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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