When the invite arrived, I thought I had too. I’d been hand-picked by a well known Christian leader to attend an invite-only ‘Emerging Leaders’ weekend. I felt genuinely honoured. A cluster of key evangelical leaders had been asked to nominate one ‘emerging leader’ each. We were to all gather: the older veterans tutoring the younger fry in the ways of Christian leadership. I tried to hide my pride, casually passing the letter to my colleagues. In truth though I felt like Luke Skywalker on discovering he was to be a Jedi: I’d arrived.

And I would have accepted if it hadn’t spoken – the niggling inner voice. But it kept asking me why leaders of my parent’s generation were training ‘emerging’ leaders. And I didn’t have an answer. Did Diana mimic the Queen’s style when interacting with the public? No. She pioneered one that fitted her own generation. So why spend a weekend absorbing an approach I knew didn’t fit my generation?

Dan Kimble’s book, The Emerging Church (Zondervan, 2003), confirmed my thinking. ‘To engage the emerging culture’, he wrote, ‘we need to shift our approach to leadership’.

Wide Interest

Interest in the emerging church, as my story about the invite highlights, is not limited to those in the emerging generation – and nor should it be. But what is it about ‘emerging church’ that has such wide appeal? And why, as Pete Ward, author of the widely read ‘Liquid Church’ puts it, are ‘lots of different people using the term “Emeging Church” to talk about lots of different things – none of them the same?’ And why has one Christian book publisher banned the phrase in sales meetings because, “Its been used to define so many different styles of church that its lost any meaning”? And why for that matter has this magazine devoted a series of articles over the past six months cover aspects of ‘Emerging Church’?

In my opinion, the short answer is brand. The emerging church has developed – in advertising terms – a winning and attractive brand-personality. And people of all ages are queuing up to make their church part of the ‘emerging’ phenomena. It speaks of innovation, creativity and hope at a time when church attendance surveys predict decline and despair.

But this widespread use of the term has made it difficult to pin down what ‘emerging church’ really is. Difficult but not impossible. This feature will consider what’s led to the rise of this new style of church, unpacking what constitutes true emerging church and ask:

  • What’s behind the explosive growth in the emerging brand of church?
  • Why two different strands are growing under the emerging church umbrella?
  • What key distinctives of authentic emerging churches can be identified?

Why an emerging brand of church?

So what’s led to the growth of the emerging church? Andrew Jones is perhaps one of the best-placed people to comment on this. He spends his time networking, supporting and stimulating the development of the emerging churches. Based in Walthamstow, North- East London, he is director of The Boaz Project and a consultant for mission organisations and denominations on emerging culture/church issues.

He describes the emerging church as “budding movements outside the institutional church. People that have left or never attended church but are following Jesus, sharing lives together and being the church. They are not really new church/ house church people. They are beyond the radar.”
According to Jones it’s these people – unable to connect with mainstream congregations – who provide the impetus for new or emerging styles of church. And there’s plenty of them: “I met with Peter Brierley last year and he told me that there might be more believers outside the church than in,” he continues.

“Bishop Graham Cray said the same thing. There is a groundswell, but it doesn’t appear to be getting off the ground yet. Many of the 20s and 30s are awaiting someone or something to give them permission. It will take off – when God ignites it.”

Simon Hall, church analyst and leader of Revive, an emerging congregation in Leeds, agrees. He says the driving force for these sorts of churches are “struggling Christians trying to find new ways of being church for themselves. They are genuinely searching for a deeper experience of faith. Emerging church is everything that is happening as people get frustrated with both mainstream church and the shallowness of their own spirituality. The emerging church which is worth living and dying for is the church that emerges out of pioneer missionary work in Britain.”
In this sense, it’s a bottom-up movement, driven by a desire among 20s and 30s to create spiritual homes appropriate to their culture.

Emerging definitions

But how do you define or pin it down? Andrew Jones, who has been involved in the scene for years, believes this is a hard question to answer. “I have tried to define it and have failed miserably,” he admits. “That is OK though. People in the emerging culture do not really want or need such a definition. And some of us are hesitant to give one because behind the practices of emerging church lies a radically different mind set, value system and world view.”

However, two UK examples offer a window into this mind-set and value system:

Case-study 1:The Order of Mission (TOM)

Established in April 2003 by Mike Breen, Pastor of St Thomas’ Church, Crookes, Sheffield, TOM grew out of an understanding that, “absolute truth, apologetics and didactic teaching mean little to those born after 1964.”

Recognising that “institutional forms of Christianity are hollow, boring, irrelevant and have little bearing on the real issues of their lives”, Breen focused on the desire among 20s and 30s to belong and find meaning, value and purpose.

Drawing on the historic English/Roman Minster model and the Celtic pattern of mobile evangelists, Breen birthed what he describes as a global missionary order. Those desiring to join must adopt the rule of TOM, which reinterprets traditional monastic concepts of poverty, chastity and obedience as devotion to a life of simplicity, purity and accountability.

Those in TOM meet in clusters and form communities of faith in cafes, pubs, schools, university campuses and homes wherever they settle. Full vows are taken after three years and are binding for life.

Case-study 2: Sanctus

“The failure of the church to deal with the changes brought on by electronic culture is a basic factor in the low levels of participation of electronic generations”, argues Bishop Graham Cray. He adds that because of the Internet, “distance is no longer an obstacle.”

Sanctus is typical of an increasing number of on-line emerging community’s. Describing itself as “a safe space for followers of Jesus to explore how we might help and support each other wherever we might find ourselves”, Sanctus was born out of “a concern for those who find themselves very much a part of a new age”.

It provides a support community for those “seeking to break new ground” through exploring new, emerging forms of church.
Those involved meet for weekends of discussion and support and recently adopted a rule of life as pioneered by the Northumbria Community.

Case-study 3: Boiler Rooms

The Boiler Room phenomena grew out of the 24-7 prayer movement and first took shape in Reading. Inspired by the monastic tradition, the Reading Boiler Room is housed in a city centre pub and offers continuous prayer; community; creativity in worship; service to the poor and mission. Open night and day and staffed by volunteer members it functions as a modern day monastery.

How far-reaching?

But how different is the emerging church – really? Is it just a new lick of paint over the old wall-paper, or have the walls in fact been knocked down and re-built elsewhere?

Pete Greig, founder of the 24-7 prayer movement, thinks it’s the latter. “There’s more vulnerability, more chaos, less hierarchy”, he says. “We are reading the Bible in a new way. We’re looking at how Jesus’ key people have always been failures and not nearly as successful ethically and morally as those who seem to lead us at the moment.

The second face of Emerging Church What’s been described so far represents the innovative grass roots hub of the emerging church. The bottom-up if you will. But that’s only half the story. There’s also a top-down stream, a more mainstream section of the emerging church. Prompted by the ‘groundswell’ of 20s and 30s who have drifted away from church, it represents the response of established mainstream denominations and their efforts at becoming culturally relevant.

And it’s this group who are responsible for over-using the phrase emerging church. While the bottom-up emerging church is not ‘emerging’ from anything – because it’s already part of the emerging culture, mainstream churches enter what to them is a new and alien culture. In this sense they are more consciously “emerging” and keener to label their activities as such.

These different approaches are shown in a tale told by Pete Greig. “I was approached by a U.S church planting organisation and offered funding if I would rename the Boiler Rooms as church plants”, he says. “I explained that we have people in Boiler Rooms meeting daily, praying continually and worshipping. People are coming to Christ, prayers are getting answered and people are getting baptised. The one thing we don’t do is have a Sunday meeting or meeting structure”.

Greig declined the offer not wishing to tread on the toes of other local churches. Behind his decision lay the fact that the word ‘church’ “has been confused. It means so many different things to so many different people”, he says. “We want to build Christian churches not Pauline churches – which may mean they are a little less self-conscious about being church and a bit more relational than Paul. Paul has been the perfect man for modernity but I suspect the Jacob’s and Abraham’s and Christ himself are going to be very powerful for the emerging church.”

All or nothing

For mainstream churches brave enough to explore planting emerging church, the situation is comparable to that facing missionaries who leave Britain to serve overseas. It’s all about exploring, becoming part of a new culture, leaving behind old norms and entering an emerging culture with Jesus as the only reference point.

Markers along this road might include:

1. Becoming incarnate into the emerging culture

Matt Glock is an American who runs an emerging church in Grenoble, France, where he’s worked for eight years. He identifies the challenge for mainstream churches as being comparable to language learning: “My experience of learning a second language and culture helps me to understand what the church needs to be doing. The process demands a willingness to lose oneself. I remember when I started to understand French but could not speak it. You want to scream because you have something to say but you can’t say it. How many churches are willing to confront their inability to speak a language that can be understood by the emerging generation? How many churches are willing to learn that language, to learn that culture in order to incarnate the Gospel?”

“Loosing oneself” is more than buying the book and learning the theory. It’s incarnating into the culture in order to impact it, as Jesus did.

2. Returning to missionary roots

The church must return to its pioneering edge. As Hudson Taylor threw away his English clothes when he entered China, mainstream churches wishing to reach the emerging generation must do the same.

Pete Greig sees it as the difference between having a cultural presence (a place in the culture) and trying to be culturally relevant (having no place in it, just entering to ‘redeem’ people out of it). Those who enter not because it’s their culture but because they want to save people from it will stand out a mile. Emerging culture itself is no worse or better than baby-boomer culture.

Simon Hall, leader of Revive, adds, “as long as the emerging church is growing out of the established church it will have limited success”. As an accredited Baptist minister who runs an emerging Baptist church plant, he is not suggesting mainstream denominations cannot pioneer emerging churches. Rather, that any plant must be allowed to submerge itself in emerging culture and cease growing out of its mother congregation.

3. Differentiating whole-life from programme-led

“Younger Christians in the emerging church are more open to a radical whole life faith than older generations that have often given their first allegiance to modern culture”, argues Christian author and futurologist Tom Sine.
Pete Greig is founder of the 24-7 prayer movement. He agrees. “Church planting over the last 50 years seems to have been about planting meetings”, he says. “This leads to a programme driven approach rather than a people driven approach which is very convenient and effective among the middle classes with their very busy diaries. But I’m not sure that’s right. The emerging church is driven by community rather than platform”.

4.Raising, not lowering the stakes.

Lazy, consumerist, materialistic and not believing in truth are accusations often levelled at the emerging – or post-modern – generation. Evidence suggests however that this is not the case. Movements such as 24-7 prayer and The Order of Mission place high demands upon those choosing to involve themselves. And thousands do.

Andrew Jones suggests that, “there is a new asceticism that is a godly response to our new wealth. There is an approach to truth that is more relational, narrative, participatory and experiential. The ethical code is strong. Yet it is a culture in need of redemption, as all cultures are.” The challenge facing the church is to harness this energy for the cause of Christ.

Emerging obsession?

The emerging church is an obsession for many involved in it. It is their lifeline, their hope of a spiritual community appropriate to their culture. For many mainstream churches, emerging church is also an obsession – but sometimes for very different reasons. The challenge for all followers of Christ today is to allow the emerging church to be what its name suggests – something which has come out of and moved on from what went before.

Taking it further online:

What will it take?

Andrew Jones, emerging church consultant and practitioner believes the road towards an emerging church is not an easy one…

The church has to go as far as Jesus went, which is all the way, in terms of incarnating and fleshing out kingdom realities in the culture God has planted us. It will take courage, risk and sacrifice. There will be a change of vocabulary to reflect a new mind set. Military language will receive a discharge. There will be mess. There will be more unbelievers joining our communities earlier in their journey than they did previously and with more honesty. They will request more honesty from us. More vulnerability. There will be more casualties, more misunderstandings. And the greatest persecution may come from the existing church.

Who’s who?

  • Builder generation (those born before 1946)
  • Boomer generation (those born between 1946 and 1964)
  • Emerging generation / Busters / Generation X (those born between 1964 and 1984)
  • Gen M – Millennium generation / Millennials (those born after 1984)