…to New Churches?
The big difference, at least to emerging church in its mission mode, is that many New Churches continued to operate on a 'you come to us' model. Members liked their new way of being church and used evangelism to encourage non-churchgoers to join them. They 'souped up' the model of church but not the underlying approach: 'we'll get a group of Christians together, express church in a way that we enjoy and invite others to come along.'
Often they had considerable success. They attracted Christians from mainstream church who might otherwise have dropped out. They appealed to lapsed Christians and people with some Christian background. Occasionally they drew in people with absolutely no experience of church. New Church attendance in England ballooned from 75,000 in 1980 to 248,000 in 2000.1
But New Churches have
gradually drawn away from the secular world. Today, their sub-cultures
can seem light years from everyday life. Traditional churches may seem
irrelevant to non-believers, but some New Churches can also look plain
weird. Like their peers in mainstream church, many young people feel out
of place. As one leader asked, are New Churches about to become the quickest
fossilised church movement in history?
Will Revelation and other such churches continue to 'morph' in response to the fragmentation of modern culture? Or will they find new ways of keeping younger Christians in the fold, sigh with relief and ignore the bigger challenge of connecting with non-churchgoers?
In the early 1990s there were great hopes for church planting. Some thought that 20,000 new churches could be launched in the UK by the end of the century. In the event, between 1989 and 1998 only 1,867 churches opened in England, while 2,757 closed. Although a considerable number of plants were highly effective, a substantial number were not. 3
Sometimes plants merely cloned existing church. A group of Christians might move on to a housing estate or into a school, start perhaps a more relaxed version of mainstream church and then issue the invitation, 'Come and join us'. People came - some from other churches, some were lapsed Christians, one or two possibly had no Christian experience. But not enough newcomers arrived to sustain the new plant.
Numbers plateaued at 40 or 50, perhaps, including children. It became a struggle to crank up the pre-existing model of church every Sunday - to set up the hall, find musicians and give the children's teachers a break. Leaders burnt out. The plant either folded or stuttered along, exhausted. George Lings and Stuart Murray Williams comment, 'The high failure rate of plants was surely related to replicating obsolescent models of church.' or desire to contribute to the capital stewardship campaign to build the new wing. 4
Emerging church with a mission heart is different. It does not start with a pre-determined mould and expect non-churchgoers to compress in. It begins with the people church is seeking to reach, and asks 'What might be an appropriate expression of church for them?' URC minister John Hall, who has researched youth congregations, comments, 'The first Christian missionaries were Jews, and they struggled to avoid imposing their culture on their converts.' 5
Cells offer worship, learning on how to apply Scripture, pastoral care, ministry and evangelism, often organised around the four Ws: welcome, worship, word and witness. Cells may still come together for a weekly celebration, but cell becomes the epicentre of church life. Each cell is tasked with drawing in other people and multiplying. Some cells have a specific group in mind - the police for instance!
St Mark's Haydock, near Liverpool, is an exemplar of cell church in Britain. It had 300 people in 33 cells when cells were introduced in the late 1990s: five years later, cell membership had bounced to 500. 6
Emerging church will certainly include cell church. But as proponents like Phil Potter are quick to say, cell church is not for everyone. E-church need not equal c-church.
Key to emerging church is that there is no one approach. Some forms of emerging church are based on cells. Others have a cell component - perhaps fortnightly cells that cluster together in the intervening weeks. Other emerging churches are not cell church at all. Diversity rules.
Alternative worship started in Britain, then in Australia, New Zealand and the United States in that order, with some interest in Germany. 'It is a small, fragile animal' 7, with groups of about 20 to 40, and extremely varied. Members long for more authentic community and worship than they experienced in mainstream church.
Mission is not generally a high priority. Some groups are uncomfortable with blatant evangelism, seeing it as too directive and narrow. Others are so preoccupied with sustaining their new life that they have little time to reach out. The danger is that alt. worship groups will make little impact on their surrounding culture because they are so tied up with themselves. They could become another form of inherited church, updating the model but failing to take it on to the open road.
Does this differentiate 'alt.worship' from emerging church? It would be misleading to over-define either. The reality is that not every emerging church throbs with mission, while behind alt.worship lie strong mission instincts, not least the desire to be contextual. Alternative worship has held people who might otherwise have abandoned church. Among those involved are individuals
Some in emerging church could learn from alt.worship's experiments in culturally attuned worship, while others in alternative worship might learn from 'emerging churchers' who want to reach out. They share in common the desire to be authentic, to be contextual and to be community.
Although it will not be our focus, alternative worship is one expression of emerging church in its broadest sense - one series of experiments, along with many others, in what it means to sing God's song in a strange land.
Not every seeker service, cell church, base community or whatever else is fashionable becomes a true expression of emerging church. Emerging church is genuine when it flees franchised, look-alike church in favour of more bespoke versions of Christian community. Some leaders spy something new and exclaim 'That must be emerging church!' But emerging church is more than a new form of church: it is a culturally authentic expression of church.
Emerging church is a mindset ('we'll come to you') rather than a model. It is a direction rather than a destination. It rests on principles rather than a plan. It arises out of a culture rather than being imposed on a culture. It is a mood, scarcely yet a movement.
Sometimes people remark, 'Traditional church serves people in their culture, so it's emerging church too!' The Book of Common Prayer can be an entirely authentic Christian expression of that particular congregation. But what prevents traditional church from becoming emerging church is the mission assumption - 'come to us as we are'.
When church members ask instead, 'How can we remain true to ourselves but also sponsor a different expression of church alongside us, suitable for this group we don't reach?' then traditional church changes gear. It begins to move from inherited to emerging mode. Might the time come when Christians can say, 'We are all emerging church now'?
UK Christian Handbook. Religious Trends 4 2003/2004, op. cit., p. 2.24.
is an excerpt from 'emergingchurch.intro' by Michael Moynagh. It is published
by Monarch ISBN 1-85424-664-X