Postmodern Campbellites?

Elesha Coffman

On page 21 of their new book The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (Oxford), Gerardo Marti and Gladys Ganiel wrote, "Many observers date the origins of the ECM [Emerging Church Movement] to the early 1990s when the movement became most visible in North America." This periodization was not what I expected under the subheading, "The ECM in Historical Perspective." For one thing, I was not quite ready to think of my own high school years as an era about which one might have "historical perspective." But mostly, I was encountering that familiar disciplinary rift between history and the social sciences. I simply don't know what to do with a narrative that starts so recently, so I found myself inventing a back-story, constantly noting what the authors' depiction of emerging Christianity reminded me of. The margins of my copy of the book (thanks, Paul Harvey!) quickly filled up with notations of S-C, for "Stone-Campbell."

Let me be clear, Marti and Ganiel did not posit this connection. They located the roots of emerging Christianity in late 20th century evangelicalism, more specifically a group of young church and parachurch leaders concerned that Christianity had become irrelevant to American youth. (That part reminded me of "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" but the rest of the book didn't, and the authors argued on pages 168-170 that emerging Christianity is dissimilar from Protestant liberalism.) Marti and Ganiel also referenced Doug Gay's 2011 book Remixing the Church: Towards an Emerging Ecclesiology, which traced emergence in the UK back to low-church traditions, the ecumenical movement, and Vatican II. But that history is still in or near living memory. If not antecedents, what parallels might be found deeper in time?

Here, then, is not a review of The Deconstructed Church but an idiosyncratic engagement with it from the perspective of someone who teaches church history surveys and is thus predisposed to find patterns and recurring themes. Marti and Ganiel occasionally noted similarities between emerging Christianity and what they called Renewalist (Pentecostal and charismatic) movements, but I wonder if it might be equally useful to bring Restorationists into the picture.

Marti and Ganiel defined emerging Christianity as "a creative, entrepreneurial religious movement that strives to achieve social legitimacy and spiritual vitality by actively disassociating from its roots in conservative, evangelical Christianity" (ix). Using more sociological terms, they characterized ECM as "an institutionalizing structure, made up of a package of beliefs, practices, and identities which are continually deconstructed and reframed by the religious institutional entrepreneurs who drive the movement (8, italics in original). Next came the line that prompted my first S-C notation: "But Emerging Christians are somewhat unique institutional entrepreneurs, in that one of their primary purposes is to resist the institutionalization of their faith rather than to reform or create new institutions." Somewhat unique, yes, but not the first folks to take this path or to encounter the challenges of its inherent contradictions.

Two centuries ago, Barton W. Stone, Thomas Campbell, and his son, Alexander Campbell, set out to fix broken Christianity by rejecting its structures and replacing its shopworn dogmas with a more vital faith. All three were entrepreneurs, working established networks, forging new ones, and spreading their ideas via the regnant communications medium of the day, the press. (The Disciples of Christ saying "We don't have bishops, we have editors" could be adapted to the emerging context, "We don't have bishops, we have bloggers.") What coalesced, insofar as it ever coalesced, in 1832 as the Stone-Campbell movement saw plenty of the micropolitical jockeying Marti and Ganiel have identified within emergence. And neither movement could ever agree on a name. "Emergent," "emerging," and "emergence" Christians, along with folks who no longer wished to claim any of these labels, had a major dust-up in 2010 (described on pages 6-8 of The Deconstructed Church); a long-simmering division between Stone's "Christians" and the Campbellite "Disciples of Christ" was reified in a 1906 census, even as members of both groups often preferred even vaguer terms like "the churches" and "the brotherhood."

Probably the biggest difference between the emerging and Restorationist movements is their orientation toward the old and the new. While emerging Christians have adapted some ancient Christian practices, such as monasticism, they more eagerly embrace the new--technology, experimental forms of worship, postmodernism--as they seek to work with rather than against the individualizing cultural grain. Restorationists, by contrast, embraced aspects of their historical context (Nathan Hatch upheld them as paragons of democratization) but understood their project as the recovery of pure New Testament faith, grounded in a literal reading of the Bible. Innovation/restoration is a perennial tension within Protestantism, though, so I don't see these two movements' divergent orientations as outweighing their similarities.

Marti and Ganiel insist that, despite its low numbers, loose affiliations, and internal divisions, emerging Christianity has staying power. If this proves to be the case, I wonder if the movement will go the way of the Stone-Campbell movement, building (and then fighting over) institutions in spite of itself, spawning denominations that refuse to be called denominations but act a lot like them. Or maybe, this time, things really are different. It will take more than 20 years to find out.


Frank Bellizzi said…
An interesting set of connections, ones that I'd never noticed before. Does the ECM have anyone like an Alexander Campbell, or a blog with the status of the Millennial Harbinger? (There was some "S" in the S-C, but it seems like it was very much a Campbellite movement for the most part).