WHILE CNN and Fox News continue to give platforms to Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr. — anachronistic hacks who bastardize their fathers’ legacies while also living off them — a burgeoning movement within American Christianity has steadily increased its influence well beyond the attention of journalists and scholars of religion (though not unnoticed by political operatives). In The Rise of Network Christianity, sociologists Brad Christerson and Richard Flory profile a brand of post-Pentecostalism they describe as “Independent Network Christianity” (INC). Their emphasis is on its unique organizational expression, borrowing the notion of “network governance” from economic and management theory. The acronym INC is also fitting since Independent Network Christianity is marked by distinct forms of finance and marketing. Though not as gauche or brazen as prosperity gospel ministries, INC Christianity is, in many ways, Christianity, Inc.
This book is an important introduction to a form of Christianity you’ve likely never heard of — but need to. Evidence suggests “this subset of neo-Charismatic Christianity is one of, if not the, fastest-growing subset of Christianity in the United States and around the world.” For Christerson and Flory, this isn’t just a look into a sector of charismatic Christianity — it is a reconnaissance report on the future of American religion: “The rise of INC Christianity,” they argue, “is symptomatic of larger, macro-structural changes in American society, and as a result other American religious traditions will likely take on some of the characteristics of INC Christianity in the near future.” And while the publication date of this book (March 2017) limited the opportunity to draw parallels with Trumpism, the volume offers insights into a religious mindset and posture that could partly explain the rise of a populism eagerly awaiting a strongman savior.
Like Pentecostalism that reverberated from the Azusa Street Revival of 1906, the history of INC is also very much a California story. Those unfamiliar with Southern California, who know it largely from Hollywood and the vignettes of Entertainment Tonight, are usually surprised to learn of the veritable Bible Belt that runs through Orange County. Heirs of the Okies and Midwesterners who made their way to California in hope or desperation, the religious disposition of Middle America remains alive and well there, refusing to be squelched by sun and secularization. To the contrary, the outlandishness of Californian libertinism seems to call forth a unique counterweight of evangelical protest and mission that engenders its own unending spiritual innovation.
INC spirituality is the latest chapter in this story, and Christerson and Flory do an excellent job at succinctly rehearsing it in chapter two. Beginning with Chuck Smith’s post-Pentecostal Calvary Chapel that grew out of the Jesus People movement of the mid-1960s, we meet John Wimber. Wimber joined the Calvary Chapel movement in the 1970s, and would eventually become the founding leader of the Vineyard movement — a “third wave” form of charismatic Christianity that was focused on “signs and wonders,” but unhooked from the historic Pentecostal denominations like the Assemblies of God or Church of God in Christ.
An important chapter in this story is Wimber’s partnership with C. Peter Wagner of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, where they launched an Institute of Evangelism and Church Growth. Unlike those “church growth” strategies that were little more than Drucker-ish management strategies warmed over with a little spirituality, Wimber and Wagner emphasized the supernatural in their vision, with a focus not only on spiritual gifts and signs and wonders, but also a particular fixation on spiritual power, and a concern with the demonic, including the innovative notion of “territorial” demonic forces.
What Smith, Wimber, and Wagner shared was an aversion to hierarchical authority and a penchant to set up their own shops whenever they encountered resistance. All of them moved from more traditional denominational affiliations to looser nondenominational “fellowships,” eventually setting up their own independent ministries such as the Wagner Leadership Institute, which is “perhaps the largest and best-organized promoter of INC teachings.” This pattern will be repeated and sacralized in INC Christianity. The demand for autonomy will be baptized as “religious entrepreneurship.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that leaders in this movement would also retrieve the title of “apostle.” Most traditional forms of Christianity understand the office of apostle as restricted to the first century of the Church. Apostles are those who, having witnessed the resurrected Christ in person, were then sent (the Greek root from which we get the word means a “sent one”) with a unique authority. But Wagner, for example, has described the INC movement as a “New Apostolic Reformation.” And the network is really one of leaders who claim the title “apostle” by virtue of supernatural manifestations in their ministries, and thereby seek the allegiance of followers. In turn, these apostles provide “spiritual covering” for other leaders and practitioners. To claim to be an apostle is to claim some kind of unquestioned authority and power.
The YouTube-ification of Christianity
Like Pentecostalism, this is also a story about California’s spiritual innovation being exported around the world. Indeed, there is probably an intertwined narrative here about the export of California technologies and California spirituality since “INC Christianity is marketed primarily through electronic media.” If the printing press enabled the explosion of the Reformation, the spread of fiber optic and wi-fi has spurred the rise of INC. The flows of new apostolic Christianity from its California roots follow the spread of YouTube from its San Mateo home.
The nodes of INC Christianity form a web of online venues, YouTube channels, roaming conferences, and church-based ministry schools that draw an international audience seeking both spiritual transformation and the power to carry out such signs and wonders. INC Christianity does not have a headquarters and is not tied to a denomination. Instead, it is a network of content providers that are tied to talent: Ché Ahn’s Harvest International Ministry; Bill Johnson’s Bethel Church in Redding, California; Mike Bickle’s International House of Prayer (IHOPKC) in Kansas City, Missouri, home to a particularly influential group of “prophets.” “Rather than seeing the emergence of INC Christianity as simply another round in the Weberian routinization process,” Christerson and Flory suggest, “one could see its emergence as part of a larger societal shift away from formal organizations toward networks as the primary organizing matrix of social groups.”
The followers and disciples of these apostles mostly “meet” them online and make occasional pilgrimages to events where they can hear them in person. Some of the most committed — who most want to learn how to access this “power” — will devote themselves to a year or more at one of their unaccredited ministry schools. Many of the followers don’t attend church, and instead see these distant apostles providing the content and “covering” they need.
That’s why a defining feature of INC Christianity is not a shared dogma or common affirmation of faith, but rather the relational currency of loyalty, allegiance, and identification:
INC followers are not necessarily members of congregations in the traditional sense. They often move from conference to conference, ministry school to ministry school, and define their faith more by their practices and allegiance to an individual leader than by their connection with a congregation, denomination, or tradition.
Christerson and Flory offer two different economic metaphors to describe this organizational innovation. On the one hand, INC Christianity is “a sort of multilevel marketing strategy” that offers “spiritual covering” to those who ally themselves with an apostle. On the other hand, INC is the Amazon of American Christianity, a model with advantages over the traditional “brick-and-mortar church,” which is “a high-overhead, low-revenue stream model for a religious ‘firm.’” In either case, INC is a disrupter of traditional religious organizations. Tell me what you think of Amazon, and I’ll tell you what you think of INC Christianity.
“You Can’t Join Us”
Christerson and Flory consider a number of features of this brand of Christianity, from its unique form of organization and governance to its “product” (supernatural power and social transformation) to its innovations in finance and marketing. Let me highlight just two aspects that might provide some insight into wider social realities.
First, it is striking how INC Christianity spiritualizes institutional irresponsibility into a kind of liberation. As one leader told the authors, “We don’t want to lead a movement. We don’t want to be responsible for churches. We just want to have our voice and do what we do.” A senior leader at IHOPKC was alarmingly honest: “we just don’t want to govern other things.” Or as a leader of the Global Legacy network put it: “You can’t join us.” Because then we would be responsible.
While this is celebrated as spiritual independence, it’s hard not to sense here some kind of arrested development, a spiritualization of irresponsibility. This is a desire for influence without the burdens of leadership — to be the charismatic center of attention without any responsibility for others. This is especially worrisome when one realizes, as Christerson and Flory document, that this desire for independence is bound up with a refusal to submit to the authority of others, a desire to be free from constraints. Such pious anti-institutionalism not only erodes institutions but also sequesters leaders (“apostles”) from accountability. This is the kind of leadership that assures followers by the trope of unaccountable personal assurance: “Believe me.”
(Is this sounding at all familiar?)
The Strongman Cometh
This relates to a second, jarring — if not disturbing — feature: the way INC Christianity primes a populace for deference to charismatic figures and accords them unchecked authority. At a basic level, this trades on the very title “apostle.” Unhooked from the traditional markers, apostolic authority in INC Christianity is tied to supernatural manifestations that speak to a kind of spiritual power. This power is experienced in ways that are spectacular — amenable to broadcast and the kind of thing you’d travel thousands of miles to see and experience. What apostles expect is “alignment,” a kind of identification expressed through participation, event attendance, donations, and articulated allegiance.
But INC Christianity also ties the evidence of apostolic power to status quo measures of success. Indeed, its notions of social transformation speak of “workplace apostles” who will usher in transformation. “And the way that apostles are identified in their various sectors is simply their success. […] [T]he way you recognize workplace apostles is by the amount of respect, money, and influence they command.” As the authors summarize it, “having access to wealth is seen as evidence of being an apostle.”
Christerson and Flory observe that “generally INC Christians are not known (or at least not known yet) for having the ability to deliver votes.” Yet they have prepped a populace for a charismatic strongman whose “success” is a sign of authority, whose refusal to be accountable is a mark of “independence” and disruption, and whose promises sound like those of a savior.
James K. A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and editor in chief of Comment. His most recent book is Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (Baker Academic, 2017).