What is Emerging Church? Before I deal with that one I must go back to another question, what will church be in ten years time? That was the question we asked each other in a church leaders meeting ten years ago. And I remember discussing the same question even earlier than that. I ask the same question today.
We had realised that society was changing rapidly and church was not adapting quickly enough. We were confident that church would adapt as the Lord of the church directed his church. But we were trying to imagine what church would become and how quickly such a big ‘ship’ could be turned.
In our church in York we adapted to our time and circumstances in 2002 by changing our main Sunday morning meeting into a café-style church meeting. We experienced growth and had the pleasure of seeing lives changes as people connected to God in a new way. The congregation increased so much we had to remove the tables people had been sitting around each week just so we could fit the new people in.
Doing church in news ways is now a mainstream activity, and ’emerging church’ is a familiar tag for it. The Church of England seem to have opted for the ‘Fresh Expressions’ label, I suppose it is as good a label as any other.
When it is done badly I think that much of ’emerging church’ is a result of a loss of confidence in the power of the gospel and in the miracle of a transformed life by the power of a risen Jesus. I think it is often like a bunch of drowning people clutching the same sinking log.
I understand their problem, there is a need for church leaders to know how to do small church. Too many church leaders have been looking at a large church or conference model and have tried to copy it. A revivalist with a congregation of ten! It is not likely to succeed.
There is a way! There has been the growing conviction among many that there must be a contemporary way of helping people to meet with God that does not depend on the hyped-up atmosphere of the large crowd. Most western churches are, and for a long time have been, small congregations. In the West more and more leaders are coming to the conclusion that Mega-church is so 20th Century.
Church leaders are trying to discover a new way to do small church. More than a cell or home group but smaller than a revivalist crowd. But how can small be done authentically? That is the big question.
To begin with there has to be a clear shared conviction within the group about what church is.
What is Church?
A conversation was reported to me. It went like this, “Have you heard about this cool church where this minister goes in the park and gives out leaflets and says to people that they are in church cos he’s a Christian and where he is, the church is there as well, so they are all in church?”
Rubbish! Church is more than a man in a field! Whole congregation have been wiped out over the past few years because church has been terminally de-constructed. The culprits may have been well-meaning but their shallow thought processes and sparsity of theological resources has let them and their congregations down.
A question for you to think about or to bring to your small group for discussion, “What do you say church is?”
What is Church? Some say it is community – where the believers are and where the believers are gathered that is church. Some say it is the Eucharist with it’s officiating priest is church. Some say church is the believers gathered around the ascension ministries of Ephesians 4:11.
There will be different answers to those questions, there is no agreement across the board, but no emerging/fresh expression church will survive if it does not deal with the issue of what church is. You can only muck about with the packaging if you are clear in your mind what is substance and what is just packaging. Two Christians drinking in a pub are just two Christians drinking in a pub. It is a delusion to think that that is a church.
Theological assumptions informed our experiment when we started in 2002. For me, doing church café-style was the result of having come to conclusions about the difference between the packaging and the substance inside. This question may be widely debated. It matters little if there is lack of consensus with the church at large so long as the experimenting congregation and their leadership have come to some shared conclusions.
What is your emerging/fresh expression church for?
It could be a seeker-friendly addition to the main church programme, or an outreach event from the main church. Or is it a different way of doing main church? Doing main church a different way is the much needed experiment of our time.
Now though it is ten years later and we still need to be asking the question I started this post with, “What will church be in ten years time?”