The EMC as an NSM

Lots of talk around the blogosphere in the last couple weeks about the goodness or badness of the terms “emerging” and “emergent.”  To be quite honest, as I sit at our family cabin by the lake, listening to Canada geese fly over head and thinking about where I should grouse hunt today, it all seems rather silly.  Indeed, I’ve long held that this is an internecine debate.  I realize it seems earth-shatteringly important to some, but not to me.  As Scot pointed out in his post today, where we all go from here will have more to do with that to which God is calling us than to any labels.

One of the reasons that I think the movement at large (of which Emergent Village is a part) will not go away is that the Emergent/-ing Church Movement (ECM) is part of a much broader cultural reality in the West, what sociologists call New Social Movements.

Since the birth of sociology with Max Weber, and especially since Marx and Engels, all social movements were seen to be based on economic struggle — the proletariat overcoming their oppression by the bourgeois.  But a funny thing happened in the 1960s: America’s “new middle class” didn’t abide by these rules.  The civil rights movement, the GLBT rights movement, the environmental movement, the feminist movement — even the hippies — all seemed to be operating under a different rubric than the Marxist schema predicted.

Among the characteristics of NSMs are these:

  • Cultural and societal change is the goal, not the redistribution of wealth
  • Coalitions form from persons of different social status (think, for instance, of college-educated Jewish civil rights activists who joined blacks in the South)
  • “The personal is political” — in other words, personal choices (where one shops, what one eats, how much energy one consumes, etc.) have implications for the movement
  • There is a cynicism about the representative democracies in the West and their co-option by corporate forces
  • There is a great skepticism of hierarchies and bureaucracies and an effort to keep the movements egalitarian or “flat”

I could list another half dozen characteristics that sociologists have identified in NSMs, and they would fit with the EMC as well as these that I have listed.  Suffice it to say that I don’t think I’ll have much trouble arguing in my dissertation that the ECM is an NSM.

What that means for the current debates on the labels is simply this: the labels/names/brands mean very little.  As Doug noted recently, and as Phyllis’s book makes abundantly clear, there are broader cultural forces at play here.  Churchy people may think this is about theological or methodological innovation — or both — but it’s really not.  It’s really about new ways that human beings organize themselves, understand their world, and endeavor to change society.  The ECM is a religious iteration of a much larger phenomenon, and it’s not going away anytime soon…no matter what you call it.

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  • evan

    Hello Tony, we’ve never met, but we have some mutual friends.

    I’m sure you’ve already made this connection, but your final paragraph reminded me of another group who at least at one point made this same observation about understanding the “new ways that human beings organize themselves, understand their wold and endeavor to change society.”

    The Church of England published Mission-Shaped Church and the primary way they realized the shape of their churches need to change was based on the new reality of people organizing by network as opposed to location.

    If you weren’t aware of it, I thought it might be a tidbit for you from one student to another.
    Peace to you

  • it’s fascinating how we suddenly look up and notice the broader movements and implications all around. that is one thing i have really appreciated about the tone of folks within emergent over the last couple years… even going back to that meeting with synagogue 3000.. for a while now there has been a realization that we aren’t doing some crazy maverick thing, but that it is a reflection of broader people movements that can be found in every strata. as much as some critics try to claim it, emergent has not seen itself as the pinnacle of all things emerging or the “real” emerging church. if anything, a lot of folks around here have been looking around and realizing just how significantly insignificant we are in the broader reality of emergence.

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  • Thanks for your thoughts, T.
    I just hope people will really take the time to read what you are saying and think about it before jumping to accusations of “sophistry” and “gratuitous esotericism” (as found on another “blog’s” comment thread).

    It’s really sad to me how issues that require some modicum of an attention span get characterized as self-important, navel gazing when it’s clear that that is the last thing on our minds.

    Peace to you.
    Good hunting…

  • You can put lipstick on a movement, but it is still a movement.

    What is happening is happening and whatever you call it over the next 10 decades might add microshifts to the motion, but not macroshifts. Emerg* is much more of an observation than a prescription and pre-existed the name itself…and will outlast it as well.

    How the Holy Spirit works and moves within human movements has got to be almost 100% mystery, but detecting that there is movement is important…and that is what I think using the derivitives of the term emerg* is an effort to do. Trying to set some language, flawed and necessarily temporary as it is, to the observation of the movement of the Holy Spirit in the lives of humans may land somewhere between courageous and fool-hearty, but what else can we do?

    So much of the resistance to all things emerg* is that there is an effort to hold tightly to observations made long ago, with the naive hope that such things could again be recreated by effort or loyalty or coersion. Effort and loyalty was not how those observations were originally made and it won’t be what keeps them alive – it’s mechanised life support at best and won’t keep dying bodies from becoming corpses.

    So, I don’t care what happens to the word, emerg*. I do care about being aware of what the Holy Spirit is doing in human movements.

  • steve

    “…the labels/names/brands mean very little.”

    Then dump your name (plastered all over the site), all the self promotion (I’m talking to OB’s staff!) and all the pics of your mug thoughout.

    Is there a difference between Buddha, Jehovah, Allah, Jesus Christ, or even the Jesus Christ of the LDS (brother of Lucifer)? Yes, labels/names mean something.

    “kajsd;lkaghae a adlfah as dfa;ldka a df af a”

    Maybe because labels don’t mean anything the above quote really does say something.

  • rodney neill

    I think in the future the growing influence of the deconstructive theology of Jack Caputo/Peter Rollins on the Emergent Village networks in the US (and the subsequent ripple effect in the UK) will create ongoing tensions especially with the formation of a new grouping led by S McKnight. E McManus etc based on the Lousanne covenant (classic evangelicalism and ‘religion without religion’ liberal theology dmake very uneasy bedfellows!!). I have noticed echoes of this on the UK blogoshere already. My take on the future of the emerging church conversation but I could be wrong.


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  • tony arens

    Cultural and societal changes give birth to new philosophies, and these philosophies create markets and financial opportunities. In order to leverage a cultural or societal change (to write a book, form an organization, sell ball caps with a logo, etc.), you need to give it a brand. A great brand sells, sometimes despite the product itself – at least for a short time (pet rock, apple lisa).

    Emergent/-ing is the brand, and without a brand, there’s no sale, no book, no ball cap. Smart guys like Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt and Tony identified the cultural and societal change, established a philosophy in an attempt to better understand it, gave it a brand, and are marketing the brand.

    If the product is sound, it will remain on the shelves, if it’s not, then it will either be discontinued or re-branded. We’ll see what happens here!

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  • Nowaytess

    Most people in the USA reminise about the 1950’s. If thing were so right then and everyone was content how come there was the 60’s?

    I grew up in the late 70’s early 80’s. I am woman was in between ERA where once you turn 18 you became a wife and a mother or a Career Woman.

    I believe the EMG Movement addresses issue of the current generation of Christians and those who are the in between generation.

  • nathan


    do you really think that after all that’s been written that your characterization of Tony’s position is really what he is saying?

    I’m confused…was this post about religious pluralism?

  • Hi Tony,

    Your thoughts on new social movements was really stimulating. I’ve read a PhD dissertation recently which used the emerging church as a case study for exploring the ways in which organizations can resist the forces of institutionalization. I’ve blogged about it at asking if the language of “emerging church” and the meaning which critics have constructed for it is a barrier for participation in emerging church as a resistant social movement. Hope you find it interesting too.

    Katharine (Lancaster University, UK)

    PhD: how do participants in the UK emerging church milieu construct the notion of truth, and what are the philosophical, theological, ethical and political implications of these understandings?

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  • Theresa Seeber

    Tony, I appreciate your desire to break the chains of exclusivity that begin to encroach when a name (“brand”) becomes popular. It really is a movement of God, yet we must have some way of identifying who we are speaking of when we have conversations, thus the naming of congregations (ie, Vineyard, Faith Community, etc) and so forth. It is handy to have a reference title. Now, a friend gave me an awesome mental picture of ECM: he said every time I talk about the emergent church he pictures Excalibur rising from the lake, water cascading down all around, as it emerges from something else. I thought that was so cool, and had to share it with you all!

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  • tsfgodguy

    If you’re part of the group that created the title “Emergent” purposly named close to “emerging” in what I believe is an attempt to confuse people, you don’t get to complain later about titles when people catch on and want the differences explained.

    Then, right after mentioning that the titles are not important and only matter to others, create yet another title (Emergent/-ing Church Movement (ECM) which again blurs then lines between the Emergent movement and the emerging church.

    If you care….

  • tsf,

    talk about attributing bad motives to people…yeeesh.

  • tsfgodguy

    attributing or noticing? I guess it depends on your vantage point….

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  • nathan

    saying that people set out to confuse people is “attribution”, friend.

    It’s a “looking in to the heart” that we humans just can’t do.

    On what basis do you assert that is the motivation of Tony, et. al?

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