Whatever it is, the emerging church is turning heads

June 15, 2005

A UMC.org Feature
By Amy Green*

Ask anyone to define the “emerging church,” and they'll likely hesitate.

“Good luck,” jokes the Rev. Jay Voorhees of Antioch United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn., who describes his congregation as an “emerging church.”

A grassroots initiative that is not associated with any particular church denomination, the emerging church is a concept that’s hard to define and full of paradox.

For example, it is rooted in evangelism but – in a rare crossing of today's cultural divide – is steeped in social justice values often associated with liberalism. It welcomes innovation in worship but also holds to traditional Christian beliefs. To a growing number of young Christians, this ambiguity is the allure to what some call a movement but others call a “conversation.” Either way, the emerging church has set out to transform churchgoing from the inside out by questioning some of its most basic traditions.

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The Rev. Jay Voorhees, pastor of Antioch United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn., describes the 300-member congregation he shepherds as an 'emerging church.'

Leaders say the emerging church – so named because it is still emerging and evolving – is the beginning of a transition to a new era of churchgoing. They say churches have not kept up with the evolution of art and culture from a modern era of empirical analysis to a postmodern era of questioning and searching. The reason? They blame, in part, the church’s reluctance to question the sacred. The emerging church, they say, welcomes questions. It seeks to make church more relevant in today's culture and ultimately help Christians live and worship authentically.

Whatever the emerging church is, it’s grabbing attention. In only a few years, the dialogue has spread across the Web through chat rooms and “blogs,” spawned a variety of books and resources and pushed congregations and denominations to rethink their traditions and curricula. The United Methodist Publishing House in March authorized spending $62,000 to research the emerging church as the publisher searches for new markets. An “emerging church” conference in May drew 650 religious leaders, pastors and Christians to Nashville for four days of discussion and worship.

The emerging church is gaining ground because Christians have a deep desire for a stripped-down, more authentic time of worship, says Brian McLaren, leader of the loose network known as the Emergent Village. A theologian and author of the 2001 book A New Kind of Christian, McLaren was named in February by Time magazine as one of the nation's 25 most influential evangelicals.

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Musicians lead worship at the Emergent Convention in May 2005 in Nashville, Tenn.

“It feels like the church community in our society today is about a lot of things, but it feels like we're too often far away from the essential message of Jesus, of compassion for yourself and your fellow neighbor,” McLaren said in an interview with UMC.org.

The emerging church is led especially by young adults who relish its non-institutional nature and innovative worship but hold to traditional Christian beliefs. At the conference in Nashville, the dress was casual, worship services included harps and a masseuse worked the hallway with other vendors. The discussion included “Preaching Without Sounding Preachy” and “The Sacred Way: Ancient Spirituality for Life, Ministry and the Church.”

These emerging church evangelists are serious about winning new followers by adapting church for a new era. Innovative worship such as praise services alone won't do, they say. Christians are searching for real change, something deeper, something more contemplative.

“I see it as ... a thirst for a genuine relationship with God,” says Lillian Smith of the United Methodist Division on Ministries with Young People. “Young people want to be in a community where they can ask questions, ... where they can wrestle with the angel themselves.”

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Brian McLaren is considered a founding leader of the 'emerging church.'

Browsing the conference bookstore, 23-year-old Matt Wilson, a youth and associate pastor of the 200-member Cedars Church of Christ in Wilmington, Del., talked of how “emergent” ideas have changed his view of evangelism. It's no longer about just saving people, he says, but about getting to know them, listening to them and learning from their divergent views. His church is considering an “emergent” service that would be more casual and contemplative.

Is the emerging church merely a fad? McLaren describes it as a “conversation”; he says it’s too early to call it movement. But Voorhees sees something more.

“I think those of us who are deeply involved in this conversation really understand this is how we are authentically following Christ ... and then really deconstructing how much of that really came out of Scripture and how much was really based on the assumptions of modern society,” he says. “We would understand the story of faith is an ongoing story.”

*Green is a freelance journalist in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Matt Carlisle, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5153 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

This feature was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of The United Methodist Church.

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