The Invention of the Emerging Church Movement

[A short version of this essay was originally posted by The Religious Studies Project.]

Frequently, for social scientists, our study subjects mess with our categories. We propose and define a term; ethnographic informants reject it or defy its boundaries. We delineate criteria; collaborators don’t pay much attention. The connection between empirical description and secondary scholarly categorical construction is sometimes fraught with ambiguity and difficulty.

Such is the case of the Emerging Church Movement (ECM) or phenomenon—for lack of better terms—that has recently provided a delightful conjoining of two of my interests: (i) contemporary evangelicalism and (ii) the study of scholarly taxonomic systems. Religious people incessantly challenge our taxonomies. Those people we’ve marked out as or deemed religious tend to, in varying degrees, refuse our categories, meaning that our category construction must often be reactive to activities occurring on the ground (i.e., anomalies, exceptions, extremities, flukes, etc.), things that may actually prove to be more normative than they did at first glance. And for good reason, this constant back and forth. Fields of study dedicated to a form of serious empiricism—the study of what can be observed, recorded, and compared—ought to take on a form of epistemic humility in the realization that categories, while seductive, productive, and sometimes retaining a high degree of explanatory, elucidative power, are ultimately constructs, and more or less useful ones at that. It follows that constructs may be applied and discarded, with varying degrees of ease, per cultural context, historical era, or social situation. In other words, it’s important to point out that scholarly taxonomies, posturing themselves as durable and authoritative, get published in monographs and journal articles and give off reified impressions of finality. Our classifying work, then, does something; our definitions and labels objectify (and sometimes legitimate), influence, and perhaps structure activities in the field.

Gladys Ganiel and Gerardo Marti have done a masterful job in the application of one particularly controversial descriptor, the ECM (correlate terms include the gerunds and adjectives emerging, emergent, and/or emergence in conjunction with a noun such as church, evangelicalism, Christianity, and/or conversation). In the following, I’ll discuss both Ganiel’s informative interview and her and Marti’s recent book, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emergence Christianity (OUP 2014), purposefully conflating the two (but also recognizing that semi-structured interview recordings and book-length manuscripts are disparate academic artifacts). Ganiel’s informative interview offers a helpful distillation of some of the monograph’s main themes. While a growing number of book reviews and symposiums have highlighted strengths and weaknesses of The Deconstructed Church, in this piece I’d like to focus instead on the authors’ roles in the employing of a set of labels or categories (i.e., “the ECM,” emergence, etc.) to a particular set of social, cultural, and religious activities occurring in the late-modern West.

To get right to it: What happens when a scholar employs a term that intended constituents reject or resist? What are the implications of appropriating a confessionally derived, emic term to somewhat disparate groupings of emerging rituals, philosophies, and theologies? What happens if the positing of an umbrella category not only consolidates and categorizes but essentializes and homogenizes behavior on the ground rather than elucidate it? What are the politics of etic term formulation and emic self-application or adoption? I’ve raised this issue in critique of a recent book on global “fundamentalism,” but I think the same tensions are particularly relevant to the case of the ECM. A brief look at some of the discourses involved in category construction, on behalf of both social scientific fieldworkers and informants in the field, will reveal some of the tensions that I have in mind.

Before looking at Marti and Ganiel’s definitional work and informants’ consistent resistance, however, it might help to consider what exactly terms like “the ECM” are seeking to describe. According to one of Marti and Ganiel’s informants, the ECM is “Christianity for people who don’t like Christianity” (7). The movement—assuming for a moment that it constitutes such an entity—arose in the 1990s in a series of critiques of popular evangelical subcultures, ecclesiology, and theology. Marti and Ganiel define Emerging Christians as a particular group “sharing a religious orientation built on a continual practice of deconstruction” and characterize the ECM as “an institutionalizing structure, made up of a package of beliefs, practices, and identities that are continually deconstructed and reframed by the religious institutional entrepreneurs who drive the movement and seek to resist its institutionalization” (25-26). Other social scientists have qualified the phenomena as consisting of (post- or quasi-) evangelical discontents who, experiencing a “severe disenchantment” with broader evangelicalism, engage in a particularly intentional movement of religio-cultural critique (Bielo 2011, 5-6), or as a do-it-yourself, postmodern, inclusive, grassroots, anti-institutional force (Packard 2012). Individuals engaging in these conversations of inevitably structuring, institutional resistance to institution itself often describe themselves as undergoing processes of de-churching (i.e., as de-churched; Packard 2012) or de-conversion (Bielo 2011). Much more might be said about the people who identify through non- or anti-identification maneuvers along these lines. But what I find especially interesting is the secondary, scholarly work that goes into proposing an authoritative definition and subsequent definitional criteria and then determining, via elaborated definitional grids, who counts as part of the proposed order.

Marti and Ganiel, to be sure, are well aware of the issues involved in the positing and defending of secondary taxonomies. “In attempting a social scientific analysis,” the authors clarify early in the introduction to The Deconstructed Church, “we acknowledge that we focus on a set of groups that resist definition.” Such resistance, they continue, is at times even “passionate and obsessive” (5). Few dialogical insiders, further, are willing to define whatever it is that the moniker “ECM” attempts to delineate, as its diverse constituents embrace irony and contradiction and lack “systematic coherence” (5). In fact, “avoiding labels is part of avoiding stigma” and even socio-cultural identities based in rejection of labels might indeed constitute a group identity if enough persons coalesce within and around a similar critical stance. All of this strategic secondary work of naming and defining seems justified, at least to a point. I’d argue, recalling Jonathan Z. Smith, that the job of the scholar is to produce and defend illustrative, second-order, taxonomic terms; classifying for reasons of elucidation and illumination is at the heart of the academic and religious studies endeavor (Smith 1982).

But regardless of the ECM’s amorphous and messy self-descriptions, such ambiguity does not dissuade Marti and Ganiel from formulating a definition. Instead, “rather than noting its ‘anti-institutional’ orientation and succumbing to a hopeless lack of definition,” the scholars delineate not only a definition but a multiple-part characterization of (or criteria list for) the entity (for lists of qualifying attributes or characteristics, see Marti and Ganiel 2014, 29-30; Packard 2012, 7-10, 145-165; Bielo 2011, 10-16). The ECM, then, as a nebulous “congregational movement” (55-56), mostly resists insider definitional clarification even though, as Bielo demonstrates, “The Emerging Church” label itself has emic—not etic—origins. Even though social scientists employ the term, Bielo considers its dubiousness. “The [‘Emerging Church’] label itself is increasingly of little interest to adherents as a meaningful self-identifier,” he writes, “but the movement it was intended to capture continues to thrive” (2011, 5). Here we witness the categorical resistance alluded to prior, followed abruptly by a deliberate scholarly adoption or appropriation of the term. Bielo’s strategy, along with those of social scientists to follow, is a secondary maneuver; theological terms become academically productive and useful as they move from native to exterior domains.

Late-modern informants well versed in postmodern, anti-essentialist philosophy and post-colonial theologies don’t often like labels. Ascribing to a particular category is not simply a theological choice made in some imaginary free market arena of American spirituality; self-identifying is a politically laden and significant act, a tactic that requires potential constituents to make close consideration of the implications that aligning with a certain collective will have (and especially a non-traditional, boundary pushing, and theologically suspect one, according to some sectors of evangelicalism). One of Marti and Ganiel’s informants tellingly notes that to “out myself as an emergent church member would be a very big no-no” (2014, 75). To utilize social-anthropologist Mary Douglas’s (1980 [1966]) concept of purity and danger, the ECM and its terminological correlates have been successfully dirtied or marked as polluting by more traditional evangelical writers and speakers who see it as their task to police the boundaries of established evangelical orthodoxies, thereby purifying contagions from its ranks. The ECM label, marked as a threat to existing denominational orthodoxies, is cast as dangerous and suspect. Thus one prominent figure involved in the theological discussions under question, Denver-area minister Nadia Bolz-Weber, has recently made it clear that the emerging qualification is “not one that I’m comfortable with any more.” “I don’t think it’s useful,” she reflected in a recent public talk. Here we witness emic rejection and subsequent etic adoption, a veritable domain switch in a terminological sense.

“Invention,” a word I used in the title of this response, is surely too strong of an action word to use in this case. But the ECM is nonetheless a thoroughly problematic category. Not many people, if we take the existing works on the phenomenon as standard, self-identify with or see as meaningful proposed (i.e., adopted/adapted) scholarly descriptive terms. The name has little to no value to those individuals associated with strands of criteria the definitions elaborate. Beyond confessional rejection, scholars themselves disagree on what criteria ought to be included under the banner term; Marti and Ganiel critique Bielo and Packard’s previous works for what they consider to be conceptual errors, including problems of definitional inclusion and exclusion (e.g., 2014, 138). The “ECM” term is troublesome, certainly, but is it useless? Is it vacuous? I’m not entirely convinced that it is. We need, after all, taxonomies to frame and catalog data observed and collected in the field. In fact, and as alluded to earlier, I’d argue that the task and duty of the scholar is to generate and/or appropriate terms for the particularly scholarly purposes of elucidation, historical preservation, and descriptive classification. Marti and Ganiel have given us one of the most important analyses to date of a set of events and developments we might at least provisionally agree to categorize under the heading in question. Personally, however, I find questions of terminological genealogy most interesting. Why emerging or emergent church or emergence Christianity as classifications and not, say, post-evangelical or missional as ones? (I wonder if most scholars might agree that the application of entirely generic, social scientific terms, in place of emically derived ones, would prove an unproductive exercise. Don’t our informants need to recognize themselves in the works about them we produce?) In the staking out of what terms denote—academically, secondarily—Ganiel and Marti’s book is an excellent example of the ways scholars and collaborators mete out meaning through words, labels, titles, and terminologies in a relational, dialogical, even circular, fashion. No, “invention,” then, is not quite right. We might amend the title of this response, more appropriately, to something like “The Invention of the Emerging Church Movement as a Productive Scholarly Taxon.”

Works Referenced

Bielo, James S. 2011. Emerging Evangelicals: Faith, Modernity, and the Desire for Authenticity. New York University Press.

Douglas, Mary. 1980 [1966]. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Marti, Gerardo and Gladys Ganiel. 2014. The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Packard, Josh. 2012. The Emerging Church: Religion at the Margins. Boulder, CO: First Forum Press.

Smith, Jonathan Z. 1982. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. The University of Chicago Press.

Chaos and Love: A Review of Shane Crash’s “Forest Life”


There are at least three points where chaos—a tumult of events which lack not just interpretations but interpretability—threatens to break in upon man: at the limits of his analytic capacities, at the limits of his powers of endurance, and at the limits of his moral insight. Bafflement, suffering, and a sense of intractable ethical paradox are all, if they become intense enough or are sustained long enough, radical challenges to the proposition that life is comprehensible and that we can, by taking thought, orient ourselves effectively within it—challenges with which any religion, however “primitive,” which hopes to persist must attempt somehow to cope.    –Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System

Chaos, or unintelligible, un-interpretable events, says anthropologist Clifford Geertz, assails humankind from three directions: When one’s analytic capacities fail, when one’s endurance shrivels, and when one’s moral insight is defective or lacking. Is life comprehensible? Geertz says that religion seeks to make it so through its various orientating systems. In his new novel, Forest Life, Shane Crash faces these issues square in the face, and questions the role of religion in making the world intelligible. Pain, suffering, chaos, religion, coping mechanisms, human relationships: Crash weaves these themes together effortlessly. The setting is simple enough. A young man, reeling in the wake of a tragic accident, moves to the fringes of rural America to deal with his ever-increasing despair. He works to make sense of these events, but finds that they are inexplicable. Chaos threatens him from all directions.

Forest Life is an angst-ridden meditation on human pain and suffering. It is a story about hurt and despair, gut-wrenching emotional-psychological sadness, and human phantoms flitting in and out of the margins of awareness, hovering at the borders of (non)existence. Because pain is illogical, the story, too, is partly illogical; as a reader I found myself questioning Emmett’s self-depreciations and frequent disillusioned sessions of introspective despair. Especially in the early chapters of the book, I wondered if Emmett-qua-protagonist was too despairing, or unrealistically dark in demeanor and carriage. I found it hard to trust Emmett’s cynicism—I didn’t believe it. Emmett’s character seemed stilted; Emmett just didn’t work, for me. But hear me out–all of this changed as I progressed in the narrative. I finished a chapter—chapter three, I recall—and realized that I was invested in the characters, that I cared what happened next. I remembered that dealing with pain is never logical. I realized that by whatever literary magic or writer’s craft, Crash had transfixed my interest and attention. Maybe it was Crash’s prose. Maybe it was the striking similarities between Emmett’s struggles and my own biography. Maybe it was the art of intertextuality—a sequestered cabin in the woods (think: Thoreau’s Walden), the serene lake, the physical attraction between Emmett and Maraye, the Tolstoy and Camus allusions. I imagine it was a combination of all these elements. Regardless, I found myself irrevocably invested in the narrative of Forest Life.

I also found myself consistently moved by Crash’s prose, captured by the in-between-dialogue parts of his writing that reflect the protagonist’s thoughts as he meanders around in the forest and by the lake. Crash has managed to essentialize experience through evocation, and in particular, the experience of suffering. Crash’s descriptions are profoundly embodied. Emmett’s pain is not just psychological but registers itself in his very cells, in his limbs, in his body. The alcohol numbs the pain, of course, but further blurs the boundaries between reality and subconscious fantasy. As readers, it is easy to empathize with the Emmett. I (we) know his pain. I (we) feel the ways his sadness and his overriding sense of helplessness gnaw at his consciousness and knot his stomach. Emmett is in pain—Crash paints this in broad brushstrokes. Emmett is alive—he exists, yes—but this existence is frustrated. Life is inexplicable; even religion fails to provide answers. Death is tantalizingly attractive to those whose lives pulse with despair and unaccountable hurt. When it hurts to breathe, when every breath is a focused exercise in inexplicable suffering, death is a viable solution.

Forest Life reads like a Cianfrance film. It’s dark, gritty, and emotive, but chalk full of fleeting glimpses of ecstasy and, for lack of a better term, joy, in a relational sense. In Cianfrance’s anti-romance, Blue Valentine, it’s human relationship  that is the source of the film’s wonder, the source of its pleasure. But it’s also the harsh reality of relationship that is also the unraveling of the characters in the end. Analogously, Crash’s prose at points shines although the subject matter is painful. The repeated descriptions of Maraye’s skin are themselves metaphors of what could be; they’re metaphors of the unlikely possibility of healing and loving, of quasi-reconciliation, of hope. These descriptions of beauty and attraction, of Maraye’s pale, glistening skin and sheer sundresses, are consistently undercut by Emmett’s cycles of guilt and turmoil. Yet, these descriptions of attraction and wonder represent Crash’s best writing.


Like many readers, I read novels wearing more than one hat. Aside from my being a lover of contemporary American literature, I’m also an anthropologist of religion who studies, in particular, evangelical and pentecostal Christianity in the U. S. Obvious to any careful reader is a consistent polemic edge in Crash’s writing that works to problematize Christian (and more specifically, evangelical) culture in the U. S.  In classificatory terms, Forest Life is a literary corollary to the burgeoning theologies of those provocateurs known by many names: emergents; emerging churches; postmodern Christians; The Hyphenateds; progressive Christians; or the Emerging Church Movement (ECM). Whether Crash is conversant with these groups is unclear, but in the scheme of things this is where his work fits categorically and historically. Forest Life is a work of religio-cultural protest, one that seeks to separate the essence of Christian spirituality (often framed in terms of “love” or “justice”) from the traditional cultural trappings of Christian America (implying things such as anti-intellectualism, über-patriotism, pro-violence, ultra-conservatism, patriarchal conceptions of gender, and so on). There is a danger in such a critique; no matter how compelling is one’s charge against the sins of American Christians, one runs the risks of reifying simple caricatures of those groups in focus. Sometimes Emmett’s accusations of Christians are viable. Other times, they reproduce simple caricatures and (in my opinion) ultimately undermine the value of the respective literary scene. Yet, Emmett (or Crash, rather?) redeems himself; in chapter six, when Emmett attends a worship service with Jack and Maraye, he transcends his cynicism and caricaturizing tendencies in a freeing moment of empathy: “It strikes me that most of these folks are probably just contending with life and loss. My chest begins to ache for them. I stop seeing them as back-wood rednecks and townies. I see myself in their sad expressions. I am truly ashamed of my judgment.” Chaos, if only momentarily, is held at bay; Emmett sees himself in the Other, he recognizes the universality of suffering.

And while Crash’s polemics against religion might appear to some readers as somewhat redundant or at least overplayed—I agree to a point, by the way—Crash’s writing tone is reminiscent of other American novelists like Mark Twain or Kurt Vonnegut. But perhaps Crash will learn from Hemingway, another American literary giant, and make his critique more effective by showing instead of telling, showing via evocative story-craft. Polemics and provocations are literary tools that must be wielded carefully and applied with reserve; too much, and the character becomes nothing more than a political talking head. Sometimes concealing some point in an artful way is much more effective than rote explicitness.


With all of that aside, Forest Life is a refreshing and rewarding read, dark and provocative in parts, but bursting with emotion and life. It is a modern elegy, recalling the mournfulness and sadness of human existence while it simultaneously draws on the beauty of nature; in this sense, the book is reminiscent of the small body of early Anglo-Saxon poems, dark and somber, called The Elegies. Forest Life is a beautiful meditation on pain and coping, human frailty and resiliency, and the capacity to love, even while inexplicable chaos hovers all around. Crash demonstrates rare wisdom and insight for his age. I plan on reading the book a second time. Crash is a brilliant young writer, and I’ll be keeping an eye open for his next novel. Make sure to purchase Forest Life over at Civitas Press. Crash’s other publications, including a travel journal and collaborative essay project, can be accessed here. Check out his blog here.

Emergents as “Dirty” Evangelicals

For the past few months I’ve been working on a definitional essay of the Emerging Church Movement (ECM), mostly because as an Americanist in religious studies and anthropology, I would like to know, in terms of the production of classificatory academic knowledge, (i) what the ECM is, (ii) where the movement originates, (iii) what it is like, descriptively, and (iv) where it fits in the spectrum of emerging North American Protestantism (notice: lowercase c).

That the ECM resists definitions, that it defies etic categorization, is by now truistic in every sense of the word. The ECM is diverse—there’s no question at all—and its practices and rituals vary per community or gathering. I concede the point. But enough primary source monographs have been written by emerging writers to begin the comparative program that is the core of religious studies. Emic definitions are ripe for comparison and contrast. Myriad blog posts bombard online discourse hubs, just waiting for analysis. As of yet, scholars have all but ignored the academic study of the ECM, with the masterful and recent exception of anthropologist James Bielo’s ethnographically multi-site Emerging Evangelicals.

At this point, I’m still collecting definitions and formulating my own. I’ve consulted the writings of many of the movement’s primary writers: Tickle, Jones, Ward, Knight, McLaren, Pagitt, Gibbs and Bolger, McKnight, Snider and Bowen, Rollins, and Scandrette, just to name a few. But as I’ve reflected on the diversity of the movement, especially as represented by these above figures, I’ve had a thought: Emergents—or those emerging, or those who self-identify with the ECM—are dirty evangelicals. Here I draw on anthropologist Mary Douglas’ famous theory of taboo and pollution, dirt and order. As she puts it in her own words, dirt is “a kind of compendium category for all events which blur, smudge, contradict, or otherwise confuse accepted classifications.” Dirt blends and smears categories; it blurs and obfuscates delineations. And while the term is certainly vulgar and possibly offensive at first glance, it does seem to instructively describe the state of the ECM. Emergents defy both academically descriptive as well as theologically-derived taxonomies. I’m thinking here of the ECM’s close identification with all things “postmodern,” which in some fields of the academy, most notably the visual arts, might be described in terms of hyper-eclecticism, combinativity, and juxtaposition. I’m thinking here of Tickle’s claim in The Great Emergence that emerging communities blend together the four quadrilaterals of Christian practice (which she calls the “Liturgicals,” “Social Justice Christians,” “Renewalists,” and “Conservatives”). I’m thinking of McLaren’s multifarious A Generous Orthodoxy.

One more point reinforces my use of Douglas’ theory to categorize the ECM. Within conservative evangelicalism, the reaction to this point has been primarily negative. Many see the ECM as theologically dangerous, and so construe it, unknowingly, of course, in Douglas’ theoretical terminologies. The ECM, to much of evangelicalism, operates at the margins of traditional Christianity (i.e., it is marginal) and its teachings heterodox. It operates at the fringes of Protestantism. Its practices are polluting.

So, what do you think? Are emergents “dirty” in the way Mary Douglas envisioned the term?