I’ve been going to Greenbelt for most of my adult Christian life. This year’s had a higher impact on me, probably because I needed it more than in other years. These days I spend most of the time chewing the fat with old friends who I meet up with each Greenbelt, especially among those who have, like me, been involved in ‘Alternative’ Worship. A number of seminars and talks this year sought to bring together thinking from Alternative Worship groups and what is becoming known as ‘Emerging Church’ – neither of which is an exclusively Anglican phenomenon.
So what is Emerging Church? It’s a bit of a mixed bag, incorporating Church Plants, Youth Church, Cell Church, and Alternative Worship groups. It also includes various attempts at Christian community. What unites it all is the attempt to bring ‘Church’ into situations where the existing forms of Church fail to reach. The traditional paradigm of Christian ‘outreach’ suggests a model where the existing Christian community goes out and grabs people from outside to bring them in. Here the Church is seen as akin to a sheepfold or an ark, rescuing those outside of the Church’s ambit to bring them to a place of safety and benefit. Most existing parish churches have this paradigm in mind when considering any form of encounter with those beyond their fringe, either in terms of evangelism, publicity or social engagement.
The biggest snag with this model seems to be cultural. No matter how good an attempt churches might make in their outreach (and some are making very good jobs of it), there is a growing cultural gulf between the activities and structures of ‘ordinary’ church communities, and those which exist beyond the fringe. This has been particularly felt among those working with children and youth as well as the younger end of the adult age-range. There has been growing recognition that this is a problem of cultural change rather than human development (‘they’ll grow out of it…’). It particularly shows itself in an inability to integrate children and adults into existing forms of liturgy and worship. This has provided Alternative Worship with its central rationale (see my Alternative Worship in the Church of England, Grove Books, 1999).
Yet although worship is the point where these problems are felt most acutely, the situation extends into many other areas. Examples might be architectural (people not wanting to go into a church building), social (people not able to ‘fit in’ because they’ve never belonged to a formal, structured social group outside of work), linguistic (people not able to engage or express their faith without learning a whole new religious vocabulary, and feeling isolated until they do so), stylistic (expressed through dress code, music, iconography, and so on).
The idea of adapting the Church’s worship has been relatively easy for Anglicans to adopt (lawyers and traditionalists notwithstanding). What is more challenging is the new paradigm of Emerging Church. In this case, instead of expecting the ‘outsider’ to make the cultural transition required to join the Church, the Church itself makes that transition. This is not easy. The way it happens involves Christians ‘doing Church’ (a phrase which is deliberately vague) outside the bounds of existing established Christian communities. In contrast to the traditional ‘outreach’ paradigm, this involves Christians locating themselves in the wider culture, and it also assumes those Christians are to some extent part of that displaced culture themselves. Examples might be a church emerging from Christians working in a school environment, youth churches, churches which emerged from urban social networks of friends, etc.
For this to happen, a number of things appear to need to be in place. Firstly, there needs to be the willingness to recognise that genuine Church might emerge in this way. This can be a hard pill for existing churches to swallow. There are big ecclesiological questions which need to be asked and answered. Secondly, there needs to be sufficient support by the existing churches for the enterprise – this would be essential if the results are not to be fragmentary or short-lived. This is a particular issue for Anglicans: how to embrace churches founded on the new paradigm as part of the whole, as fully ‘legit’ Anglican churches. Thirdly, there needs to be an awareness of the full responsibilities that being Church entails on the part of Emerging congregations and leaders. Without this, they will either be short-lived, or fail to nurture and care for those who live out their faith among them. This aspect includes issues of accountability and dialogue with other, more traditional forms of church. Fourthly, there needs to be a clear intention that doing Church is the aim of the process, rather than some loose, vaguely spiritual affiliation.
Despite the fact that much of its ecclesiology is still unformed and provisional, I find myself increasingly convinced of the importance of Emerging Church. This is partly because it is more apostolic than the earlier paradigms: after all, this is pretty much what the apostles had to do in the case of the Gentile mission, and it avoids the principal pitfall of the Church in its traditional missionary mindset – cultural imperialism. Post-Christian Europe is suffering a cultural hangover from its Christian past, but with many younger people unsure of what produced the hangover in the first place. The last thing that stands a chance of success in our context is traditional Christian mission, for the simple reason that the religious culture that it seeks to impose is the very one which has just been rejected. People won’t buy it, not because they recognise it as an outmoded commodity, but because their present religious culture has an in-built rejection mechanism attuned to Christianity. (Of course, this also means that the Emerging paradigm, which tries to inculturate Church in current Western culture, is faced with an even more difficult task than inculturating Church in a non-Western culture.) But the main reason I’m interested is that Alternative Worship seems to have come to a crossroads. Those of us who’ve been involved for a number of years know that the buzz of ultra-creative worship only keeps things going for so long. We realise that worship is only one manifestation of the cultural exile which many Christians feel about the Church. The Alternative Worship movement needs a more rounded view of the Kingdom and Church to move it on, in order to sustain those who spent the past decade putting on some of the most engaging worship in this country. The vision isn’t any longer just about worship: it’s about how we perceive the Kingdom of God, of which the Church is supposed to be a sign, in a culture now so far removed from the message and ideals of Christianity. For those it seeks to reach, the Church is represented by particular manifestions of its genus – churches. Unless this Church can function again as a sign of the Kingdom, then I can’t see that it has a point, let alone a future.