An Orthodox Response to the Emerging Church Movement

This arti­cle con­sti­tutes the final 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.

Having con­duct­ed an exten­sive, if not exhaus­tive, review of the Emerg­ing Church Move­ment (ECM) through a vari­ety of pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary sources, and estab­lished what the gen­er­al ethos and thought of the move­ment is, I will now com­pare and con­trast spe­cif­ic aspects of emerg­ing thought and the­ol­o­gy with the teach­ings of the Ortho­dox Church, show­ing where there are encour­ag­ing signs of many emer­gents in their move­ment towards a more Ortho­dox approach to cer­tain issues, while also demon­strat­ing the var­i­ous places where ECM dras­ti­cal­ly con­tra­dicts Ortho­dox dogma.

The Eccle­si­ol­o­gy of the Emerg­ing Church Movement

It has already been men­tioned above that ECM is pri­mar­i­ly an eccle­si­o­log­i­cal move­ment, with the inten­tion of cre­at­ing an entire­ly new eccle­si­ol­o­gy.  Ronald Glea­son even sug­gests that, with­in ECM, there has been a par­a­digm shift “away from sote­ri­ol­o­gy toward eccle­si­ol­o­gy.” The eccle­si­o­log­i­cal vision of ECM has been one that has pro­found­ly influ­enced many of their posi­tions and prac­tices. The afore­men­tioned anti-estab­lish­ment men­tal­i­ty of much of ECM has led to a par­tic­u­lar lean­ing in emerg­ing eccle­si­ol­o­gy towards an anti-hier­ar­chi­cal sys­tem of church gov­er­nance. Not only has church poli­ty been affect­ed, but the whole con­cept of the church com­mu­ni­ty itself has been changed. Accord­ing to Her hus­band plays in a musi­cal group every week asso­ci­at­ed with the church. 

“He says he’s an atheist.” She said, “No one has attempted to talk with him about the state of his soul.” Communion is open, and he participates.

  DeVine, quot­ed above, there is a strong lean­ing towards a ‘belong­ing-before-believ­ing’ approach in ECM, in which those who do not nec­es­sar­i­ly hold the same faith of the com­mu­ni­ty (how­ev­er it is deter­mined) are still con­sid­ered as an inte­gral part of the com­mu­ni­ty nonethe­less. ECM’s focus on ‘con­ver­sa­tion’ and rela­tion­ships no doubt heav­i­ly influ­ences this approach, as peo­ple are encour­aged to dia­logue and work out their faith, instead of being giv­en a creed that they must adhere to in order to be accept­ed into the com­mu­ni­ty. A good exam­ple of this comes from the research of Ganiel and Marti:


Judy’s athe­ist hus­band is also a wel­come mem­ber of the con­gre­ga­tion. “I love it that he’s been embraced as a mem­ber of the com­mu­ni­ty. Accept­ed as who he is. It’s like, ‘We’re going to embrace this man, and it’s up to God what he decides to do with him.’ Every­one seems to be OK with that. It’s so impor­tant to me.” Her hus­band plays in a musi­cal group every week asso­ci­at­ed with the church. “He says he’s an athe­ist.” She said, “No one has attempt­ed to talk with him about the state of his soul.” Com­mu­nion is open, and he par­tic­i­pates. She dis­agreed with the con­ser­v­a­tive stances of oth­er church­es: “’If you’re not saved, don’t come.’ Non­sense! Christ died for everyone.”

Although there is noth­ing inher­ent­ly wrong with wel­com­ing seek­ers to attend long-term, the his­tor­i­cal bench­mark for entrance into Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ty has been, and for the Ortho­dox Church still is, cat­e­ch­esis, fol­lowed by con­fes­sion of the Sym­bol of Faith and Holy Bap­tism, Chris­ma­tion, and Eucharist. In the words of the late Byzan­tine the­olo­gian, Saint Nicholas Cabasilas,

To be bap­tized, then, is to be born accord­ing to Christ and to receive our very being and nature, hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly been noth­ing… it is the first of the Mys­ter­ies into which we are ini­ti­at­ed, and before the oth­ers this Mys­tery intro­duces Chris­tians into the new life… It is then that we are formed and shaped, and our shape­less and unde­fined life receives shape and definition.

It is evi­dent from this pas­sage that the unbap­tized are in no way par­tic­i­pants in the life of the Church. Although in most cas­es, the Church no longer expels the unbap­tized from the tem­ple halfway through the ser­vice, it still main­tains the divi­sion between believ­ers and non-believ­ers, and in no cir­cum­stances would an athe­ist be per­mit­ted to par­take in Holy Com­mu­nion, the peak and sum­mit of par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Church’s life.

The Ortho­dox Church’s eccle­si­ol­o­gy is based on the tra­di­tion­al teach­ings of the Church and its under­stand­ing of the nature of the Holy Mys­ter­ies, so a strict posi­tion is to be expect­ed, but even Protes­tant church­es with a low or even neg­a­tive sacra­men­tal under­stand­ing main­tain bound­aries based on faith in Christ, which makes the ECM approach even more rad­i­cal. It could even be argued that ECM’s low eccle­si­ol­o­gy derives not from a low view of sacra­ments, but from a low view of the church in gen­er­al, as Bri­an McLaren writes, para­phras­ing Churchill: the church is “the worst form of com­mu­ni­ty ever devised, except for all oth­ers.” Although he lat­er goes on to cor­rect­ly describe the church as ‘the com­mu­nion of saints,’ it can be seen that the anti-author­i­tar­i­an streak of ECM has its roots in this dis­dain for the church’s insti­tu­tion­al element.

The anti-author­i­tar­i­an aspect of ECM man­i­fests itself in the movement’s anti-hier­ar­chi­cal struc­ture. As has been men­tioned above, ECM has no offi­cial struc­ture of lead­er­ship, and many of those com­mu­ni­ties that self-iden­ti­fy as emerg­ing are inde­pen­dent, with a more hor­i­zon­tal lead­er­ship struc­ture than is found in most Protes­tant church­es. Indeed Ganiel and Mar­ti make note of their ““flat” lead­er­ship struc­tures and their ambiva­lence towards ordained cler­gy.” Many com­mu­ni­ties have only part-time cler­gy, who usu­al­ly spread respon­si­bil­i­ties through­out the con­gre­ga­tion, allow­ing for a “more egal­i­tar­i­an form of con­gre­ga­tion­al gov­ern­ment and [act­ing] as a mech­a­nism to resist decrees com­ing from dis­tant denom­i­na­tion­al institutions.”

Tony Jones, the promi­nent emer­gent writer and ‘the­olo­gian-in-res­i­dence’ at Solomon’s Porch in Min­neapo­lis, calls this ‘rela­tion­al eccle­si­ol­o­gy’ and based his PhD the­sis on the sub­ject. His main obser­va­tions are that ECM has “a “low­er” view of ordi­na­tion, or a “high­er” view of lay involve­ment. Or both.” He notes that, while most main­stream Protes­tant denom­i­na­tions in Amer­i­ca have been attempt­ing to increase lay involve­ment, ECM has tak­en things to the next lev­el, list­ing sev­er­al exam­ples based on his research:

… the major­i­ty of the litur­gy at Church of the Apos­tles is admin­is­tered by laypeo­ple. A dif­fer­ent mem­ber of the con­gre­ga­tion intro­duces com­mu­nion each week at Solomon’s Porch. Most of these con­gre­ga­tions oper­ate a poli­ty that is a kind of hybrid of Con­gre­ga­tion­al­ism and a free church evan­gel­i­cal struc­ture… each is loose­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic in that the board is meant to rep­re­sent the mem­bers of the con­gre­ga­tion­al body, but none is as fierce­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic as a true Con­gre­ga­tion­al poli­ty would require.

While some emer­gent com­mu­ni­ties are attached to larg­er denom­i­na­tions, most notably PCUSA 1 and ELCA2, which both have tra­di­tion­al, hier­ar­chi­cal struc­tures, the major­i­ty of them are inde­pen­dent and detached from any hier­ar­chy or over­sight. This anti-insti­tu­tion­al lean­ing, accom­pa­nied with the light anti-cler­i­cal­ism present in ECM, is out of step with tra­di­tion­al Chris­tian­i­ty. Although emer­gents claim the ‘Ancient-Future’ title, it is appar­ent that their church struc­ture does not reflect that of the ear­ly Church, which was clear­ly hier­ar­chi­cal in nature. Accord­ing to Pro­to­pres­byter Michael Pomazan­sky, “The high­est min­istry in the Church as an orga­ni­za­tion is borne by the hier­ar­chy, which is dis­tinct from the ordi­nary mem­bers.” This is firm­ly based on the writ­ings of the ear­li­est Church lead­ers, in par­tic­u­lar Saint Ignatius of Anti­och, known for his robust defense of the Church hierarchy:

Fol­low the bish­op, all of you, as Jesus Christ the Father, and the pres­bytery as the apos­tles. Respect the dea­cons as the com­mand­ment of God. With­out the bish­op, nobody should do any­thing relat­ing to the church. That Eucharist which is under the bish­op, or the one to whom he has entrust­ed it, should be con­sid­ered sound. The con­gre­ga­tion should be wher­ev­er the bish­op is, just as the catholic church is wher­ev­er Christ may be. Apart from the bish­op it is not per­mis­si­ble to bap­tize, or to hold a love-feast, but what­ev­er he approves is pleas­ing to God, so that every­thing you do is secure and sound.

The above-quot­ed pas­sage is one of sev­er­al from Saint Ignatius in which he insists that all Chris­tians main­tain obe­di­ence to the divine­ly-estab­lished hier­ar­chy. Based on the con­tin­u­al prac­tice of the Ortho­dox Church, as well as the ancient het­ero­dox move­ments, in main­tain­ing the tra­di­tion­al three­fold hier­ar­chi­cal struc­ture, it is evi­dent that ECM is far from ancient prac­tice in regards to its orga­ni­za­tion, or lack thereof.

Post-Mod­ernism and ECM

ECM is based on reaction against the staunch modernism of contemporary Protestantism in the West, and an embrace of the cultural and social transition to a post-modern society with a different worldview and set of values

  One of the most com­mon ideas asso­ci­at­ed with ECM is post-mod­ernism. Post-mod­ern thought, and its inte­gra­tion with con­tem­po­rary Protes­tant the­ol­o­gy, has been an essen­tial com­po­nent of ECM’s ide­ol­o­gy since its for­ma­tive years and has affect­ed all facets of emerg­ing thought and prac­tice, par­tic­u­lar­ly in regard to inter­pre­ta­tion of tra­di­tion­al dog­ma, and Scrip­ture. Essen­tial­ly, ECM is based on reac­tion against the staunch mod­ernism of con­tem­po­rary Protes­tantism in the West, and an embrace of the cul­tur­al and social tran­si­tion to a post-mod­ern soci­ety with a dif­fer­ent world­view and set of val­ues, or in McLaren’s words: “the old mod­ern par­a­digm, with its absolute sci­en­tif­ic laws, con­sumerist indi­vid­u­al­ism, and ratio­nal cer­tain­ty, was giv­ing away to a new post­mod­ern par­a­digm of plu­ral­ism, rel­a­tivism, glob­al­ism, and uncertainty.”

ECM’s tac­it accep­tance of this new par­a­digm, whether it is mere­ly some­thing to be acknowl­edged, or some­thing to actu­al­ly be embraced, has been the major point that has attract­ed crit­i­cism from the tra­di­tion­al Protes­tants and evan­gel­i­cals, who have accused ECM pro­po­nents of deny­ing absolute truth and long-estab­lished Chris­t­ian doc­trines, in favor of a mod­er­ate agnos­ti­cism and fas­ci­na­tion with mys­tery. Even with­in ECM, the extent of the embrace of post-mod­ernism has been part of the ten­sion between the more con­ser­v­a­tive ele­ments and the Emer­gent stream.

Essen­tial­ly, post-mod­ernism rejects the over­ar­ch­ing nar­ra­tives of mod­ernism and its attempts to explain all things ratio­nal­ly. Like­wise, con­cepts such as lan­guage, mean­ing, and knowl­edge are called into ques­tion, with words and their mean­ings being con­sid­ered arbi­trary and their rela­tion­ship to the truth being doubt­ful. The post-mod­ernist philoso­pher Jacques Der­ri­da pro­posed a sys­tem of decon­struc­tion, not in order to dis­cov­er the real mean­ings behind words, but to uncov­er the mul­ti­plic­i­ty of mean­ings. Effec­tive­ly it is a sys­tem of skep­ti­cism in which the con­cepts of mod­ernism – absolute truth, def­i­nite rela­tions between word and mean­ing, and foun­da­tion­al­ist epis­te­mol­o­gy – are thrown into doubt. The ques­tion is how much of this pro­po­nents of ECM accept.

As McK­night writes above, there are some with­in ECM who are ‘min­is­ter­ing to’ post-mod­erns, in an attempt to bring them back to Chris­tian­i­ty, while there are those who ‘min­is­ter with­in’ post-moder­ni­ty. These are believed to be in the major­i­ty, accord­ing to McK­night, and con­sist of the more con­ser­v­a­tive (Doc­trine-Friend­ly) emer­gents, who may use var­i­ous ele­ments of post-mod­ern thought and prac­tice in their deliv­ery of the Gospel and in their pas­toral meth­ods, but with­out com­pro­mis­ing their more tra­di­tion­al Protes­tant the­ol­o­gy. The third group, as McK­night says, have more or less ful­ly embraced post-mod­ernism, includ­ing its effects on doc­trine. Regard­ing their posi­tion on ‘truth,’ it has been found that 

…what is emerg­ing from their con­ver­sa­tions is a con­cep­tion of truth that is expe­ri­en­tial and “embod­ied” in the exam­ple of Jesus… For them, mod­ernists con­ceive of truth as a set of objec­tive propo­si­tions about the world as it real­ly is. Mod­ernists are said to pair “propo­si­tion­al truth” with the idea that the facts we dis­cov­er can help us con­struct an all-encom­pass­ing, over­ar­ch­ing nar­ra­tive that explains everything.

Ganiel and Mar­ti go on to explain that, from their find­ings, most emer­gents believe that truth is to be found by par­tic­i­pat­ing in their com­mu­ni­ties and involv­ing them­selves in the con­ver­sa­tions there, expe­ri­enc­ing life, and hear­ing and telling sto­ries, with “the real test of what is “true” is whether is empow­ers you to live as a bet­ter per­son.” For  Phyl­lis Tick­le, there are two main insights that have impact­ed ECM’s thought: “the philoso­phers’ decon­struc­tion of “all writ­ten texts” and their chal­leng­ing the idea of “the abil­i­ty of lan­guage to con­vey any­thing with­out prej­u­dice.”” and “post­mod­ern philoso­phers’ dual empha­sis on the decon­struc­tion of over­ar­ch­ing meta­nar­ra­tives and the influ­ence of con­text on writ­ten texts.” 

The Orthodox Church gives the Scriptures the highest dignity, with Saint Athanasius saying of them: “These are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness.”

  The first insight has caused a gen­er­al mis­trust of lan­guage with­in ECM, with many feel­ing that it is beyond the capac­i­ty of lan­guage to com­mu­ni­cate divine real­i­ties. This is some­thing that the Ortho­dox Church could agree with – with cer­tain caveats. As Saint Gre­go­ry the The­olo­gian writes: “to tell of God is not pos­si­ble… but to know Him is even less pos­si­ble.” The apophat­ic tra­di­tion of Ortho­dox the­ol­o­gy and thought is open to some of the ideas of post-mod­ernism, in par­tic­u­lar its rejec­tion of ratio­nal­ism, but post-modernism’s skep­ti­cism of lan­guage and mean­ing is not nec­es­sar­i­ly agree­able to the Ortho­dox tra­di­tion. Emi­nent the­olo­gian Pro­to­pres­byter John Romanides writes: “… the Church Fathers are quite famil­iar with the fact that expres­sions con­vey spe­cif­ic con­cepts,” hence why they fought tooth-and-nail to defend ter­mi­nol­o­gy at the Ecu­meni­cal Coun­cils. Although the writ­ings of the Fathers, espe­cial­ly Saint Diony­sius the Are­opagite, insist that, when deal­ing with divine real­i­ties, human con­cepts only go so far, they would not agree with the post-mod­ernists that words them­selves have no spe­cif­ic mean­ing. Unfor­tu­nate­ly for ECM, the result of this adop­tion of post-mod­ern lin­guis­tic the­o­ry has been that, for many, it is now “impos­si­ble to dis­cov­er a whole, objec­tive truth.”

This brings us to Tickle’s sec­ond insight. The decon­struc­tion of over­ar­ch­ing meta-nar­ra­tives in post-mod­ernism has had a dis­as­trous effect on emer­gents’ under­stand­ing of Scrip­ture, i.e. that it can no longer pro­vide an over­ar­ch­ing nar­ra­tive about God, or a foun­da­tion for a world­view. As men­tioned above, this is part of the reac­tion against the mod­ernist under­stand­ing of the Scrip­tures, a com­po­nent of which is sola scrip­tura. This is anoth­er case in which, by ful­ly embrac­ing post-mod­ern ideas, ECM has thrown the prover­bial baby out with the bath­wa­ter. As Tick­le men­tions in her research, it was the defeat of evan­gel­i­cal Protes­tantism in the pub­lic sphere that led to a lack of con­fi­dence in sola scrip­tura and a desire to seek anoth­er way of inter­pret­ing the Scrip­tures. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the major­i­ty of the main­line Protes­tant church­es adopt­ed more lib­er­al approach­es to scrip­tur­al inter­pre­ta­tion, while the emer­gents took the post-mod­ern approach, both of which, like sola scrip­tura, fail to under­stand or inter­pret the Scrip­tures cor­rect­ly and, indeed, are prob­a­bly more dam­ag­ing to Chris­t­ian doctrine.

The Ortho­dox Church gives the Scrip­tures the high­est dig­ni­ty, with Saint Athana­sius say­ing of them: “These are foun­tains of sal­va­tion, that they who thirst may be sat­is­fied with the liv­ing words they con­tain. In these alone is pro­claimed the doc­trine of god­li­ness.” How­ev­er, it avoids the pit­falls of sola scrip­tura by always inter­pret­ing the Scrip­tures in con­ti­nu­ity with the catholic con­scious­ness of the Church. Father John Romanides, who spent the best part of his the­o­log­i­cal career refut­ing West­ern the­o­log­i­cal errors, par­tic­u­lar­ly those orig­i­nat­ing with Saint Augus­tine, explains further:

… the Holy Tra­di­tion, i.e. Deposit, is not some­thing dif­fer­ent from the Holy Scrip­tures, since it is con­tained in them. Yet, it is not iden­ti­cal with them, because the Deposit is iden­ti­cal with the Church, and the Holy Tra­di­tion is iden­ti­cal with the entire man­i­fes­ta­tion of the Church. There is no dif­fer­ence, how­ev­er, between the Deposit in the Holy Scrip­tures and in the Church.

He goes on to state that: 

Out­side the Church, the Deposit is hid­den even to those who read the Holy Scrip­tures, because, although the Deposit is declared by the Holy Scrip­tures and is con­tained in them, it is not inter­pret­ed by them, but only by the Church… Holy Scrip­ture and the Church teach infal­li­bly about God, because the Holy Tra­di­tion or Deposit in them are identical.

These state­ments show the great rev­er­ence that the Ortho­dox Church has for the Holy Scrip­tures and their impor­tance with­in its dog­mat­ic con­scious­ness, but also the caveat that they must be inter­pret­ed by the Ortho­dox Church. How­ev­er, Father John goes on to make a state­ment that the post-mod­erns might ten­ta­tive­ly agree with, albeit only to a degree:

Although Holy Scrip­ture is divine­ly inspired and teach­es infal­li­bly in the Church about God and His rela­tions with the world, yet Holy Scrip­ture out­side the Church… does not teach infal­li­bly, because the inter­pre­tive oper­a­tion of the Holy Spir­it… is not there to lead to the whole truth… He who is out­side the com­mu­nion… and does not sub­mis­sive­ly fol­low their teach­ing is igno­rant of the Key of the Holy Scrip­ture and finds him­self out­side the Deposit of the Tra­di­tion and, con­se­quent­ly, out­side the Truth.

So, based on the teach­ings of the Church, as defined by Father John, it is impos­si­ble to know the whole truth, which the emer­gents would agree on, but only if you are out­side of the Ortho­dox Church, which has infal­li­ble inter­pre­tive charis­ma under the guid­ance of the Holy Spir­it and with­in the teach­ing author­i­ty of its hier­ar­chy, both doc­trines with which the emer­gents would like­ly vocif­er­ous­ly disagree. 

A holistic way of life is a very apt way of describing the Orthodox way of life, with its rhythms of prayer, fasting, and participation in the Mysteries, as well as its mystical spiritual tradition

Although the post-mod­ern epis­te­mol­o­gy is dis­as­trous, and Scrip­tur­al inter­pre­ta­tion has degen­er­at­ed into a free-for-all, there are some pos­i­tives to emer­gent accep­tance of the post-mod­ern par­a­digm, and that comes in the con­text of their spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. The rejec­tion of ratio­nal­ism has led to an ‘open­ing-up’ to more mys­ti­cal forms of wor­ship and the intro­duc­tion of a ‘new’ kind of spirituality.

Adher­ents of post­mod­ern reli­gions tend to prac­tice a holis­tic way of life. They observe that all of real­i­ty is sacred and that all dualisms are sim­ply meta-nar­ra­tives… Post­mod­ern cul­ture push­es for bound­aries to be over­come. For the most part, how­ev­er, the over­com­ing of the split between the sacred and pro­fane is for­eign to main­stream church practice.

A holis­tic way of life is a very apt way of describ­ing the Ortho­dox way of life, with its rhythms of prayer, fast­ing, and par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Mys­ter­ies, as well as its mys­ti­cal spir­i­tu­al tra­di­tion. The end of ratio­nal­ism for post-mod­erns has cre­at­ed open­ness to mys­tery in the reli­gious sphere, long absent from evan­gel­i­cal Protes­tantism. As we saw above, many emer­gents have embraced the writ­ings of Catholic mys­tics, such as John of the Cross, Tere­sa of Avi­la, and Thomas Mer­ton, not only in their search for authen­tic­i­ty, but also in their search for some­thing that sur­pass­es the cold ratio­nal­ism of moder­ni­ty. This open­ness to mys­tery and tra­di­tion­al Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al­i­ty is to be wel­comed, but unfor­tu­nate­ly most emer­gents have focused on the West­ern tra­di­tions, instead of the rich trea­sury of East­ern Ortho­dox spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. The prob­lems with West­ern mys­ti­cism are out­side the scope of this paper, but it should suf­fice to say that the Ortho­dox view of the works and expe­ri­ence of Roman Catholic mys­ti­cal writ­ers is gen­er­al­ly not a pos­i­tive one. Despite this, it can be seen as a step in the right direc­tion, one that will hope­ful­ly lead to an engage­ment with authen­tic Ortho­dox spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. As well as open­ness to a more mys­ti­cal view of Chris­tian­i­ty, the post-mod­ern par­a­digm has also opened up ECM to engage­ment with tra­di­tion­al prac­tices in their worship.

“Early on we called it “liturgical eclecticism.” We took a lot of stuff from the Book of Common Prayer, a lot of Catholic stuff. We felt free to borrow not only from our specific traditions but also from the whole tradition of the church.”

  ECM has earned its ‘Ancient-Future Church’ moniker from its attempts to syn­the­size ancient prac­tices and ever-evolv­ing con­tem­po­rary wor­ship and con­cepts. As part of its quest to redis­cov­er ‘authen­tic­i­ty’ in the Chris­t­ian life, ECM has made exten­sive use of many prac­tices that have long fall­en out of favor in the Protes­tant world, or in some cas­es, are even active­ly dis­cour­aged and avoid­ed, and fused them with inher­it­ed prac­tices such as wor­ship bands, as one emer­gent pas­tor reflect­ed: “Ear­ly on we called it “litur­gi­cal eclec­ti­cism.” We took a lot of stuff from the Book of Com­mon Prayer, a lot of Catholic stuff. We felt free to bor­row not only from our spe­cif­ic tra­di­tions but also from the whole tra­di­tion of the church.”

The most notable facet of this eclec­ti­cism, and prob­a­bly the most wide­spread, is the use of tra­di­tion­al visu­al stim­u­lants as part of their wor­ship, to com­ple­ment the more mod­ern spec­ta­cles of video clips and pro­jec­tions. In the major­i­ty of cas­es this means can­dles or oth­er tra­di­tion­al forms of light­ing, but many com­mu­ni­ties have opened up to the use of icons and stat­ues, usu­al­ly as part of sep­a­rate ‘prayer sta­tions’ away from the main act of wor­ship. ECM’s engage­ment with the arts has also been fruit­ful in this regard, with a num­ber of emer­gent com­mu­ni­ties either meet­ing in gal­leries or host­ing exhi­bi­tions and instal­la­tions. Some even incor­po­rate the pro­duc­tion of art, such as paint­ing, sculp­ture, or crafts, into their wor­ship itself.

Along with the most evi­dent man­i­fes­ta­tions of this co-option of ancient prac­tice, i.e. can­dles, sacred art, etc., some emer­gent com­mu­ni­ties also revived the use of spir­i­tu­al and litur­gi­cal activ­i­ties long aban­doned by the vast major­i­ty of Protes­tants. The major­i­ty of these come from the Catholic and Angli­can tra­di­tions, such as: spir­i­tu­al direc­tion; Igna­t­ian spir­i­tu­al exer­cis­es; Lec­tio Div­ina; the Divine Offices, par­tic­u­lar­ly the ser­vice of Com­pline; fre­quent Eucharist, usu­al­ly served accord­ing to the Angli­can Book of Com­mon Prayer or its vari­ants; the use of incense in wor­ship; obser­vance of peri­ods such as Lent and Holy Week; and even the Sta­tions of the Cross. The New Monas­tic move­ment, explored below, has even pro­duced its own ver­sion of the Book of Com­mon Prayer, sub­ti­tled A Litur­gy for Ordi­nary Rad­i­cals. Some emer­gent writ­ers have men­tioned the use of ‘East­ern Ortho­dox prayer books’ but there are no exam­ples of spe­cif­ic prac­tices in the sur­veyed lit­er­a­ture, besides the new monas­tic movement’s Com­mon Prayer, and the album The Divine Litur­gy of the Wretched Exiles, loose­ly based on the Divine Litur­gy of Saint John Chrysos­tom, by the nomadic, Men­non­ite anar­cho-punk col­lec­tive Psalters. Oth­er emer­gent com­mu­ni­ties make exclu­sive use of ‘Celtic’ prac­tices com­posed by the Iona and Northum­bri­an com­mu­ni­ties, which gen­er­al­ly have a some­what ten­u­ous con­nec­tion with gen­uine ancient Celtic spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. There are even a few com­mu­ni­ties that prac­tice yoga and Zen med­i­ta­tion as part of their emer­gent spirituality.

Despite the adop­tion of many tra­di­tion­al prac­tices, the vast major­i­ty of ECM com­mu­ni­ties have avoid­ed the for­mal­i­ty that usu­al­ly accom­pa­nies them. Instead of pews, or for­mal seat­ing arrange­ments, some emer­gent com­mu­ni­ties try to ‘sanc­ti­fy sec­u­lar space’ by arrang­ing their church­es in a man­ner more akin to a cof­fee shop, using sofas, arm­chairs, and oth­er more ‘homey’ fur­ni­ture – some even take it to the next lev­el by actu­al­ly doing away with a ‘church build­ing’ com­plete­ly, meet­ing instead in cof­fee hous­es and pubs. The cen­tral­i­ty of this ethos in emerg­ing thought is stressed by Ganiel and Marti:

There is an inten­tion­al effort to recon­struct spaces to move away from pews, altars, or ele­vat­ed pul­pits. If such spaces are not avail­able, they are cre­at­ed… Both archi­tec­ture and seat­ing arrange­ments push away stereo­typ­i­cal notions of church in order to empha­size egal­i­tar­i­an­ism, artistry, and dia­logue. The arrange­ment is more sim­ple than sto­ic. Out­er walls are often where wel­come tables, prayer/communion sta­tions, and stor­age are placed. Low light­ing (some­times with votive can­dles) pro­motes a con­tem­pla­tive mood… For Emerg­ing Chris­tians, the loca­tions and phys­i­cal spaces in which their preach­ing and wor­ship take place mat­ter a lot. They see these phys­i­cal places and spaces as exten­sions of the val­ues they wish to live out; val­ues that include being open and inclu­sive, cul­ti­vat­ing com­mu­ni­ty, pro­mot­ing social jus­tice, and so on.

Although it is encour­ag­ing that ECM is explor­ing and adopt­ing tra­di­tion­al prac­tices, in par­tic­u­lar litur­gi­cal rit­u­als focused on the Eucharist, there are two main defi­cien­cies in their approach. First is that they are so far removed from a real, authen­tic litur­gi­cal-spir­i­tu­al tra­di­tion that they are unable to receive suit­able guid­ance and instruc­tion in mak­ing prof­itable use of what­ev­er pos­i­tive and wor­thy tra­di­tions they have adopt­ed, or in dis­cern­ing prob­lem­at­ic prac­tices, name­ly post-schism Catholic prac­tices, such as the Rosary and the Igna­t­ian exer­cis­es, and non-Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al tech­niques. With­out guid­ance or dis­cern­ment, the improp­er use of spir­i­tu­al and litur­gi­cal prac­tices could end up caus­ing prob­lems in the long-term. The sec­ond major issue is that, in the spir­it of ‘decon­struc­tion’ men­tioned above, many of the prac­tices are car­ried out in a ‘re-tra­di­tioned,’ exper­i­men­tal man­ner, or in a spir­it of sub­ver­sion. A promi­nent exam­ple of the lat­ter is when the Belfast-based Ikon col­lec­tive used cham­pagne and choco­late cake for their com­mu­nion rite, in an iron­ic satire of evangelicalism’s empha­sis on hap­pi­ness, and its igno­rance of the dark aspects of Chris­tian­i­ty. On the whole, how­ev­er, this explo­ration of tra­di­tion, litur­gy and spir­i­tu­al­i­ty is pos­i­tive and a clos­er and more real­is­tic engage­ment with Ortho­doxy on the part of ECM might result in devel­op­ment in the right direction.

The Emerg­ing Approach to Social Issues

At the fore­front of much of ECM’s prac­tice is its ded­i­ca­tion to ‘incar­na­tion­al liv­ing’ or ‘king­dom liv­ing,’ some­thing that man­i­fests itself in a strong com­mit­ment to social issues. ECM’s ded­i­ca­tion to social issues expands much fur­ther than sim­ply assist­ing the poor, sick, and needy, but ful­ly incor­po­rates polit­i­cal activism, human rights cam­paign­ing, and a mul­ti­tude of oth­er issues. How­ev­er, in the spir­it of avoid­ing the pro­gram-based struc­ture of the seek­er-friend­ly church­es most emer­gents are flee­ing, many emerg­ing com­mu­ni­ties encour­age their mem­bers to active­ly seek employ­ment in the social work sec­tor, or even to delib­er­ate­ly move to poor­er and more neglect­ed areas, some­times in groups. Dwight Friesen of Quest in Seat­tle says of this, “We dis­cour­age pro­grams in our faith com­mu­ni­ty. Almost every­one is involved in social ser­vice as a career.” Many emerg­ing com­mu­ni­ties seek to incor­po­rate ‘inten­tion­al spir­i­tu­al­i­ty’ with their social action, for exam­ple the Urban Cen­ter for Spir­i­tu­al For­ma­tion, a min­istry of Land­ing Place in Colum­bus, Ohio. A major aspect of ECM’s social out­look is that it does not use its involve­ment in social issues as a way of gain­ing con­verts, as they believe this to be manip­u­la­tive and endem­ic among evan­gel­i­cals. Instead, they are focused on build­ing rela­tion­ships and offer­ing hos­pi­tal­i­ty to all as a way of pro­claim­ing their gospel, and hope that peo­ple are attract­ed to Chris­tian­i­ty by this less aggres­sive manner.

One man­i­fes­ta­tion of ECM’s social action is the rise in the use of Tem­po­rary Autonomous Zone (TAZs). Sim­i­lar to the new monas­tic move­ment, which is described below, TAZs seek to cre­ate spaces in which peo­ple can more authen­ti­cal­ly inter­act with one anoth­er out­side of the unjust social sys­tem, and as an alter­na­tive to the cap­i­tal­ism decried by many emer­gents. This approach, how­ev­er, is not sup­port­ed by all, and some emer­gent lead­ers have crit­i­cized TAZs as being “ide­al­is­tic play­grounds of the mid­dle classes.”

Despite the ide­o­log­i­cal divide between the Doc­trine-Friend­ly and Emer­gent streams, both of them can agree on the impor­tance of social issues and it serves as a de fac­to unit­ing force for them. In the words of Phyl­lis Tick­le: “… social jus­tice… would become a kind of acid test for sep­a­rat­ing estab­lished Chris­tian­i­ty groups from Emer­gence Chris­tian­i­ty ones.” How­ev­er, despite this agree­ment, the extent of the activism, espe­cial­ly in regards to issues such as homo­sex­u­al­i­ty and female lead­er­ship in the church, still caus­es fric­tion between the more con­ser­v­a­tive ele­ments of ECM and the more lib­er­al ones. It can be expect­ed that, if the Emer­gent stream push­es fur­ther and fur­ther in its sup­port for left-lean­ing polit­i­cal and social caus­es, there might well be a reac­tion from the more con­ser­v­a­tive parts of ECM.

There can be no real cri­tique of ECM’s engage­ment with social action from an Ortho­dox per­spec­tive, as much of it is admirable and, indeed, puts the Ortho­dox Church in the West to shame. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, despite the efforts of a small, but notable, num­ber of char­i­ta­ble orga­ni­za­tions and insti­tu­tions, Ortho­doxy in the West has not built up a rep­u­ta­tion for itself as a Church that is ful­ly engaged with its rich her­itage of social action, exem­pli­fied by the teach­ings and hom­i­lies of such Church Fathers as Saints Basil the Great and John Chrysos­tom, and even the prophets of the Old Tes­ta­ment, many of whom had a fair­ly rad­i­cal mes­sage on social jus­tice. Indeed, it might be pos­si­ble to say that, as Ortho­doxy has influ­enced and inspired ECM in many ways in regards to its prac­tices, Ortho­dox Chris­tians should be inspired by ECM’s almost uni­ver­sal com­mit­ment to help­ing the dis­en­fran­chised and unfor­tu­nate. How­ev­er, ECM’s seem­ing fix­a­tion with left-wing and lib­er­al polit­i­cal and social agen­das is some­thing that taints their social min­istry, mak­ing it unpalat­able to more con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­tians, who are quite right­ly sus­pi­cious of the left after the ‘cul­ture wars’ of the past few decades.

ECM and New Monasticism

A move­ment that has devel­oped almost par­al­lel to ECM, and with some crossover, is ‘New Monas­ti­cism,’ which could almost be seen as an exten­sion of the emer­gent view on social action. Although the New Monas­tic move­ment has dif­fer­ent roots to ECM, and has been influ­enced by some­what dif­fer­ent prin­ci­ples, many of the ideas and out­look of the two move­ments are shared, par­tic­u­lar­ly in regard to spir­i­tu­al and social issues.

One of the common features of most new monastic communities is their absolute opposition to the capitalist system and its military-industrial complex

  The roots of New Monas­ti­cism lie in the desire, shared with ECM, to redis­cov­er some authen­tic tra­di­tion in an era and cul­ture con­sid­ered spir­i­tu­al­ly super­fi­cial. Although main­ly root­ed in Protes­tantism, if they even sub­scribe to any par­tic­u­lar denom­i­na­tion, many new monas­tic com­mu­ni­ties are heav­i­ly influ­enced by Roman Catholic tra­di­tions, par­tic­u­lar­ly the Bene­dic­tine and Fran­cis­can, in their spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, and by the Catholic Work­er move­ment in their social out­look. How­ev­er, many pro­po­nents and writ­ers point to the words of Diet­rich Bon­ho­ef­fer in the 1930s as their ‘man­i­festo’: “The restora­tion of the church will sure­ly come from a sort of new monas­ti­cism which has in com­mon with the old only the uncom­pro­mis­ing atti­tude of a life lived accord­ing to the Ser­mon on the Mount in the fol­low­ing of Christ.” As well as Bruder­hof com­mu­ni­ty in Ger­many, anoth­er influ­en­tial ‘pro­to-new monas­tic’ com­mu­ni­ty is the inter­ra­cial Koinon­ia com­mu­ni­ty in Geor­gia, USA, which was found­ed with the inten­tion of cross­ing racial bound­aries in the seg­re­gat­ed South of the 1940’s.

In terms of devel­op­ing a uni­fied vision for the new monas­tic move­ment, the Chris­t­ian Com­mu­ni­ty Devel­op­ment Asso­ci­a­tion (CCDA), found­ed by John Perkins in the 1970’s, was influ­en­tial in its preach­ing of the “3 R’s”: 

…we have to relo­cate to neigh­bor­hoods that have been aban­doned. What fol­lows is redis­tri­b­u­tion of resources to cor­rect for eco­nom­ic injus­tices. When peo­ple are togeth­er, shar­ing what they have so that no one goes with­out, true rec­on­cil­i­a­tion can happen.

This has been the path tak­en by most new monas­tic com­mu­ni­ties in recent times, most notably Shane Claiborne’s Sim­ple Way in Philadel­phia, Penn­syl­va­nia, which com­bines eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment and social jus­tice work with a mod­ern take on com­mu­nal spir­i­tu­al life. One of the com­mon fea­tures of most new monas­tic com­mu­ni­ties is their absolute oppo­si­tion to the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem and its mil­i­tary-indus­tri­al com­plex, and their desire to cre­ate a space out­side of it where they can try to live the Chris­t­ian life in its full­ness and most authen­ti­cal­ly, help­ing to trans­form local areas for the better.

As the move­ment began to spread, a meet­ing termed “The New Monas­ti­cism Gath­er­ing” took place in Durham, North Car­oli­na in 2005, which brought the decen­tral­ized com­mu­ni­ties togeth­er to dis­cuss the move­ment and its direc­tion. Here, they devel­oped the “12 Marks of New Monas­ti­cism” and unveiled them in a com­mu­niqué quot­ed in full below:

Moved by God’s Spir­it in this time called Amer­i­ca to assem­ble at St. John’s Bap­tist Church in Durham, NC, we wish to acknowl­edge  move­ment of rad­i­cal rebirth, ground­ed in God’s love and draw­ing on the rich tra­di­tion of Chris­t­ian prac­tices that have long formed dis­ci­ples in the sim­ple Way of Christ. This con­tem­po­rary school for con­ver­sion, which we have called a “new monas­ti­cism,” is pro­duc­ing a grass­roots ecu­menism and a prophet­ic wit­ness with­in the North Amer­i­can church which is diverse in form, but char­ac­ter­ized by the fol­low­ing marks:

  1. Relo­ca­tion to the aban­doned places of Empire.
  2. Shar­ing eco­nom­ic resources with fel­low com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers and the needy among us.
  3. Hum­ble sub­mis­sion to Christ’s body, the church.
  4. Geo­graph­i­cal prox­im­i­ty to com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers who share a com­mon rule of life.
  5. Hos­pi­tal­i­ty to the stranger.
  6. Nur­tur­ing com­mon life among mem­bers of inten­tion­al community.
  7. Peace­keep­ing in the midst of vio­lence and con­flict res­o­lu­tion with­in com­mu­ni­ties along the lines of Matthew 18.
  8. Lament for racial divi­sions with­in the church and our com­mu­ni­ties com­bined with the active pur­suit of a just reconciliation.
  9. Care for the plot of God’s earth giv­en to us along with sup­port of our local economies.
  10. Sup­port for celi­bate sin­gles along­side monog­a­mous mar­ried cou­ples and their children.
  11. Inten­tion­al for­ma­tion in the way of Christ and the rule of the com­mu­ni­ty along the lines of the old novitiate.
  12. Com­mit­ment to a dis­ci­plined con­tem­pla­tive life.

It can be said that while ECM is pri­mar­i­ly an eccle­si­o­log­i­cal move­ment influ­enced by con­tem­po­rary soci­ety and cul­ture, new monas­ti­cism is a pri­mar­i­ly a social move­ment influ­enced by the his­tor­i­cal church. While both move­ments share sim­i­lar traits and motives, espe­cial­ly the com­mu­ni­ty and social ele­ments, the pro­cliv­i­ty for left-wing pol­i­tics, and an engage­ment with tra­di­tion­al litur­gi­cal wor­ship, the main dif­fer­ence between them is that the new monas­tic move­ment is still deeply attached to its (main­ly) evan­gel­i­cal roots, which is shown in their high appre­ci­a­tion of Scrip­ture and the teach­ings of Christ, while ECM is most­ly involved in post-mod­ernism and the process of decon­struc­tion, as detailed above, which may put them at odds in regards to doc­trine and inter­pre­ta­tion of Scrip­ture. For exam­ple, the new monas­tic leader Shane Clai­borne, despite hav­ing numer­ous per­son­al con­nec­tions with emer­gent lead­ers such as Bri­an McLaren, dis­tances him­self from the ‘emer­gent’ label.

The growth of the new monas­tic move­ment has both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive aspects. On the pos­i­tive side, although it does not resem­ble monas­ti­cism in the clas­si­cal sense, being more focused on social jus­tice and polit­i­cal engage­ment than spir­i­tu­al and ascetic strug­gle, it is encour­ag­ing to see a move towards com­mu­nal liv­ing and wor­ship, and, in some cas­es, celiba­cy, which have been absent from main­stream Protes­tantism for much of its his­to­ry. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, on the neg­a­tive side, the movement’s gen­er­al adher­ence to left-wing prin­ci­ples and nar­ra­tives, and its almost exclu­sive focus on social issues, paci­fi­cism, and the anti-war move­ment has the poten­tial to lead to very unbal­anced ter­ri­to­ry. For exam­ple, in the cal­en­dar found in Com­mon Prayer, there are ‘spe­cial days’ com­mem­o­rat­ing such non-Chris­t­ian fig­ures as Mal­colm X and Mahat­ma Gand­hi, and events such as the annex­a­tion of Hawaii, the Bay of Pigs inva­sion, and the foun­da­tion of the NAACP, which have lit­tle to do with Christianity.

The ten­den­cy in the writ­ings of some New Monas­tic writ­ers to paint the ‘estab­lished church’ as the ‘bad guys’ of his­to­ry, and to alle­vi­ate the poor and social­ly dis­ad­van­taged from moral respon­si­bil­i­ty is also prob­lem­at­ic and will no doubt adverse­ly affect any kind of mean­ing­ful dia­logue with estab­lished church­es. It is for these rea­sons, unfor­tu­nate­ly, that we pre­dict that the New Monas­tic movement’s engage­ment with Ortho­doxy will only ever be super­fi­cial. Despite the long-stand­ing prac­tice of social out­reach con­duct­ed by the Church down to the present and the ven­er­a­ble tra­di­tion of Ortho­dox monks speak­ing the truth to pow­er, the Ortho­dox Church’s his­tor­i­cal ide­al of sym­pho­ny between Church and state, the for­mal, hier­ar­chi­cal struc­ture of Church gov­er­nance, and the Church’s nuanced views on war and mil­i­tary ser­vice are unpalat­able to most New Monas­tic ideologues.


Having now com­pared and con­trast­ed some of the key issues in ECM with the Ortho­dox Church’s teach­ings and dog­mas, we can now form a fuller opin­ion of ECM as a whole, and offer some final thoughts on the movement.

From the start, we can say that, since ECM has its roots in Protes­tantism, and in par­tic­u­lar the more lib­er­al stream, there are some seri­ous doc­tri­nal issues that are anti­thet­i­cal to the Ortho­dox under­stand­ing. Most notably, in ECM’s case, are its weak, or bare­ly-exis­tent, eccle­si­ol­o­gy and the anti-author­i­tar­i­an under­cur­rent that informs it. With its rad­i­cal indi­vid­u­al­ism, applied not only to per­sons, but to com­mu­ni­ties, and its lack of any kind of over­ar­ch­ing lead­er­ship or guid­ance, not to speak of author­i­ty, ECM has, except in those minor­i­ty of cas­es where the com­mu­ni­ties are part of, or have some rela­tion to, an estab­lished denom­i­na­tion, lost the remain­ing ves­tiges of the church struc­ture estab­lished since the Apos­tles. This is an unfor­tu­nate and sig­nif­i­cant flaw in a move­ment that has sought to try and restore many ancient and clas­si­cal prac­tices. It is no doubt influ­enced by the near whole­sale adop­tion, or at least tac­it accep­tance, of post-mod­ernism by emergents.

Post-mod­ernism and its influ­ence can be viewed in both a pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive light. It has affect­ed the han­dling of Holy Scrip­ture by ECM neg­a­tive­ly, with much of it now held to be sus­pect and unre­li­able, and the emerg­ing epis­te­mol­o­gy has a sense of agnos­ti­cism in regards to truth and dog­ma that is absent from both Ortho­doxy, and oth­er, more tra­di­tion­al, Chris­t­ian denom­i­na­tions. How­ev­er, on a more pos­i­tive note, the fall of mod­ernism has opened up emer­gents to a whole world of ancient Chris­t­ian prac­tices pre­vi­ous­ly con­fined to Ortho­doxy and Roman Catholi­cism, and to a more mys­ti­cal and holis­tic view of Chris­tian­i­ty. Although, as was men­tioned above, many West­ern spir­i­tu­al prac­tices would not be regard­ed as spir­i­tu­al­ly healthy by Ortho­dox Chris­tians, it is, at the very least, a step in the right direc­tion, away the rigid ratio­nal­ism and aus­tere wor­ship of Protestantism.

The most pos­i­tive devel­op­ment in ECM is this appro­pri­a­tion of tra­di­tion­al prac­tices, both spir­i­tu­al and litur­gi­cal, as well as its warm­ness towards monas­ti­cism, or some form of it. Although it has most­ly appro­pri­at­ed West­ern tra­di­tions, it is in this field that ECM has drawn clos­est to Ortho­doxy, in the sense that it has dis­cov­ered a more authen­tic sense of sacred space, the neces­si­ty of litur­gi­cal wor­ship and the Eucharist, and the impor­tance of more con­tem­pla­tive and mys­ti­cal spir­i­tu­al prac­tices. Although their under­stand­ing is inher­ent­ly flawed and the con­nec­tion with a liv­ing (and life-giv­ing) tra­di­tion is absent, it is encour­ag­ing in that it might be the first stages of a move towards authen­tic Ortho­dox Chris­tian­i­ty. Although com­par­isons can be made with the Evan­gel­i­cal Ortho­dox Church that entered the Ortho­dox Church of Anti­och whole­sale in the 1980s, who had, from being part of the charis­mat­ic evan­gel­i­cal move­ment, moved towards a more tra­di­tion­al Chris­tian­i­ty by slow­ly adopt­ing Ortho­dox litur­gi­cal prac­tices, as well as the­ol­o­gy, the dif­fer­ence is that the EOC was thor­ough­ly root­ed in a con­ser­v­a­tive world­view that placed a high impor­tance on author­i­ty, whether it was Holy Scrip­ture or its lead­er­ship. ECM’s post-mod­ernism and lack of com­fort with author­i­ty might adverse­ly affect this engage­ment with tra­di­tion by, instead of enabling it to engage with and draw clos­er to Ortho­doxy, mov­ing it towards a more syn­cretis­tic approach com­pa­ra­ble to a spir­i­tu­al-litur­gi­cal buffet.

It is my final assess­ment that, despite the pos­i­tive and encour­ag­ing signs of a redis­cov­ery of ancient Chris­tian­i­ty tak­ing place with­in ECM, there are too many neg­a­tive fac­tors that will adverse­ly affect its jour­ney, most promi­nent­ly its anti-author­i­tar­i­an ethos and eccle­si­ol­o­gy, and the effects of post-mod­ernism.

Although some emer­gents will prob­a­bly end up com­ing into the Ortho­dox Church as indi­vid­u­als, and a num­ber already have, most peo­ple and com­mu­ni­ties with­in the move­ment will prob­a­bly stay on the fringes of lib­er­al Protes­tantism, either as inde­pen­dent con­gre­ga­tions, or affil­i­at­ed with more lib­er­al main­line denom­i­na­tions, such as Angli­can­ism, Lutheranism, or Methodism.

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