Popular emergent church leader, blogger and theologian Tony Jones visited eight emerging churches to discover the most significant practices of these congregations. He shares his findings in his latest book The Church Is Flat: The Relational Ecclesiology of the Emerging Church Movement (read an excerpt here). We caught up with Tony for a quick Q&A about the book and the future of the Emerging Church Movement.
Why do you decide to write this book, at this particular time?
Well, honestly, it was my PhD dissertation, and the clock was ticking — I was tired of being ABD (“all-but-dissertationed”). But, in all seriousness, I thought it was time for a thoughtful, scholarly look at the Emerging Church Movement. Lots has been written about the ECM, and even more has been said about it, but most of that has been unsubstantiated innuendo. I think the ECM is a potential future of the church, and a very positive one at that, and I want the story to get out.
What conversations do you hope this book inspires?
I hope that church people read this book, look at their own churches, and scream, “It doesn’t need to be like this!” I hope that they’ll see there are other ways to run a church, be a pastor, preach sermons, etc. Everything about their churches can be rethought, reimagined.
Do you expect this book to change anyone’s mind? About what?
I think that this book will rehabilitate the image of the Emerging Church Movement in people’s minds. They’ll read it and, since it’s based on actual research, it will trump a lot of the falsehoods that they’ve heard about the movement — for instance, that the ECM isn’t robustly theological.
What surprised you most in your research for this book?
I can’t say that I was surprised, but I ended up being disappointed that two of the churches that I researched are ultimately not, in my opinion, emerging churches: Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, CA, and Pathways Church in Denver, CO.
What are some of the practices that define an emerging church from any other church?
In the book, I outline several practices that are common to ECM churches, and then I unpack those theologically. One is communion, which is practiced weekly at most ECM churches. While this won’t seem surprising to an Episcopalian or a Catholic, it is a noteworthy practice among post-evangelicals, many of whom grew up with communion only four times per year. Another practice is dialogical preaching, which pushes the act of biblical interpretation back out to the congregation.
What was the hardest thing about writing this book?
To write a doctoral dissertation for Princeton demanded more nuance and more erudition than anything I’d written previously. Writing a book that was both acceptable at Princeton and, finally, readable, was the biggest challenge. There’s a reason that scholarly books are so often unreadable — it’s because of what the academy demands. I tried to overcome that and write a book that is both scholarly and readable.
You get to organize a book club with three people to read and discuss your book. Who do you want to be there? And what do you think they’d think about your book?
John Wesley, Jan Hus, and Clement of Rome.
I think Wesley would love the fact that the ECM is unafraid to challenge conventional wisdom. Jan Hus would probably want us to be more radical (and he might ask if we’ve got a fire extinguisher). And Clement would, I hope, see similarities with the practices in his primitive church in Rome.
What one of two words of encouragement or advice would you give to emergent churches across the country?
You’re on the right path. Don’t quit. And be even more adventurous than you’re being. Take some chances.
Often, the best book ideas come while you’re writing a book. Have you started the next one?
Yes, I’m writing a book on prayer. I’m basically trying to convince myself that there’s an intellectually credible reason to pray.