I’m still processing information and insights from last month’s Holy Ghosts event in Belfast. Hosted by Peter Rollins, Holy Ghosts was described as “a carefully curated festival of ideas,” and featured lectures and discussions as well as music, a viewing of Phil Harrison’s The Good Man, and the now infamous whiskey tasting.
I was fortunate enough to be asked to speak at the event on “Questions that Haunt Emerging Christianity.” In this talk, I drew on my new book, co-authored with Gerardo Marti and published this month, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (Oxford University Press).
In the first part of the presentation I focused on descriptions and definitions of the Emerging Church Movement (ECM). In the second part, I looked in more detail at the “transformance art” of the Belfast-based Ikon collective and Rollins’ own writings. After that, Pete and I fielded questions from the audience, in an engaging conversation that could have gone on much longer.
Today I want to deal with descriptions and definitions of the ECM; I will come to Rollins and Ikon in a later post.
Describing and Defining the ECM
The ECM is exceptionally difficult to define, especially for sociologists like Gerardo and me who want to take people’s identities and presentations of themselves seriously – because most people in the ECM resist definition. Some cringe when they hear the term, or haven’t heard of it, or prefer to talk about the movement as an ongoing “conversation.”
That means that it is sometimes easier to describe the ECM than to define it. One way I like to describe the ECM is by naming the types of places or groups where we found those we call Emerging Christians. These include pub churches, online networks, neo-monastic communities, arts collectives, and dedicated conferences or events – like Greenbelt, Subverting the Norm, or Holy Ghosts. I also think it’s important to emphasize that many (though not all) Emerging Christians come from Protestant evangelical traditions, and therefore the ECM is often talked about in opposition to evangelicalism.
In The Deconstructed Church, Gerardo and I put some analytical structure on descriptions like this by conceptualising the ECM in three ways:
As anti-institutional religion: Emerging Christians are dissatisfied with existing Christian institutions. Many think that institutions damage Christianity, and have adopted strategies to avoid their own “institutionalization,” such as refusing to employ paid clergy, placing time limits on the life of their community (such as Ikon New York City’s one-year limit), striving for a “leaderless” community, and so on.
As case of collective religious institutional entrepreneurship: Even if we think that Emerging Christians are anti-institutional, we also see Emerging Christians as engaging in “collective institutional entrepreneurship.” Collective institutional entrepreneurship is a term used in the sociology of organizations to explain how change takes place within organizations. It focuses on processes of internal critique and the revising and re-mixing of core values and practices. Of course, conventional collective institutional entrepreneurs eventually want to “institutionalize” their changes – but we expect that Emerging Christians would resist this.
As a distinct religious orientation that encourages individual autonomy and deep commitments to relationships with others. This religious orientation also includes common beliefs (around the nature of truth, doubt, and the nature of God), and practices (innovations in preaching, worship, Eucharist, leadership, etc). These characteristics make it stand out among modern Christian traditions and identifications as appealing to a “spiritual, but not institutionally religious” self. We prefer the term orientation to the more commonly used identity, because we think orientation more accurately captures the fluid, dynamic character of those involved in the ECM.
In terms of common beliefs, I also named some “emerging points of consensus,” in the ECM conversation, which included:
- The substitutionary theory of the atonement is wrong. Emerging Christians prefer theories of the atonement like Girard’s scapegoating; or focus on Christ’s identification with human suffering.
- Truth is not objective and verifiable, it is embodied in the way you live your life.
- It is healthy to doubt.
- Emerging Christians are Trinitarian, and de-emphasize the judgmental ‘Father’ image of God.
In the time for conversation after the presentation, several in the audience said that they found it difficult to identify themselves as Emerging Christians, if an Emerging Christian included all that I had described. At the same time, they could see themselves in some of the descriptions. One man remarked that he found the idea of a religious “orientation” especially helpful. Of course, this almost perfectly illustrated our point about the way “Emerging Christians” resist definition.
At the same time, people were curious to know if the communities we studied had vitality – would they last?
This type of question is a challenging one for sociologists of religion. We are accustomed to evaluating the durability of religious institutions in terms of church attendance or conformity to core beliefs.
But Emerging Christians do not define durability, vitality, or “success” in terms of church attendance or conformity to core beliefs. Rather, vitality may mean the death of their existing community after a certain period of time, and developing a flexibility of mind and spirit that questions the very validity of core beliefs. Pete talked about deliberately short-term “pop-up churches” as an expression of a vital form of Christianity.
In other words, the way many Emerging Christians think about religious vitality is how conventional sociologists of religion would define religious decline.
There was some laughter and nods of agreement as I tried to explain this. I added that Gerardo and I did not see the religious orientation we describe in The Deconstructed Church disappearing any time soon. Our reading of the situation is that it is an orientation well-suited for our era, and it is manifesting both inside and outside of traditional Christian denominations in the West.