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.

Pipe-Smoking, Fixie-Riding, Buddy Holly Glasses-Wearing Christians

A Review of Brett McCracken’s Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010).

The managing editor of Bioloa magazine, Wheaton college graduate Brett McCracken is a prolific consumer of books, music, and films. He often contributes thoughtful reviews to publications like Relevant magazine or posts them to his blog, “The Search” (see http://stillsearching.wordpress.com). His experience within evangelical circles of higher education along with his keen analytical eye for all things pop-culture-oriented situate McCracken as an effective critic of hipsterdom as it converges in varying Christian streams. I approached Hipster Christianity with a degree of apprehension due to its subject content; in short, I expected another trite critique of (admittedly) feeble evangelical attempts at relevancy. My fears were realized to a point, I must admit, but not without offering a qualifying disclaimer: Hipster Christianity was one of my favorite reads of the summer, easily in the top ten list of reads over the past several months and very likely one of the top three or four.

McCracken’s purpose, credentials, and scope are relatively straightforward:

This book is about exploring, analyzing, and critiquing this desire for Christianity to be cool–but it also analyzes the already-existing cultures of Christian hip. The book addresses, in part, the phenomenon of Christian hipsters. I’ve observed this phenomenon firsthand for many years now, through writing for Relevant but also by being an evangelical youth group alumnus and a student and now employee at Christian colleges. I’ve observed the world of Christian hipsterdom at conferences and events from Michigan to Massachusetts, Oxford to Paris. I’ve seen it in the dozens of churches I’ve visited in preparation for this book–from a massive mega church in Las Vegas to a tiny Anglican gathering in a centuries-old church in London. I’ve heard it from the mouths of pastors and in the ironic jargon and nomenclature of the specific hipster communities I’ve observed. It’s fascinating to see these communities of Christian hip emerging, but it’s also confusing and a tad bit troubling. What does it mean that Christians are suddenly becoming just as cool as the cool elites in secular culture? This is another question that drives the writing of this book (20-21).

The book is divided into three parts, but for analytical purposes falls more cleanly into two. In part one, McCracken clarifies important terminologies (chapter one), gives a brief (and quite helpful) history of hip (chapter two), a general overview of hipsterdom (chapter three) and then narrows to North American Christianity and its relationship with hip (chapter four). Easily the most important contribution of the book, in my opinion, is the overview of contemporary Christian hipsters given in chapter five. McCracken offers a list of prominent hipster churches in chapter six, followed by discussions on the emergent/ing church (seven), social justice (eight), and the contentious world of contemporary “Christian” art (nine).

Thus ends what I have deemed part one of the book, as these chapters are primarily descriptive in nature with minimum of critical (i.e., theological) engagement. In part two, however, McCracken moves from description to analysis and diagnosis. This part begins with a fascinating treatment of churches that try too hard to be “hip” or “cool” (chapter ten) and is followed by a series of chapters that demonstrate the perils of a Christianity that sacrifices its ethos for the sake of being cool or relevant (eleven-fourteen). To put it pointedly, McCracken, himself a self-admitted Christian hipster to a degree (51), sees irreconcilable contrasts between the Gospel and core trends (or tenets?) of hipsterdom.

Hipster Christianity is a wealth of highly-informative material on the eccentric postmodern individual that of late has been dubbed by his or her critics as “the hipster.” The book is clearly and intelligibly written; McCracken illustrates not only his familiarity with the subculture but also that he is conversant in society’s trends. McCracken speaks fluent hipster, and his list of identification guides for various types of hipsters (see chapter five) are as witty and comical as they are accurate, in my perception of things. If one was to go on a hunt in the urban wilderness, in hunt of the ever-elusive hipster, McCracken would be one’s first choice as a guide. He knows his stuff. As I mentioned at the outset, Hipster Christianity is easily one of the most enjoyable reads of my summer. Yet, I have some minor reservations.

I hope it is clear by now that I consider part one of the book to be one of the most important contributions to the field of literature that has been written on hipsters, to date. But where part one is informative and valuable, part two seems to be a bit run-on and borderline redundant in parts. The book might be improved by reducing the theological analysis portion and extending the descriptive chapters. Hipster Christianity is primarily an essentialist take on a highly superfluous group within American subculture, but besides some brief descriptions of several hipster churches, what are Christian hipsters doing on the ground? What do their quotidian, daily lives look like? One wonders if more space might have been spent giving the reader a glimpse into live hipster culture as it is lived out on an everyday basis, such as through in-depth interviews or extended conversations with subjects. Where part one is cutting-edge in terms of informational relevancy, part two reads as a longwinded sermon. (Admittedly, however, this is a lesson that might actually do the listener good if they can bear it out.)

A second issue has to do with the subject matter in focus. As McCracken well knows–and demonstrates on multiple occasions–there are major difficulties in studying a group so diffused, varied, and eclectic. At times the author pleads with his readers to understand the diverse nature of hipsterdom and the problems that come when one is forced to identify and characterize such a sundry group of people. (In chapter three, for instance, he lists a mere twelve “common types of hipster” including the Natural, the Newbie, the Artist, the Academic, the Dilettante, the Mountain Man, the Shaman Mystic, the Detached Ironic, the Yuppie, the Flower Child, the Expat, and the Activist; McCracken convincingly identifies each category by both clothing and musical preferences.)

I’m certainly convinced of the group’s disdain for labels, boundaries, or rigid definitions and in this respect hipsters are thoroughly postmodern. But to describe a group as postmodern (an equally ambiguous term that itself implies flux, fluidity, dissimilarity, and fragmentation) does little to ease my taxonomic anxiety; at times McCracken convinces his readers so well of the necessary or required reductions of a study of this sort that I question whether this thing we call hipsterdom even exists. Is any attempt to homogenize these superfluous urban contrarians a serious categorical misstep? I’m just not sure. My confusion concerning definition and qualifications of hipsters and hipsterdom reaches an apex at chapter seven, “The Emerging Church.” Prominent Emerging Church Movement (ECM) thinkers like Tony Jones have demonstrated its “pluriform and multivocal” nature (134) resisting any rigid and confining definition and cherishing openness, fluidity, and flux. Does this sound familiar? McCracken obviously sees the similarities; the ECM even has its own chapter in Hipster Christianity. But now I wonder if Hipster Christianity is a misnomer; perhaps, one might query, a better title for the book would have been Emerging Christianity? I hardly see any differences between these two designations, if any at all. Both emergents and hipsters are contrarian in nature. Both tend to appropriate postmodern theory to their spiritual and cultural lives. Both stringently resist being boxed-in by any types of reductionistic labels. The list goes on and on, so I wonder: might “emergent Christianity” and “hipster Christianity” by synonyms? With the exception of Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill in Seattle, all of the “hipster” churches McCracken surveys in chapter six might also be considered “emergent” churches (and even Driscoll has roots in the ECM but has recently distanced himself from the movement). I’m not convinced that these designations are any different. According to Tony Jones, in fact, several caricatures of ECM practitioners include their penchant for “cool glasses,” “trendy clothes,” body piercing, and tattoos (see Tony Jones, “Emergent’s White Problem,” at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/2010/04/11/emergents -white-problem/). If these aren’t caricatures of hipsters, too, I don’t know what are. In summary, then, I remain unconvinced that trends within “hipsterdom” are concurrent enough to legitimize the label: “hipster.” And if an ambiguous group of people are indeed loosely identifiable by ethos or essence, even with all of the dissimilarities, I still don’t see how the “Christian” version of this subculture differs any from my ECM friends.

Ultimately–and aside from the above quibbles–I don’t think that these difficulties detract much from McCracken’s coherent overview of hipster Christianity. Regardless of whether or not I take issue with terms and technical designations, there is something going on in these progressive camps of Christian young people. After reading the second part of the book, however, I do feel that the author might somewhat overstate his critique. In the introduction of the book McCracken clarifies his position as author, intending a balanced outlook: “The book is not an advertisement or rallying cry for hip Christianity, nor is it an outright chastisement. It’s a critical analysis” (13). Yet, most critical analyses include treatment of both strengths and weaknesses and the prior is noticeably lacking in the second part of Hipster Christianity. Towards the end of the book McCracken warns against the “threat of postmodernity” (220) but simultaneously overlooks the benefits of the postmodern era to the Christian church (such as have been emphasized recently by thinkers like James K. A. Smith and Carl Raschke, among many others). Another example has to do with the author’s critique of absurd hipster fashion trends because of their self-interestedness, individualistic nature, and catering to “pride and vanity” (196). While he is right to do so, McCracken seems to avoid the positive aspects of some hipster fashion trends such as the frequenting of thrift stores or buying sweat-free in order to resist rampant mall-shopping consumerism that ultimately cater to self-centeredness and hyper-consumerism. There are ethical dimensions to the ways some Christian hipsters dress as they do, and while these reasons don’t alleviate the individualistic (and sometimes dandyistic) fashion styles, the positives, too, deserve focus. Perhaps as has been demonstrated over and over again throughout the colorful history of global Christianity, contemporary Christians are simply appropriating current trends, sanctifying them or making them holy. In the broader scheme of things, how is thrift-store shopping more self-interested than the suburban masses that flock on the weekends to mall retailers? Second-hand shopping is itself an act that carries positive ethical results: many thrift stores that I’m aware of, for example, donate a sizeable percentage of one’s purchase to a charity or non-profit.

In the end, McCracken’s book provides excellent reading material not only for confessional Christians (on both sides of the cultural spectrum), but for scholars of religion, especially those interested in emerging forms of post-evangelical, post-Protestant Christianity. Hipster Christianity is a must-read for anyone interested in contemporary society, popular culture, postmodernism, and cultural studies. For researchers like myself, working from the perspective of religious studies, McCracken provides a wealth of information on dimensions of religious life such as clothing, dress, identity-construction, consumption and recreational preferences (films, literature, music, food), as well as a compelling description of the re-alignment or contestation of religio-cultural taboos.

Travis W. Cooper