The Emerging Church Movement: A New Form of Religious Organization?

Monday, July 14, 2014: 3:55 PM
Room: Harbor Lounge B
Oral Presentation
Maren FREUDENBERG , Sociology, Free University Berlin, Berlin, Germany
The last 30 years have seen an unprecedented decline in formal religious adherence in the United States that has affected a range of religious organizations. As a result, institutionalized religion has undergone heavy scrutiny regarding its abilities to respond to the spiritual needs of society in postmodernity. With the deterioration of grand narratives and absolute truths, institutionalized religion is rapidly losing its monopoly on interpreting the faith and prescribing the ways in which it is to be practiced. Instead, local religious communities are claiming the right to redefine what it means to lead a faithfully Christian life in their individual social contexts.

The widespread criticism of institutionalized religion has resulted in the surge of a novel religious movement in the United States and elsewhere: the Emerging Church Movement (ECM). The ECM has no institutional structure or unified beliefs, instead spanning across a range of religious orientations from conservative to liberal, post-evangelical to neo-charismatic. It is often described as a “conversation” in that its followers question and criticize existing religious traditions and theologies and experiment with alternative ways of practicing their faith. They seek to overcome polarizing labels and preconceptions and the institutional and dogmatic baggage that these bring with them. They reflect postmodernity’s position that there is no absolute truth, deconstructing theological metanarratives and reorienting themselves toward early Christianity in an effort to ‘get back to the roots of the faith’.

Using field data, this paper shows how the ECM’s loose organizational form allows specific religious practices to take shape that offer viable alternatives to institutionalized religious membership. It then raises the related question whether the ECM as a growing movement defined by its non-institutionalization is a sustainable form of religious organization: if current growth rates continue, can the ECM escape organizational institutionalization at all?