It’s hard to believe that nearly a month has passed since I arrived as a visiting researcher at the Southwest Institute on Religion and Civil Society at the University of New Mexico (UNM). During that time, my main task has been working on a book, co-authored with Gerardo Marti, The Deconstructed Church: The Religious Identity and Negotiated Practices of Emerging Christianity (forthcoming, Oxford University Press). This Friday, 8 February, 3.00-4.30 pm, in the Sociology Commons Room (SSCI 1061), I’ll share some of our work-in-progress in a seminar for UNM’s Sociology and Religious Studies Departments.
Much of what has been written previously about the Emerging Church Movement (ECM) has been by the practitioners and theologians involved in the movement, such as Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, or Peter Rollins.
There is also a steady literature on the ECM by academic theologians or missiologists, such as Doug Gay, Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger, and Michael Moynagh. I’ve reviewed the work of many of these thinkers on this blog.
In some ways the sociological/anthropological literature is just starting to catch up, through books by James Bielo and Josh Packard on the ECM in the USA, and James Wellman’s book on Rob Bell (though, as Wellman notes, Bell is reluctant to identify himself too strongly with the ECM – a trait that is surprisingly common across the movement). We see The Deconstructed Church as building on these previous works and – hopefully! – adding some new insights.
All of the authors named above have identified the ECM as in part a response to what sociologists call the crisis of modernity.
We agree with this, noting that part of the crisis of modernity is that many people no longer trust ‘institutions’ across all spheres of life. The ECM responds to the lack of trust in institutions by deliberately creating ‘anti-institutional’ structural forms, including pub churches, experimental congregations, and neo-monastic communities.
Other aspects of the crisis of modernity are increased pluralism, and the hyper-individualization of the self. The ECM responds to these trends by creating religious communities with loose boundaries of belonging and belief (so that pluralism is not just tolerated, but celebrated as a positive religious value); while at the same time encouraging people to follow individualized religious paths. In this Emerging Christians resemble Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead’s ‘spiritual, but not religious’ selves. (Heelas and Woodhead’s seminal The Spiritual Revolution (Blackwell, 2005) is well worth a read.)
But they differ by emphasizing the cultivation of tight-knit communities, in which the development of the individual religious self is linked to ‘relationships’ and participating in an on-going ‘conversation’ about faith. Ultimately, we argue that the ECM represents a religious critique and alternative to modernity not only by creating a ‘niche’ for ‘post-modern’ individuals to express their religiosity, but also by contributing to structural change in some ‘modern’ religious institutions, including traditional Western denominations.
Of course, there are still a lot of questions left unanswered – some of which I hope to explore at the seminar, including:
- Is the ECM a reform movement, like Methodism in its early days, or is it a precursor to more significant change in the way Christianity is ‘done’ in the West?
- Is “Emerging” a viable religious identity, akin to “Evangelical,” “Catholic,” or any other widely recognized religious identity?
- Is Emerging Christianity appropriate only for a certain type of person (i.e. one who is anti-institutional in other aspects of their lives)/demographic (i.e. young, highly educated, and usually white)?
- To what extent is the ECM influencing established religious institutions?
- Is the “Social justice” turn that is so apparent within the ECM (and also, increasingly, within “mainstream” evangelicalism) reinforced by new theologies or ecclesiologies that truly set the ECM apart from other, more traditional expressions of Christianity?
Sociologists, of course, cannot predict the future – though we can identify trends or paths that may make some outcomes more likely than others. Religious practitioners, clergy, theologians, and of course the “people in the pews” have their own insights on these questions – so please do add your comments to this blog if there’s anything you would like to share.
(Image: People from the Ikon collective, from Culture Night in Belfast 2011. Banner reads: “What must WE do to be Saved?”, an invitation for others to “evangelize” Ikon)