Church as the ultimate new social movement


(This post is something I recently wrote for the 'Church and Pomo' site. I've reposted it here and included something from the comments conversation that I wish I'd put in the main post)

My PhD research and my daily work as a church planter, and pastor/minister have me located within Political Theology.  I’m trying to understand how consumerism and secularism are analogous to religious systems, using key theological discourses of the Church in history, and explore the implications for ecclesiology.

How are people formed, what are they formed into, and how does this compare, intersect and contrast with the nature of Christian identity and formation, and most critically what are the implications for ecclesiology.

As I’ve been surveying my cultural landscape, I’ve come across a few suggestions, usually made with great fervor that ‘New Social Movements’ (NSMs), provide an understanding of human identity and formation, that the church must be located within.  The references to NSMs by seem to run along these lines (if I can put them crudely):

1. Western society has changed, for ever.  The ways people organise, and structure themselves, in work, play, and family interactions have emerged into a new cultural realities.

2. Church has no choice, it must track these social realities, and form itself around them, or become extinct.

How NSMs are post-marxist, and are the cultural post-materialist concerns of western bourgeois middle class, isn’t something I want to delve into.  But I do want to call into question, the methodological and in particular ontological assumptions of this kind of reasoning.  In doing so, I know that will make me appear trapped in ‘old skool’ theological methodologies and paradigms, at least to devotees of NSMs.

Yet within this I’m not anti social science and theory, but I do question the headlong rush into sociological methods, and the ‘social imaginaries’ that flow from them by the church, in particular those within practical theology.  And I do believe that commodification so completely disconnects beliefs from practice (Vincent Miller in Consuming Religion convinced me of that), that the quest to produce better theologies, specifically better anthropologies to dissect and repel those of consumerism/secularism, won’t solve the churches problems.

But I do believe that theology, should set the ‘social imagination’ of the church, sketch out and narrate a ‘social reality’ of it’s own.  Ecclesiology under the spell of NSMs, and other sociological methodologies, seems to have been reduced to a ‘social doctrine’, one so flexible, that the church has become just one option amongst the many voluntary clubs societies and options within the NSMs of western culture.

Maybe the problem isn’t so much that the Church is shouting it’s theology into the howling wind and reality of NSMs, but that the church has lost any ability to articulate and imagine itself, as the ultimate new social reality.

Perhaps Church, the people of God, is not a voluntary choice, within the plurality of choices of NSMs.  Church, is not penultimate, but the ultimate choice we make (For example we see this social conception within the household codes of the new testament).  

So what might shape our imaginations instead of metaphors of social realities? Whilst we have seen a turn to a narrative theology, that is shaping the imaginations of the church with 'Cultural-linguistic' approaches with the Yale school etc, Kevin VanHoozer with his 'Drama of Doctrine' (who gives a nod to Lindbeck’s postliberalism), offers a self-conscious ‘canonical-linguistic’ approach to doctrine rather than a ‘cultural-linguistic’ approach.  

We need the narrative of scripture to shape our imaginations.  Oliver O'Donovan's 4 movements of the Christ event (that he delineates in "The Desire of Nations), outlined from scripture, offers such a ‘canonical-linguistic’ approach.  It's one that has captured my imagination, and helped me imagine church beyond cultural pragmatics, and aesthetic choices, not matter how important those are.

Until we understand Church as The New Social Movement, shifting culture realities, rather than a Christological reality and ordering of the resurrection of Jesus will be taking shape within and between us.