Mark Driscoll preaching on the Ten Commandments at Mars Hill Church

The Deconstruction of the Church

This arti­cle con­sti­tutes the fifth install­ment in a series adapt­ed from the author’s under­grad­u­ate the­sis, An Ancient Future Church?: An Ortho­dox Exam­i­na­tion of the Post-mod­ern Chris­tian­i­ty of the Emer­gent Church Move­ment. Fol­low the link above to start from the begin­ning of the series.

When one sur­veys the vari­ety of ECM (Emerg­ing Church Move­ment) lit­er­a­ture avail­able, a word fre­quent­ly encoun­tered is ‘decon­struc­tion.’ Many with­in the move­ment have adopt­ed this term as a way of describ­ing how they view their pur­pose and role with­in Chris­tian­i­ty. Pre­dom­i­nate­ly root­ed in their reac­tion against the mod­ernism inher­ent in evan­gel­i­cal­ism and main­line Protes­tantism, decon­struc­tion is the movement’s way of sub­vert­ing, for want of a bet­ter term, many of the con­cepts, prac­tices, and even beliefs of con­ven­tion­al Chris­tian­i­ty in order to cre­ate a space to form a new kind of com­mu­ni­ty immersed in emerg­ing thought and practice.

For emergents, ‘church’ is something that needs to be changed, overhauled, and deconstructed.

The end result is to take Chris­tian­i­ty away from insti­tu­tion­al­ism and con­for­mi­ty, into a new age of auton­o­my and plu­ral­ism, with less focus on the orga­ni­za­tion (denom­i­na­tion, parish, etc.) and more on the com­mu­ni­ty, both inten­tion­al and sur­round­ing.  This anti-insti­tu­tion­al­ism is cen­tral to the char­ac­ter of the emerg­ing move­ment and part­ly explains its more antag­o­nis­tic and provoca­tive wing.  For emer­gents, ‘church’ is not sacro­sanct, but is instead some­thing that needs to be changed, over­hauled, and most impor­tant­ly, decon­struct­ed, before it can be recon­struct­ed to func­tion prop­er­ly in con­tem­po­rary society.

As a soci­o­log­i­cal term, ‘decon­struc­tion’ has been described as “a form of micro-pol­i­tics in which actors estab­lish com­pet­i­tive are­nas in response to pres­sures for con­for­mi­ty.” Mar­ti and Ganiel go on to define the focus of this, in the emerg­ing church con­text, as tak­ing place in the per­son­al reli­gious lives of mem­bers of the move­ment, stat­ing that “Emerg­ing Chris­tians cre­ate ongo­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties to push off reli­gious pres­sures to com­ply with stan­dard nar­ra­tives.” This boils from the feel­ing that the ‘pre-pack­aged’ answers to life’s ques­tions found in Protes­tantism are not enough to deal with the com­plex­i­ties of our time, and indeed Chris­tian­i­ty, if they are even cor­rect in the first place.  The Emerg­ing Move­ment seeks to push against this.  The authors continue:

Decon­struc­tion, then, rep­re­sents an oppor­tu­ni­ty for actors to “irri­tate, if not over­throw” an over­ar­ch­ing régime “by point­ing to its con­tin­gent and arbi­trary sta­tus.” In this way, we under­stand that mem­bers of the emerg­ing move­ment active­ly decon­struct con­gre­ga­tion­al life by plac­ing into ques­tion the beliefs and prac­tices that have held sway among con­ven­tion­al Chris­tians. For Emerg­ing Chris­tians, the Chris­t­ian insti­tu­tions they expe­ri­enced had lit­tle “wig­gle-room” for belief and prac­tice. Their entire reli­gious ori­en­ta­tion as an Emerg­ing Chris­t­ian nec­es­sar­i­ly resides in rela­tion to con­ven­tion­al Chris­tian­i­ty. Yet Emerg­ing Chris­tians strive for rene­go­ti­a­tion of Chris­tian­i­ty pre­cise­ly because they want to stay with­in the broad­er tra­di­tion while cre­at­ing more room to nav­i­gate with­in it. Emerg­ing Chris­tians want to cre­ate Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ties that allow for a sus­tain­able reli­gious auton­o­my, one where a broad scope of free­dom in indi­vid­ual belief and con­vic­tion reign.

The desire to ‘rene­go­ti­ate’ doc­trine and prac­tice would quite right­ly cause con­ster­na­tion in any seri­ous reli­gious com­mu­ni­ty. This descrip­tion of the emerg­ing move­ment high­lights why many tra­di­tion­al Protes­tant denom­i­na­tions have trou­ble with the move­ment, with some of them even describ­ing it as a full-blown heresy.  That ECM wants to ‘move with­in’ the broad­er Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion is some­thing that needs greater clar­i­fi­ca­tion. Based on our pre­vi­ous look at the Emer­gent thread and its reluc­tance to adhere to tra­di­tion­al doc­trine, it would seem that this branch of ECM would pre­fer to use the broad­er  tra­di­tion as a frame­work in which to car­ry out its ‘con­ver­sa­tion,’ as opposed to a foun­da­tion on which to build their mission.

As part of their study into church decon­struc­tion, Ganiel and Mar­ti high­light­ed five aspects as par­tic­u­lar­ly notable among the emerg­ing move­ment. These were: anti-insti­tu­tion­al­ism, ecu­menism, youth lead­er­ship, exper­i­men­ta­tion and cre­ativ­i­ty, and ‘neu­tral reli­gious space.’ We will explore these five points in order, using the state­ments of the researchers, to try and more ful­ly under­stand the emerg­ing con­cept of decon­struc­tion, and its effects on con­tem­po­rary Christianity.

“Emerg­ing Chris­tians con­sis­tent­ly char­ac­ter­ize them­selves as anti-insti­tu­tion­al.” Although author Phyl­lis Tick­le made use of the term ‘dein­sti­tu­tion­alised’ to describe the emerg­ing mov­ment, Ganiel and Mar­to believe that anti-insti­tu­tion­al is a stronger, and more accu­rate, term. As a cen­tral and defin­ing fea­ture, this anti-insti­tu­tion­al ten­den­cy is played out in its delib­er­ate and aggres­sive attempts to pre­vent the “soci­o­log­i­cal­ly inevitable process of insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion.” These attempts, accord­ing to the researchers, include but are not lim­it­ed to such prac­tices as lim­it­ing the influ­ence of pro­fes­sion­al cler­gy (if they even have them to begin with), exten­sive use of lay ini­tia­tive with­in the com­mu­ni­ty, com­bined with a lack of account­abil­i­ty towards cler­i­cal lead­er­ship, end­ing or dis­rupt­ing rou­tines and activ­i­ties before they become insti­tu­tion­alised, local­ized inde­pen­dence for com­mu­ni­ties, and an empha­sis on inclu­siv­i­ty instead of reli­gious bound­aries. This list, although not exhaus­tive, reads like a seri­ous attack on the tra­di­tion­al hier­ar­chi­cal struc­ture of Chris­tian­i­ty, with its strong cler­i­cal lead­er­ship in the form of the three­fold min­istry of bish­op, priest, and dea­con, and the main­te­nance of tra­di­tion and rit­u­al as a means of ensur­ing con­ti­nu­ity of faith and prac­tice. As an ide­al, it shares more with the Anabap­tists of the rad­i­cal Ref­or­ma­tion than with more con­ser­v­a­tive, ‘mag­is­te­r­i­al’ Protestantism.

The researchers con­tin­ue: “With­in the emerg­ing move­ment there is a con­sid­er­able open­ness among lead­ers for cre­at­ing small, infor­mal, and non-hier­ar­chi­cal assem­blies that are not con­nect­ed to sanc­tioned the­o­log­i­cal sem­i­nar­ies or staffed denom­i­na­tion­al struc­tures.” Com­mu­ni­ca­tion is main­tained between these groups by means of con­fer­ences and net­works, increas­ing­ly held online via var­i­ous inter­net chan­nels, allow­ing these groups, although remain­ing local­ized and inde­pen­dent, to share ideas and con­ver­sa­tion with a wider (and increas­ing­ly glob­al) com­mu­ni­ty of like-mind­ed emer­gents.  Emer­gents empha­size these ‘rela­tion­ships,’ or ‘net­work alliances,’ while try­ing their hard­est to avoid close con­nec­tions with major denom­i­na­tions or reli­gious insti­tu­tions. This empha­sis on rela­tion­ships has been defend­ed by Tony Jones, using the unlike­li­est of sources. He is quot­ed as ‘tweet­ing’ this on his Twit­ter page: “The Church is not a doc­trine, not a sys­tem, and not an insti­tu­tion, The Church is a liv­ing organ­ism, an organ­ism of truth and love, more pre­cise­ly: truth and love as an organ­ism.” It remains to be seen, how­ev­er, if Jones real­ized that this quote, from Alex­ei Kho­mi­akov (1803–1860), was about the Ortho­dox Church alone, and in no way includ­ed het­ero­dox groups and move­ments like his own. Indeed, one of Khomiakov’s essen­tial works is titled The Church is One and stress­es the unique­ness of the Ortho­dox Church as the ‘One Holy.’ Khomiakov’s view on the Church is con­cise and unambiguous:

By the will of God the Holy Church, after the falling away of many schisms, and of the Roman Patri­ar­chate, was pre­served in the Greek Dio­ce­ses and Patri­ar­chates, and only those com­mu­ni­ties can acknowl­edge one anoth­er as ful­ly Chris­t­ian which pre­serve their uni­ty with the East­ern Patri­ar­chates, or enter into this unity.

“Emerg­ing Chris­tians’ approach to issues rang­ing from sal­va­tion, sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion, and escha­tol­ogy – espe­cial­ly along­side a great con­cern for social jus­tice – encour­ages a form of ecu­menism that tran­scends many the­o­log­i­cal and eccle­sial bound­aries.” Many of these approach­es are in reac­tion to the per­ceived rigid­ness and aggres­sive­ness of main­stream and evan­gel­i­cal Protes­tantism, as we have men­tioned above.  Emer­gents have attempt­ed to blur the bound­aries of the­o­log­i­cal and eth­i­cal view­points, again in order to fos­ter ‘con­ver­sa­tion,’ par­tic­u­lar­ly in the realm of social jus­tice, such as LGBTQ issues, where they have striv­en to remain, to a large extent, inclu­sive as pos­si­ble. Many of the social ini­tia­tives are cross-denom­i­na­tion­al, draw­ing in emer­gents who attend both denom­i­na­tion­al and denom­i­na­tion-less com­mu­ni­ties, and fre­quent­ly even inter­faith. By blur­ring eccle­sial lines, emer­gents feel free to pick and choose what­ev­er litur­gi­cal tra­di­tions they would like to co-opt to their wor­ship ser­vices, “draw[ing] freely from strands of Chris­t­ian tra­di­tions in a shared desire to cre­ate tra­di­tion-rich, yet cul­tur­al­ly rel­e­vant, local church expe­ri­ences… re-cre­at­ing litur­gi­cal for­mats that mix dif­fer­ent types of musi­cal instru­men­ta­tion and new media tech­nol­o­gy.” It is in this sphere, along with the afore­men­tioned engage­ment with the arts, that ECM has stood out most, par­tic­u­lar­ly in its incor­po­ra­tion of club cul­ture and con­tem­po­rary dance and rave music, some­thing which has been strongest in the UK and Euro­pean move­ments, with com­mu­ni­ties such as the Nine O’Clock Ser­vice and the Late Late Ser­vice incor­po­rat­ing both dance music and con­tem­pla­tive litur­gi­cal music into their ser­vices, accom­pa­nied by state-of-the-art graph­ics, media and film clips.

ECM would not be able to maintain its emphasis on deconstruction if it became more institutionalized.

We again turn to ‘con­ver­sa­tion’ in order to fur­ther explain ECM’s desire to blur the­o­log­i­cal and eccle­sial bound­aries. Ganiel and Mar­ti explain: “The empha­sis on con­ver­sa­tion also rein­forces the encour­aged process­es of decon­struct­ing mod­ern Chris­tian­i­ty and decon­struct­ing indi­vid­u­als’ per­son­al reli­gious beliefs and iden­ti­ties.” This is referred to by a very emer­gent term – ‘messi­ness.’ This encour­aged doc­tri­nal and struc­tur­al chaos ensures that their desire to remain dif­fer­ent and apart from tra­di­tion­al Protes­tantism is ensured. “ECM would not be able to main­tain its empha­sis on decon­struc­tion if it became more “insti­tu­tion­al­ized, because the very process of insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion would by def­i­n­i­tion mean that more rigid bound­aries must be drawn.”

“Emerg­ing Chris­tians active­ly seek to avoid entrenched pow­er struc­tures by bring­ing young adults into lead­er­ship and deci­sion-mak­ing in their local church con­text.” Out­side of ECM, it is assumed that being an emer­gent means being under thir­ty years old, or there­abouts, such is the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of emerg­ing Chris­tians with mil­len­ni­al cul­ture. Although the truth is that the age range is much broad­er than imag­ined, how­ev­er young adults do con­sti­tute the major­i­ty of emer­gents. With this being the case, younger peo­ple are encour­aged, or even expect­ed, to assume lead­er­ship roles, or at least posi­tions of respon­si­bil­i­ty with­in the com­mu­ni­ty, and their input to the ‘con­ver­sa­tion’ is appre­ci­at­ed. The intent of this is to main­tain ECM’s ‘shift’ from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion, with the younger gen­er­a­tions steer­ing the com­mu­ni­ty in the direc­tion of their culture.

Today’s marriage to contemporary culture will become tomorrow’s divorce.

  It is most like­ly that the result of this pol­i­cy will be a lack of con­ti­nu­ity and sta­bil­i­ty, espe­cial­ly with the increas­ing pace of cul­tur­al par­a­digm shifts we expe­ri­ence in the West. With no ‘old guard’ of elders to ensure that some sem­blance of tra­di­tion is main­tained, today’s mar­riage to con­tem­po­rary cul­ture will become tomorrow’s divorce. Undoubt­ed­ly, there will come a time when the old­er emer­gents, despite their lib­er­al and inclu­sive sen­si­bil­i­ties, will find them­selves alien­at­ed from the com­mu­ni­ties and move­ments they helped estab­lish and grow.

Many Emerging Christians lament that their previous, usually evangelical, traditions neglected artistic expression

“Exper­i­men­ta­tion and cre­ativ­i­ty are core dis­po­si­tions among Emerg­ing Chris­tians.” As has been explored in our ear­li­er eval­u­a­tion of their involve­ment in the arts, expres­sions of cre­ativ­i­ty in both con­gre­ga­tion­al prac­tices, such as wor­ship and litur­gy, and in the­ol­o­gy are val­ued in the move­ment.  Ganiel and Mar­ti source this (again) in reac­tion against staid tra­di­tion­al Protes­tantism: “Many Emerg­ing Chris­tians lament that their pre­vi­ous, usu­al­ly evan­gel­i­cal, tra­di­tions neglect­ed artis­tic expres­sion. They now endeav­or to use the arts to facil­i­tate indi­vid­ual spir­i­tu­al expres­sion.” This is not lim­it­ed to mod­ern (or post-mod­ern) arts, although they did pio­neer the use of con­tem­po­rary graph­ic and video media in their ser­vices, as ancient sacred arts are often incor­po­rat­ed into their wor­ship, includ­ing icons, litur­gi­cal chant, incense and oth­er tra­di­tion­al rit­u­als, as well as less com­mon but equal­ly ancient prac­tices such as prayer labyrinths. This is proved by the mas­sive pop­u­lar­i­ty of Taize-style chant and prayer ser­vices in emerg­ing com­mu­ni­ties. Although the emerg­ing move­ment  com­man­deers litur­gi­cal prac­tices from a mul­ti­plic­i­ty of tra­di­tions, the rubrics gen­er­al­ly are not: “cre­ative approach­es to litur­gi­cal process­es are wel­comed.” The approach towards litur­gi­cal cre­ativ­i­ty is both for­mal and infor­mal, and could also involve more play­ful ele­ments. In accor­dance with their inclu­sive­ness, par­tic­i­pa­tion is high­ly val­ued, as well as input from the con­gre­ga­tion itself. It is this incor­po­ra­tion of tra­di­tion­al rites and rit­u­als with mod­ern (and post-mod­ern) ele­ments which has giv­en rise to the ‘Ancient-Future’ moniker put upon them. As Ganiel and Mar­ti point out, “the sheer vari­ety of prac­tices with­in emerg­ing con­gre­ga­tions illus­trates how Emerg­ing Chris­tians are eager to inno­vate based on old­er reli­gious forms.” Among ‘Catho-mer­gents’ this would prob­a­bly be exem­pli­fied by the ‘Spir­it of Vat­i­can II’ that has gen­er­at­ed a sig­nif­i­cant amount of con­tro­ver­sy in the litur­gi­cal sphere.

In our post-modern cultural context, foundational Christian doctrines and practices are no longer assumed or relevant.

“Emerg­ing Chris­tians nego­ti­ate poten­tial reli­gious polar­iza­tion by striv­ing to cre­ate a new type of “neu­tral reli­gious space” that is church-ish with­out being church‑y.” It is the view of many with­in the emerg­ing move­ment that, in our post-mod­ern cul­tur­al con­text, foun­da­tion­al Chris­t­ian doc­trines and prac­tices are no longer assumed or rel­e­vant. In the spir­it of ‘con­ver­sa­tion,’ they attempt to be less dog­mat­ic and rigid in their mes­sage, and to present a more open-end­ed per­spec­tive on Chris­tian­i­ty. Accord­ing to the research of Ganiel and Mar­ti, emer­gents “see them­selves as res­cu­ing core aspects of Chris­tian­i­ty from the entan­gle­ment of moder­ni­ty, bureau­cra­cy, and right-wing pol­i­tics. Emerg­ing Chris­tians are also res­cu­ing their own selves from the shal­low­ness, hypocrisy, and rigid­i­ty of their reli­gious past.” A pat­tern has been firm­ly set, and the emerg­ing move­ment con­tin­ues to show that the core of its ideas is reac­tion to tra­di­tion­al Protes­tantism. Emer­gents want to main­tain a sem­blance of reli­gios­i­ty in their com­mu­ni­ties, usu­al­ly litur­gi­cal and co-opt­ed from old­er tra­di­tions, but wish to avoid any sort of appar­ent orga­ni­za­tion­al or bureau­crat­ic rem­nants of insti­tu­tion­al Christianity.

Much of the lan­guage of decon­struc­tion almost makes emer­gents sound like a ‘Protes­tants Anony­mous’ or a reli­gious detox­i­fi­ca­tion pro­gram. So much of their ‘con­ver­sa­tion’ is built around and based upon shed­ding pre­vi­ous beliefs and break­ing old reli­gious habits, while very lit­tle seems to be about what the end result is, oth­er than a fuzzy ‘open­ness’ and ‘inclu­siv­i­ty.’ Ganiel and Mar­ti ded­i­cate a whole chap­ter of their study to inter­views with mem­bers of the move­ment, and it fea­tures phras­es such as ‘recov­er­ing Chris­t­ian’ or ‘decon­vert­ing’ rather fre­quent­ly. The major­i­ty of the accounts describe some kind of dis­il­lu­sion­ment at their con­ser­v­a­tive Protes­tant church, and a move towards a more lib­er­al faith. Worth quot­ing in full is the fol­low­ing pas­sage detail­ing the process of per­son­al deconstruction:

Emerg­ing Chris­tians pub­licly dis­cuss this process of destroy­ing and re-build­ing their reli­gious lives; peo­ple like Lee, a young woman who shared at an ECM gath­er­ing how she went through what she called “the demo­li­tion expe­ri­ence.” She said, “My entire life came crash­ing down. I lost every­thing I ever thought I knew.” She had spent the last two years decon­struct­ing and recon­struct­ing a new set of con­vic­tions for her life. Gor­don Lynch details how dif­fi­cult and painful “decon­struc­tion” can be, as peo­ple, like Lee, face loss­es of cer­tain­ty, friend­ships, part­ners, and a sense of com­mu­ni­ty. Lynch likens this to a process of griev­ing and wrote a pas­toral book intend­ed to guide peo­ple through this process.

Expected features of emergent gatherings. Deconstruction is often described as a process of “deconversion"

For Emerg­ing Chris­tians, decon­struct­ing their pre­vi­ous, per­son­al faith is cen­tral to their reli­gious ori­en­ta­tion. “Com­ing out of Chris­tian­i­ty” sto­ries are con­tin­u­al man­i­fes­ta­tions of decon­struc­tion and reg­u­lar, expect­ed fea­tures of emer­gent gath­er­ings. Decon­struc­tion is often described as a process of “decon­ver­sion,” which inverts the con­ven­tion­al (evan­gel­i­cal) empha­sis on con­ver­sion. Decon­ver­sion means jour­ney­ing through an almost-always painful expe­ri­ence of dis­man­tling their pre­vi­ous reli­gious ideas and prac­tices, and los­ing rela­tion­ships with peo­ple in their for­mer church­es. It also means learn­ing to artic­u­late cri­tiques of exist­ing church struc­tures, espe­cial­ly “showy” megachurch­es, “dead” main­line church­es, or “hate­ful” polit­i­cal­ly con­ser­v­a­tive evan­gel­i­cal church­es. Fur­ther­more, decon­ver­sion includes an anx­i­ety to avoid the stig­ma asso­ci­at­ed with con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­tians – often car­i­ca­tured as “right wing fun­da­men­tal­ists” – in the con­tem­po­rary West.

This kind of lan­guage, and the attempts to dis­tance one­self from Chris­tian­i­ty as much as pos­si­ble, have a lot more in com­mon with accounts of Chris­tians becom­ing athe­ist, than Chris­tians tran­si­tion­ing from one sect or denom­i­na­tion to anoth­er. As an exam­ple, many sto­ries of peo­ple who come to Ortho­doxy from Protes­tant or Catholic back­grounds are filled with ref­er­ences to learn­ing more about Chris­tian­i­ty, ful­fill­ing their faith, deep­en­ing their spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, and grat­i­tude towards their for­mer sect for at least set­ting a foun­da­tion for them to build on. Many of the emerg­ing move­ment decon­ver­sion accounts amount to lit­tle more than peo­ple becom­ing dis­il­lu­sioned because the church of their upbring­ing did not con­form to the lib­er­al ideals they picked up at college.

Evangelical Protestants decry the emerging movement as a heresy.

The air of a sub­ver­sive secret soci­ety is also felt in this com­ment from Ganiel and Mar­ti: “And while some Emerg­ing Chris­tians are open and explic­it in their com­mit­ment to the move­ment, we know from our field­work that there are oth­er “secret” adher­ents with lead­er­ship and intern­ship posi­tions in many estab­lished denom­i­na­tions who keep their sym­pa­thies and affil­i­a­tions qui­et so as not to cre­ate a dis­tur­bance.” Although we can con­fi­dent­ly say that the emerg­ing church move­ment is prob­a­bly not a secret sub­ver­sive soci­ety, it shows how rad­i­cal some of the views of its pro­po­nents are, that they must remain secret to avoid a mod­ern day Inqui­si­tion in their home denom­i­na­tions. It is true that many emer­gents men­tion their dis­dain for evan­gel­i­cal ‘heresy-hunters’ in their talks and writ­ings. Per­haps, the lan­guage of ‘decon­struc­tion’ and ‘decon­ver­sion’ is the rea­son why many con­ser­v­a­tive and evan­gel­i­cal Protes­tants decry the emerg­ing move­ment as a heresy, as it can­not be denied that, on the sur­face, they are very the­o­log­i­cal­ly trou­bling con­cepts. In this regard, it does not help ECM that the man seen as their own Mar­tin Luther is Bri­an McLaren, known for his icon­o­clas­tic vision of Chris­tian­i­ty and con­tro­ver­sial the­o­log­i­cal opin­ions. Undoubt­ed­ly, the most influ­en­tial writer in the emerg­ing move­ment, his writ­ings are stat­ed by many emer­gents as being the key to their ‘decon­ver­sion’ and devel­op­ment of a new faith.

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