Beginners Guide

What is ‘Emerging Church?

The phrase “Emerging church” is an attempt to express succinctly the re-imagining of church that has been taking place in the last 20 years as a response to our rapidly changing UK mission context. The phrase “emerging church”, in my mind, is too passive and too modest; these ways of expressing church differently have already emerged and are very much claiming to be more authentic church than the inherited models. So keep an eye out for the phrase “fresh expressions of church” that has increasing currency in the circles I move in.

I do not want to say that traditional forms of church no longer connect with anybody. The increase in attendance of Cathedral worship and the creation of new Monastic Orders prove that there is much in the history of the Christian Church that continues to draw. In a nutshell, I have become convinced that the mission of God is our primary calling and that the Church of God is shaped around that mission. We can draw on the traditional forms of worship where they are appropriate but should realise that these forms tend to connect with middle-class, middle-aged, white people with a preference for pseudo-classical music (See John Drane’s McDonaldization of the Church).

What kick-started emerging church in the UK? Our best guesses are:

  • The observation that when young people grew up to be “adults”, they didn’t “fit” into “adult church”; a cultural gap not just a generational gap existed. (See Graham Cray’s Grove Evangelism Booklet no.57).
  • The church planting trend in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s proved we had good intentions regarding mission but missed the opportunity to think creatively about what sort of churches were needed. (See Stuart Murray’s & my Grove Evangelism no.61).
  • The statistical evidence that 40% of the population in England and Wales have never been to Church and have no residuary awareness of Christianity and no experience of church (Gone But Not Forgotten by Francis & Richter). For many, Jesus continues to be as deeply attractive as church is deeply alien.
  • A growing unease within Christians that what happens on a Sunday often fails to connect with the other areas of their lives.

What makes something church? It might be as simple as being both Christ-centred and communal. In addition, I value Robert Warren’s definition of 3 intersecting circles of “worship”, “mission”, “community” (with “spirituality” at the heart) but would add the 4th dimension of “intrinsic belonging to the wider church”.

What is it that emerging church is doing differently? To serve a diverse mission context, fresh expressions of church are correspondingly varied. A significant difference in one stream of emerging church is the targeting of a network rather than a neighbourhood for mission; some people (network churches) identify more with where they work and socialise than where they sleep. Another stream is defined by its use of small-group as the context for church (base communities, cell church). Other streams have kept congregation size but have changed where it gathers, when it gathers and what takes place (alternative worship, café church, midweek church, youth congregations). Further still, some emerging churches are embarking on community development where any expression of their worshipping life is low-key and still evolving. Some churches will draw on more than one of these differences as appropriate.

For further explanation of the different types of emerging church and case study stories that gave rise to our developing understanding of what is emerging, see my series Encounters on the Edge (
Revd George Lings is Director of The Church Army
Sheffield Centre, UK