I recently spoke with David Capener for the Freestyle Christianity Podcast about the book I co-authored with Gerardo Marti, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (Oxford, 2014).
Some of the areas we discussed are expressed in the following extracts/paraphrased quotations:
I write as an academic sociologist of religion, but I have some shared sympathies with Emerging Christians. One is frustration with institutional churches. In the Northern Ireland context that frustration can be due to a lack of prophetic witness during the Troubles. In the US, it can be to do with the wedding of evangelicalism with Christian Right in an uncritical way, or the consumerization of Christianity in the mega-church.
Another sympathy I have is with Emerging Christians’ hope that their faith makes a difference in the real world. We have a chapter in the book called ‘Following Jesus in the Real World.’
I am someone who also struggles to see this happening, but has a sense this should happen. I identify with Emerging Christians’ earnestness to make a difference and frustration that this isn’t always possible.
The development of the Emerging Church has been related to both macro and micro level processes. At a macro level, in the West, the last generation has seen a crumbling of trust in all sorts of institutions, and growing cynicism. Churches are included in that wider distrust of institutions. We have also seen the rise of the network society, where some forms of power and authority are dispersed moreso in networks than hierarchical structures, in all sorts of spheres of life. Religious institutions are part of this wider context – so it’s not surprising people question ways religious institutions work and try to democratize them, to create anti-institutional institutions.
In the book, at the micro level we discuss the history of movement in North America and the UK – which featured increasing questioning of evangelicalism.
Was there a philosophical shift at the same time?
That’s a chicken and egg type question – I can’t say Continental Philosophy drove the development of the Emerging Church. It’s a dialectical process, involving the filtering down of philosophy and development of practices at grassroots.
Phyllis Tickle makes really big claims about the Emerging Church. I think it’s probably too ambitious to make those claims, certainly as an academic sociologist. … The language she uses, she speaks of the Great Reformation and our era as the Great Emergence. She puts them on par – two hinges of history that happen every 500 years. … I’m not misreading her – to her, Brian McLaren is Martin Luther, she actually does draw that parallel. … If at the same time she turns out to be right, she’ll be a prophet and a genius. …
While Phyllis Tickle claims such massive significance, a lot of academic sociologists would have seen the Emerging Church as hardly significant at all. Gerardo and I address the question whether the Emerging Church even matters.
To that end, we talk about Emerging Christianity as being a religious orientation rather than a religious identity. Something about that orientation resonates with late modernity or the moment that we are at. As an orientation it strikes a balance by encouraging individual spiritual autonomy but at the same time encourages people to be in deep relationships with other people. … This makes it stand out amongst Christian traditions because it appeals to the ‘spiritual but not religious self.’ This orientation can be expressed in emerging collectives and institutional churches. Its significance comes in providing people with an orientation that allows them to be quite individualistic … yet at the same time grounded in relationships with other people as well.
Is the Emerging Church Reactionary?
We have a chapter in the book on de-conversion stories. De-conversion stories are mentioned in some of the other academic work. It is a process of critiquing and leaving evangelicalism. … Some people see this as a stage in a process and you can move on from the reaction.
From a sociological perspective, if you are interested in change, you can go outside institutions; But you will be more effective if you maintain some contact with the institutions – rather than being reactionary and cutting yourself off.
Does Emerging Church just become another institution?
There is a danger of this. Sociologists describe this as the iron law of institutions – people end up institutionalizing their reforms. In the book, we describe Emerging Christians as institutional entrepreneurs. … These are the people who come from within institutions … and use key resources from the institutions to convince at least some people that changes should take place. … Yet at the same time, some are very conscious that they could be doing the very thing that they don’t want to do. … They have awareness of these sociological processes and of deconstructive philosophy – they know that what they are doingmay be an ironic process. … People try to build in elements that keep emerging churches from becoming institutionalized. But as a sociologist, there are reasons why we have institutions – if they are run well they can make our lives easier. …
Do Emerging Churches encourage us to do just a few good deeds and then get on with our lives?
That reminds me of what I’ve heard Pete Rollins talk about before – be careful you are not becoming the safety valve that allows people to vent their frustrations … without doing anything at all to change the church or the social systems. … The Emerging Church is in danger of that, just like any other institution. But at least there is a self-awareness that this is a sociological phenomenon, that there is a danger of being trapped in structures without changing them. … Of course, it’s really hard to change social structures … it requires concerted action. This reminds me a blog post, someone critiquing Kester Brewin, and they said all Brewin’s ‘temporary autonomous zones’ have accomplished nothing that you could have accomplished with conventional political engagement. … This raises the question: would you be better to actually engage with politics?
Is there a future for the Emerging Church?
As a sociologist, there is now a category of the Emerging Church or Emerging Christianity. It has been defined. … The people we define as Emerging hate being defined! As sociologists we do violence by defining a group that doesn’t want to be defined. … But there it is. I don’t see the significance of Emerging Christianity in pure numbers. … Numbers are relatively small, but it goes back to this religious orientation. … This is important because the orientation isn’t just expressed in communities that are separate from traditional institutional churches. The ways of thinking and being that are promoted by Emerging Christianity is significant in influencing traditional forms of Christianity in all sorts of interesting ways.