Beginners Guide

How is Emerging Church different?

Haven’t we been here before? What makes emerging church different…

…to New Churches?
Aren’t new expressions of church, for example, just an updated version of house churches, now known in Britain as ‘New Churches’? Traditional churches were not connecting with the sixties and seventies culture, individuals felt stifled and so they broke away and started again. Weren’t they pioneering ’emerging church’?

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?

Some New Churches have recognised the problem and have begun to replace ‘you come to us’ with a ‘we’ll come to you’ approach.

Revelation on England’s south coast, for example, has adopted more culturally current styles of doing church. ‘Our “wineskins” have continually ‘morphed'”, the leaders claim, and now include ‘Warehouse’, a youth and student congregation. 2

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?

…to church planting?
Emerging church is not quite the same as church planting either, although planting is at the heart of it.

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

…to cell church?
Cell church continues to mushroom. This is an expression of church based more heavily on small groups, each with perhaps eight to fifteen members.

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.

…to alt.worship?
Many people have equated emerging church with new forms of worship, not least ‘alternative worship’. There is an overlap, but it is easily exaggerated.

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

‘with an enduring sense of call to reach popular culture. In addition, they have a passion to close the divide between church and the rest of life. They seek to be responsive to post modern culture, being in touch with preferences for ambiguity and antiquity. They also engage with post-modern instincts in the preferences for a multi-media approach which may be diffused not focussed, is created locally rather than remotely, works contextually rather than institutionally, makes use of the symbolic and the subversive rather than the didactic, and is open ended in style.’ 8

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.

George Lings writes: ‘It is great that Mike shows the variety of examples of emerging church. But comparing emerging church to Cell or Alt. Worship is like asking how does a Citroen compare to a new car. The names are brands, the latter is a self-propelling mode of transport, in this case new. Emerging church is about releasing the kind of transport that suits where we want to go. The particular answer might be a Land Rover, a taxi or even a mountain bike. The whole point is to choose well for the mission you face.’

…to traditional church?
The essence of emerging church is a heartbeat rather than a formula. Emerging church does not declare, ‘We’ve done this. It’s tried and tested. Take the model away and adapt it.’ It is more tentative, experimental and varied. Many involved are hesitant, unsure whether they have got it right and reluctant to make bold claims.

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.

Stuart writes: ‘Hesitancy and humility are encouraging characteristics of many of those who are emerging churches, aware that they are exploring and experimenting. This is a refreshing change from those who advocate ‘this-is-the-answer’ solutions, which have plagued churches in recent years. But tentative claims should not be interpreted to mean that they are playing at church – many are passionate, serious and courageous.’

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’?

1. UK Christian Handbook. Religious Trends 4 2003/2004, op. cit., p. 2.24.
3. George Lings & Stuart Murray, Church Planting: Past, Present and Future, Cambridge: Grove, 2003, p. 3.
4. Ibid., p. 16.
5. John Hall (quoting Roger Bowen, So I Send You, London: SPCK, 1996, p. 76) in ‘The Rise of the Youth Congregation and its Missiological Significance’, PhD Thesis, University of Birmingham, 2003, p. 112.
6. ‘How cell was introduced to St Marks Haydock’,
7. George Lings, ‘The Enigma of Alternative Worship, Encounters on the Edge, No. 12, Church Army, The Sheffield Centre, n.d., p. 3. For an introduction to, and resources for alt. worship, see Jonny Baker & Doug Gay, Alternative Worship, London: SPCK, 2003.
8. Ibid, p. 21.

This is an excerpt from ’emergingchurch.intro’ by Michael Moynagh. It is published by Monarch ISBN 1-85424-664-X

(the book emergingchurch.intro is not written or endorsed by the producers of this website, – we’re flattered michael ‘borrowed’ the name though…)