A “Mixed Economy” of Church in a Post-Christian Marketplace
During my stint in the charismatic wing of the Episcopal Church USA in the mid-eighties, I kept hearing about some amazing alternative worship services happening in the United Kingdom, such as the Nine O’clock Service and the Late Late Service. In the United States, some of us were experimenting with our own new forms of worship, but without the benefit of much cross-pollination across the big pond.That was unfortunate; we might have learned something from each other.
As international missiologist Andrew Jones reflected on his blog Tall Skinny Kiwi in 2004:
The disconnect in the USA between church culture and secular culture was much greater than UK. Radical change in worship forms was accepted into the church in the UK, but American churches closed the doors to new forms, or perhaps they thought their current forms were successful enough. The result is that believers involved in dance culture in the USA often bypassed the church and took their worship straight to the clubs, coffee shops, poetry slams, concerts, raves, galleries, and to whatever environment would accept it.
Eventually, a number of us left the U.S. charismatic crowd when it began lifting hands in support of the political right. Call it luck, fate, or the hand of God, but I reconnected with this global spirit in 2004 when I reported on the Hip Hop E Mass services transpiring in the Bronx. Soon I was introduced to the work of Jonny Baker, one of the leaders of Grace, a Christian alternative worship community in London. Jonny and his friends showed me how they had moved from planning cutting-edge worship services to forming actual Christian communities that explore a rule of life and other spiritual practices.
Baker describes how Grace-London was begun by people who wanted to do something different because they were frustrated with church. As he explained to me, “They felt like there were two choices in terms of worship in the church at the time. There’s kind of a liturgical tradition which feels like it has depth in terms of liturgy and so on, but people experience it as dry. On the other hand there’s contemporary worship with charismatic songs and preaching that can kind of seem passionate and exciting for a season, but it doesn’t really touch on the hard realities of life.”
Now that the U.S. is starting to show serious declines in church growth and perhaps entering into its own post-Christian era, mainline church leaders might want to exchange stories with their UK counterparts, who have been pondering a post-Christian milieu for decades.
One of the first things I noticed when I visited Grace and many other UK emerging services in 2007 was the absence of a pulpit or altar as the centerpiece. These leaders tend to see themselves as facilitators or curators who work in the background, similar to a DJ, rather than placing themselves front- and-center. The ethos of the service is influenced by all of the community members rather than shaped by a charismatic leader. Participants bring in the technologies and media of their everyday lives – TV, video, iPods, computers, face-to-face conversations. These tools are employed not to create cool worship but rather to connect participants with each other, using those particular pieces that speak to them. Grace’s gatherings often have an ambient chill backbeat throughout the service and feature video loops and movies, types of entertainment that speak to this urban crowd.
Steve Collins, a member of Grace who has blogged about the development of alternative worship/emerging church culture, describes alternative worship as “what happens when people create worship for themselves in a way that fully reflects who they are as people and the culture that they live their everyday lives in.” He explains: “Because most forms of church have become culturally disconnected from the wider world, alternative worship can seem like a radical break with conventional church practices.”
Instead of eschewing culture, these communities seek to follow the example of Jesus, who both immersed himself in the culture of his day and challenged it. Each service is informed by the unique- ness of its specific setting; a service in London, Manchester, and Oxford will take on the vibe of the particular city’s cultural milieu.
Many of these communities embrace an “ancient-future faith.” Collins elaborates: “Alternative worship searches the traditions of the church for resources that fit the needs of the present. Christianity has a rich storehouse of spiritual treasures. Many of these lie neglected or forgotten, but they have renewed relevance. Others have been exhausted by overuse and need to be rested, or have become irrelevant to current needs of the church and the world. Alternative worship tries to interpret tradition faithfully into these new contexts. But this may mean changing the form in order to preserve or revivify its meaning.”
This growing church culture unfolds against a backdrop of UK churchgoing decline over many decades. Children’s Sunday school attendance, for instance, has drastically plunged over the past century, dropping from 80 percent to 12. The Church of England has responded to the alternative spirit by launching “Fresh Expressions of Church” in 2004. This joint initiative with the Methodist Church seeks to recognize new Christian communities that attract those who are not members of a traditional church.
By 2005, the Church of England declared that 39 percent of parishes reported starting “fresh expressions,” many aimed at occasional and non-church-goers. More than two-thirds of the fresh expressions involved youths under 16. They range widely from unique church plants to worship services that have made only minor changes to their format. Many of these initiatives might not be included in parish statistics at all, the report said. But the sheer volume of these projects testifies to a general acceptance that churches needed to try new forms of faith and could not continue operating as they had in years past.
Endorsing the Fresh Expressions venture, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, cited what he termed “a mixed economy of church.” Mixed economy recognizes the continuing relevance of traditional forms of church, but it also acknowledges there are people who no longer connect with parish-based ministry. By 2008, the Church of England established a formal means of recognizing these new forms of church that don’t fit within the existing parish system.
The Rev. Steve Hollinghurst, Researcher in Evangelism to Post-Christian Culture at The Church Army Sheffield Centre in England, says the UK scene now boasts a growing diversity of traditions available for creating experimental churches. He explains: “Fresh Expressions represented the Church of England coming to terms with evangelical church planting. … These church plants were diversifying to reflect a growing awareness that Britain was in effect a cross-cultural mission field.”
Interactive Prayer Stations
Now that the U.S. is starting to show serious declines in church growth and perhaps entering into its own post-Christian era, mainline church leaders might want to exchange stories about forming new forms of church with their UK counterparts, who have been pondering a post-Christian milieu for decades. Christian scholar Phyllis Tickle observes, “These cultural/religious shifts in the UK were clearly active, discernible, and describable at least 20 years before they were nearly so visible and coherent in this country, making observation of what is happening in Britain, Ireland, and Wales a very useful and sometimes predictive exercise for North American observers.”
In her work with deepshift.org, Linnea Nilsen Capshaw says she is beginning to see signs of open-ness and support in the U.S. for young mainline church planters who are called to create new forms of faith communities in their local context, not just planting the “models” of past decades.
Throughout my travels, I’ve seen how U.S. worship pioneers such as the Rev. Karen Ward, Abbess of the Church of the Apostles (COTA), a joint Lutheran-Episcopal church plant based in Seattle, have created similar ancient-future communities. Like her UK counterparts, a leader like Karen helps spiritual seekers discern what kind of community they want to create rather than setting herself up as a self-proclaimed expert who has the magic elixir or quick fix for curing what ails the church. As part of COTA’s service, a time of quiet called “Open Space” allows spiritual seekers to encounter several interactive prayer stations.
U.S. worship leaders seeking to learn how new communities express themselves in their own cultural context can check out the innovative work of Proost, an artists collective that provides liturgies, music, videos and other worship materials from alternative worship/emerging communities. Though most of the resources are from UK-based groups, U.S. church plants such as COTA in Seattle have contributed resources. Also, Greenbelt UK, a Christian music, arts and social justice festival founded in 1974, has come to represent a major annual international gathering hub for those interested in exploring new forms of church.
Here’s a sampling of alternative web sites:
Becky Garrison ’92 M.Div. is a senior contributing editor for Sojourners. Her books include The New Atheist Crusaders and Their Unholy Grail: The Misguided Quest to Destroy Your Faith (Thomas Nelson, 2008), Rising from the Ashes: Rethinking Church (Seabury, 2007), and Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church: Eyewitness Accounts of How American Churches are Hijacking Jesus, Bagging the Beatitudes, and Worshipping the Almighty Dollar ( Jossey-Bass, 2006). Her latest book, Jesus Died for This? (Zondervan), will be released in July 2010.