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The Emerging Church Is What It Says It Is

Malaysia Emerging

On Friday I covered the first of two articles by political scientists Ryan P. Burge of Eastern Illinois University and Paul Djupe of Denison University. In that article, they used their research to show that emergent are not universally liberal, as opponents claim, but are really rather diverse when it comes to politics and theology.

Today I turn to their second article, “Emergent Church Practices in America: Inclusion and Deliberation in American Congregations,” published in the Review of Religious Research. Here’s the abstract of the article:

 In the last 15 years a small but growing movement organized under the label ‘‘emergent church’’ has begun to help push the church through what many of them believe to be the first careful steps that will usher in a new understanding of Christianity for the twenty-first century. An emergent church model is quite a radical one that prioritizes the agency of those in attendance to determine the beliefs and direction of the church. In this way, emergent churches, at least in theory, are radical deliberative democrats in orientation, which may have profound effects on how the church is run and how members view the church, each other, and society as a result. Using the first dataset known to acquire this identity of Protestant clergy, we assess whether emergent Christian clergy adhere to a different set of religious beliefs, values, and deliberative norms than those in the modern church.

Again, Burge and Djupe use a representative set of clergy from 8 denominations, and they compare the clergy within each set who self-identify with the emerging church with those who do not. As we saw on Friday, anywhere from 1% to 14% of the clergy in various denominations identify with emergent (and Burge revealed in a comment on that post that more recent study has added another denomination, the PC(USA), which clocks in at 11.5% emergent).

In this study, they’re primarily looking at the claims that the ECM makes about itself — that it is inclusive and conversational (or, in political science parlance, deliberative).

Regarding the first characteristic, Burge and Djupe slice it two ways, asking if ECM clergy are “inclusive” and if they’re “not exclusive.” In both cases, ECMers clearly rank high. For example, 17% of overall clergy consider themselves “progressive,” while 47% of emergents do. And 25% of clergy think of themselves as “ecumenical,” and 48% of emergent clergy accept that label.

Regarding theological commitments, Burge and Djupe write, “The results…show emerging churches to be less dogmatic, more open, and more questioning of denominations.” And, “The clearest distinction of emergents from others is how they consider denominations, with high agreement that denominations should embrace modernity rather than preserve tradition.” And remember, they are only studying emergent clergy who are inside of denominations.

Emerging, Progressive, Ecumenical

The proportion of Cooperative Clergy Study sample denominations identifying as an emerging church, progressive, and ecumenical.

Most interesting to me, however, is Burge and Djupe’s research into what the ECM has most often touted as its “conversational” or “dialogical” character. The claim that they set out to investigate was that the ECM claims to prioritize interaction among all members, and that a church’s beliefs are determined by all the people involved, not by the clergy nor the tradition with which the church is affiliated. “In this way,” Burge and Djupe write, “emergent churches might be called radical deliberative democrats in orientation.”

But wanting to be deliberative is one thing. Actually being deliberative is another.

I’m most interested in this research question because I’ve long touted the deliberative democracy component of the ECM. In speeches and in books, I’ve hailed dialogical sermons and flat polities as characteristic of how the ECM challenges conventional church practice. The survey questions about deliberative practices were limited to adult education — the authors note that they hope to gather similar data about worship services — but it is nevertheless clear that “emergent church clergy are more committed to these deliberative values than are clergy of other churches.”

Finally, Burge and Djupe conclude,

The short answer is that emergents are what they say they are. They are inclusive, non-dogmatic, and committed to discussion, but are also convinced that all religions are not equally good. That is, they are committed to a general Christian belief system, but it appears that anything else is on the table, able to be discussed and debated, discarded, or adopted by members. Moreover, it does not appear that emerging churches are merely upper class debating societies, but are actually full of a mix of people…

Lastly, the emergent church is explicit about its commitment to discussion. Whether through push of expediency or pull of ideology, almost all ECM congregations in this sample report a commitment to deliberative norms…Deliberation may simply be functional, helping to hold together fragile social groups. But deliberation also holds normative importance as it may help build the skills and commitments necessary to hold together other, larger social groups such as the state and nation. Though it has not been tested as such, participation in deliberative encounters in small social groups, such as congregations, may build tolerance that is necessary for limited democracy to survive in the long run.

Well, I don’t suppose that will satisfy the critics (on the left or the right). But, armed with this data, at least we can say that emergent has neither simply become assimilated into mainline Protestantism, nor that it’s merely a group of disaffected evangelicals.

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