Study Shows Emergent Is Not As Liberal As You Thought

Photo by Courtney Perry

Just when you thought emergent was dead, scholars are showing that it’s very much alive and kicking. I will soon write about the excellent full-length book, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity by Gerardo Marti and Gladys Ganiel. That book came out earlier this year.

Now, two political scientists — Ryan P. Burge of Eastern Illinois University and Paul Djupe of Denison University — have co-authored two academic articles about the Emerging Church. Each article shows some fascinating insights into the movement, and each upsets some of what we think we know. I’ll post about one today and the other on Monday.

The first article is titled, “Truly Inclusive or Uniformly Liberal? A Analysis of the Politics of the Emerging Church,” published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of ReligionBurge and Djupe begin by noting that ECM leaders insist that they’re not just liberals, while conservative Christian leaders often say that’s exactly what we are. What’s the truth? Burge and Djupe set out to set the record straight.

The first challenge is figuring out just how many pastors are Emergent. This is the first finding that surprised me. Burge and Djupe surveyed pastors who are members of mainline denominations because only then could they measure the politics of ECM pastors against a larger, standard population. (This means that pastors of nondenominational churches — people like Doug Pagitt, Danielle Shroyer, Tim Keel, and Darrin Patrick — are not represented. Clergy were considered ECM if they self-identified as Emergent. Here’s how that affiliation breaks down by denomination:

You can see that the percent of clergy who identify as Emergent ranges from 1% of Southern Baptist to 14% of Disciples of Christ. Across all denominations, 7% of clergy identify as Emergent.

Regarding politics, Burge and Djupe begin their analysis by noting that the “irony of American religion” is that the “purity of intent often leads to the opposite outcome.” So the liberalism of the historical critical method and the social gospel in the mid-twentieth century actually gave rise to the evangelicalism of the late-twentieth century. That is, Walter Rauschenbush can be indirectly credited with the election of Reagan and both Bushes.

That theory would suggest that the ECM, as a reaction to the evangelicalism of the 1980s and 1990s would simply be a pendulum swing back to the left. But it turns out that it’s not that easy. The authors checked the positions of ECM pastors against the broader population of clergy on these issues: gay marriage, the environment, abortion, international affairs, school prayer, and government involvement.

According to broader surveys, “Nonemergent clergy from these denominations are typically conservative.” Emergent clergy claim to be more diverse and more inclusive than the broader population of church leadership, so Burge and Djupe evaluated this claim using distribution analysis, kurtosis, and nonskew distribution.

Here’s what they found:

  • Emergent clergy are 52% liberal and 28% conservative on political issues;
  • Nonemergent clergy are 28% liberal and 61% conservative.

So, ECM clergy are more likely to be liberal than nonemergent clergy. However, “while emergents have a mean score that is more to the left compared to nonemergent clergy, their distribution is not skewed around its mean and is relatively flat, supporting a conclusion that emergents are diverse and inclusive.” Here’s what that looks like in a graph:

Other notable findings:

  • ECM clergy are slightly more liberal on biblical issues like the historicity of Adam and Eve than nonECM clergy.
  • ECM clergy are twice as likely to be female (20%) than nonECM clergy (10%).
  • ECM clergy are more likely to be in an urban area than nonECM clergy.
  • ECM churches tend to be in states with more religious pluralism and less religious adherence than nonECM churches.

In conclusion, Burge and Djupe note that there’s a “reasonably large number of emergent clergy who hail from a mainline denominational affiliation,” and this finding contradicts earlier studies on the ECM. They continue, “The movement tends to be theologically flexible,” and emergents “can be found anywhere on the ideological and theological spectrums.” They conclude,

The ECM’s focus on drawing from all religious traditions and political perspectives is more than just a high-minded ideal, it is a statistical reality.

And that’s good to hear.
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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Scot Miller

    I certainly think you’re more theologically “moderate” than liberal. Probably more politically moderate, too, since you seem to enjoy hunting defenseless birds more than most political liberals, who don’t like to hunt.

  • Ric Shewell

    What do you make of so many mainliners “accepting” an emergent position or label when emergent was or is a major critique of denominationalism? Have denominations swallowed up and co-opted a movement that initially critiqued it?

    • Josh Jinno

      Just like “missional”

    • Jeff Nelson

      In my experience, mainline pastors who identify as emergent do so for at least two reasons: 1) They were already on board with many theological and social positions that emergent folks have taken, e.g., Biblical criticism, inclusivity, social justice, etc., and 2) They’re also critical of church forms they’ve inherited, including denominational structures, and draw inspiration from models and methodologies used by emerging churches in envisioning something better. So no, we’re not trying to co-opt anything. We’re trying to see how to apply certain principles in our own settings because we agree that there’s a problem.

      Aside from that, I’ve always understood emergent’s origins as a critique of megachurches rather than denominationalism.

      • Penny Davis

        Yes, Jeff, I agree. Also, many mainline pastors were/are reluctant to identify as emergent because they “emerged” into progressive Christianity years ago and were wary that it was just another wolf in sheep’s clothing. We’ve watched as evangelicals moved in more progressive directions, sometimes convinced that it was their invention. And then young denominational pastors were pleased to find they could be emergent in their denominations as a way to attract young people fleeing Christianity–and as permission to be more progressive. It has been fun and fascinating to watch.

        However, there never has been agreement about what “progressive” means, even within longstanding progressive churches. Who knows what these research numbers mean? And there continues to be great mistrust, so people stay in their silos with their gurus. There’s turf to protect when there are commercial interests–and egos.

      • Ric Shewell

        I think that’s a pretty generous interpretation of emergence Christianity. I heard Tony speak in 2007, where he compared denominations to the cold layer of rock that the volcanic Gospel has to break through and create something new. In Tickle’s The Great Emergence, she compares Emergence Christianity to the Protestant Reformation and the Great Schism before that. For her, Emergence Christianity is to Protestantism/Denominationalism as the Protestant Reformation is to the Roman Catholic Church.

        Full disclosure, I’m a United Methodist pastor. I love the conversation, but at the heart of so many emergent critiques is that bureaucracy chokes ministry. Over and over again, those in emergent conversations ask us, “So, why stay?” I wonder what those who have left their denominations, like Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, and Tim Keel think of those who identify as emergent yet still submit to so much doctrine and polity that can impede ministry.

        • Jeff Nelson

          Tony regularly rips on denominations here and elsewhere, so I think his opinions on such things are well-known. Doug Pagitt is a consultant with the Center for Progressive Renewal, an organization that helps mainline church leaders envision new possibilities for ministry. Tickle is Episcopalian. Nadia Bolz-Weber is ELCA. So I guess depending on which emergent figurehead one listens to, one will get a different answer to that question.

          Mainline pastors I personally know who identify with parts of emergent are trying to reform from within, much like how Luther and others began. Some have given up and left altogether, others keep plugging away. Most see flowers breaking through the cracks in the cement and forge on with hope.

  • Josh Jinno

    I think there are also a lot of us in the “peanut gallery” who will not identify as “emergent” and reject most labels and subscriptionalism; who may from time to time indeed fit a definition if there was one.

    • Ryan Burge

      That’s what makes studying the emergent church so tough. In order for us to identify emergents in a survey environment they have to self identify. We are developing a emergent values scale which would be a sort of proxy measure for emergent beliefs, but that’s still a work in progress.

      • Josh Jinno

        I upvoted that, but I’m not really sure if I like that or not… I hate being labeled.

  • http://altarwalk.wordpress.com/ Jim Robertson

    So what does this really say about the emergent CHURCH, or the author’s conception of church, when only clergy were surveyed. They should have used the word Clergy in their the title IMHO.

  • djfree79

    Interesting! Thanks for sharing, Tony.

  • John Vest

    I find it odd that they didn’t include Presbyterians in their study.

    • Ryan Burge

      We actually did a second wave of the clergy study in 2013 and did include clergy from the PCUSA. They had the second highest rate of emergent identification (11.5%). The DoC was the “most emergent” clergy at 14.5%. There should be a publication or two coming out in the future including this data.

      • John Vest

        I figured Presbys would rate high. Thanks.

  • Mich Barry

    “Historically, liberalism was proffered as an answer to the left. That is what gave it its political heft and social depth. For the last half-century, it’s been proffered as an answer to the right. Therein lies the problem.”
    –Corey Robin

  • http://www.dianerheos.com/ Diane Rheos

    My hope for Emergent is that we give up labels like liberal and conservative. I also hope that we quit trying to put it in a neat little box by definition which will only limit it’s possibility.

  • Whit Johnstone

    Do you have stats on the number/ percentage of Episcopal clergy who identify as Emergent? Also, the LCMS, SBC, and AOG are not mainline protestants, they are evangelical protestants. I’m not sure if you were including them when you spoke about emergent clergy in “mainline” denominations or not, but you did not make the distinction clear in the article.

    • Mike Stidham

      Note that those three denominations represented the low end of the scale, with the true mainline denoms skewing upward.

      • Whit Johnstone

        And the stats on emergent Episcopal priests and deacons?

        • Mike Stidham

          That would be good, as a lot of the early adopters in the mainline were from the Episcopal Church. That absence is interesting, as it would probably skew the mainline higher.

  • Carla Ewert

    To me, that’s one of the most interesting things about this is how Burge and Djupe identify emergents–people self-identify as emergent, though, in this case, they are also officially identified with a denomination. Obviously, there’s no outside body to endow people with the emergent label, so they simply pick it up and, in some ways, turn it into what they need it to be. While that fluidity is essential to the movement and the point of this analysis, I imagine it made research a bitch.