James Bielo’s Emerging Evangelicals: Book Review

bieloMost accounts of the emerging church have been written by insiders to the movement like Tony Jones or Doug Pagitt; or by critics such as Kevin DeYoung or D. A. Carson. But in Emerging Evangelicals: Faith, Modernity, and the Desire for Authenticity (New York University Press, 2011), anthropologist James Bielo offers a sharp analysis of the movement that brings with it all the rigour of an academic anthropologist, while also leaving the non-academic (Christian and/or emerging Christian) reader with plenty of points to ponder.

As far as I know, Emerging Evangelicals is the first book-length ethnographic account of the movement. Jones’ self-published PhD offers some ethnographic observations, but it is primarily a theological work. So, Bielo pushes on the boundaries of scholarship first established in Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger’s 2005 book Emerging Churches. He draws on new data to try and gauge the depth and breadth of the movement in the US, concluding that while it is still impossible to put a percentage figure on the number of emerging Christians, various studies (p. 26):

‘… provide some quantitative evidence to support what I am asserting qualitatively in this book – Emerging Evangelicalism is a viable form of identity on the American religious landscape and is present in nearly every region of the United States.’

As an anthropologist, he conducts in-depth field work among a number of emerging communities – what social scientists call ‘multi-sited ethnography.’ And the list of participants in Bielo’s study is impressive: 90 individuals from 40 communities (these communities include links with 11 denominations). Of the 90, 27 were church planters and 24 were house church members. Such figures should assure readers that Bielo’s conclusions have strong empirical grounds and can be taken seriously.

For me, the most striking aspects of the book are Bielo’s focus on ‘authenticity,’ and his reflections on the future of emerging Christianity.

First, I’m intrigued by his conception of authenticity because I know from my own research on Ikon, a Northern Irish-based ‘collective’ that some consider to be part of the Emerging Church Movement, that living authentically is one of their core values.

Like people involved in Ikon, Bielo’s emerging evangelicals have felt unable to live their faith authentically while being part of what might be termed ‘mainstream’ American evangelicalism.

Bielo describes their quest to live authentically in a chapter titled ‘Stories of Deconversion,’ in which he explores how former mainstream evangelicals have become disillusioned with the trappings of American evangelicalism, especially what they consider dehumanising and consumerist-driven suburban megachurches.

As such, Bielo argues that smaller ‘church plants’ and ‘house churches’ – often intentionally located in struggling urban inner cities – are emerging evangelicals’ response to the shiny, happy megachurches of the suburbs.

(In a similar way, I think Ikon’s quest for authenticity has been linked with dissatisfaction at Northern Irish (Protestant) churches links with political unionism and perceived lack of response to the Troubles).

Much of the rest of the book is devoted to describing how emerging evangelicals strive to live authentically: through creating alternative meeting and worship spaces and in some cases, living as ‘new monastics.’ Bielo provides this list of the consequences of some of their lifestyle choices (p. 109):

  • church communities organised around the sharing of resources (for example, food, money, housing, clothing, and transportation);
  • individuals and communities prioritised becoming debat free;
  • groups ate communally on a daily basis;
  • church members were encouraged to not live on 100 percent of their income;
  • decreasing reliance on “the system”;
  • communities eliminated ownership of a church building, freeing time and resources to devote to other expressions of faith;
  • individuals worked together to eliminate various addictions, from alcohol to shopping;
  • and individuals and small groups regularly went on weekend or weeklong silent prayer retreats.

Bielo also helpfully locates his work in the academic study of authenticity, following Charles Lindholm’s argument that the quest for authenticity is a condition of modernity/late modernity. This  helps us to understand emerging Christianity as a creature of its time.

Second, I’m interested in Bielo’s conclusions on the future of emerging Christianity.

Though he considers it a ‘viable’ religious identity, he also writes (p. 203):

Based on my three years of fieldwork, I do not expect that label to have significant longevity. Many of my consultants expressed little interest, or outright disregard, for the label itself. Whatever its initial intention, my consultants found it increasingly unhelpful as a way to understand themselves and their desires for religious community. They were much more apt to prefer other self-identifiers: Evangelical, new monastic, Christ-follower, or missional Christian.

But if you think this means he thinks the Emerging Church Movement is on its way out, he continues (p. 203):

I wager that the problems Emerging Evangelicals have internalized and introduced into public discourse will powerfully shape American Christian subjectivities and institutions well into the future.

It seems to me he is saying (and I would tend to agree) that even if the Emerging Church Movement disappears, its shadows – for instance its more participative worship events and governance, or its emphasis on ‘authentic’ living in the ‘real world’ – will be able to be discerned among the mainly Protestant (but also, I think Catholic and Orthodox) churches that remain.

But there are two points on which I would quibble with Bielo.

First, I dislike the moniker ‘emerging evangelicals.’

I think I understand why Bielo chose this label – it locates the Emerging Church Movement squarely in its deepest historical roots: modern evangelicalism. The weight of scholarship on the Emerging Church Movement supports this.

But perhaps because of my UK/Irish/European context, I have a greater appreciation for how non-evangelical Christians have been involved in and shaped the movement (see Doug Gay on this).

I also have probably been influenced by my research on Ikon, in which many people were keen to put as much distance as they could between evangelicalism and Ikon. So it makes me twitchy to see the emerging church so inextricably linked to evangelicalism.

Second, I would question the inclusion of some of the communities that Bielo features in his book.

For example, the Acts 29 church planting network is included in the analysis. I think I would identify Acts 29 simply with evangelicalism or neo-Calvinism. Some ‘hip’ neo-Calvinist congregations may superficially look like the emerging church (Jason Wollschleger makes this point in a recent article in the academic journal Review of Religious Research)*, but it’s possible that their theological differences with emerging congregations are too profound for them to be included under the same label. That, of course, can remain a point for further debate.

* Jason Wollschleger, ‘Off the Map? Locating the Emerging Church: A Comparative Case Study of Congregations in the Pacific Northwest,’ Review of Religious Research, 54(1), March 2012, pp.69-91

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