The Emerging Church is just a Marketing Phenomenon


A very interesting post popped up on the theology site ‘An Und Fur Sich’ yesterday, which was a quick critique posted by Brad Johnson, after his investigation into the movement prompted by ‘a mixture of morbid and genuine curiosity.’ His single perspective was to read Pete Rollins’ books, and his comments spring basically out of that, but the most interesting aspect was his opening remark that:

The Emergent Church is a marketing phenomenon – a means of remaining “hip” and “edgy,” – and thus essentially another form of evangelistic seeker-sensitivity.

Johnson goes on to say:

For [the Emerging Church] it is well and good to question and/or doubt the faith, because these questions and doubts can be shown ultimately to affirm Christianity. […] This, it seems to me, is the strongest form of marketability: when even the aversion to marketability (e.g., self-deprecation) is itself a strongly ironic form of pure marketability.

A couple of things I’d like to point out in response to this. Firstly, Johnson titled his post ‘Giving the Emergent Church its Due,’ but I think given the limited scope of his reading and research, he has not done anything like this.

Secondly though, I think he is a) complete right and b) completely wrong.

He is completely right in that much of what carries the label ’emerging church’ is a straightforward marketing ploy by churches who are simply keen to attract younger members without actually changing the core of their beliefs or practices.

However, he is also completely wrong, in that the manifestations of ’emerging church’ that have become the popular face of the movement are, I believe a distorted simulacrum of the much more radical theological model that Pete (and others) have been writing about.

This presents a problem: if the practice is never going to live up to the theory, which is at fault?

Finally, I think Johnson, though right to identify the marketing phenomenon, doesn’t do enough to argue that this is a particularly ’emerging church’ problem. Personally, I think we are so heavily steeped in consumer capitalism that any attempt at change or re-formation is going to be afflicted by a marketing mindset (check this site out, for an example of the double-bind). Which is why my thinking for a possible next book is veering towards a synthesis of the twin failures of Communism and Christianity. It’s only out of the ashes of both that I think we might see a genuinely different movement.


7 responses to “The Emerging Church is just a Marketing Phenomenon”

  1. Weiers

    Yes, this definitely feels like a painful critique, especially because it seems to fly so radically in the face of what emergent church (or Pete Rollins’ iteration of it), at its heart, wants to achieve.

    I reckon that the challenge lies with the fact that the versions of emergent church that attracts the most attention, do so because their proponents are highly skilled communicators and probably also from time to time “hip and edgy”. In that sense it would be easy for somebody looking from a marketing perspective to see how they fit the marketing mould.

    What the commentator misses (in my opinion) is that emergence as a movement predominantly arises from the fringes of Christendom. It is a discourse that begins at the margins, with those who are often voiceless and alienated from a community. Often there is no glamour. At times there is a lot of brokenness. Usually, I suspect, there is only silence, or a quiet retreat. I don’t think that the “domesticated” language of marketing does justice to the empowerment and subversion that shapes much of the emergent conversation (I recall a similar debate with Mark Vans along a similar line not too long ago).

    I would be very interested in your views on Communism and Christianity. Perhaps Communism needed to reclaim its liberation ethos in the same way that Christianity needs to reclaim the truly subversive ethos of its origins.

  2. Hi, just popped over from AUFS, cheers for the comment. I think the idea of a book about the parallel failures of communism and Christianity would be interesting, but only if the failures were analysed on a (perhaps more Marxist inclined) in terms of material factors, power relationships and dominant ideologies, since history of ideas type books are manifold on both sides of the fence. I think Richard Rorty has an essay called “Failed Prophecies, Glorious Hopes” about the dual legacy of Marxism and Christianity which might make interesting reading.

  3. Thanks for your response to the post — both here and at AUFS. I would counter what you say here by pointing out that you are focusing a little disingenuously on the line one of my thoughts. When I was moving those thoughts over to the blog, I noticed that I’d typed “The E.C. as marketing phenomenon,” and made the change to “is a marketing phenomenon” without thinking that some readers might key in on this as indicating my intent was an overly pejorative criticism. As I think becomes pretty clear in the post and the ensuing conversation, my criticism simply are not to be boiled down to, as your post’s title has it, “The Emergent Church is just a Marketing Phenomenon.” In fact, quite the opposite: I would say NOTHING is “just marketing.”

  4. Apologies Brad – I didn’t mean to be disingenuous, and I understand that your comments were more wide-ranging. But I felt that the idea that the Emerging Church is little more than marketing is very very interesting as it is very true in many cases, but far from the truth in terms of the radical theology that purports to underpin it. Hence the title… which was, I’ll admit, a way of trying to lead readers in! Ah, marketing again.

    As you rightly say though, nothing is just marketing. What is troubling in our consumer capitalist world is that everything appears to be partly that.

  5. What is troubling in our consumer capitalist world is that everything appears to be partly that.

    Very much agreed on that score, KB.

  6. rodney neill

    I have seen so many different, overlapping and yet incompatibe definitions and descriptions of emerging/emergent/emergence church/Christianity in books/ blogoshere and at conferences with little or no consensus that I think these terms should be retired…you cannot have a coversation about ‘the emerging church’ until you have a mutual understanding of what groups/network or theologies are included in your personal definition of this term.

    In my more cynical moments I think it is an amazingly overhyped blogosphere phenomenon affecting the very tiny subculture of postevangelicals who regularly blog.

  7. Jessica

    completely right he was completely right 🙂