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Creativity, anger drive emerging churches

Media-driven cultural change and resentment against established institutions are the two forces behind the alternative congregations commonly labelled ‘emerging church’. This is the view of Rev Steve Taylor, who has studied emerging churches and recently published a book on the phenomenon.

“Emerging churches are shaped by post-modern culture. They are more experiential than mainstream churches. They tell stories and seek meaning, and they often emphasise images and art rather than words.

“These groups try to connect with everyday life. In the post-modern age high and low culture are broken up and mixed together. Out of that people want a sense that the everyday is sacred.

“Worship in these congregations often encompasses multiple perspectives. It is more participatory and more democratic,” Steve says.

Frequently, emerging worship groups are formed in response to negative experiences among institutional churches. Many are small groups that "nourish an angst" created by bad experiences in church.

They include women’s groups formed as a response to patriarchy and gay and lesbian groups trying to create a space where they can practice new forms of worship. Another strand is home groups, people who don’t want buildings or paid staff but rather want to gather to talk about their faith.

Steve distinguishes between short-lived groups, which have an important pastoral function, and emerging churches which aim for greater permanence by seeking more sustainable forms of community.

“Some of these worship groups are deconstructive. Their life comes from pushing against the established church. Their pastoral function is to let people ventilate. But where will they be in 10 years? To move into long-term life they have to develop other narratives.”

Reading scripture in ways that stress community and hospitality is among the effective narratives emerging churches use.

The emerging church movement is growing. Steve recently attended an ecumenical emerging church convention in the United States. It is held twice a year and attracts 500 mostly young people. A similar event is planned for Wellington.

“These groups are very entrepreneurial. I call them soteriological entrepreneurs,” Steve says. “Using their skills and their instincts they have gone out to create something very different. They create new centres of meaning. Like the business world, it is a risky environment and some will fail.”

He cites the futurechurch project funded by the Methodist Church an example of this entrepreneurial spirit. It came out of a vision to connect disparate groups together and its website (www.futurechurch.org.nz) provides information about dozens of them.

“The question for institutions like the Methodist Church is how will they relate to emerging churches? The future of mainstream churches may depend on how they nourish and embrace these groups. It is not just a matter of throwing money at them, it is necessary to dialogue with them.”

Another image Steve uses to describe emerging church is the midwife. “God wants to give birth to something new. It is not our job to give birth, it’s God’s. But like midwives we need to be there to assist, cope with the mess, and provide an environment where something organic can emerge.”

Steve teaches at the Bible College of NZ in Christchurch and is the minister at Opawa Baptist Church. He was pastor at Graceway Baptist Church in Auckland and is the author of Out of Bounds Church? Learning to Create a Community of Faith in a Culture of Change.