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.
Many Emerging Christians lament that their previous, usually evangelical, traditions neglected artistic expression
In our post-modern cultural context, foundational Christian doctrines and practices are no longer assumed or relevant.
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.