The Rise of Network Christianity

How Independent Leaders are Changing the Religious Landscape

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Brad Christerson, Richard Flory
Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Studies
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , March
     2017.
     200 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190635671.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In their monograph, The Rise of Network Christianity: How Independent Leaders Are Changing the Religious Landscape, Brad Christerson and Richard Flory aim to “explain the phenomenal growth rates of one particular subgroup of independent neo-Charismatic believers…labelled Independent Network Charismatic [INC]” (6). Christerson and Flory consider INC the fastest-growing Christian sub-group in the United States and possibly the world, and attribute its success in the American religious marketplace to its unique practices and governance structures (6). They also consider the rise of INC Christianity as “symptomatic of larger, macro-structural changes within American society” (2). These changes include the decline of Protestantism; the decline of denominational Christianity and the rise of independent churches; and the growth of Pentecostal/Charismatic believers (3-5). The macro-structural changes since the 1970s consist of globalization (resulting in increased cultural and religious pluralism); the digital revolution (an increase in interactive media); and the rise of networks alongside the decline of bureaucracies (a result of declining loyalty to institutions) (14-16).

The Rise of Network Christianity is based on original qualitative research by the authors, including in-depth interviews with ten current and former Pentecostal and Charismatic leaders. These interviews led them to focus primarily on the four most frequently mentioned groups: Bethel; International House of Prayer (IHOP); Harvest International Ministries (HIM); and the Wagner Leadership Institute (6). The second phase of research consisted of forty-one in-depth interviews with INC participants as well as attendance at multiple events, conferences, leadership training events, and on-site visits during the period 2009 to 2016 (6).

In a synoptic manner, Christerson and Flory provide historical background by describing the “first wave” of Pentecostalism (the denominational groups that emerged from the Los Angeles Azusa Street Revival of 1906 and grew rapidly over three decades); the “second wave” as Charismatic (post World War II believers who embraced Pentecostal aspects yet remained in mainline denominations); and the “third wave” neo-Charismatics (believers involved in Charismatic churches and ministries after 1970 and known as new paradigm churches) (7-8). INC groups are considered neo-Charismatic but differ in four ways from the new paradigm churches: (1) they do not seek to build a movement; (2) they are not focused on building congregations; (3) they seek to transform society as a whole; and (4) the leaders and ministries are connected by networks of cooperation (8).

Chapter 1 focuses on the rise of INC while chapter 2 delves into its origins. Chuck Smith is considered the progenitor of INC, John Wimber as its earliest proponent, and C. Peter Wagner its chief facilitator (18-29). Key concepts include “apostolic” leadership/alignment and “covering” (which includes a flow of finances for the privilege of being aligned to the apostle), along with the “seven mountains of culture” (dominion theology that seeks God’s kingdom here on earth via apostolic leaders who will influence religion, education, family, media, arts and entertainment, and business) (30-31). The authors discuss Max Weber’s patterns of routinization in religious groups (social theory) in relation the INC Christianity (42-46). Chapter 3 focuses on INC’s innovations in governance by means of apostles and networks. The contested meaning of the word apostle as well as Weber’s description of charisma is discussed (50-52). INC leaders are aware of the pitfalls of routinization and leverage networks to avoid it (53). There are two types of networks: vertical, with spiritual power and authority cascading down while finances and loyalty flow upwards (53-60); and horizontal, with less formal ties and a “fee-for-services” approach (60-64). Chapter 4 focuses on the “products” of INC, namely direct access to supernatural power, opportunities for participation in public places, and supernatural social transformation (74). Chapter 5 focuses on innovations in finance and marketing, which are attributed to INC’s network structure and “the availability of new digital communication technologies” (105). The web, vertical network structures, conferences, and boot camps are effective income generators for these groups (112-20). Chapter 6 focuses on the negative aspects of INC Christianity, including overselling the miraculous, resulting in disillusionment of believers; the lack of a stable community that offers meaning and belonging; and the lack of capacity for long-term social change with corruption and scandal contributing to this difficulty (125-44). Finally, chapter 7 focuses on the success on INC Christianity and its implications.

The authors’ aims are clearly defined and unpacked throughout the book. They substantiate their claim that INC Christianity is a rapidly growing sub-group in neo-Charismatic Christianity and argue that it will influence mainstream Christian practices in years to come. Their discussion of networks in the religious economy is useful in understanding the influence of INC Christianity in the changing religious landscape of America; it holds a niche market and is expanding its market share (160). Their recommendations of offering a compelling experience of the supernatural, creating opportunities for the public expression of beliefs and practices, allowing followers to lead, and seeking new financial models are useful for mainstream churches to take note of (160-64). However, their assertion that “authority and power in religious groups will become more highly concentrated in the hands of individuals rather than institutions” is a very broad stroke that needs further elaboration as the current trend of holding charismatic leaders to account is increasing. This has been witnessed in politics (the decline of popularity for Trump in the US, Merkel in Germany, and May in the UK), business (Toshiba’s top executives held to account for a $2 billion accounting scandal), sport (Sepp Blatter’s unbridled governance curtailed), and even the church (five Singaporean executive pastors jailed for financial mismanagement). Eventually the masses and governments become “wise” and even the most charismatic of leaders are held to account (for example, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Jimmy Swaggert, and Todd Bentley).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shaun Joynt is a postdoctoral fellow in practical theology at North-West University.

Date of Review: 
October 31, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brad Christerson is professor of sociology at Biola University. 

Richard Flory is senior director of research and evaluation at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California.

Add New Comment

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.

Log in to post comments