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Looking Beyond the U.S. for Emerging Church Trends

100414-white-bread-matzo[Read more of this blog conversation in response to the Sojourners magazine article "Is the 'Emerging Church' for Whites Only?"]

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In response to my buddies Shane and Jarrod's reflections on the global emerging church culture, I thought I'd repost some reflections I wrote about the UK/U.S. Anglican emerging church scene for the Fall '09 issue of Yale's Reflections Magazine.

When I reported on the HipHopEMass services transpiring in the Bronx, I was introduced to the work of Jonny Baker, one of the leaders of Grace, a Christian alternative worship community in London.

One of the first things I noticed when I first visited Grace and many other UK emerging services in 2007 was the absence of a pulpit or altar as the centerpiece. These leaders tend to see themselves as facilitators or curators who work in the background, similar to a DJ, rather than placing themselves front and center. The ethos of the service is influenced by all of the community members rather than shaped by a charismatic leader. Participants bring in the technologies and media of their everyday lives -- TV, video, iPods, computers, face-to-face conversations. These tools are employed not to create cool worship but rather to connect participants with each other, using those particular pieces that speak to them.

Steve Collins, a member of Grace who has blogged about the development of alternative worship/emerging church culture, describes alternative worship as "what happens when people create worship for themselves in a way that fully reflects who they are as people and the culture that they live their everyday lives in." He explains: "Because most forms of church have become culturally disconnected from the wider world, alternative worship can seem like a radical break with conventional church practices."

Instead of eschewing culture, these communities seek to follow the example of Jesus, who both immersed himself in the culture of his day and challenged it. Each service is informed by the uniqueness of its specific setting; a service in London, Manchester, or Oxford will take on the vibe of the particular city's cultural milieu.

This growing church culture unfolds against a backdrop of UK churchgoing decline over many decades. Children's Sunday school attendance, for instance, has drastically plunged over the past century, dropping from 80 percent to 12. The Church of England has responded to the alternative spirit by launching "Fresh Expressions of Church" in 2004. This joint initiative with the Methodist Church seeks to recognize new Christian communities that attract those who are not members of a traditional church.

By 2005, the Church of England declared that 39 percent of parishes reported starting "fresh expressions," many aimed at occasional and non-churchgoers. More than two-thirds of the fresh expressions involved youths under 16. They range widely from unique church plants to worship services that have made only minor changes to their format. Many of these initiatives might not be included in parish statistics at all, the report said. But the sheer volume of these projects testifies to a general acceptance that churches needed to try new forms of faith and could not continue operating as they had in years past.

Endorsing the Fresh Expressions venture, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, cited what he termed "a mixed economy of church." Mixed economy recognizes the continuing relevance of traditional forms of church, but it also acknowledges there are people who no longer connect with parish-based ministry. By 2008, the Church of England established a formal means of recognizing these new forms of church that don't fit within the existing parish system.

The Rev. Steve Hollinghurst, Researcher in Evangelism to Post-Christian Culture at The Church Army Sheffield Centre in England, says the UK scene now boasts a growing diversity of traditions available for creating experimental churches. He explains: "Fresh Expressions represented the Church of England coming to terms with evangelical church planting. These church plants were diversifying to reflect a growing awareness that Britain was in effect a cross-cultural mission field."

Throughout my travels, I've seen how U.S. worship pioneers such as the Rev. Karen Ward, Abbess of the Church of the Apostles, a joint Lutheran-Episcopal church plant based in Seattle and director of Episcopal Village, have created similar ancient-future communities. Like her UK counterparts, a leader like Karen helps spiritual seekers discern what kind of community they want to create rather than setting herself up as a self-proclaimed expert who has the magic elixir or quick fix for curing what ails the church.

portrait-becky-garrisonFollow Becky Garrison's travels on Twitter @JesusDied4This. To read her original article in its entirety go to the Next Wave web site.

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