The Emerging Church in the UK : Personal Reflections

Background about the Emerging Church in the UK
Because culture in the UK is far more secular than that which is general in the United States, there has been an emerging church scene since the late 1980s responding to the gap between traditional forms of church and contemporary culture. In the 1980s, this began with forms of church responding to new forms of community and clubbing in the dance scene, which gave opportunities for new forms of mission and church. This began with alternative worship communities in the first wave of the emerging church, as the first form of models of emerging church. Initially, these did not start off as churches, but became churches as the gap between mission initiatives and forms of church were too wide to bridge. From the 1990s, to the twenty-first century, these models of emerging churches widened to include a number of different models, which now include:

  • alternative worship communities
  • café church models of emerging churches
  • new monastic forms of ‘postmodern’ friaries
  • community initiatives that have become churches
  • missions to new age communities that have become churches
  • youth congregations and churches of a more emerging and evangelical perspective
  • youth congregations and churches of a more catholic, Anglican perspective
  • new contemplative and anglo-catholic emerging church projects
  • new emerging church initiatives instigated by Anglican Cathedrals aiming at interacting with spiritual tourists
  • Emerging Church initiatives from the Free Church traditions
  • Emerging Church initiatives from post-church groups
  • Emerging Churches specifically who are gay-affirming
  • Emerging Churches that are specifically multicultural
Analysis – so why all these new groupings?
I would suggest that these new groupings have developed because British culture is complex, pluralistic and increasingly contextual. I think all are attempting to do “worship, mission and community” in a culture driven by individualism, consumption, information technology and an increased interest in holistic spirituality. BUT – on top of this – emerging churches are attempting to engage with the complexity of particular localities. This, therefore, is an exciting and significant development, as it says that many of the emerging churches are attempting to engage in real situations with those who are either ‘de’-churched (left churches for what ever reason – around 50% of the population) and ‘un’-churched (never been churched – now around 30% to 80% of the population, depending where you are). The emerging church in the UK appears to be attempting to engage with a mixture of the network and locality – a both-and approach. Themes increasingly recognised as needed for doing Mission
Small & Relational- One of the greatest learning areas of the emerging church in the UK is the recognition that mission to the de- and un-churched requires a very relational approach. So you are talking about projects aimed at groups of 60 to 100 people max, or they become impersonal and ineffective. Un- and de-churched mission projects require a lot of time and effort where more attractional approaches to mission just do not work. Attractional models of mission seem to work for the open de-churched, which is less than 10% of the population. In the UK, initiatives such as the Order of Mission are set up to tap this form of grouping, but regarding mission to the UK, this is a minority grouping. So emerging churches are small, but this raises real issues about how they can be sustainable. Social Capital- The greatest challenge to emerging churches in the UK is human-power to sustain projects and initiatives. Due to changes in work patterns, people increasingly have little spare time that they can volunteer, increasing the need for paid employment to create the human resources for projects. This is a real strain for main groups. However, some have started exploring a new model – first set up by Church of the Apostles in Seattle – of creating intentional community spaces at reduced rents in return for time in various projects. So, for example, some projects such as Moot in central London, are now seeking to set up intentional communities for students, artists and musicians and volunteers in return for their input of time into various projects. This may be an important model for establishing sustainability. Hunger for community – but no skills- One of the greatest issues in the emerging church is that many people seek more relational forms of church and belonging, but because of general individualism and deskilling, many people do not have the social skills to be able to live this way due to the extreme individualism of our culture. This means that groups such as Moot actually need to help people acquire life skills to be able to live and interact in a more communal and intentional way. Being Church therefore needs some consideration, as many people do not know how to live this way. This, therefore, requires UK Emerging Churches to consider how they can live this way. For some such as Moot, having a Rhythm of Life becomes crucial as an aspiration to assist people to grow into becoming Christian Communities. We can no longer assume that people can simply switch into living this way. We need to consider how to teach people to live this way. Engagement with a culture of consumption- The greatest challenge to the UK Emerging Church Scene is how it should live in the context of operating within a culture of consumption but not being of a culture of consumption. In other words, being in the real world but not sold out to the real world. Many sell resources online or in book form, some offer café churches as places of engagement in public space; the challenge is how this is developed. Many emerging Churches are having to be entrepreneurial to make money to sustain projects, but the danger then is that your mission activity becomes targeted to money making. There then is a tension between mission and money making, particularly when it comes to mission to and with the poor. Emerging Church in a culture of hardening Christianity– Much has been written about how the Church in the UK, along with other faiths, has increasingly shifted to become more conservative and in places quite fundamentalist. One of the challenges for the church in the UK is how it responds to a culture of complexity. Some have followed the simplistic path of withdrawal, of the increasingly ‘black and white’ where the emerging church has attempted to remain present in the complexity of modern life. So the emerging church increasingly has a difficult relationship with traditional forms of church, which are becoming more conservative and disconnected from culture, and where Christians tend to be more specifically conservative evangelical or Pentecostal. Engagement with increased interest in spirituality– Statistics in the UK again show an increased interest in holistic spirituality rather than religion. This remains the key missional focus for the emerging church in the UK. As church-going is predicted to decrease over the next twenty years, the emerging church’s approach to engagement with holisitic spirituality through festivals, music festivals, engagement with shops, courses, café churches, etc., seeks to engage with assisting people to shift from being spiritual tourists to becoming Christian pilgrims. Mission Orders & Rhythm of Life- Clearly the UK Emerging Church is in an ‘apostolic’ context of mission. In response to this, some emerging churches have focused on developing mission orders, spiritual rules and rhythms of life to structure and focus on what it means to be Christian in an apostolic missional situation. The advantage of this approach is that it allows churches and projects to be fuzzy or fluid-edged and at the same time prevents projects from being dumbed down by having such fuzzy edges, and therefore having a deeply Christian centre. Not all Emerging Churches in the UK have gone this way, but a significant number have. Conclusions
The Emerging Church in the UK has become increasingly diverse – driven by differing missional contexts. It will be interesting to see how things continue to develop.

Ian Mobsby is a member of Moot, an expanding emerging church project with plans next year to have a curate in the London Diocese responsible for developing it as emerging church attached to St. Matthews Westminster. This article was originally written for a conference run by Mustard Seed Associates