The Emerging Church Movement in the USA As a Critical Response to the Neoliberalization of Religious Organizations

Monday, July 14, 2014: 11:15 AM
Room: Harbor Lounge B
Oral Presentation
Maren FREUDENBERG , Sociology, Free University Berlin, Berlin, Germany
The unprecedented decline in formal religious adherence and sharp increase of religiously unaffiliated Americans at the turn of the 21st century have led to critical assessments of the ways in which neoliberalized religious organizations respond to the spiritual needs of society in postmodernity. The mega-church model with its consumer-oriented, feel-good individualism and emphasis on entertainment and choice is a prime example of the encroachment of neoliberal, for-profit organizations employing private sector business strategies on the religious market. This model is increasingly rejected by those people seeking more ‘genuine’ ways of practicing their faith in ‘authentic’ faith communities.

The widespread opposition to the neoliberalization of religious organizations has resulted in the surge of a novel religious movement in the United States and elsewhere: the Emerging Church Movement (ECM). In the American context, the ECM was born as a reaction to mega-churches and seeker sensitive approaches in the late 20th century. Its followers question and critique existing religious organizations and the influence of neoliberalism on their practices and theologies. Interestingly, the ECM’s flat hierarchies and localized organization are themselves characteristic of neoliberalism, which raises the question to what extent the theologies and variations of orthopraxy represented in this group are also influenced by the spillover effects of free market ideology into the religious sphere.

This paper discusses the ECM as a manifestation of the rejection of neoliberalized religious organizations in the United States in the 21st century. It presents empirical examples of emerging church practices from the American Midwest that show not only which elements of neoliberalism-inspired religion the followers of this movement oppose, but also the kinds of alternatives they envision and implement. It addresses the question of whether the ECM is able to leave neoliberalized religion behind at all on its search for ‘genuine’ and ‘authentic’ faith.