Why emerging?

The creation of this article serves as a timely reminder of the strength of many of the contemporary networks that some variations of emerging Church seek to relate to. I made a post on my weblog about a discussion that had taken place with some local clergy, in which I made the claim that something I was doing locally with some groups of teenagers bore the hallmarks of emerging Church. Somebody I have never met, but with whom I frequently discuss via my weblog, posted a question asking why I thought what I was doing was “emerging”. I made a second post on my blog in reply.

This was picked up by this website and I was invited to expand upon what I had previously written, thus quite a substantive amount of dialogue and theology has been shared between a group of people who have never met, and who would walk past each other in the street without even realising it. This network, albeit via the internet, draws us to share Christ between us.

I have been working for about 8 months in creating an emerging Church amongst some teenagers spread over the Purbeck area of Dorset. I don’t think I imagined doing that when I started. I therefore want to take this opportunity to share our story with you. If you are not creating an emerging Church where you are I want this story to encourage you; go on – it’s not very hard to do. If you are already involved I hope some of the questioning of what we are doing will give you food for thought in critiquing your own situation.

In January of this year I put on a presentation to a group from our Churches trying to describe some of the reasons why people my age and younger don’t come to our Churches. My main point was this; young people don’t come to Church because they are not spiritual, rather they don’t come to Church because they don’t see Christians as spiritual. I used some obvious clips from films, and some excerpts from live performances by the Red Hot Chili Peppers to open up a discussion on what young people are searching for. I was pleasantly surprised by how much energy this provoked in the older people in our Church wanting us to do something to address this situation. We identified several characteristics of contemporary spirituality including…

  • A sense of unity
  • Shared experience
  • Participation
  • Freedom
  • Being in a large group/community
  • The display of emotions is acceptable
  • Truth
  • “You have to experience it”
  • A yearning for Eden
  • Common purpose
  • Energy
  • Enjoyment
  • The importance of experience
  • Presence / intimacy
  • Something ethereal
  • Free will and choice
  • It’s okay to be searching
  • A suspicion of control
  • A desire for personal responsibility (you have to find out for yourself)

Please bear in mind that this list came from people who were not well versed with recent writings about contemporary spirituality, and the movie clips were all from my own collection, so the fact of the correlation between this list and those produced by serious writers on this issue is quite powerful.

As a result of that evening I was challenged to experiment. I wrote a paper outlining my views and some options, which we circulated to the local clergy. I identified a several smalls groups of teenagers spread across Churches in the town, and I wanted to provide an opportunity for them to meet together in worship, but not necessarily to take over their individual group identities. I hoped that I would be able to shape the worship in such a way as they would return to their groups and discuss amongst themselves what had been happening.

I love liturgy and worship, and enjoyed the challenge of trying to address some of the values listed above in worship. I normally use the phrase alternative worship to describe what we do to people who know what I mean by that. To other people I use the phrase creative and responsive worship, that is we seek to worship in a creative way, and one which allows space and time for a considered response to whatever God may be saying to us in the worship itself.

So I set some dates, planned some worship and advertised our worship, the Gathering, to start in the spring. I know this is not an original name, but I had bought a domain name so I stuck with it.

I am adamant that what we are making is an emerging Church because of several reasons.

Firstly it was our intention right from the start to create a group of teenagers (who live in different towns and go to different schools) who could call themselves a Church in their own right. I was not trying to occupy the teenagers until they were old enough to go to big Church, and I wasn’t trying to just teach them (traps that I have fallen into in the past with youth work). I set out to create a space in which they did all the things that a group of people do in order to be Church.

Secondly we set about creating a varied liturgical framework that addressed many of the needs of contemporary spirituality, and we deliberately changed a lot of content from month to month, so that we could explore together what it means to be a Church worshipping.

Thirdly (and this happened without me realising it) we created a Church based around a network of relationships centred primarily on the local comprehensive school, although three other schools in whose catchment areas we fall also provide us with a network of relationships to tap into. This network only dawned on me when I looked at some photos I had taken. Teenagers, without any pressure from the front, had split off from the groups that they had come with (geographically based Church youth groups) and got together with other people with whom they went to school, but who lived some distance away. This was fantastic to watch. One particular person always seemed to be on his own, but that evening met somebody else from his school, and they too went round together.

There are issues which we need to start to tackle in the autumn. It is crucial that we develop a much greater sense of leadership and ownership from within. This new Church will not survive long if it is only seen as my “thing”. I created a blog originally to allow feedback and comments from the teenagers, and give them an on-line method of inputting creatively into an act of worship. This is slowly starting to happen, but needs to accelerate.

Another issue is one of integration. We are planning a larger scale worship activity drawing together the teenagers with others from our Church communities. The idea we are working on is for the teenagers to work with me to put together a labyrinth evening, possibly for Advent, which we will run, but which will have an open invitation for all to attend, thereby offering integration. What I would hope from this is that we can use the teenagers to kick start the planting of another emerging Church, this time for older people using a similar style of worship, and of course, who are in entirely different networks.