Wednesday, June 10, 2015

the potential of deconstruction: Emerging churches grow people

This is not how you do research! I was at a professional development course on Tuesday, upskilling in the area of writing for publication. The lunch exercise was to find a journal we might be interested in publishing in. The venue, a modern secular University, had few journals in the area of missiology and theology. So I pulled out a journal on sociology of religion. Flipping it open, I found an article researching spiritual growth in the emerging church. This is not how you do research. But it is a great resource.

Sally K. Gallagher and Chelsea Newton, “Defining Spiritual Growth: Congregations, Community, and Connectedness,” Sociology of Religion 2009, 70:3 232-261.

This is a fascinating piece of research. Gallagher and Newton note the claim that religion is good for people. Sociologists like Christian Smith, Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture, (2003) have explored how religion is a spiritual capital. It provides relational networks. It offers meaning through the opportunity to volunteer. It provides frames by which to interpret experiences.

What has not been researched is how the notion of spiritual growth can be good. Nor whether spiritual growth looks different in different types of churches.

Gallagher and Newton researched four congregations in NorthWest Pacific, one of which is an emerging church (the other three are conservative Protestant, mainline Protestant and Eastern Orthodox). Their focus is ordinary people in these congregations, whom they interview in order to understand how they define, articulate and experience spiritual growth. The congregational focus is consistent with the desire to explore the social nature of spiritual growth.

Every congregation shared a similar understanding of spiritual growth as a process. Yet each of the groups expressed ideas around spiritual growth that were consistent with the theological tradition in which they operate. Mainline Presbyterian emphasised tolerance and respect for a diversity of beliefs, conservative Presbyterian focused on bible teaching, participation in church and an identity distinct from the surrounding culture, Eastern Orthodox on practices that connect with ancient traditions in order to love and care for others.

They describe the emerging church as based on “authentic relationship, dialogue, community.” (253) Core messages include an emphasis on deep and authentic relationships and a culturally connected faith that “resonates with a generation that deeply values diversity and authenticity” (257). Growth happens through processes that include worship services that use diverse elements like arts, science, nature, a range of service opportunities and adult education offering theology and film, medieval spirituality, Hebrew and spiritual formation outdoors. “Individuals in this group placed somewhat less emphasis on what happens Sunday morning as a source of spiritual growth than people in other congregations.” (253)

“At the Urban Village emerging church, a consensus around spiritual growth centred on relationships with God, family, and friends within the church and broader community. Authenticity in each of these areas was both a means of spiritual growth and an end in itself. To be mature in this congregation was to cultivate deep and meaningful relationships with trusted others in much the same way as in a personal and authentic relationship with God.” (258)

They note that while the emerging church emphasised “the deconstruction of tradition in order to reclaim a more authentic faith – we heard the echo and rephrasing of historically traditional themes that find expression within well-established Christian traditions.” (260)

In sum, emerging churches are distinctive. The emphasis on authenticity of relationship with people and the surrounding culture produces a distinctive approach to spiritual growth. What is intriguing is that the deconstructive element is actually working to enhance connections, albeit rewired, to different aspects of the Christian tradition. What is also instructive is that the processes of spiritual growth are more de-centred from the Sunday gathering (in contrast to other groups). “One other facet of spiritual growth that was central … was the place of the physical world in facilitating spiritual growth …. part of its broader mission to include teaching and activities that focus both on global as well as local social concerns.” (254)

Posted by steve at 10:34 PM


  1. Interesting stuff, it would/will be interesting to see who cites the paper as their material could also be of interest…

    Comment by Tim Bulkeley — June 11, 2015 @ 7:28 am

  2. Thanks Tim. You mean finding out who else researches like this :). Seriously the data is very similar to mine re Cityside and fits with some other work I’ve been playing with. I felt very blessed to find it


    Comment by Steve — June 11, 2015 @ 7:59 am

  3. These researchers learned a great deal from just one emerging church! I am encouraged by their conclusions as they ring true to me – even if their research method is lacking.

    Comment by Karen — June 11, 2015 @ 9:37 am

  4. thanks Steve, very helpful as usual.

    Comment by Sandy — June 11, 2015 @ 10:40 am

  5. Thanks Karen. It is only one church. But that is the nature of qualitative research, it is the richness of singularity.

    And it chimes perfectly with other data, including from my research. And with your experience.


    Comment by steve — June 11, 2015 @ 11:19 am

  6. Thanks heaps Steve for the concept “richness of singularity”. Helps lots with my involvement/research into the only (?) expression of ’emerging church’ in Adelaide. I’ll reflect on this, and with the group.

    Comment by Bruce Grindlay — June 12, 2015 @ 9:48 am

  7. Thanks Bruce.

    I’m rifting of Van Manen’s, Researching Lived Experience: Human Science for an Action Sensitive Pedagogy. He argues for a “theory of the unique” – with the assumption that “a universal or essence may only be intuited or grasped through a study of the particulars or instances as they are encountered in lived experience.” (pages 7 and 10). It’s an excellent book that I turn to again and again in my research,


    Comment by steve taylor — June 15, 2015 @ 10:36 pm

  8. Steve, sorry I’m just reading this now! could you say more about this in relation to your own work in OZ and in indigenous churches. i.e. ‘What is intriguing is that the deconstructive element is actually working to enhance connections, albeit rewired, to different aspects of the Christian tradition.’


    Comment by Diane Gilliam-Weeks — June 20, 2015 @ 2:29 pm

  9. Diane,

    It’s my longitudinal research on fresh expressions – NZ and UK. Up till now, I’ve been struggling with how to interpret the deconstruction. Is it Fowlers Stages of faith and a move to maturity (which then easily becomes condescending of earlier stages)? Is it peculiar to Evangelicals becoming dechurched? But this data, in which deconstruction is essential to unpacking and repacking, frames it as a way of growing spiritually. So the search (for me) then becomes for Biblical narratives and the Christian tradition that might help frame this.


    Comment by steve — June 20, 2015 @ 10:50 pm

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