Sunday, June 04, 2017

The emerging church in transatlantic perspective

Just out in the latest edition of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (2017: 1-11) is a really interesting article on the Emerging Church by Matthew Guest, of Durham University. Matthew did his PhD in the area and we shared a joint article in 2006. (“The Post-Evangelical Emerging Church: Innovations in New Zealand and the UK,” International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 6 (1), 2006, 49-64).

In The emerging church in transatlantic perspective, Guest offers a first attempt at sketching the “global dimensions” of the Emerging Church movement (1). He notes that such cross-national analysis remains “substantially under-researched.” (The exception is Marti and Ganiel, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (2014), which examines only the relationship between US and Ireland). As a result, appreciation of the sociological influences of global flows of economic and cultural capital are underdeveloped.

Guest notes the now extensive number of existing sociological studies that have adopted a case study approach to the ECM at a local, regional or national level. These now provides a “wealth of empirical data” from which to theorise the movement as a global phenomena (2).

“A global perspective calls for a theorisation of its contours that takes seriously the particular cultural and historical experiences that framed its emergence” (2).

The ECM is defined as prioritising a conversation over a body of doctrine, valuing an authenticity in dialogue with culture, offering a creative ritual expression that tends toward pick and mix and fostering inclusive spaces for those damaged by mainstream Christianity (2). Guest points to a “single master narrative” (1), that of postmodernity, used as a trope to emphasize the novelty of the movement (1). This trope is enhanced by the “expert theorisers” whose “intellectual capacities in critiquing church and culture contribute to the illusion that they … have effectively disentangled themselves from the institutional and cultural constraints that limit the efforts of the mainstream.” (2, citing The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity ( 2014:81)). The ECM becomes an extension of the entreprenurial tendencies of contemporary evangelicalism, made distinct by this positioning in relation to gospel and culture. Having established this commonality of “entrepreneurial evangelicalism” (3), Guest however argues for national differences, shaped by different denominational structures and local histories.

First, he notes how ECM in Australasia emerged from Baptistic-type churches. This was made possible by their focus on the local expression of church, which gave space for innovation to happen and made sense as an early rapid response to cultural change. Many of these early adopters were central city churches and/or nourished by artistic communities. He contrasts this with the UK, in which many early adopters groups were attached to Anglican churches.

Second, he reflects on the gradual mainstreaming of the ECM. This is sociological, as groups have aged, settled into careers and had families. This has opened up a generational gap. Recent research among university students in the UK suggests that ECM’s priority on authenticity is not shared by today’s Christian young adults (5). “Faced with the much more visible, vibrant, and populous evangelical churches that affirm a clear, accessible and explicit theological essentialism, few young people are attracted by the subdued, small-scale, meditative tone of ECM worship.” (5)

Third, he examines national differences, in particular in the US. He notes the strong reaction against the religious right and megachurches in the US. This produces a stronger sense of identity among ECM adherents. Hence “the ECM localizes most coherently and most enduringly within contexts in which a dogmatic evangelical Protestantism is also a culturally salient presence” (7). This is enhanced by the strong voluntarist culture of the US.

In conclusion, Guest notes the global flows of entrepreneurial capitalism and conversionist Protestantism. ECM benefits from these cultural resources, including individual self-expression and the forming voluntary associations, magnified by the high levels of IT competence, artistic creativity and theological literacy. At the same time, Guest argues that clusters of cultural affinity as essential vehicles for the transmission of identity (8). He suggests a cluster of affinity between US and Northern Ireland, based on being a counter-sectarian response to dogmatic evangelical Protestantism. This is not shared in UK and Australasia, which share a more heavily secularised contexts.

I have a number of points of nuance and critique, but that is for another post. What is interesting is that the emerging church continues to enjoy academic research.

Posted by steve at 10:56 PM | Comments (0)

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