The Emerging Church: Religion at the Margins by Josh Packard – Book Review, or How to Maintain an Anti-Institutional Religion

packardA new book by Josh Packard, The Emerging Church: Religion at the Margins (First Forum Press, 2012), offers some welcome insights on questions I’ve repeatedly been asked (and have asked myself) about the Emerging Church Movement (ECM), such as:

  • Will the ECM become “institutionalized”?
  • Is the ECM only for a certain “type” of person – usually young, white and highly educated?
  • Is the ECM an insignificant blip on the religious landscape?

Packard, an academic sociologist, bases his conclusions on extended case studies of six emerging congregations in the United States, his reading of key texts by public figures associated with the ECM (p. 181), and the slowly but surely growing body of academic literature on the movement.

He also grounds his work in the sociology of organizations, a vast field of study in which one of the central theories is that all organizations are inexorably moving towards greater institutionalization. Sociologists call this ‘isomorphic’ pressure, which results in a degree of conformity of norms and practices among organizations in a given ‘field,’ such as religion. Organizations which do not conform to this pressure are usually considered outliers, on their way to extinction or irrelevance.

In American religion, Packard argues that megachurches, and to some extent congregations of traditional denominations, are the dominant organizational form in the contemporary religious field.

But Packard sees the ECM as a new type of “resistant organization” (p. 146). He argues that the ECM’s very success in the religious field is linked to its ability to resist institutionalization – to resist becoming like the megachurches and the denominations in the way that they do their business.

Will the ECM become institutionalized?

The fact that the ECM seeks to resist institutionalization is no surprise to anyone even remotely familiar with the movement, but what Packard shows us is just how intentional and effective are the efforts of those in the ECM on this front. He identifies a number of strategies Emerging Christians use to resist institutionalization, including:

  • deliberately limiting the power and influence of professional clergy,
  • expecting laypeople to take initiative within the congregations,
  • limiting flows of information between professional clergy and laypeople to a need to know basis(laypeople are not expected to “report back” on all of their activities),
  • allowing congregational activities to end before they become institutionalized,
  • deliberately disrupting normally taken for granted religious ideas, routines, and rituals,
  • emphasizing inclusivity rather than religious boundaries, and
  • stressing the independence of their local religious community.

Packard concludes that the persistence of the ECM, albeit on the “margins” of the American religious landscape, depends on its continued success in resisting institutionalization. That means that the critics of the ECM who think it is dying because it is not developing more visible, stable, overarching structures are simply missing the point. They are judging the ECM by standards which it is simply not trying to meet.

But Packard acknowledges that it is hard work to maintain a resistant organization. Borrowing from the work of Ann Swidler, he argues that maintaining a resistant organization requires Emerging Christians to lead “permanently unsettled lives” as they keep up a relentless schedule of questioning and conversation about their faith.

Is the ECM only for a certain “type” of person – usually young, white and highly educated?

And Packard acknowledges that the demands of living permanently unsettled lives can lead to the conclusion that only a certain type of person – usually young, white and highly educated – will have the resources of time and energy to devote to being part of an emerging congregation. Emerging congregations also demand that people invest in relationships. And relationships, as we all know, take more investment than simply turning up to a Sunday morning service at a megachurch. Packard writes (p. 159):

… while the barriers to entry in the Emerging Church might be low, the work required to obtain the things typically offered by religious organizations is extremely high. … The only activity that can produce these things is time spent in relationship with other people engaging in the “conversation.”

Packard also claims that the “type” of person in an emerging congregation is also likely to be the type of person who is “anti-institutional” in other parts of their lives, shunning Wal-mart and Starbucks in favour of local boutiques and farmers markets (p. 142).

And while some of the people he interviewed were not entirely young, white and highly educated, he admits this is the ECM’s primary demographic and it is possible that emerging churches may become like “stops” on people’s religious journeys between the institutionalized churches of their childhoods and the institutionalized family-friendly churches of their adulthood (p. 141).

Is the ECM an insignificant blip on the religious landscape?

But does all of this mean that the ECM is an insignificant blip on the religious landscape, catering only to a certain “type” of person and therefore unable to have a wider impact on contemporary Christianity?

As a sociologist, Packard’s answer is that what’s most significant about Emerging Christianity is its ability to “persist indefinitely between institutionalization and extinction” (p. 142). He is interested in what other “marginal” organizations in other “organizational fields” can learn from the anti-institutional strategies of people in the ECM.

Its significance, then, lies in providing a “niche” religious home for a certain “type” of person whose needs are not being met by the “institutional” churches (see p. 135-140).

But while Packard acknowledges that there can be a lot of interaction between “institutional” churches and emerging churches, especially when they are in official or semi-official partnership with each other, to me it seems he does not seriously enough consider the extent that the anti-institutional practices of the ECM may also in fact be altering the practices of institutional churches.

Most people I have talked with from the ECM aren’t content with simply maintaining their own anti-institutional congregation; they also think that the institutional churches should themselves change and they want to be engaged in that conversation with the institutional churches, too.

I think that’s an area that Packard could have explored in more depth, and it’s in the fruits of this institutional/emerging conversation where the greater significance of the ECM may ultimately lie.

I also think that in parts of the book Packard underplays the importance of ideas. Granted he is a sociologist focusing on institutional change, but he may be going slightly too far when he writes (p. 48-49):

“the dissatisfaction that my respondents indicated with the ideologies they encountered in their previous religious homes had nothing to do with the specific theological tenets and everything to do with the way those tenets were presented and arrived upon.”

Perhaps it was reflective of the particular congregations he studied, but in my own research with people in the ECM, the specific theological tenants are themselves more important than he seems to let on – particularly ideas about the nature of God (a punishing father figure versus a gentler but committed to social justice Jesus) and how we define “truth” (as a set of intellectual propositions or facts; or as values that we live out or embody).

Add to that theological disagreements about the substitutionary nature of the atonement or the existence of hell (the controversy around Rob Bell’s Love Wins springs to mind here), and it seems that ideas matter a lot to Emerging Christians.

Down the ages of the church theological ideas have been debated, have changed, and have helped shape the dominant expression of institutional Christianity in various eras. I think it’s possible that the ECM’s theological work, especially when it emphasizes the importance of narrative over proposition or directly challenges particular, historic theologies, could also contribute to significant theological changes in the wider Christian landscape.

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