Is Tony Too Close To His Data Set?

Chad Lakies’s review of my book, The Church Is Flat, is up at The Other Journal. He’s generally positive, though gently critical of my research. Here’s the critical part:

I appreciate Jones’ offering in The Church is Flat. To my knowledge it is the first serious academic treatment of the ECM to come from within the movement. More are surely needed. As I mentioned above, Jones employs a phenomenological methodology in an attempt to mitigate his close proximity to his subject. I’m not convinced that he was altogether successful in “bracketing off” his biases in his assessment of the data he collected. I wonder how successful Jones feels he was in his attempt, as he reflects back on the experience?

Regarding his explication of the data he collected in his interviews, surveys, and focus groups, one can’t help but notice the high number of anecdotes Jones uses from Solomon’s Porch and Journey. These two churches, more than any of the others, seem to provide most of the illustrative fodder for the practices outlined in the book. Yet proportionally, these churches account for only 7% of his data set. If the other six churches also engage in the distilled practices mentioned above, why the heavy reliance upon examples from just these two?

There is little mention of ecclesial practices outside of a church’s regular weekend gathering. Almost all of Jones’ attention is paid to what happens within the confines of the church’s gathered corporate life. I’d be interested to know more about what life for an ECM community member is like between Sundays. While Jones makes mention of some higher level conversations that occur between churches and with other religious groups, one does not get a clear picture of how the regular, daily life of an ECM participant is changed by their involvement in their church. Perhaps the brevity of his visits to the eight churches didn’t allow for observation of activities outside the weekly corporate gathering?

Finally, it is interesting to note that if Jones were to undertake a similar survey today using the same four criteria outlined above, only one church would likely appear again: Jones’ own Solomon’s Porch. Both Vintage Faith and Pathways Church would not qualify, each having dissociated itself with the ECM, and the other five (Cedar Ridge, Jacob’s Well, House of Mercy, Journey, and Church of the Apostles) have all undergone significant leadership changes. In the end, I was left feeling that the book has more to teach the reader about Solomon’s Porch’s ecclesiology than about a broader ECM ecclesiology.

Read the positive part: Forest, Grove, or Tree? Predilection and Proximity in Jones’ The Church is Flat : the church and postmodern culture.

My response to Chad will go live tomorrow.

  • Dan Hauge

    Having read the book, I think there is some valid critique here, but it really points to a more difficult problem generally in trying to do academic studies of relatively small, relational communities: how can we gain a real view of the relational everyday practices of a community if we ourselves are not a part of that community? If I wanted to get a sense of community life outside of Sunday I would really need to be part of the relational networks, otherwise it makes for pretty awkward ‘study’ (“Hi, after our interview and survey can I come hang out with you guys while you have beers and I’ll listen and take notes”?) It’s analogous to the problem in quantum physics where external observation necessarily changes the phenomenon you’re observing.

    My own impression of the book wasn’t quite as “Solomon-centric” as Lakie describes, but it does make sense that there are more examples drawn from a church where you know more. But yes, if we want broader data sets, how to make that happen when deeper relationship is at the heart of the practices that we want to describe?

  • http://www.dualravens.com Patrick O

    “each having dissociated itself with the ECM”

    Here’s the tricky part. Disassociating with a label does not mean disassociating with an ecclesiology. Moreover, adopting the label doesn’t mean identifying with an ecclesiology. Lakies review seems to be caught up in the label, not the ecclesiology itself. I have no doubt that you could, in a pretty quick way, suggest dozens of other communities, no doubt more, that fit the ecclesiology. I can. But those were not the churches you chose to explore in depth when you did your interviews. That your research focused on particular churches is part of, well, research.

    I think you were pretty open about how each community you focused on fit the various models, and the transitions they have had since your personal research took place.

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