During my time as a Bible College student I was asked to preach in a small village church one hot summer’s evening. The service was due to start at 6.30pm but at 6.28pm I was still waiting outside the padlocked gates for someone to let me in. Eventually an elderly man with an equally elderly dog came along and without any acknowledgement of my existence took out a large rusty key, opened the gates, all but forced the door open and gestured for me to go in. His first words were not encouraging: “well, lad, I don’t normally stop but it looks like we’ll be a bit thin tonight so I’ll see what you’ve got to say for yourself”.
Being a keen young evangelical who had spent the best part of the previous week preparing for this momentous occasion I did the only thing I could and ploughed my way through the full order of service including notices and offering! He was of course the only worshipper and after sleep got the better of him four minutes into the sermon my last remaining hope for a response lay solely with the dog who at least kept his eyes open! My congregation’s parting words were equally as memorable as his opening ones – “we might not get many but at least we’re keeping the doors open and that’s what matters”.
Something is stirring
I expect that church like many others has long since submerged or ‘gone under’ and certainly the statistics make sobering reading but that is not the whole story, far from diving down never to rise again something new and different is beginning to surface.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Revd Dr Rowan Williams, acknowledged the significance of this emergence during his presidential address to the General Synod recently;
‘… at present there is actually an extraordinary amount going on in terms of the creation of new styles of church life. We can call it church planting, ‘new ways of being church’ or various other things; but the point is that more and more patterns of worship and shared life are appearing on the edge of our mainstream life that cry out for our support, understanding and nurture if they are not to get isolated and unaccountable.
...This is where the unexpected growth happens, where the unlikely contacts are often made; where the Church is renewed (as it so often is) from the edges, not the centre.’
When Jesus said ‘I will build my church’ he wasn’t referring to a three-year construction project complete with committee; the church has been emerging for the last two thousand years and won’t ever fully do so until that final day when Jesus will present it to himself ‘as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless’ (Ephesians 5:27) – so as we can see there’s some way to go yet!
However, the term ‘emerging church’ has now taken on a more specific significance and is the expression most commonly used for the whole extent of new expressions of church.
Many people today are finding it increasingly difficult to relate what happens on a Sunday to the rest of their lives and are looking for ways to express their faith and explore spirituality in a manner that is more relevant to contemporary culture. This is particularly true, although not exclusively so, with young people and those in their 20s and 30s. It is in this context that new forms of church are being explored. Is it though just the latest fad – some have already come and gone, others are struggling to keep afloat, most are relatively small and fragile: does this bring the whole movement into question or is it an acceptable facet of ‘emergence’?
Time to experiment
Michael Moynagh, author of Changing World, Changing Church and Co-Director of ‘The Tomorrow Project’, comments; “We need a period of experimentation to discover what forms of church will connect most effectively with our emerging culture. It’s of the very nature of experimentation that some experiments fail. This makes the whole attempt risky. But risk is in the lifeblood of mission. The church has seldom advanced without someone taking a risk.”
The early church was born out of risktaking and danger but it also recognised the need for order and sound doctrine. Martin Robinson, author and National Director of Together in Mission, stresses the importance of balancing structure with key values; “The danger of new forms of church is that they can concentrate too much on form and not enough on the core DNA. My feeling is that too many have begun new forms of church with insufficient regard to the DNA issues.”So what is emerging and does it look like anything we might recognise? To find out I visited IGNITE, a new Anglican Church in north London, designed to break the mould of the programme-orientated ‘one size fits all’ model that has been the bread and butter of congregational life for generations.
When the Bishop of Willesden asked Si and Karen Jones to develop a new church, they quickly decided that this would be a missionary Anglican church with a focus on reaching young people as well as those in their 20s and 30s. The aim was to offer a flexible approach which would appeal to those for whom church has been a ‘non-experience’. When IGNITE was launched at the beginning of 2002 Si already had 15 years of ordained ministry under his belt as both curate and associate vicar. He had been involved in a previous church plant, had developed a rock worship service for young people and was already convinced of the need for new expressions of church to reach into contemporary culture.
Starting with a core team of 20 from Emmanuel Church Northwood they formed a basic structure, set up a charitable trust to support the work and appointed a leadership team. Today the staff includes one school and two + 40 november 2003 outreach workers, a part time counsellor, an administrator and a mission coordinator as well as Si and Karen in the role of co-pastors. All are funded by the church and a number of trusts.
IGNITE are convinced that building relationships is the key. Si comments; “Church begins to form around people as they commit to Christ with expressions of worship and congregational life developing as that commitment grows.”
He continues: “for years when people have talked about church they have meant sitting in rows, facing the front, singing a few songs, listening to a good sermon and then going away again, I don’t see a picture of church like that. For me ‘emerging church’ is not so much about new things coming into being as going back to what church really is. Jesus’ model was that he gave himself to small groups teaching them to preach the gospel, heal the sick and declare that God is not far away.”
Although IGNITE is people orientated it has a significant range of programmes which are used as tools to build bridges to those they are seeking to reach and disciple.
Cell groups are the life-blood of the church, meeting in homes, schools, pubs and on Sunday mornings. Groups are also held offering life-skills in subjects such as personal presentation, sex, birth control, nutrition, parenting and exercise. For some the only contact with the church is through the cell group.
On Sunday nights a celebration is held which is deliberately varied in content and may include a DJ, multi-media, worship and a visual talk. Venues for this have included McDonalds, a pub, a youth centre and a church centre. The aim is to be authentic with the people who come, many of whom have no experience of what church is all about.
I was particularly impressed by the range of creative programmes that were available.
Elevate for 14-18 year-olds is a dance, DJ and sports project helping young people explore some of the creative arts, develop new talents and have the opportunity to perform. A certificate of excellence is given after completion of a set number of hours. Over 200 are currently on the books.
Enfuze is a music and video project aimed at those who want to develop their skills in these areas.
Club 2000 works with kids who are in danger of being excluded from school. Children are referred to the group and then take a weekly class after which they receive a recognisable certificate which can be added to their CV so that at least they leave school with something based on their own interest.
A Prayer Gathering (no-one comes if you call it a prayer meeting!) happens every fortnight with reminders and details being sent by text message the day before.
My abiding impression of IGNITE is that here is a church intentional about communicating the love of Christ amongst the community that they are part of.
Church members are released to have fun, develop friendships, join a gym or play sport. There is a clear organisational design but the structure is held lightly so as not to become the main thing – which is refreshing and stimulating in a world where so often the programme has become sacred.
IGNITE is only one example of an emerging church and in one sense is a more recognisable model than some. I’ve talked to people who do church in nightclubs, pubs, leisure centres, health centres, homes, halls and even … churches! The issue however is less about venue and programme and more about relationship and belonging. Because of the diversity of initiatives it is quite difficult to get an accurate picture of what is happening nationwide. All of us hear about certain things but rarely have the chance to obtain the sort of information we would really like. RUN, the organisation that I work for, invited a number of other groups and some key thinkers to join them in establishing a new website
www.emergingchurch.info dedicated to telling the stories of new forms of church as well as giving the opportunity for discussion and reflection.
RUN is also holding a major national conference on Church and Culture in February 2004 entitled ‘They think it’s all over’.
But is it Church?
What makes something a church rather than another programme?
Ian Coffey, Leader of Spring Harvest and Senior Minister at Mutley Baptist Church, comments; “The Reformers hold the view that church was defined by three characteristics: the Word is preached, the sacraments celebrated, discipline is exercised. I would include a fourth that people are being converted to Christ.”
Michael Moynagh adds; “At the very least, a church would hear the Word of God, celebrate the sacraments and be connected in some way with the worldwide, historic, universal church.”
No doubt we will all have our own views but it is evident that much, if not most of what goes into the ‘make up’ of church as we know it has far more to do with culture, history and tradition than a spiritual blueprint for the way it should be done.
New churches are rediscovering that it’s less about what we do and more about who we are.
This issue raises many questions, some of which cannot be adequately answered at the moment, but what’s new – it’s been this way for a couple of thousand years.
Does the future lie here?
Is the way ahead for us all to pack our bags and head off to the nearest café bar to start again with a deconstructed vicar and a DJ replacement for the worship leader? Probably not!
God is passionate about all of his church and he hasn’t finished with us yet. Some established churches offer parallel congregations by planting new expressions of life within the main body of the church.
Easthampstead Baptist Church in Bracknell recently launched a new congregation called ‘Explore’. Aimed towards those in their 20s and 30s, they meet every other week in the local Leisure Centre for coffee, donuts and a read of the Sunday papers. A 50-minute ‘programme’ opens up life related issues through music, multi-media and informal talks on subjects that unchurched people can easily relate to.
This is not a new church but a different expression of the existing one. As traditional church is being pushed more and more to the margins Christians are becoming increasingly creative in how they communicate to people who are not just going to turn up one Sunday morning. Emerging forms of church have the opportunity to be incarnational by being part of the culture rather than removed from it, as is the perception among many today.
Michael Moynagh observes; “There is plenty of evidence that existing forms of church can still grow, but not much evidence that existing church can reach ‘unchurched’ people effectively. Fewer and fewer people have any church background, which means that if we don’t reach the unchurched, the longterm future for the church in Britain is bleak. Whether fresh expressions of church will succeed depends partly on whether we put enough resources into them – will they be too few and too slow to make enough difference? – but most of all it depends on the Spirit of God. So we need to work hard and pray hard!”
Perhaps the church of tomorrow is like the ice-berg, there’s an awful lot more under the surface than we can see right now but even the little that is visible demands a good deal of caution, respect and wonder!
‘They think it’s all over!’ … engaging the world, changing the church takes place in Derby Feb 11–13 2004 Speakers include: Mark Greene, Martin Robinson, Nick Cuthbert, Rob Frost RUN, PO Box 387, Aylesbury, HP21 8WH T 0870 7873635 E firstname.lastname@example.org Web: www.run.org.uk
Sally found faith four months ago, in April. She comes from a non-churched background and using her own words shares here her experience of an ‘emerging church’ – B1 Church in Birmingham.
It’s church Jim, but not as we know it
I am not used to the environment of a church and most distant memories are ones of feeling self-conscious and of being judged. Dedicated buildings for worship can be cold and uninviting but because B1 meets in bars and a hotel it feels more relaxed and the service is the focus not the surroundings. I felt less self-consciousness on entering, because the environment is familiar. I find the visual imagery very powerful; it feels more up to date because computers are a part of our daily life. Traditional ways of preaching feel alien to me, a preacher in a pulpit is not how we receive instruction on a day-to day basis. I’ve found small group interaction complements the service and really enhances the teaching/ theme taught. It helps to break down barriers and develop our faith more effectively and also interacting with each other builds relationships. I value the opportunities for participation, having input makes us feel important to the service. It’s important that the teaching style and feel reflect the fact that God is our Father not a dictator.