A sociality in search of an ecclesiology?: Jason Clark reviews Tony Jones’s ‘The Earth is Flat’.

A sociality in search of an ecclesiology?

In this review I firstly provide a summary of Tony’s book and methodology, and then offer a response and some questions for Tony.  If you are familiar with Tony’s book you might want to jump straight to the response.  I understand Tony is going to engage here with me, and others reviewing his book and I’m grateful for the opportunity to do that with him.

Overview of The Church is Flat

If the Emerging Church (E/C) has progenitors, Tony Jones is indeed one of them.  For whilst some are more cautious about any claims to their influence and perspective within the E/C, Tony directly claims to be a ‘founder of the movement’.

Whatever the veracity of Tony’s claim, his is a privileged viewpoint from within the E/C movement, and one that he chronicles in The Church is Flat.  This work is in essence Tony’s PhD dissertation, forming both an account of Tony’s experience of the E/C and his academic reflections on that experience.

Tony begins with an overview of the taxonomies by others of the E/C, suggesting that they are deficient with regards to any attention to the concrete practices of E/C communities.  It is here that Tony’s work is most valuable.  He rightly highlights that so many critiques of the E/C have not interacted with people from within those communities, something his work seeks to directly address.

The US centric nature of Tony’s work is also seen here too.  For there have been several PhD projects in the UK within practical theology that have sought to respond to this problem for UK E/C communities, along with many other detailed ethnographic surveys of the UK E/C. And there have been similar ethnographic and academic reflections from around the world within the larger E/C community.

Having established that Tony’s attention lay with a survey of the practices of the US E/C, he then immediately proposes that the E/C be best understood as a New Social Movement (NSM).

Tony selects eight congregations to survey as ‘exemplars’ of the E/C movement.  His thesis is that the NSM theories which delineate the emerging middle class movements that lay in-between previous notions of the proletariat and the bourgeois, can be correlated directly with the E/C.  In that regard Tony’s work does represent a helpful mapping of how the E/C has emerged within a larger middle class and evangelical social movement. Where some wring their hands at the middle class nature of the E/C, Tony situates his work in the centre of that manifestation with confidence, whilst trying to establish how it is wider than a middle class issue.

Tony then embarks on establishing how a phenomenological approach to surveying E/C congregations might help establish his thesis.  With this he is trying to get to the concrete practices of some of those within the E/C, and to understand how those practices are experienced by such practitioners.  Tony also selects this method to try to surface his own bias and those of those he surveys.  Tony establishes how being aware of that bias is methodologically more honest than many other methods that seek to bracket out such issues.

Tony then selects eight congregations to survey on the basis of whether those communities self identified with the E/C, the external reputation of those communities within the E/C and the history of the lead pastors within  relation to the E/C.

His questions for members of these E/C communities, are ‘who are you, and why do you go to this church?  What the core practices that you think set this church apart from others in your area?’.

Tony then seeks to surface from those interviews a mapping of those practices using practice theory.   In other words, he suggest how the viewing of those practices phenomenologically reveals the renegotiating of ecclesiology that has taken place with E/C communities.  Here Tony asserts that the nature of developing ecclesiologies through history is to re-negotiate their social arrangements.  In other words Tony see the E/C as a new re-negotiation within a normative ecclesial practice for Christians.

Tony then delineates his interviews into five concrete practices, being mindful to suggest that these are not unique to the E/C, but that their clustering reveals something new a la New Social Movements.  These practices are communion, worship, preaching, community, hospitality, theology, creating art, priesthood of all believers, and sacred space.  Tony provides an in-depth analysis of how these practices ,whilst not unique to the E/C, have been re-priorities and re-negotiated as social practices.

Tony concludes that it is ‘relationally’ that is the logic that operationalises these clustering of practices, within this New Social Movement.  And with that relational thread through those practices, he highlights some of the problematics that have arisen from that relational imperative.  He suggests that those problems would be best addressed with some attention to theology.  In other words ,Tony seems to diagnose the E/C as in danger of undermining it’s own relational logic without some considered theological reflection on that relational mode of operation.

Various ecclesiologies have been mapped against the E/C, to support its ambitions, but here Tony departs from the usual suspects of anabaptists, or anglo-catholic parish and opts for Moltmann.  It seems that in a detailed exploration of Moltmann’s ecclesiology, that Tony finds a theological analogue for the practices of the E/C that simultaneously addresses some of the deficiencies within those.  At the same time Tony points out some of the failings of Moltmann’s ecclesial aspirations.

And within this it would seem is a proposal that the E/C has been in search an ecclesial rational that Moltmann provides, and that Moltmann’s ecclesiology has been in search of some concrete socialities to manifest itself.

Most surprisingly .in his conclusion Tony levels a charge that many of the leaders of the E/C that he surveyed have functioned as ‘organic intellectual’, in the mode of Antonio Gramsci.  But he see that was is required for a non hierarchical and relational ecclesiology is a turn to the recruitment of traditional intellectuals,to avoid unwanted institutionalizing.


Tony’s book is a welcome addition to surveys and assessments of the E/C.  It is different from many other works, in that is is self -consciously written from within by an insider, and does pay detailed attention to real communities and E/C practitioners.  Too often the epiphenomena of concrete church life is ignored or theorized about abstractly.

Some of the claims made for the E/C perhaps need to be tempered with the picture of the larger emerging church from other countries.  Many of those consciously located within the E/C outside the US would seem themselves as antecedents ,that made the very processes of the US E/C possible.  But there are correlations from those accounts, in that they are generally also located within a middle class evangelical re-negotiation of ecclesial practices.

And as someone very involved within the E/C over the past 12 years, I recognized myself and  many of my friends within Tony’s accounts.  The practices as mapped out, do to a practitioner and church planter provide a thick and textured map that I can resonate with.  Indeed the high point of Tony’s work is his phenomenology, and ethnographic framed with the work of Bourdieu.  The result is that Tony’s work is no theoretical reflection on practice, avoiding some notion of the disinterested researcher who thinks practice flows from thinking.  Instead Tony is self consciously a practitioner embedded in the very practices and communities that he reflecting on.  If we are every to really understand what is going on in E/C communities we are going to need more studies like Tony’s.

Tony’s work does reveal the ‘logic of practice’ for much of the E/C, and with some needed nuance as to the predispositions, appetites and proclivities that provide the habitus of those communities.  As I read Tony the representation of the social bodies, enacted by the practices he delineates are almost palpable.  It allows us to touch, smell, see and hear the social realities of much of the E/C.  The habitus that Tony describes shows us where the E/C has through practices found it’s incorporation and social performatives around it’s embodied traditions.

If Jamie Smith’s work is leading us into an understanding of the need for and nature of Liturgical Anthropologies, of how worship shapes and forms us in the real world, Tony provides with an instantiation of a liturgical anthropology that complements Jamie’s proposals.[1]

But I was left wondering how much Tony’s work revealed the extent and nature of the embodied traditions that give the social logic of those E/C practices.  By that I wonder if Tony’s work falls prey to a methodological problem that John Milbank alerts us to.  Milbank’s thesis in ‘Beyond Secular Reason’, is that social theory and theology are not two separate self sustaining disciplines.  Theology has within itself a great deal of social theory and social theory is deeply theological in its nature and make up.

Milbank does provide us with a methodological warning, that we must avoid our own account being merely correlationist.  We cannot locate the measures for belief and practice outside the Christian faith – in the supposedly “neutral” and “objective” accounts from social theory, such as economics, sociology and evolutionary psychology.  For these accounts are far from neutral, with their own traditioned and anti theologies as extra-Scriptural authorities.

Within this I think that we do not want our accounts of Church to merely “correlate” Christian faith with the traditioned findings of other authorities. Rather, I have in mind methodologically the Semper aggiornamento, “always reforming” method of the reformation. Within this we are to be located in the ongoing work of tradition, the labour of ‘arguing about what constitutes a faithful extension of the tradition’.[2]

This contrasts with a correlationist “updating” in that it anchors our accounting within the ‘center of gravity in the tradition’, and prioritizes the authorities of that tradition.  Within this might see that Tony’s project locates the E/C outside of any Christian tradition, in a ‘hydroponic’ ecclesiology.

I wondered on reading Tony’s work, if a la Milbank, Tony has succumbed to this problematic.  By that I mean, does the starting point he makes of mapping the E/C against the idea of New Social Movements, allow a description of E/C ecclesiolgy to made from a social theory, that he then maps his theology against.  Or to put it more crudely and bluntly, is it sufficient to make a social theory accounting of church that we then seek to map a theology against?

I would have liked to see how the practices Tony’s surfaces, could be theologically diagnosed, such that we might see that they have theological and traditioned contours within them already.  Most importantly, I would argue that New Social Movements reveals ecclesial arrangements and theological convictions that could be mapped against and within the E/C more fully and necessarily.  Tony is right to take the concrete practices of the E/C seriously, but does that mapping he makes, allow an opportunity to reveal the traditioned belief and commitments from which those practices have emerged?

I’m not suggesting that Milbank’s logic be pressed too far, with attempts to out narrate social theory with theology.  And I am not suggesting that we should force social theory to map itself against theological accounts, as some kind of reversal of process.  I have my own suspicions arising from my own research as to the theology revealed in many of the practices that Tony details.  But that is my own project and not Tony’s.

I am aware that Tony does seek to discuss and explore the contours of the social arrangements of the practices he identifies, but it seems to do so on the terms of New Social Movements theory.  As per the title of this review I was left asking, is the E/C a sociality in search of an ecclesiology?

And if I have read Tony rightly I agree with him that each generation re-narrates its ecclesial arrangements within new emerging socialites; it has to.   I have in mind here Peter Ochs’ method of scriptural reasoning which I think invites us to consider Christianity as a communal process of shared suffering in changed cultural conditions; where beliefs and practices have been performed and re-narrated for continued self-understanding and identity formation.[3]  Here is where I think the narratives and practices mapped by Tony are ripe for more work to reveal the existing social logics that have given rise to the existing E/C re-narration.  Until those are brought to a conscious awareness, through further diagnosis of what has fuelled that re-narration, the E/C will be unable to anchor itself in any theologically aware ecclesiologies, Moltmann or otherwise.

Also where Tony asserts that the E/C needs to see its practices as primary ecclesial arrangements, I think instead they are better read as secondary.  Here I further reveal my methodological biases. For I agree with Doug Gay that reflections on the nature of Church be they previous manifestations, such as reformed, or ecumenical, or the new Emerging Church discussion, are secondary insights into how primary ecclesial concerns (such as confessions of the Church).[4]

For Gay wants to place some ‘weight’ upon the ‘Church’ of the ‘Emerging Church’, and suggests that we would be better served to talk of the ‘Church Emerging’.  Gay does so as ‘a conscious attempt to re-weight the term towards ecclesiology’.  This is due to his fear a la Hauerwas, of how a qualifier may eclipse a main term.[5]   There is a claim here by Gay that the Emerging Church has largely ignored or deliberately decided to place issues of secondary importance as primary.

My fear is that without this methodological reflection on the accounts Tony surfaces, the E/C will continue to conform it’s ecclesiology to underlying relational commitments that spring from something other than the primary concerns of Christianity.  The E/C will remain unaware of it’s own traditioned ecclesial antecedents and the equally traditioned social logics of culture and society.  I think when Tony highlights some of the epiphenomenal problems of the relationships within the E/C, that he is bumping into these.  Again I betray my own methodological preferences, as well as concern in the real world of seeking to grow a church plant that is emerging.  Most telling is that Tony’s signposting of Moltmann back to these practices of the E/C, seems to be at the level of a correlation with the practices he observes, and not with the problems within those social arrangements or a theological diagnosis of those relational realities.  It is there that I find little traction with Moltmann with the relationalities of the E/C.

There is something that Tony noticed in his own research as to where those within the E/C are locating rationales for their re-negotiated ecclesiology.  It would seem some are turning back into the Church, and other traditions, or at the least not wanting to place their ecclesial weight in the hydroponic ecclesiologies of New Social Movements.  At least that is my interpretation of Tony’s observations.  This makes them non-Emerging for Tony, whilst for Doug Gay it might make them ecclesiologies that are also emerging.

Yet here I find Tony a helpful interlocutor for helping me understand the re-narration of my own ecclesiology; where I am seeking to avoid a turn into a complete re-Catholisation (a la Milbank), and at the same time avoid a counter move too far into the social logics of any culture around me.  I fear Tony’s proposal is likely to end up being located in more of the latter, due to the methodological queries I raise above.


[1]  See  Smith, James K.A.. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Cultural Liturgies). n.p.: Baker Academic, 2009, Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy (Pentecostal Manifestos). n.p.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.  And most importantly see Jamie’s forthcoming book, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works.

[2] Jamie Smith has highlighted such a correlationism with reference  to the mid-century “updating” by Catholic theologians within their aggiornamento method, where they attempted to have Church ruling standards updated and conformed to modern social theories. See James K. A. Smith, “Semper Aggiornamento? On “Always Reforming”” http://tinyurl.com/34urtpt (accessed 2nd December 2010).

[3] Kepnes, ‘Peter Ochs’, 499. Peter Ochs’ work straddles theological, philosophical, and ethical domains. Within this, Ochs proposes a methodology of ‘scriptural reasoning’, which is a process whereby communities through performance re-describe what has occurred to them to obtain new self-understanding.

[4] Doug Gay, Remixing The Church: Towards an Emerging Ecclesiology, London (SCM Press) 2011, xiv.

[5] Doug Gay, Remixing The Church, xiii.

Further Reading:
Jason Clark :
  • http://twitter.com/LisaColonDelay Lisa Colón DeLay

    Besides parlaying dissertation work into a book, I’m not sure of the point. It smacks as quite outdated. Especially “from the field”… One thing this is not is a dispatch. Unless it’s a Back to the Future, Michael J Fox ecclesiology tribute perhaps.

    Emerging never really fit into a discernible classification…which makes many claims ludicrous. Though Jones may be right to claim early-adoption, personal grandstanding and many other claims all breaks down post haste….

    Most importantly most people have moved on….3 years ago or more.

    It too bad this is such a myopic treatment, too, but maybe dissertation topics force a ridiculous narrowness that serve narrow irrelevant purposes. Ah, academia! So fun, and yet so useless.

    It all reminds me of a neighborhood king of the mountain game on a lump of clean fill. Once the big boy go back home, a scrawny kid scurries to the top of the bump and screams, “I’m King!”

    The E/C conversation evolved, years ago, except for theorists who love dissection. Leaders and worker bees absorbed into other places liberalism, missional churches, liturgical settings, and post-evagelical conversation on specific topics related to gender, same-sex intricacies, and such.


    • Tony Jones

      Geez, Lisa, get up on the wrong side of the bed?

    • Tony Jones

      Also, 7 of the 8 churches I studied have grown since I did my research visits, so I think those people would be surprised to hear that “most people moved on.”

    • Garyblackjr

      Your information is… well misinformed. My recent PhD dissertation tracked the influence of the Emerging church in mainstream evangelicalism. The evidence reveals that the impetus and motivation of much of the early emerging church leaders is not only alive and well inside American evangelicalism it shows signs of becoming normative. The four categories that are most prevalent in younger generations of evangelicals (18-35) demonstrates they are interested and pursuing religions freedom, protest against doctrinal centric theology, holism, and authenticity. These four pursuit and priorities are evidenced in decidedly non-emerging styled churches. Hence I argue that the goals and objectives of the emerging church have gone viral and become widely accepted values in growing numbers of younger Christians across the country.
      In this case I think academia is not useless. Yet your misinformed opinions may be.

      • geoffrey holsclaw

        Gary, what exactly did you do your diss. on? It sounds very interesting.

      • Jason Clark

        Gary: I’d like to know more about your dissertation too

      • Matybigfro

        Gary your research has certainly mirror’s what I’ve noticed over the last 10 years.

  • roflyer

    So, in the words, the emergent church needs to be radically orthodoxized!

    • geoffrey holsclaw

      In a sense, Jason might agree with you that the EC needs to be radically orthodoxized (althought that sounds a bit like what happens to the undercarriage of your car in a bad midwestern winter), but I don’t think that is what Jason was doing by bringing up Milbank. Jason was just playing up the critique that using a theory of social movements might not be the best way to describe the EC (or any church movement for that matter).

      And i think Tony knows this at one level because he then uses Moltmann as a type of normative theological standard to give theological justification for EC practices.

      But I don’t think this means the EC needs RO to have a better theological account of the church. Some one like you could talk about an apocalyptic ecclesiology that would neither rely on social theory or RO.

    • Jason Clark

      I tried to avoid that claim with the qualifier that milbank goes to far with his out narration of social theory. Geoff has read me as I hoped to be read. I think there is a theological and liturgical anthropology to the e/c that is yet to be diagnosed.

  • Marc

    Gotta say I didn’t think the emerging church existed as such any more, so I was a bit surprised to see yet more books being written on it.

  • Simon Hall

    I’ve not read the book yet, and I kind of agree with Lisa that ‘Emerging Church’ may turn out to be a moment rather than a movement – the moment some (post)evangelicals became (post)liberals. The Emergent Village blog happens to have a report on the decline of labelled ‘cohorts’, perhaps indicating that different relationships and alliances are taking priority. Personally, I hope that that’s because people now have comrades in their own neighbourhoods and don’t need to travel so far to find a common understanding.

    I’m in the middle of this, a leader in a church/community/sociality that has variously been called (by others) a youth congregation, alt worship, emerging church, fresh expression. So, again, from within, here are a couple of immediate reflections:

    If you were to map out the relationships described during the time of the Judges (a polity which Yahweh clearly prefers to monarchy) or the early church as described in the New Testament, they would both look a lot more like a New Social Movement than the feudal systems that we have inherited from the medieval church. In fact, they would look a lot like a network. So I’m not too worried about Tony suggesting that EC is an accommodation to NSM. Frankly, rather that than selfish consumer capitalism. However, I read another dissertation a few years ago making the same point and I was left thinking that in that case at least the author was trying to put a quart into a pint pot; i.e. ecclesiology is far greater and more thorough than NSM theory.

    In passing, it’s worth noting the passing reference to Gramsci’s Organic Intellectuals, which got me thinking. These people can support/prop up all kinds of ideas – Piper and Driscoll fulfil that role for the hardcore Calvinist tribe. I’d love to imagine myself as one; on the side of the revolutionaries, of course! However, what I’ve found after 25 years of being part of doing church in new ways is that without institutionalisation of some sort these charismatic figures end up hogging all the power and influence. I’ve done it myself – everyone agrees what a flat and anti-monarchical church we are, because I’ve told them so. Gramsci thought that the way to combat the bourgeoisie’s organic intellectuals was to have some of his own, but I think the pentecostal Spirit should challenge the EC to aim higher than just having McLaren and Jones as their very own Piper and Driscoll.

    • geoffrey holsclaw


      So what do you think it would look like to have “the pentecostal Spirit should challenge the EC to aim higher”? How would it go about this?

      • Simon Hall

        :-) I think that for most of my time involved in leading churches here in the UK, everyone’s imagination has been dominated by a heirarchical understanding of leadership (as an aside, I think it’s one reason men struggle to join established churches – you can ask me about that another time!) which has been either feudal (the established churches) or managerial (the ‘new’ churches). So I think a lot of Christians who have wanted to do something new have rejected leadership in toto, rather than reimagine it. My references to early Israel and the early church were a tiny attempt to reference other visions of leadership within our tradition that are inherently anti-monarchical and might fund a new approach to leadership.

        Even during the monarchy I see Yahweh trying to separate power out, so that prophet, priest and king are intended to live in a trinitarian tension. Just as the leader of a traditional or mega church often ends up conflating those three roles and having way too much power, so the ‘organic intellectual’ (to steal the term from the article) can often accumulate excess power precisely because of the lack of structure.

        My reference to the pentecostal Spirit also takes us back to another early movement: the earliest days of Azusa Street, when gender and ethnicity barriers seem to have broken down and the church was perhaps quite flat for a moment. Joel’s prophecy clearly envisages a time somewhat similar to Revelation 21, in which each person is able to have an unmediated relationship with God, precisely the opposite of most celebrity-driven, warehouse-based charismatic churches. I’d love to be part of a church in which the ecology of giftedness was activated throughout the whole community.

        So, in my own community it means that most of what we do is quite self consciously flat – using relatively simple ‘folk’ music that anyone can play along to, so that musicians just turn up and join in (we gather in a circle, so there’s no particular stage area either). We have a congregational system of government, legally structured like a co-op. That means that leaders must be recognised and appointed by the community. We don’t really vote, but we do allow people to veto decisions if they really believe that what we’re doing is wrong (not just something they’re not into). Those meetings are chaired by an independent person who is recognised as being as impartial as possible.

        We are currently reorganising ourselves, so I’m not too sure what will happen next. I hope that we can find a way to keep that tension between prophet, priest and king. It probably means that the chair guy will ‘chair’ the whole church, and it’s possible that the work will no longer be directed by me, but by a woman who is equally gifted as a leader, just not theologically trained. I would remain as an organic intellectual, trying to subvert my own influence!

        I think there are things that Emergent Village is doing, such as the openness of its blog (with interesting results!), but I suspect it will be at the local level where these issues play out. Here in the UK, John Drane has commented that emerging churches are still predominantly led by white men. It would be great to address that…

        • geoffrey holsclaw


          You basically gave my definition of leadership: “I would remain as an organic intellectual, trying to subvert my own influence!” Leaders should use their influence to direct away from themselves and toward the work of the Spirit in their midst.

          I’m not sure this is exactly what Tony means by directing us to a “flat church” but I think it is close.

          • Simon Hall

            You said it much more succinctly than I did!

  • http://twitter.com/drew_psu Drew Tatusko

    I usually like to read the book before commenting on a comment so I am breaking my own rule :) What I am interested in vis a vis the sociology of religion is demographic makeup of the E/C and its particular social “emergence” from Protestantism. I have not interacted much with in in the past 18 months or more. I am one who joined it in various place, then left. I left to become Eastern Orthodox which answered the questions raised, perhaps justly so, within E/C.

    Further, one area that bothered me is the insistence on non-hierarchical social structures as if any group of people can be sustained in the long haul without self-organizing in even a slow organic adaptation to a form of hierarchy. Very few have achieved this. One example is the Oxford Group in the early 20th Century whose principles only truly live on in Alcoholics Anonymous.

    If the critique above is comprehensive, it is difficult for me to ascertain the precise social location and emergence of the E/C save as an additional social movement within the trajectory of progressive evangelicalism.

    If this sort of data is in the book I will shut up and read it :) Tony would want me to do that anyway.

    • http://twitter.com/drew_psu Drew Tatusko

      Replying to myself… This paragraph answers part of it: “His thesis is that the NSM theories which delineate the emerging middle class movements that lay in-between previous notions of the proletariat and the bourgeois, can be correlated directly with the E/C. In that regard Tony’s work does represent a helpful mapping of how the E/C has emerged within a larger middle class and evangelical social movement. Where some wring their hands at the middle class nature of the E/C, Tony situates his work in the centre of that manifestation with confidence, whilst trying to establish how it is wider than a middle class issue.”

    • Jason Clark

      Drew: great example with the Oxford Group. That group demonstrates that when ‘relationship’ is the rationale for ecclesiology, those relationships are always made with commitments to other orientations. Relational ecclesiologies, take shape around socialites with commitments that shape the way those relationships work. That’s what I’m suggesting I’d have liked to see Tony’s mapping get to. He touches on some of the problems of that relational ecclesiology, and I think it would help to theologically excavate those problems as well as benefits.