Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Overview and Review of Evangelicalism and the Emerging Church

As the first academic study of a UK Vineyard congregation, Cory Labanow's Evangelicalism and the Emerging Church focuses on the very interesting case of a Vineyard church with a historical connection to and continuing relationship with the emerging church conversation. In order to be what the author calls 'sociologically rigorous' whilst retaining a 'decisively theological orientation,' an ethnographic methodology is combined with a practical theology to construct a description and interpretation of the congregational situation of this church community. Labanow therefore provides in Chapter 1 useful accounts of the developments of practical theology and congregational studies, and the relationship between theology and the social sciences that should be of interest to anyone exploring lived religiosity, whatever particular community is being explored. His work also closes with some recommendations for such an approach to the study of contemporary religious communities.

The thick description of this Vineyard congregation (Jacobsfield Vineyard, or JV, a pseudonym) is given in Chapter 2, through a narrative of its recent history before Labaow's arrival, his initial entry into the community and the participant-observations through which he familiarised himself with the church (followed later by thematic analysis of interview data). Of central importance to this narrative is the religious journey of JV's pastor, Mark Lawton (also a pseudonym). Labanow provides illustrations of the Sunday service, as well as the church's home groups and local community projects. As a study of an ostensibly evangelical church's relationship with both the evangelical tradition and the emerging church conversation, Labanow employs Alan Jamieson's (2002) A Churchless Faith and Robert Webber's (2002) The Younger Evangelicals as what he calls 'analytical aids' (along with Lawton's own claims regarding community identity, pp.60-65) to map the dual aspect of this congregation's situational landscape.

The changes arising from the deeper engagement of an evangelical congregation with the emerging church observed by Labanow include JV's reading and theological discussion groups, Lawton's teaching techniques, and the increased attention given to practices from historical Christian traditions. A quotation from a JV leader in September 2003 expresses the nature of these changes:

'This is now a key moment in [JV] history because what is happening... is that we are transitioning from just talking about the emergent theological conversation to actually embodying the emergent theological conversation in our everyday faith and life and the forms of our church. And you're going to see a transitioning of forms, an evolving and a deepening' (p.49)

However, Labanow makes interesting observations regarding the maintenance of experimental religious identities. Towards the end of his fieldwork, although an emphasis on an ancient-future orientation (see Webber's Ancient-Future series of titles) was sustained, its value was not made explicit through explanation of the reasons for such an approach to worship. Without a regular promotion of alternative communal identity (as a "church for people who wouldn't normally go to church"), Labanow believes a reversion back to the evangelical forms and styles of worship most familiar to the congregation occurred. This period provides the lesson that 'without a continual emphasis on cultivating a new identity, people will tend to retreat into that pattern of being which they know best, and in a church of people reared in evangelical churches, that will likely be in the direction of an evangelical brand of faith' (p.52).

This example hints at Labanow's observation that congregational attitudes were often dissimilar from Lawton's claims regarding community identity, especially in relation to their relationship with the emerging church conversation - a difference that Labanow explains with recourse to Lawton's privileged access to formal training both within the church structures and within academic institutions (p.73). In this respect, therefore, no clear congregational consensus arose regarding JV's relationship to the emerging church. Labanow's data does suggest, however, that an understanding of JV's relationship to the evangelical tradition is more commonly held. He identifies it as one of 'unease,' and characterises it as a process of sifting and discerning (not only with regards evangelicalism but also secular popular culture). As a result, JV can be neither wholly identified with nor wholly differentiated from evangelical/pentecostal/charismatic, or EPC, churches.

Particularly interesting , and worth mentioning in brief, are the questions raised about Lawton's leadership role, the structures of authority in place at JV, and the particular events or crises in the history of these organisational patterns. On this theme, Labanow's research suggests that:

  1. 'Lawton uses power more responsibly than many other leaders whom the interviewees' (sic) encounter in other circles'
  2. 'JVers are not very democratic due to the large amout of power Lawton holds' and
  3. 'JVers are relieved that the elders and trustees are in place to (theoretically) balance his power if he tried to use it improperly' (p.80)
In order to make sense of the themes arising from his fieldwork, Labanow's approach to the exploration of this congregation also involved the identification of what he calls its 'central theological question.' Throughout the period of investigation, the theme of relevance was particularly observable. The central issue, for Labanow (though obviously in conversation with his data and the issues identified by participants as central), was the 'dual emergence' of this congregation, dissatisfied with elements of both evangelical Christianity and post-Christian culture and hopeful of the discovery of new ways of being and doing church.

However, an especially interesting but odd disparity is noted between this desire (expressed in interviews and by Lawton's claims regarding congregational identity) to address both of these sources of discontent and the congregational practices recorded by Labanow in his participant-observations. A disjunct between discourse and practice was noted:

'Though much of JV's teaching was spawned from, or at least evolving into, an "emerging church" school of thought (if such a thing can be said to exist), their practice of worship was still thoroughly Vineyard; while experimentation with different sounds and interludes of Scripture readings and/or prayers may have been occurring on an occasional basis, even that genre of experimentation itself is very characteristic of the Vineyard movement and EPC churches in general' (p.97)

From this observation, Labanow suggests that

'until JV generate an ethic by which to reconstruct their worship on a basis of renewed identity (pertaining to who they are and what worship is) instead of changing aesthetics, their transition may be incomplete and counterproductive' (p.98)

This broader central question of the relevance of both discourse and practice to a religious context of dual emergence raises wider questions that Labanow's final chapter enumerates as questions of religious parentage, the creation of safe space, resources for Christian growth and maturity, strategies for communicating with conteporary culture, and the reconstruction and future shape of Christianity.

Labanow's Evangelicalism and the Emerging Church is therefore an intriguing study of a UK congregation exploring its self-identity in relation to the evangelical tradition and elements of the emerging church conversation (despite incongruences between the more explicitly emergent discourse of Lawton and the emergent themes only implicit in interview data). It is one of only a few academic explorations of congregations connected to the emerging church, but its ethnographic approach to data collection is a very welcome departure from an over-reliance on either published emerging church literature or interviews with ec authors/leaders/bloggers. It refreshingly engages the voices and activities of "ordinary" people. The disparities between Lawton's views and the perspectives of members of the congregation highlight the problems inherent in other studies; namely, the methodological reductionism that assumes the views of emerging church authors/leaders/bloggers are held in an unmodified form by other participants. Labanow's approach means he does not fall into this trap. Consequently, this book holds value not only in its presentation and thematic analysis of a particular evangelical/emerging congregation but in its highly advantageous methodology for the study of such religiosity in general.

Evangelicalism and the Emerging Church is published in Ashgate's Explorations in Practical, Pastoral and Empirical Theology series at the end of this month (August 28 2009). The hardback copy is expensive (£50 rrp) so awaiting the paperback edition (as I have with other texts in this useful series) might be more manageable. But it is well worth the price for anyone interested in contemporary Christianity. Buy it here at or here from Ashgate.

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