The Emerging Church Movement (ECM) is making a big splash in American Christianity, and so the release of The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity by Gerardo Marti and Gladys Ganiel (Oxford Press, 2014) is noteworthy.
This book tackles the difficult task of defining the ECM. Most definitions of religious groups focus on organizational membership, such as denominations, or religious identity, such as being charismatic. The ECM doesn’t fit well with either of these. Marti and Ganiel describe it as a social movement guided by various themes, including being anti-institutional, ecumenical, using young leaders, being experimental and creative, and avoiding being traditionally church-y. They label it as a religious orientation aimed toward the practice of deconstruction (p. 6). In one sentence they write: “The ECM is a creative, entrepreneurial religious movement that strives to achieve social legitimacy and spiritual vitality by actively disassociating from its roots in conservative, evangelical Christianity. (p. ix)”
On the upside, this is about the clearest definition I’ve seen of ECM. On the downside, I’m still not exactly sure what it is. Certainly most Christian groups are not part of the ECM, some clearly are, but there’s a continuum of churches between them. As far as I can tell, this reflects nature of ECM, not any problems with the definition, per se. In several places, Marti and Ganiel describe facets of ECM group organization as “messy,” and to them I would add the simple identification of ECM.
The authors used the gamut of qualitative research methods—participant observation, interviewing, focus groups, and textual analysis, to convey both the experience and organization of ECM. Topics include the nature of ECM congregations, the focus on individual deconstruction, the role of dialogue, and the role (or lack thereof) of missions. They conclude that the significance of ECM, from a sociological perspective, is that it reflects the broader societal trend toward “religious individualization” (p. 195).
The book gave me not only a better understanding of the beliefs and practices found in the ECM, but also a greater appreciation of the sophisticated, responsive nature of the religious market in the United States. The 1990s saw a rise of the religious “nones”, which is well documented. Along with them were many Christians who didn’t want to leave the faith altogether but wanted a less traditional, more individual-focused group experience of it. Up pops ECM, catering to these needs, and providing yet another outlet for religious expression. It’s like a new store opening up at the mall, and you don’t appreciate the pent-up demand for it until you see it packed with customers.
The ECM narrative emphasizes revitalizing spirituality. I would bump it up one level of analysis and say that the driver of spiritual vitality is not ESM itself but rather the religious marketplace that produces movements such as the ESM. This thoughtful and well-written book describes and analyzes this recent, perhaps important offering of this market.