Friday, September 26, 2008

"Emerging Church" as a Barrier to Participation in (Resistant) Social Movement?

Fellow PhD student Tony Jones has blogged about the emerging church in relation to new social movement theories, which connects with some of the things I've been thinking about recently. (There's a bit of preamble to wade through before I get to the good stuff).

Having done a first draft of my Introduction (should be 6,000 words - it's about 9,000), I'm onto Chapter One, "Emergence," which asks 'what is the emerging church?' Forget that a whole thesis could be done on that subject, and remember that I'm just trying to introduce my readers to the milieu so they know the context in which I'm asking my research questions. I do this by arguing against the tendency to define such a thing as an "emerging church" and for the usefulness of the concept of a "milieu." This enables one to talk about the diversity within such a milieu without suggesting that a particular expression (ecclesiologically, philosophically, theologically, politically, aesthetically, structurally) is more prevalent or more preferable or more "emerging" than others.

So, I then move on to argue that, despite the observable diversity, there are certain ideological commitments discernable within this milieu. These ideological commitments are not all made by every individual, community, organization or network involved in the milieu. That said, commitment to one or more of these ideologies allows them to be positioned within the milieu, remembering that one can be part of the emerging church milieu and part of any number of other Christian and non-Christian-specific milieux simultaneously and that one is not judged to be more "emerging" than others if you exhibit more ideological commitments than them - you are just more deeply involved in the emerging church milieu (in other words, a value judgement is - hopefully - not implied).

I'm going to chicken-out from posting about these ideological commitments in detail until I've at least written a first draft of Chapter One so that I've got them a bit more fleshed out, but here they are, in brief:
  • "Glocal" contextualization in contemporary culture

  • Rediscovery of "ancient-future" traditions

  • Organization experimentation

  • Engagement with postmodern theory

  • Radicalization of Christian theology

  • Social and political activism
As you can see, these ideological commitments come together to form a very broad picture of the emerging church milieu. This is intentional. Many of the "emerging church typologies" out there (esp. Stezter, Driscoll, Patton, Patrick) require the not unproblematic identification of a community's primary concern (usually supposed to be EITHER theological, methodological OR structural revision). Viewing these ideological commitments as familial resemblances (of which an individual, community, organization or network within the milieu may have one or more) resists such a reductionist task. Further, within each familial resemblance is a lot of room for maneouvere. For example, two communities that both engage win social and political activism may do so in diverse ways; similarly, two networks interested in radical Christian theology may go in diverse directions; individuals participating in the rediscovery of Christian tradition may go apply their findings in diverse manners; and so on.

Anyway, in reading for the subsection of the chapter that explores organizational experimentation, I recently found this PhD dissertation from the States by Josh Packard entitled "Organizational Structure, Religious Belief and Resistance: The Emerging Church," which uses the emerging church as a case study for exploring the ways in which organizations might consciously resist institutionalization. It was fascinating.

Of particular interest to me where his conclusions that an organization seeking to resist institutionalization does not create its own organizational patterns but seeks to allow multiple patterns and to keep their existence visible in order to make these patterns 'subject to constant criticism and interrogation' (p.24). Packard suggests that resistant organizations need to create permanent 'unsettled periods' (Ann Swidler) in which ideologies and their connections to actions are clear and therefore open to be contested.

Robert Wuthnow writes, 'greater self-consciousness about religious symbolism is accompanied by a greater emphasis on personal interpretation and a decline in tacit acceptance of official creeds' (1988:299). Packard writes that 'lowering barriers to participation fosters a high degree of symbolic consciousness which compels people to examine the sets of ideas which support articulated ideologies in the form of statements or rituals' (p.267). He concludes that these processes allows those within resistant organizations to sift out the dominant ideologies which are the forces of institutionalization.

In relation to recent debates concerning the utility of the phrase "emerging church," it made me wonder:
  • Does the phrase and the assumed meaning (crafted mostly by its critics) serve as a barrier to participation?
  • Would the emerging church be better served as a resistant social movement if it dropped the name?


Anonymous said...

'Caputo, think Zizek, ,think deconstruction, a/theism and undecidability’'

It is my impression that many emerging church groupings in the UK are being challenged and persuaded to follow the vision of the above mentioned strand outlined by Katherine Moody in books,conferences and leadership interactions - this could well lead to some groups abandoning participation in the Christian tradition in its broadest sense. This vision is a pitch to the ‘heart and soul’of the loose network of groups in the Emerging church mileaux.
At the same time there is a counter trend from other strands for groups to reorientate round a more defined emphasis on Christian orthodoxy/tradition.
How to manage this converstion/debate/interaction about these rival competing visions will be a real challenge as it is liable to generate many sharp disagreements about both important theological and practical issues affecting the future direction of many groupings
The conversation has already started and led to a straining of relationships at leadership level.
It is my hope for a mature open interaction that values friendship as I suspect passionate emotions will be raised as people care about what is at stake.
I could of course have misread the situation!!!

This was a comment I made on Jasons blog based on recent extensive conversations with P which outlines my limited perceptions of the UK ECM scene..

It has affinities with your post.

Your post was excellent and generated a lot of food for thought I will reflect and get back to you in a few days....

all the best


I try to discuss these things in generalised language without individual/group names out of respect for participants in the ECM scene

Katharine Moody said...

Hi Rodney.

Great thoughts. Do you really see these different directions as 'rival competing visions'? In what ways do you think they are rivals?

I think I'd have to disagree that the a/theistic strand is 'abandoning participation in the Christian tradition.' Don't you see a sense of moving deeper into tradition here too?

Love Katharine x

Anonymous said...

'???is not a church. And it’s not necessarily Christian. It’s certainly influenced by, and perhaps even rooted in, the Christian tradition and the tradition of the Church, but ultimately it’s post-Christian, and this makes it different than much of the emerging church. Not in a better or worse way - it’s just different.'

This comment was made by an emerging church blogger in the USA after a 5 day conference held by 4 members of one of the leading UK groups in the deconstuctionist strand in the UK in the US.
I think it is an accurate reading but a lot depends on how you define the 'Christian tradition'.

As regards the rivals question- Charlie and I have posted 2 new responses on Jasons blog

(I am leaving out references to actual group names as i am discussing these things in general terms)

all the best


Anonymous said...

I should say that I think his comment is a fair reflection of where some in the deconstructionist strand are heading

I should say it is out of respect for actual groups that i am not more specific - as always these are my subjective opinions!!

all the best again


Katharine Moody said...

I read the blog post you are refering to, and would agree. I don't regard that group as an "emerging church" or even as a "church."

I would disagree, however, that it's "post-church" or "post-Christian" because not everyone within it would describe themselves as that. Certainly there are some within it that would, but there are also people that attend events that remain members of other (more mainstream) churches.

Katharine Moody said...

Thanks to you and Charlie for continuing the conversation over at I've responded over there too. Thanks again, Katharine x

Katharine Moody said...

Charlie says that “our problems are interpersonal and not primarily of a philosophical nature” and “as time progresses the original object is no longer important as the new object becomes the ‘defeat’ or ’subjection’ of fellow seekers” which is really interesting. In terms of my thesis I think this would indeed be a very useful way of looking at pro- and anti-emerging church literature, particularly regarding the ways in which each constructs the other as, as he says, “stumbling blocks.”

Anonymous said...

Hello Katherine

Charlie is a friend of mine from Bangor with a similar faith journey with whom I have discussed over cups of coffee emerging church issues/Girard. We recently reconnected after not seeing each other for 15 years! P appreciates Girard but would have some reservations.

btw mama mia is more my type of musical than seven brides for 7 brothers. Good luck in erecting your barn!!


Anonymous said...

Becky garrison quote

' some of the most significant 'emerging church' activity in the states is being carried out by communities who leaders do not publish books or write blogs' - they are 'under the radar' in terms of their media visibility yet active practitioners impacting communities in local contexts

in the context of NI I have encountered groups/networks/communities at times which are not media visible yet very active in community..

Is the emerging milieu to some extent a media creation ?


Katharine Moody said...

I haven't yet read Becky's book but I'd definitely agree that much stuff goes on unnoticed by people who are focusing solely on published works or online happenings. Other than attempting to gather from as many avenues as possible (literature, blogs, web searches, interviews) and then snowball sampling from there to discover new people and communities not already located, its very hard to reach potential participants if they are either hard to reach or reluctant to be reached!

So I would definitely agree that unless you are personally involved in one these communities that are "invisible" to researchers whose starting points are on- and offline media it is very hard to find out about them and get involved. However, I don't think that the difficulties surrouding locating EVERY individual, community, network and organization within the emerging church milieu means that it is just a creation of those that ARE reachable through media.

Sure, it means that there are voices that aren't (yet) being heard, but you've got to start with the VISIBLE milieu even if ultimately your goal is to determine the INVISIBLE elements of that milieu.

So I get what you're saying about how researchers/practitioners/critics' understandings of the "emerging church" are predetermined by the media available to them (which as you and Becky rightly say is produced by a vocal MINORITY) - this is afterall why such a distortion has happened since Carson's 2005 How To Become Conversant... because he did several things in that book which reduced the milieu and therefore provided the evangelical Christian audience with a stereotype.

All I can say is that I've thrown the net as wide as possible - wider than I think a lot of others would, precisely by referring to the "emerging church" as a milieu which contains a lot of diverse individuals, communities, networks and organizations... rather than restrictively trying to define exactly what AN "emerging church" is, which can be incredibly exclusitory (is that a word?)

I love your questions!!! Keep them coming! What does Becky class as 'significant'?