emerging’ vs. ‘institutional’ just sounds far too neat a distinction to my ears. It’s a very diverse range of ‘particular’ experiences we are talking about.

(Image of an Ikon icon at the Waterfront Hall exhibition, Belfast, 2007. Sourced on Flickr)

2 thoughts on “Cary Gibson Guest Post on Emerging Churches – Beyond Generalisations, Retreats and Institutions?”

  1. hey gladys

    nice edits. my thesis is the post for the same treatment. 😉

    i think the only thing i’d add is that not only can we say that some folks never left the church – because they never belonged, we can also say others never left – because they always belonged.

    and to push it further, i then think we need to be cautious here. if we’re not careful, we risk that latter group ie. those that stayed in institutional churches while defining themselves as or identifying with ’emerging church’, (yet can’t ‘retreat’ back in because they were in the institutional church all along) as not being *truly* emerging.

    in other words, it seems to me like we’re walking a fine line where only those that retreat or remain outside the “institutional church” can be said to have ’emerged’.

    but then we’ve defined emergent on the basis of church attendance (or indeed lack thereof) and not on the basis of theological perspective. the post i was responding to pointed out that the emerging church tends not to use things like church attendance as an automatic indicator of ‘success’. and i think that the ‘retreat’ argument comes close to doing just that. or indeed inferring that retreat is a lack of success.

    and maybe that gets a little closer to the heart of it. seems to me that as we start to dig into this, we end up using the terms of the existing/institutional rather than emerging church to define the emerging church and what characterises it.

    while i’ve not read much of her work i’m aware that Phylis Tickle has written/spoken on the growing number of hyphen-emergents. ie Anglimergent, Presbymergent, and so on. Or indeed Queermergent – which covers pretty much every denomination there is. those hyphens may or may not have significance here. i’m not sure.

    as i say, it’s all provisional in my own mind. but i think the questions raised in the other post are worthy of interrogating because they’re not insignificant questions.


  2. Plenty to think about in the above post. Thank you.

    In my experience, not only are a significant proportion of Emerging Church participants simultaneously attached to one or more established “institutional” congregations, but probably the majority are what we might call “de-churched”: having had some previous experience of “institutional” church in earlier life. The result of this is that the Emerging Church largely views itself through the prism of the “institutional” churches.

    Even when the Emerging Church (which probably shouldn’t be used in the singular) seeks to differentiate itself from “institutional” churches, it is still largely doing so through the language of the Protestant churches it has emerged from. The Emerging Churches are yet to find – or at least promote – a more adequate vocabulary to conduct discourse on itself.

    In addition to this, much of the critique of the Emerging Church is coming from those more attached to the “institutional” church, with its own perspective, which could sometimes be a defensive one.

    I think what we’re seeing is a tension between the “institutional” and Emerging churches, which on the one hand could stifle future discourse as the Emerging Churches evolve, or could be rendered into a healthy, complementary relationship.

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