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Emerging church seeks to get back to church?s roots

Participants at the "emergingumc" conference share ideas on ways to make The United Methodist Church more relevant and authentic in today's society. 
UMNS photos by Linda Green.

By Linda Green*
Oct. 11, 2007 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

Young adults, seminarians and pastors with a heart for the Gospel are thinking and talking about new ways to "do church" by transforming churchgoing from the inside out.

More than 50 people gathered in Nashville Oct. 4-6 for an "emergingumc" conference on getting back to the roots of church and its mission. The event was sponsored by the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.

The emerging church is a nondenominational grassroots movement that intertwines evangelism and social justice to make the church more relevant to today's culture and to make worship and Christian life authentic, experiential and connected.

The Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards

Known officially as the emerging missional church, the concept is about turning the church from a place of ritual worship to one of reclaiming mission as the foundation, said the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, director of worship resources for the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.

"The core is not to get people to come to Sunday morning worship. The core is to get disciples of Jesus to be on mission wherever they are and however they can do that," he said.

What is it?

An emerging church is not necessarily a new church start. A lot of "emerging" is taking place within existing congregations of all sizes and denominations and is especially being led by young adults. They relish a non-institutional approach to church and innovative worship but hold to traditional Christian beliefs. They also reconstruct and deconstruct those beliefs to accommodate and "do church" in postmodern culture. They create community.

According to United Methodists in the movement, the emerging church seeks to transform churchgoing from the inside out through questioning basic traditions. It is a movement about theology but is ambiguous and anti-programmatic. Conversations about an emergingumc, alternative ways of "doing church" and community building are occurring at http://emergingumc.blogspot.com.

"Emerging church is a community of faith that is striving to be authentic to the Gospel and the culture," said the Rev. Jack Terrell-Wilkes, an ordained deacon in the Oklahoma Annual (regional) Conference.

Within a congregation might be two or three people passionate about discipleship and reaching people. Those individuals would create ministries from their passion and also begin to live their passion. "Church then happens," said conference attendees during focused discussions. "It is about getting back to the roots of Christianity."

"The emerging church has a heart for the poor, the last, the least and the lost," said the Rev. James Walker, the United Methodist co-leader of Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community in Pittsburgh. The church provides opportunity to experience church in new and unconventional ways, including drama, he said.

“Emerging church is a community of faith that is striving to be authentic to the Gospel and the culture. … It is about getting back to the roots of Christianity.”
–The Rev. Jack Terrill-Wilkes

Conference presenters affirmed the belief that disciples of Jesus Christ are sent to be Christ's body in the world.

"Christianity is not just about a set of beliefs and propositions that we believe. It is about our lives and about how we live," Burton-Edwards said.

People studying Jesus' Great Commission often emphasize the command to "go make disciples" as the way mission is done. However, Burton Edwards says the emphasis should be on making disciples as you go. "Wherever you are, figure out what making disciples looks like there and do that there."

Making disciples for Jesus has to grow out of and be incarnate in each place, he said.

"Just as God became flesh among us, God's kingdom as it is working throughout the world takes on different forms. Our role is to figure what those are so that the good news of God's kingdom can be made known in those places," he said, adding that the look of those places will vary from place to place.

Characteristics of the emerging missional church are a revived mission or mandate; theological conversations that focus on the kingdom of God and the way of Jesus rather than denominational or ecclesial distinctiveness; spiritual formation using both personal and communal traditions and practices that "deeply" form disciples of Jesus; and worship that is experiential and connected to traditions of the Christian faith.

United Methodist roots

Seminarian Katie Dawson and the Rev. Jack Terrell-Wilkes chat during a break. More than 50 people attended the conference.


United Methodist followers say the concept harkens back to Methodism founder John Wesley, who in 18th-century England had a strong sense that the established Church of England was wonderful at worship and terrible at making disciples. It was wonderful at creating structures so that people could have the potential to make disciples but was terrible at delivering on that promise.

"What Wesley did was create systems that could make disciples alongside the Church of England and keep them in a symbiotic relationship so that the strength of the movement and the strength of the Church of England could both be leveraged for the better good," said Burton-Edwards.

Katie Dawson, a seminary student at Vanderbilt Divinity School and intern at West End United Methodist Church in Nashville, attended the gathering to become familiar with the emerging church and postmodern ideas as she works toward ordained ministry in the Iowa Annual Conference.

"Anytime the culture changes, the church changes in response," she said. "The church is a part of the world. It is not separate, above or better. It is a part of God's creation as well and we need to be aware of that to continue to be in ministry with people … in the city and in the rural areas."

While the emerging church has no concrete definition, Dawson suggests staying attentive to whatever local church you are in, learning its struggles and hopes and where its ambiguities lie, and then developing practices and theology that provide hope. "Emerging church is about connecting people with the reality of their lives," she said.

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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