The Church in the West is in a period of great change. Phyllis Tickle in her recent book ‘The Great Emergence’ likens it to a giant rummage sale, a time where treasures are re-found as well as the unwanted cast off. She would suggest that out of this time of turmoil a ‘new, more vital form of Christianity does indeed emerge’p17 alongside the reconstitution of the established historical forms of the faith. Others, such as Eddie Gibbs in ‘Churchmorph’ have also mapped out the changing times we are in concluding that ‘In the long term, churches will either morph or become moribund’p31
The churches and communities that I have visited are a small snapshot of this time of change. They are churches that are ‘morphing’. Many of the themes that have emerged during my visits have been echoed in the wider writings of those concerned with mission in these changing times. They are themes that, it seems to me, are helpful if we are to constructively engage with the cultural shifts and become churches that reach out in mission. Phyllis Tickle points out that historically ‘every time the incrustations of an overly established Christianity have been broken open, the faith has spread’. These are not just times of decline but times of opportunity.
Experiential: Heart and soul
I was struck by a comment from Nadia Bolz-Weber at Greenbelt this summer (she is the Lutheran Pastor of ‘All Saints and All Sinners’ an Emerging Church in Denver). She was speaking about an issue around the inclusion of ‘new-comers’ in their Church. To deal with the issue she had had a meeting when the old-guard and the new-comers had met together. At the meeting she had simply asked the new-comers to tell their story. Discussions regarding the nature of the Church, where it should be focused etc. were seen as secondary to the power of the individual personal story.
We live in a culture that highly values personal experience. It is the shift from trust in an overarching Big Story (meta-narrative) to a focus on our individual personal story. This can be seen in the style of documentaries such as ‘Who do you think you are?’ – history through the telling of an individual story. Even in the academic world that I work in students are far more likely to come and listen to an ex-Mafia boss talk about his ‘experience’ than an academic debate on the nature of suffering.
This is a pattern that could be seen in many of the groups that I visited. The significant question would be how does my experience connect with your experience, my story with your story. And alongside that how do our stories connect with the story of Jesus and the experience of faith. Adam from Foundation said ‘we are all sharing the burden of this journey of faith’. This is a journey together, a shared experience, a shared story. In order for that to be possible many of the groups remained small, tight networks of friendship where people felt safe to share their story. Or, as at Taize, there is a small group structure within the large gathering. But always the focus is on the individual personal story and its interconnection with others and with faith.
Brian McLaren in ‘A new Kind of Christianity’ speaks of this shift in relation to the use of the Bible. ‘Revelation through conversation’ is how he describes it, and suggests that in the past evangelicals have put us under the text and liberals have put us over but that instead we are now in the text. ‘in the conversation, in the story, in the current and flow, in the predicament, in the Spirit, in the community of people who keep bumping into the living God’ p125
Our worship, our meetings, our church life therefore need to connect with people’s hearts and souls, not just their heads. They need to begin with people’s experience, their story and through that explore faith. If we put a rationale for belief before the experience of faith we will have lost people. I believe one of the reasons that my own denomination is struggling at the moment is that it has historically put a high value on a learned ministry as if the preacher’s sole task (sometimes wearing gown and academic hood) was to impart knowledge. Culturally we are out of step with a generation that learns through experience and learns collaboratively and we will continue to fail to connect with people unless we can touch their hearts and their souls.
Clear Mission Focus
There has been much debate over the idea of the Homogeneous Unit principle (HUP) a notion first put forward in the 1970s. Rev Dr Michael Moynagh, a key figure in the Fresh Expressions movement, has argued strongly in favour of HUP and in his book ‘Emergingchurch.intro’ suggests ‘A local church offering one-size-fits-all will deny choice to those who don’t fit, and be ignored.’p67 Many other people, though, will argue that it is important that the Church and its worship is there for everyone and therefore to deliberately focus on one group is to deny the broad inclusive nature of the gospel. But worship cannot help but be culturally expressed: it is just that currently most of the mainstream churches are dominated by a style of worship and environment that culturally suits the over 50s (or 60s?).
Most of the groups I visited did not overtly say that they were trying to reach a particular demographic but the very time, style, place of meeting did, in fact, express their mission focus. For example, a midweek evening pub group is unlikely to be for young families. A worship space with mostly floor cushions is likely to be for the under 30s. Equally, in our publicity conscious world, the style and content of a group’s advertising clearly reflects who they are hoping to connect with. Even the Taize community, much loved by people of all ages and backgrounds, seems to me to have a clear mission focus on the under 30s. It is expressed by the way visitors over 30 are limited to one week a year, and by the provision of very basic food and accommodation which becomes increasingly less attractive the older you get!
Churches are often fearful of an overt mission focus on one demographic group, as if in doing so they are denying the gospel to those outside that group. There is also a fear of losing the vision of the Church as a broad-based community where all are welcome, yet throughout history the Church has always been a culturally expressed institution. There was no golden age when everyone worshipped together: in earliest times there were already Jewish churches and Gentile churches. This does not mean that we are not right to yearn to be one community, one family of believers, but how that is expressed is not through a one size fits all Sunday morning service that either suits no-one, or simply plays lip service to a broad-based appeal.
A clear mission focus is crucial if we are to connect with people beyond the Church in a culturally appropriate way. Most churches understand the importance of targeted initial contact through, for example, playgroups, youth groups, book groups, but they then attempt to jump those who have shown an interest from the group to Sunday morning service when the Sunday morning service is culturally out of step with the very people they are trying to reach. A clear mission focus may not be about Sunday morning at all, but about finding culturally appropriate ways of enabling people to follow the way of Jesus.
First impressions aren’t everything but they do help and the first impression for an increasing number of people will be a church’s website. All the groups I visited had a good web presence, indeed that was the only way that I found them. Churches need to invest time and energy into this important ‘first impression’. Equally noticeboards need to be attractive and up to date, publicity needs to be good quality. Coffee shops like ‘Starbucks’ have long known that their success is as much about the comfy sofas as the quality of their coffee. The same is true in a Church context. We need to be looking at giving people a good initial experience on many levels e.g. quality of coffee, time of meeting, welcome of children, comfy chairs, good publicity. The focus of that first impression depends on whom we are trying to reach (our mission focus).
While many people will initially come through some personal connection the back-up of a good web presence, publicity etc. is hugely important. That is where many people will check-out their friend/acquaintance recommendation before risking a visit. If that first impression has enabled people to go through the door then it will be the quality of experience both in worship and in terms of relationships that will affect whether they stay.
A lot of time and creative energy had been put into the worship of many of the groups that I visited. Often a lot of effort would go into creating a beautiful worship space (Sanctuary in Birmingham transformed a cafe into an Asian-style worship space). There was a recognition of the importance of the totality of the worship experience; the sight, the sound, the touch and a shift away from the protestant focus on ‘the word’. There was a desire often to recreate a sense of mystery and drama within the worship but combined with an informality. All of this enabled a positive first experience of worship
My own tradition offers huge creative freedom and we need to use that as well as drawing on other more ancient traditions of liturgy and worship. It seems to me that the creativity in my own tradition has been focused on ‘words’. We have many beautifully crafted hymns, prayers, meditations and sermons but we need to rediscover the importance of space, of sight, of sound, the totality of the worship experience. As Eddie Gibbs suggests ‘As Protestant and evangelical churches morph from modernity to post-modernity, this process will entail the reinstatement of a sense of mystery in our worship, as was evident in pre-modern times; yet now the mystery can be embraced without the superstition that then prevailed’.p21
Alongside the first impression in terms of worship there is the importance of connecting with people and providing the opportunity for people to make relationships. COTA in Seattle had a monthly newcomers dinner, others would meet in the pub after the service. There needs to be an expectation that there will be new people and an easy way for them to begin to build relationships within the community.
Many of those in the Church today are there because they had a good initial experience and they now have friends and relationships, but there are as many who are not in the Church because they had a negative first impression. Of course unless that ‘good experience’ and those ‘good relationships’ move into a transforming journey of faith with Jesus then people’s involvement can remain very superficial. But unless we begin with the good experience and good relationships then many people will not even realise there is a journey to be had.
Soft edges but a committed core:
To be growing Christian community or Church there needs to be soft edges, where it is easy for people to come along, get involved, build relationships. It is about creating an environment where people are able to belong before they believe and where there is no hard line defining those who are in and those who are out. The first impressions, discussed earlier, are crucial in enabling soft edges.
The URC is currently involved in launching the ‘Radical Welcome’ campaign. It is, in many ways, about promoting a ‘soft edge’ Church. But there also needs to be a committed core that offers a challenge of commitment, of the transforming nature of following Jesus, to the wider, less boundaried community. Without the committed core at the heart of the community there is no focus or clarity, and those who wandered in may just as quickly wander out.
Many of the groups I visited focused on having soft edges but were more wary of a committed core because of the problems around defining that core. Many of those involved were casualties of traditions that focused on a narrow doctrinal commitment and so were keen for a greater openness. In seems to me that the new monastic movement (that has often gone alongside the Emerging Church) is about attempting to define a committed core in a way that moves from a modernist set of beliefs (if you believe this you are in) to a way life that is about the practice and experience of faith. Reimagine in San Francisco was group that clearly felt that a committed core was crucial, but the commitment was to a radical lifestyle shift and not to propositional doctrines.
Within the mainstream churches we are still caught up in a committed core that is perceived to be based around an institutional function (Eldership, Deacons, Stewards etc.) and that is far less attractive to those who are looking for a transforming experiential commitment. It is not that we ask too much of people but that we ask the wrong things.
Institutionally light but sustainable
There is a wide spread distrust of institutions and a falloff in terms of involvement in many institutional structures (parish councils, church committees etc.) In many churches (and other voluntary groups) committees struggle to function and formal roles remain unfilled. At the same time we are a far less deferential and hierarchical society with an increased expectation of collaborative leadership.
All the groups and churches that I visited were institutionally light, functioning in a more fluid and organic way than mainstream churches. There were ad-hoc groups formed when needed to meet specific tasks and individuals gifts were used appropriately and not shoe-horned into a pre-formed role. Culturally we increasingly work in collaborative rather than hierarchical ways and the church structurally needs to shift. The URC, already constitutionally more collaborative, should find such a shift easier but that does not necessarily seem to be the case.
While many of the Emerging Church/Fresh Expressions that I visited sat lightly to their institutional connections there was frequently a financial dependence on the mainstream Church. There perhaps needs to be a more honest relationship on both sides. The Emerging Church/Fresh Expressions needs to recognise their true financial relationship to the mainstream Church. Too many, I felt, dismissed the background costs of buildings and ministry. There needs to be an honest exploration of financial sustainability through, for example, imaginative fund-raising as at Beyond, or through more sacrificial giving by those involved.
On the other side the mainstream churches need to recognise that they have always funded long term ‘Fresh Expressions’ in terms of sector ministries such as University Chaplaincies, hospital Chaplaincies etc. Equally overseas missionaries were funded with little expectation that there would be any quick financial return. If these Emerging Churches/Fresh Expressions are seen from that perspective then the pressure from the mainstream churches for them to be quickly self-financing could perhaps be reconsidered. But equally if these new expressions of Church really represent the future long-term shape of the Church then financial sustainability and long term institutional structures will, at some stage, need to be addressed.
It has been a fascinating and inspiring few months. The Emerging Church offers no easy solution to the current crisis in the mainstream churches, but it does help to highlight some of the crucial areas where the Church needs to grow and develop.