I have great respect for the work of Tony Jones – blogger, author, theologian, and pioneer of the emerging church movement. His is one of the boldest, most passionate voices in the ECM today. As a part of a young emergent church over the last five years, many of us found his 2008 book The New Christians to be very helpful in understanding the ethos of the movement as a whole. I still consider it to be one of the great ECM manifestos next to Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy.
As I have studied the ECM throughout the years, I must admit that I have been disappointed by the lack of scholarly resources on the movement. Bolger and Gibb’s Emerging Churches has probably been the best academic book on the movement so far, but very little has been published on the subject that one could really call ‘scholarly.’ Clearly, this is due to the fact that the ECM is still quite young and relatively small in numbers. Still, it has had a deep impact on American Christianity and it’s time for scholars to engage it more seriously.
A second slight disappointment of mine has been the relative lack of more academic theological participants in the ECM. True, the movement is deeply theological, and some profound conversations have occurred since it began. While I greatly value these conversations, I have personally felt the need for more professional theologians to provide intellectual backing to the movement. Like it or not, academically trained theologians have insights to offer that lay theologians are not usually trained to consider. This is not to place the professionals ‘over’ pastors or lay theologians, but to recognize that they have an important place within the conversation.
So it was great news to hear that Jones had received his PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary in practical theology after many years of hard work, and that he also planned on publishing a ‘lightly emended version’ of his doctoral dissertation, The Church Is Flat: The Relational Ecclesiology of the Emerging Church Movement. In this book, Jones writes as a practical theologian to study the history, practices, and theology of the ECM. He also addresses both of my aforementioned ‘disappointments’: first, by providing an excellent sociological analysis of the ECM with an extensive bibliography; and second, by critically engaging one of the most important theologians of the last fifty years, Jürgen Moltmann to develop a more robust ecclesiology for the ECM.
While this is not a book aimed primarily at a popular-level audience as his previous books have been, Jones has managed to write a scholarly book that reads remarkably well. He also works hard to remain aware of his own favorable bias towards the ECM in order to facilitate a more objective study of the movement – an effort that I believe paid off in the end. Indeed, I would argue that Jones’ The Church is Flat is the new go-to book for understanding the past, present, and future of the emerging church movement. This is an exceptionally smart book that demands equally serious attention from participants, sympathizers, and critics of the ECM.
A central part of the book is a study of eight emerging congregations, involving interviews with pastors and laypersons, as well as Jones’ analysis of the relational practices and theological intuitions that are common to the movement. For the ECM, relationality is absolutely central – thus its strong emphasis on ‘friendship.’ Jones describes the concentration of the book as “a theological treatment of the relational nature of the [ECM].” He points out that there is no comparable book on the ECM that focuses on this “key component of the practices that animate these congregations.”
As one who has studied the relational theology of Jürgen Moltmann, I was especially interested in the final two chapters of the book that deal with his ecclesiology and Jones’ theological suggestions for the ECM. Jones points to the ecclesiological importance of Moltmann’s social Trinity and panentheism, two ideas that are central to Moltmann’s theology. The social Trinity encourages a radically relational, more egalitarian model of community by serving as a measure of all Christian practice, whether in the church, evangelism, or in interaction with other institutions and religions.
Moltmann’s panentheistic emphasis on divine immanence grounds the ECM’s rejection of the sacred/secular divide: ‘de-sacralizing’ the church while ‘re-sacralizing’ the world. Jones writes, “By believing that God’s presence is in all things, congregation members are encouraged to recognize that presence as they go about their daily lives…the church is thus no more or less important than…other institutions.” He calls for ECM practices that “embody panentheism.” One way this can work out is in interreligious dialogue and friendship. While a strength of the ECM is its ability to maintain a robust Christian identity while remaining open to the religious other, Jones recognizes that the ECM must become more active in building friendships with persons from other religions.
At the end of the book, Jones asserts that the ECM must engage in more serious theological reflection on practices in order to remain a vibrant movement. It needs more ‘traditional intellectuals’ if it is to “develop the intellectual backing needed to sustain it as it ages and, most likely institutionalizes.” In fact, Jones thinks it highly unlikely that the ECM will be able to avoid institutionalizing. If it is to avoid the many problems involved in such a process, the ECM must embrace a radically relational ecclesiology now – which is exactly what Jones has developed in this important work.