Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (Gladys Ganiel)

The Emergent Church Movement (ECM) is small and often written off as an insignificant bunch of post-modern people struggling with their faith and trying to find a wishy washy compromise that removes the socially awkward edges of mainstream Christian denominations and loses the rigorous theological positions. There’s also the question of whether ECM is church or is even a coherent movement.

Local lecturer and sociologist of religion, Commonwealth Games marathon runner and winner of today’s Belfast City Half Marathon Gladys Ganiel has written The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity along with Gerardo Marti to analyse the development and significance of ECM and draw out conclusions about its innovations.

You can listen back to Gladys Ganiel talking with Steve Stockman about the book and how the topic of ECM challenges Northern Ireland evangelicalism in Fitzroy Presbyterian Church earlier this evening. Her talk was followed by a long Q&A which ended with the final questioner asking how ECM measures up to the test of the fruit of the spirit it exhibits!

The book begins with a detailed description of a ”theo-dramatic performance” by Peter Rollins, Pádraig Ó Tuama and Jonny McEwan as part of a “Re-Emergence” conference that was held in Belfast in 2010. Held in a bar, candles flickering, a call to worship, an antique book used as a prop, a modern Hebrew lament sung, a ‘sermon’ preached and a novel benediction. Informal conversation follows the close of the ‘service’ as those congregated around the bar tables grasp at the possible meaning and significance of what they’ve just heard.

Rollins and Ó Tuama were regular contributors to the Belfast-based Ikon collective. (Many involved with Ikon would dissociated themselves from the emergent church movement, but deep down that helps qualify them as being at the heart of ECM.) The description of the Re-emergence event felt very familiar when I think back to Ikon events I’ve attended over the years. The book’s second chapter includes more beautiful descriptions of different emergent services and events.

While usually seen as emerging from Evangelical Protestantism, I can think of  more Catholic-based neo-monastic communities in Derry/Donegal that certainly fit the bill too. Whether in bars and pubs, old deserted church buildings, neo-monastic settings or performance spaces, Ganiel and Marti document the gatherings of people who hold beliefs lightly, mostly based in Ireland, UK and the US. Asked tonight about the English-speaking western nature of the emergent examples, Ganiel explained that the charismatic/Pentecostal movements – also individualistic – are the main area of growth in Latin America … so there is little evidence of distinctive ECM.

Many of those involved in ECM – the “dechurched” – seem connected by “what they are jointly leaving”. Some want to “subvert” the church they love, but recognise that it needs to change. The authors note that Emerging Christians seem to be creating space that is “church-ish without being church-y”. The authors see ECM as a “religious orientation” rather than a “religious identity”. Relationships “trump” other considerations, and while membership may be informal, customs and rituals do abound amongst the chaos. Storytelling and the creation of networks and alliances (social capital) are commonplace.

The authors quote emergent leaders who see denominational statements of faith as tools that “tend to stop conversation” and can be used as a way of “manipulating or excluding people from the community”. ECM instead hold on to ambiguity. Doubt is wholeheartedly embraced. They react against the glitz and razzmatazz of megachurches and those trying to invade that space. Formulaic approaches are ignored. Creativity is turned up to eleven. Meaning is multi-layered and it can be exhausting for those attending emerging services to pick out the truths and spot all the meaningful references in the reflections and dialogue. (Though that can be true in mainstream denominations and services too!)

From the range of ECM communities and examples listed in the book, the majority of “leaders” (or organisers if ECM prefers) still seem to be male. Maybe ECM isn’t quite as radical as it proclaims!

I was surprised to see The Dock mentioned in as an emerging example. Perhaps best known for running an honesty box café in one of the otherwise vacant shop units under the ARC apartments in Belfast's Titanic Quarter, The Dock's original intention had been to buy and restore a boat. However, the inter-denominational group have ended up (for now) with a bricks and mortar café that acts as a chaplaincy for this burgeoning area of the city which lacks any physical church. Lead chaplain Chris Bennett describes the setting:
The cafe is a space where absolutely anybody can feel at home – no-one is attacked with Bibles, tracts or evangelistic slogans when they come in through the door. At the same time, we try to provide a little bit of space for spiritual life in the Titanic Quarter – especially in the Prayer Garden, a light-filled little oasis of greenery and peace in the corner of the cafe, and through the presence of the team of Dock Chaplains, who are just as happy to get stuck in to a deep and meaningful natter about the meaning of life as to get stuck feeding Doris the Dishwasher!

Is The Dock part of the emerging movement? It certainly doesn’t self-label itself this way. Yet perhaps its non-evangelical, non-pushy, relational approach that has brought spirituality to a new area through the generosity of building owners and the smell of fresh coffee in a pop-up venue does qualify it. Asked about The Dock this evening, Ganiel defended its inclusion under their ECM umbrella by explaining its parallels with the Fresh Expressions movement that is particularly active in the Church of England and English Methodism. (Although FE's institutional links challenge the normal independence of ECM!)

The Dock lacks a formal sanctuary, instead meeting up on Sundays at 3.33pm for Dock Walks that stroll around Titanic Quarter, pausing to reflect along on the way. They also now meet once a month on a Sunday evening in the SS Nomadic boat (rather than their cafe space). While it “may not be on the radical fringe where Pete Rollins dances”, The Dock’s peripatetic, conversational chaplaincy model sits well with ECM.

Towards the end of the book, co-pastor of the Refuge in Denver, Kathy Escobar, is quoted:
You have to dismantle systems that perpetuate inequality, money, power and control. You have to stop hanging with people who are just like you. You have to give up making sure you’re the “us” and others not like you are “them”. You have to lay down your idols of comfort and worldly success.

Sounds suspiciously like Jesus!

The authors rightly point out that ECM is a niche, minority network of disenfranchised Christians. Is it more that “hipster” Christianity? Is the deconstruction masking empty religion or is it confident questioning “on a perpetual spiritual quest”?

The fact that some early ECM literature – like Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller – was banned form conservative Christian bookstores adds legitimacy to the movement. I can only imagine the book burnings that Peter Rollins’ back catalogue must have suffered!

In the closing chapter of The Deconstructed Church, the authors agree that Emerging Christians are “embedded agents … attempting to change Christianity from within”.
It is precisely the taken-for-granted aspects of Christianity that the ECM attempts to make obvious in order to play and subvert, The ECM’s apparent informality in so many settings can be seen as an attempt to create slack in rule-following, and a space for experimentation, thus engaging the tensions of pluralism. Even in a pub, where the drinks appear to allow for a great reduction in sanctity, drinks can actually be familiar objects to hide behind (drinking with friends on a night out) while new normative imperatives flex their way into the scene.
One pub church leader wrote:
… something magical happens around that table, with half-full pints and honest conversation”. It becomes a social space that allows individual convictions yet a cooperative place for expression …

My hunch is that our world would be a better place if more people with differences came together to learn from each other, rather than allowing unwarranted assumptions to grow into ignorance, hatred an division. Around this table, instead of building walls, we tear them down. Instead of assuming, we ask, and say “Teach me.” Instead of attacking each other, we buy another round. Instead of “moving on,” we become friends.
The pub may not always be the setting, but the concept is readily transferable to other situations.

Reading the book as a non-sociologist and simply as a questioning Christian, I appreciate the structure that this volume provides, helping frame how the creation and development of emerging church movements can be evaluated and understood.

The book highlights the wider spaces and models that may be running in parallel with, or be part of, the emerging movement (eg, peripatetic chaplaincy) and – for me – starts to sound warning bells about the rising “religious individualisation” that challenges modern Christianity from all directions.

Aspects of the emergent movement are (thankfully) creeping into congregations and denominations that would be embarrassed to be associated with ECM. Will the institutional embrace of emergent facets push geeky forerunners into ever more extreme rejection deconstruction of traditions, or will it provide more secure homes for those seeking faith without the comfort blanket of having to have all the 'right' answers? This book by Gerardo Marti and Gladys Ganiel certainly succeeds in setting down a foundation of material about the practices and beliefs of individuals and communities.

The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity is available from Amazon on Kindle (£11.84) and in hardback (£21.32).

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