The 'emergent church' growing but hard to define

March 8, 2009

New ways of "being church" that developed in the past couple of decades are gathered under the term "emergent church."

It's also called a conversation, a movement, a phenomenon – and defining it is "like chasing mercury around a chemistry lab table," said Phyllis Tickle, author of The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why.

Although their emphasis on Scripture, the sacraments and their relationship to the established church vary widely, emergent churches are linked by their dedication to worship and ministry in the context of their location.

"A community in rural Iowa is going to be very different from the ones I've been involved with in Manhattan and Harlem because the places attract people with different stories and sensibilities in different environments," said Bowie Snodgrass, co-founder of New York's Faith House, described on its website as "an interdependent community." She recalled an Easter evening when more than 200 people attended a worship service honoring Mary Magdalene in a Manhattan club. She and a musician friend had developed the service with sex workers and artists who lived and worked in the neighborhood.

"We just do it," said the Rev. Jimmy Bartz, leader at Thad's, a mobile congregation under the authority of Bishop J. Jon Bruno of the Diocese of Los Angeles. "What we've leaned into is an ideal of creating a community of faith for people who wouldn't otherwise be attracted to traditional church," he said.

The Rev. Tom Brackett, church planting specialist for the Episcopal Church's Evangelism and Congregational Life Center, said most emergent church folk "answer the question, 'What kind of relationship would Jesus have with the institutional church?' with, 'He'd be out there on the steps, teasing people to serve in the world."

Emergent churches often are populated with the young. "Lots of 20- and 30-somethings have trouble reconciling being smart, interesting and cool with believing in God," said Snodgrass, 31.

Although most members are in their 20s and 30s, they're usually joined by plenty who are older and a few who are younger, said James Wall, co-founder of The Wilderness, a worshiping community at St. John's Cathedral in Denver. "It's mostly those who are un-churched [rarely attend church], those who are dechurched [have stopped attending traditional church] and the young – which for the Episcopal Church is almost a miracle," he added with a laugh.

"My clarion call to fellow Episcopalians is that 'emergent' congregations are where the growth is in the church. New forms of worship and discipleship, engaging the culture, meeting people where they are rather than where we are, is vital, I believe, for the survival of our wonderful tradition," said Wall. He estimated The Wilderness had involved around 150 people who didn't attend church regularly before joining the community.

The Diocese of Massachusetts sponsors The Crossing, which meets at St. Paul's Cathedral in Boston, in hopes of building a core of new leaders: young adults, people of color and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people.

"What we end up with," said the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, lead organizer and author of Radical Welcome: Embracing God, the Other and the Spirit of Transformation, "is a place for anyone who has hungered because they've had to leave some portion of their heart or body outside the church."

Dual membership
Worship leaders agree that around half of emergent-community members participate in more traditional settings as well. For Snodgrass, belonging to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York is "grounding and nourishing."

Yet, she said, she also feels called to belong to Faith House, where an Internet-organized group grounded in hospitality holds "living room gatherings" featuring homemade vegetarian meals and lively conversation every other Saturday evening. The intentionally intergenerational, ecumenical group takes a "field trip" each month to visit religious services, lectures or concerts. It also gathers monthly to engage in a service project for the sake of social or environmental justice.

Many communities gather people who identify with a variety of traditions, which is "one of the many ways the movement is a real blurring of denominational lines," said Snodgrass. Some emergent communities intentionally stay disconnected from any established church, while others, especially those worshiping in churches, are at home with established denominations.

Some Episcopalians identify themselves as "Anglimergents," much as other Christians call themselves "Presbymergents" or "Luthemergents." The year-old Anglimergent website defines itself as "a generous and generative friendship among diverse Anglicans, engaging emerging church and mission."

The ways emergent churches honor their communities' characteristics energize her, Spellers said. "With the number of cultural voices in this country, there's no reason for our church and its tradition to speak with only one cultural voice."

In Boston, multicultural music permeates The Crossing's worship, which begins every Thursday evening with rock music blaring from a boom box on the cathedral's steps facing the city's historic green. A welcomer invites anyone – including homeless people – into the cathedral, where the chancel is strewn with comfortable chairs and pillows.

Eucharist is celebrated with Spellers, an Episcopal priest, offering spontaneous prayers. A community member delivers a reflection after working on it with others. Typical service music is "funk-infused chant," Spellers said, noting that "just about everything we do is hybrid." The instruments themselves are a bass, a piano and an African drum called a djemb. After the service, Spellers said, "we jam" before holding a forum – a recent topic was "sex, relationships and keeping it real" – and heading to a neighborhood Brazilian restaurant.

Spiritual practice
At The Crossing and in some other emergent worship communities, the service includes a "spiritual practice" time. Each month at The Crossing, a leader chooses "a practice that is true for him or her," said Spellers, and then leads the group – usually between 35 and 40 people ranging from their early 20s to their early 70s. Practices have included praying the psalms, yoga, a walking meditation, centering prayer and journaling.

Worshipers at Seattle's Church of the Apostles (COTA) choose among several spiritual practices called "worship stations." Parishioners have created stations corresponding to the U.N. Millennium Development Goals. Participants are asked to read, listen, watch, taste, say or touch something to engage the goal presented.

The station for Goal Six: Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Other Diseases, for example, features a large hand-drawn map of Africa on which worshipers are "invited to write or draw art as prayers, blessings and hopes for Africa using pens and paints," the Rev. Karen Ward, called the church's abbess, wrote in an e-mail.

"Basically, we see ourselves, not as 'consumers' of church that is 'put on' for us as 'audience,' but as producers of church (liturgy truly as our people's work)," Ward wrote.

Like in most emergent communities, members (there are around 150) engage in an active spiritual life outside of worship. Activities and ministries range from the tried-and-true, including mission trips and Bible study, to the more innovative, such as online meditations and a drumming circle.

"Church for us is a 'lifestyle,' not one weekly meeting," wrote Ward.

Thad's – named for the apostle admired by the community for his humility – uses the tagline: "We are Monday-Saturday followers of Jesus who worship on Sunday."

Although Thad's has moved several times since its inception in September 2006 – from a home to a restaurant banquet room, a public park and most recently a jazz club – a constant is being "a Scripture-driven community," said Bartz. He delivers a "teaching" that lasts roughly 20 minutes and is followed by a 10-to 15-minute dialogue among the 100 or so attending each Sunday morning.

Instead of relying on a lectionary, Thad's members choose a book of the Bible to explore over several weeks. When the community began, Bartz preached on Paul's letter to the Corinthians "because Corinth was a multicultural society with lots of distractions, just like L.A." Members of the young community are interested in the early church as portrayed in Luke and Acts, and so that is their current scriptural focus, he said.

At every service, Bartz announces "homework" related to each teaching – ways to "exercise relational muscles that have atrophied as we've become increasingly autonomous." Assignments range from the practical – eating a meal with someone you think hungers in some way – to the more meditative – a challenge to ask oneself: "What do I need to hear?"

As at most emergent churches, music plays a crucial role at Thad's, where the band is about to cut its second CD.

Eucharist is celebrated occasionally, "when the narrative of Scripture or the season demands it" – typically a few times a year – Bartz said. The more contemplative communities of COTA and The Wilderness, however, focus on the Eucharist, while The Crossing places nearly equal emphases on the Eucharist, Scripture, spiritual practice and hospitality.

'Giant rummage sale'
Tickle and like-minded scholars view today's fluid yet burgeoning movement as a predictable shift. They theorize that, roughly every 500 years, the Christian church undergoes what Bishop Mark Dyer – one of several Episcopal bishops interested in the movement – terms "a giant rummage sale."

Previous upheavals included the Council of Chalcedon in 451 proclaiming that Jesus is both human and divine; the schism between the eastern and western branches of Christianity, beginning in 1054; and the Reformation that birthed Protestantism and Anglicanism in 1517. According to this theory, society is due.

Spellers and others see the emergent church as naturally Anglican, following a tradition that began in the context of tumultuous 16th-century England.

"We have to love our traditions and the good news of Jesus Christ enough to translate them so emerging cultures and generations can love them, too," Spellers said. "It's exactly what Thomas Cranmer [architect of the Book of Common Prayer] would have wanted to see us doing. It's not just emergent. It's contextual, and that's fundamentally Anglican."

Brackett said he was cheered by the "creativity and faith" among those developing and sustaining emergent churches. "It's a hopeful sign to see these people who have such a strong commitment to the work of the Spirit and who see church as a way of being."

The proliferation of emergent churches, Bartz said, is "a natural reform movement that is Spirit-driven.

"I think it happens most often when what we've been doing isn't able to maintain relevancy," he said. "I don't know how it will play out, but I do know it will last."

The shape of the emergent church in the future hinges on how we answer two questions, Spellers said: "Can we not stretch? And doesn't the gospel require us to stretch, to meet people where they are and where God already is?"