Review: 'The Church Is Flat: The Relational Ecclesiology of the Emerging Church Movement' by Tony Jones


I just finished the book today and have to say that I am very impressed with Jones' latest work. A "lightly amended version" of his recent doctoral dissertation, the bibliography reads like a who's who of postmodern scholarship. The first chapter in particular goes in depth in outlining the variety of intellectual property from which Jones draws to underpin his research into the Emerging Church Movement (ECM). It is not a light read by any stretch of the imagination. Acknowledging this, Jones admits that the dissertation style is not his favorite, and jokingly offers the reader forgiveness for "skipping the sections that don't interest you."

At the core of the book is Jones' own study of the ECM. He performed research into eight leading churches within the movement, including his home church of Solomon's Porch in Minnesota (founded by Doug Pagitt), Cedar Ridge Community Church in Maryland (founded by Brian McLaren), and Vintage Faith Church in California (founded by Dan Kimball). From both the quantitative and qualitative data he obtained through his research, Jones identifies four concrete practices common to all the studied churches: Communion, Worship, Preaching, and Community. He also identifies five practices of virtue: Hospitality, Theology, Creating Art, Priesthood of All Believers, and Sacred Space. Jones sees relationality as the "binding characteristic" of these practices, and turns to the "relational ecclesiology" of Jurgen Moltmann as a means for bringing theological understanding to these practices.

And for me, this is where the book shines. As a founding leader within the ECM himself, Jones readily admits that the theology of the ECM is not well articulated. But he understands that the longevity of the movement is dependent on the existence of "thorough and robust theological reflection". I see this book as Jones' attempt to begin this reflection for the movement, by taking a studied look at the practices that exist within it, and seeking to draw theological conclusions from them. (He relies heavily on Moltmann for this, devoting an entire chapter to his theology. But Jones has criticism for Moltmann as well, and does not turn to him exclusively.) In my opinion this is a much needed course of action, and I am thankful that Jones has begun this process. It will be interesting to see if the ECM can indeed take some firm theological stands on a larger than local basis while still practicing a local communal hermeneutic. Its continued existence may depend on it.

As a side note, the book also includes a wonderful short history of the Emerging Church Movement. This historical synopsis, along with the in-depth study of the core churches currently leading the movement, is enough for me to recommend the book to anyone who is even remotely interested in the ECM. Feel free to skip the parts that don't interest you.