Emerging church deserves more resources because it is an agent of mission, a fundamental calling of church; its values can be rooted in the character of God; changes in advanced society are bringing it on to the agenda; it makes good strategic sense; it has the potential to subvert consumerism; it frees the imagination by rattling caged-in assumptions about the nature of church; and ordinary churches can do it.
It is beginning to appear on the mustdo lists of denominations and ‘streams’ (which are networks of churches). But emerging church should be at the top of those lists – a ‘must-have’- not just another tool in the kit for improving church. Leaders should make it a priority and lead from the top. They should mobilise support for emerging church, for shifting resources into it, for building the capacity to undertake it and for developing new networks to underpin it. The future of church depends on decisions taken now.
Making it a priority
The strategic importance of emerging church is percolating through to denomination and stream leaders. The idea is winning support – slowly. But getting the resources will be much harder.
Top of the in-tray
Attitudes range widely. Some leaders of denominations and streams question the seriousness of the drop in church roles. They believe they should keep sailing the same course because one day they will again catch the wind. People will return to the faith when the bankruptcy of modern consumerism has been exposed. In the 1990s some denominations like the Baptist Union saw church attendance rise, with clear evidence of growth through new conversions. “There may be life in the old dog yet.”
Other leaders accept the gravity of the situation, but wonder if emerging church will be a noisy sprint up a blind alley. Emerging church seems risky, with only limited evidence of missionary success. Ploughing resources into it might suck the oxygen out of existing church. Some have doubts about the theology involved.
Still other leaders can see a role for emerging church, but question their ability to make innovative church happen. They don’t see many levers to pull.
They are drained by institutional roadblocks. They think the most they can do is to give permission to innovators on the ground. “Perhaps I can fan a groundswell of change.”
Others again would like to do more, but are not sure how. What strategies would work? Would they be supported? For many people emerging church is new, unfamiliar and a little scary. Some ministers run down their rabbit holes – “it’s not what I was ordained for.” Promoting emerging church would require resources – “who would pay?”
Despite these objections, a small minority are eager to push ahead. What holds them back is the need to take others with them.
So why should denominations and streams make emerging church a priority?
First, mission is at the heart of God. The church is most like God when it engages in mission. Mission is a prime reason for the church’s existence. There are three other key reasons for fasttracking emerging church.
1) The clock is ticking
Continuing as we are could spell ‘operation certain death’. There is no guarantee that church will survive in large parts of the advanced world. One look at the size and age of many congregations should be warning enough. There is not the slightest evidence that people are turning away from consumerism to traditional church in significant numbers. People may be interested in spirituality, but that does not equal church.
The slice of Britain’s population with any church background – perhaps threefifths in the 1990s and just one fifth in some urban areas – is shrinking fast. Generations that were brought up in church are passing away. Fewer children are in the pews – in the UK 35% in 1940; a mere 4% in 2000. That leaves 96% outside church!
Church has to prepare for a completely different mission context. Christians can no longer call ‘old friends’ to return. In a few years the great majority of people will have no ties to church at all – no memories for church to appeal to.
All the anecdotal evidence points in the same direction: thriving churches, with seemingly effective evangelism, flourish mainly because they attract individuals with some church experience. Few churches are making headway among those with no church background. Yet this will be soon – if it is not now – the ‘mission field’ in Britain. If church does not develop ways of reaching the nonchurched today, it will enter this daunting world strategically naked.
Although some denominations and streams have grown recently, the figures may be skewed – for example, by a disproportionate number of younger congregations (which often find it easier to grow). In the case of the Baptist Union, some large and rapidly growing African churches in London have boosted the count. As these growing congregations ‘grey’ and older members pass away, how will these ‘healthy’ denominations and streams avoid chasing the others into decline? After growing in the 1990s, Baptist church attendance is expected to be heading firmly downward by 2005.
There is nothing inevitable about the continuation of church. Once-thriving churches – in North Africa for example – have withered away. What is at stake today is the very future of the Western church. Why cling to the past when it no longer works? ‘A clear and present danger’ should be a priority for any leader.
How many businesses would willingly entrust their future to a product in decline? They would diversify into more promising opportunities, and spread their risks. When many people are quitting church and fewer are coming in, why put most of our eggs in the existing church basket?
The principles of emerging church address the new situation and are theologically well founded. They also have the potential to bring together community development and evangelism. Often resources within existing church are not used to their best effect because these two strands of mission have been kept apart. Church social action will vanish into history if Christians who support it evaporate too.
Yet time is against us. As congregations age and shrink, the resources for new initiatives will shrivel too. Church should have changed direction years back. Even now, however, the slither of a chance exists that new forms of church can come to the boil past their own teatime. Experiments are urgent.
2) Church planting
Emerging church is more than a lightening bolt flashing across the spirit of the age. Culturally relevant church planting can work. A number of teenage and youth congregations, such as Eternity in Bracknell near London, have well-established track records. Other fresh expressions, such as Cable Street Community Church in East London, have shown durability and growth.
George Lings and Stuart Murray, writing in Church Planting: Past, Present and Future, (Grove Evangelism) outlined how the 1990s saw ‘the greatest growth in the number of Elim churches and those attending them since the 1930s – from 437 churches in 1990 to 592 in 1999. Church planting played a significant role in this, although the denomination also grew through existing churches joining.’
We also know that many church plants have not worked, largely because they have been of the wrong kind – they replicated obsolescent models of church. This has made them too complicated, putting a strain on leaders, and perpetuated the standoff between church and today’s culture. We need church planting of the right kind.
Even if individual experiments ‘fail’, we still need to learn how to apply emerging church principles. Disappointments, as well as successes, will be good teachers. Better for denominations and streams to be actively engaged – and to foster learning – than to be by-passed by innovations that leave inherited church behind.
3) Denominations can make a difference
Denominations and streams need not be crushed by their heritage: leaders can bring about change. The renewed emphasis on planting by the Elim churches, for example, was ignited by putting church planting into the brief of regional superintendents, as well as by the role of Kensington Temple in London.
Twenty years ago, the Church of England hardly had any youth ministers. It took the initiative to establish four centres where youth workers can now be trained to degree level for ministry within the Anglican church and other denominations. Youth pastors can’t be churned out fast enough – a number are experimenting with new expressions of church. Vision within a denomination made a difference.
But can denominations champion emerging church when they are cutting back staff? As congregations have wound down, collection plates have looked empty and paid ministry has been chopped back. Church reorganisation is difficult enough to take on board, some think, without picking up emerging church as well.
In practice however, it may be easier to retrench if fresh forms of church are part of the package. Many churchgoers despair because cutbacks seem destined to be followed by more cuts. Strategies to reverse decline seem scarcely to scratch the surface. ‘If we go on as we are, but with fewer resources, why should what has failed in the past work in the future?’ After the reorganisation is complete, post-match exhaustion sets in and little is done to prevent another round of cuts.
Emerging church offers an approach that is new enough to give hope, but not so difficult as to be out of reach. One of its attractions is that it can be tiny scale and simple. Might fresh expressions be the vision element that helps re-organisation click into place?
Led from the top, released at the bottom
“My job is simply to bless innovations on the ground.” This view is surprisingly widespread among denomination and stream leaders. They think the most they can do to encourage emerging church is to give permission.
Giving permission – is that it?
Yet permission-giving alone will not be enough. To be effective, it will need to be supported by evidence that fresh expressions of church can work. In any organisation, perhaps a quarter of the people welcome change, the same number are hard-wired to resist and the rest could go either way. Those who are ‘up for’ emerging church need arguments and data with which to convince their colleagues.
This strengthens the case for some kind of ‘ginger agency’. The agency would research the evidence-base for emerging church, spotlight what works and splash around the results. Leaders would give permission for change: the agency would help innovators to gather support.
But even with this support, might ‘letting the flow flow’ be too limpwristed a strategy, especially given the fragile state of low-ebb church? How many head teachers, for example, have turned round a school merely by ‘blessing’ good practice in the classroom? Effective heads take the lead in introducing best practice, coaching and mentoring teachers, and providing a clear vision for the staff to work toward. They don’t vaguely point to a path: they strike out ahead. Much the same is true of other organisations. ‘You don’t get to be a leader by being a tracker.’
Denominational and stream leaders can do much to unleash emerging church by putting the case for it – in meetings with individuals, in committees and other forums, and when they address larger gatherings.
Advocacy will spread awareness and help to put fresh expressions of church on the map. It will give permission to those who might be inclined to experiment. It will help pioneers get support – ‘if the bishop or superintendent wants it, so should we.’ It will encourage churchgoers to back emerging church with resources. It will mobilise the denomination or stream.
One person asked, “How do we persuade people who quite like things as they are?” Part of the answer, perhaps, is to help them feel the Arctic blast of church decline – to remind people of falling rolls, to keep explaining why church cannot go on as it has, and to combine this chilling message with the vision for an alternative. Most churchgoers won’t change till they can feel the alligator nipping at their heels.
Some church leaders have sought to keep up morale by declaring that things are not as bad as they seem. But this can be counter-productive.
Alongside the complacent are churchgoers who know that things are as bad as they seem. Perhaps they have heard that their full-time minister will not be replaced, or they ask, “Who will be left when we’ve passed on?” False optimism makes some in the pews wonder if their leaders are in touch. Others conclude that their leaders don’t know what to do, which makes them even more depressed.
At the heart of Jesus’s message was repentance – dissatisfaction with the status quo. He could encourage this dissatisfaction because he had a better alternative. As some are doing, leaders can send a similar message about existing church: they can promote discontent, but avoid despair by offering emerging church as a new direction.
Telling the story
A vision for emerging church will be more persuasive if leaders can tell a vivid story, easy for time-pressed members to understand, about why new forms of church are necessary, how they can come about, how they fit into the denomination’s or stream’s history and why they are important for the future.
The story may need to answer: Why was the stream or denomination founded? What was its original genius? How can fresh expressions of church build on the divine deposit we’ve inherited? What values within continuing church will be reproduced in the emerging forms?
Almost certainly, the story will need to affirm existing church. A ‘both-and’ approach – both current expressions of church and new ones – avoids expecting everyone to change, values what already exists and ensures church members are not asked to give up what is precious to them.
Jesus gave space for people to reach their own conclusions. Though he could be direct with his critics, he taught in parables, which allowed individuals to explore what he meant and the implications.
In today’s individualistic culture, leaders may be wise not to be too prescriptive. Perhaps they can invite churchgoers to enter into the problems of continuing church, explore the options and examine different ways of being church. Winning support for emerging church would be consistent with the methodology of emerging church – ‘bottom-up’.
Providing an experience
Finally, Jesus immersed his followers in the life he was offering. He formed his disciples into a community based on his teaching, and taught them to practice what he was doing – to heal the sick, announce his coming and baptise converts into his repentance.
Emerging church is so foreign to the experience of many clergy and lay people that teaching the theory may not be enough. Indeed, teaching alone can disempower people – ‘I need to do something different, but I don’t know how.’ A ‘sheep dip’ experience of what might be involved can be highly effective.
Chris Neal in the Church of England’s Oxford Diocese invited 10 key clergy and others, who were ‘up for it’, to join him for a week away. He gave them an experience of what community could be like, to envision and enthuse them. Participants were challenged to explore how the experience of church could be made many times better.
Extracted and adapted from emergingchurch.intro by Michael Moynagh, published in September by Monarch ISBN 1 85424 664 X £7.99. Used with permission.