Michael Moynagh’s Church for Every Context–Book Review: Explaining and Justifying the Emerging Church?

moynaghcoverFor those doubting the significance and viability of the Emerging Church Movement (ECM), the publication of a 500-page book explaining its development, providing theologies to justify it, and offering practical advice on how to nurture ‘new contextual churches’ offers plenty of evidence that it is here to stay.

Michael Moynagh’s Church for Every Context: An Introduction to Theology and Practice (SCM Press, 2012) is an ambitious project. As a Church of England minister who is part of the UK’s national ‘Fresh Expressions’ team, Moynagh is an insider to the ECM. While this means he has a stake in justifying the congregations and various manifestations of ‘church’ that are a part of it, the evidence he offers is compelling.

Of course, I could also be expected to say that, as my co-author Gerardo Marti and I have the manuscript of our book, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity, 99.9% ready to send to the publisher. We wouldn’t have devoted the last three years to writing a book about the ECM if we didn’t see it as a (sociologically) significant development within Christianity!

As a theologian and one who is so deeply involved with Fresh Expressions, Moynagh has very different concerns and audiences than we do as sociologists. So he divides his book into four parts:

  • Part I: Past and Present (which includes an enjoyable chapter by Philip Harrold on “Contextual Churches in History”)
  • Part II: Towards a Theological Rationale
  • Part III: Bringing Contextual Churches to Birth
  • Part IV: Growing to Maturity

I am not a minister, church planter or even heavily involved with what might be considered an emerging congregation, so parts III and IV were of less interest to me personally. But as a sociologist I think that Moynagh’s careful ‘how-to’ reflections and recommendations in these sections are evidence of the increased acceptance and bedding down of the ECM in the UK – something that is sociologically significant in itself. Readers with practical concerns about how emerging congregations ‘work,’ or who want to start one, might find these chapters interesting. (People on the more radical fringes of the ECM might shudder at what could be read, by them, as advice on how to domesticate and control these new forms of church.)

I should also say at this point that Moynagh does not claim to be writing a book about the ECM. Rather, he uses the language of ‘new contextual churches’ – which I don’t think is especially helpful.

I suppose having just written a book that employs the terminology of the ‘Emerging Church Movement’ and ‘Emerging Christianity’ to designate some of the same phenomena Moynagh is describing, I prefer the term emerging and think it is more immediately recognizable to people.

There is confusion and stigma attached to the emerging label and even public leaders who are associated with the movement (i.e. Rob Bell, amongst others) have been reluctant to use it. Others prefer ‘emergent’ or ‘emergence.’ Moynagh does not avoid the term altogether; rather he argues that there are ‘four ecclesial currents’ giving rise to new contextual churches, and the ECM is one of them:

  1. Church planting
  2. The Emerging Church Conversation
  3. Fresh Expressions of Church (the specific UK manifestation found in the Church of England and Methodist churches)
  4. Communities in Mission (which he defines as ‘… groups that seek to combine a rich life in community with mission and do not identify strongly with the other tributaries’, p. xiii)

In addition, Moynagh sees ‘new monasticism’ as inspiring people in all four tributaries.

Moynagh’s identification of these tributaries is instructive in that it captures the diversity within what I would call the ECM. It is perhaps telling that when Moynagh offers his definition of ‘new contextual churches,’ he falls back on a summary developed for Fresh Expressions by the Fresh Expressions team: Christian communities that are missional, contextual, formational, and ecclesial (he explains these terms more fully on p. xiv).

Having said that, Church for Every Context is worth reading to see how Moynagh develops two key ideas about:

1. Why new contextual churches have developed.

Moynagh engages the work of sociologists of religion like Linda Woodhead and Grace Davie and the key theorist of ‘the network society,’ Manuel Castells, to argue that new contextual churches have developed because they are especially well-suited for our era. Individuals’ subjective tendencies to choose their religions or religious practices and to reject traditional institutions are important aspects of our era, and these churches facilitate those tendencies. Individuals’ propensity to link up in networks that are not limited by geographical space (i.e. virtual or online) also helps spread and nurture new contextual churches.

2. Why new contextual churches and ‘inherited church’ should continue to exist side by side in a ‘mixed economy’ of faith.

As a sociologist, I see the ‘mixed economy’ simply as an empirical fact – in the UK, US and other places where there are new contextual churches, there are also older, traditional churches. New contextual churches often critique existing churches, arguing that they should change their ways. The older churches are often wary to engage with what they perceive as these transient, upstart critics. But Moynagh is trying to go beyond empiricism and make a theological case for why a ‘mixed economy’ is better for the kingdom of God. Engaging thinkers from St Paul to Archbishop Rowan Williams to Lesslie Newbigin to Stanley Hauerwas, he draws some compelling insights and pleads for more understanding and mutual support to develop between new contextual churches and inherited forms of church.

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