“Fresh Expressions”: Exploring the development of Christian Community Today.” By The Rev. Eric Cooter

What is Fresh Expressions/Emergence Christianity?

I imagine asking someone experimenting with ministry in the Emergent movement to try and explain it, is like asking a physicist conducting experiments with “Dark Matter,” to completely explain how it works, where it can be located, how one can extract some of it, and how one might use it to improve one’s life.   In trying to capture the complexity, frustration, and lack of clarity in the Emergence Christianity movement, I really like the metaphor some use, both critics and supporters alike.  Some say defining the fundamentals of Emergence Christianity is like “nailing Jell-O to the wall.”  It seems that when engaging in experimental forms of Christian community, the moment you think you have gotten some of it to stick, it slides through your hands, falls to the floor, and you are left only with nail and hammer in your hands.  Oh, and by the way, you may have a confused, dazed, and frustrated look on your face.  Emergence Christianity has been called a “movement” or “conversation” and I sometimes think it is because, it is less like a great program we can implement in order to create church growth, and more like a movement of the Spirit, and thus a movement we cannot “nail down,” and pre-package up in a hipster, Americana, technologically advanced package available for wide distribution.

I have been reading about, exploring, experimenting, and “nailing Jell-O to the wall” in this Emergent movement for about eight years now.  It all began back in 2005, when a Lutheran pastor and an Episcopalian priest, who were the pastors of the parish where my family worshipped, recruited me to develop a ministry for younger adults who were living near us.  Back then, I was in my early forties and in that congregation of 500+ folks, there were few, if any, 20 -40 year olds.  I think I was asked to begin this ministry back then, because in the years prior to finding this unusual, quirky Lutheran-Episcopal parish I, like many of my younger counter-parts, experienced my own frustrations, disappointments, and detachments from institutionalized religion.

I grew up in the  Methodist church, when I was 13 my family became Baptists, I wondered around the “Religious Cereal Aisle” in my college years, and eventually in my mid-twenties, I found the ancient liturgy, rich history, and progressive theology of the Episcopal Church.  Nonetheless, the ten years after my adult confirmation in the Episcopal Church, was fraught with a search- a bouncing around from community to community, and sometimes no community at all – yearning for a deep, beyond Sunday, communally intimate, spiritually forming, faith exploring, gifts-engaging community, in which I and my family, could sojourn with others who were also seeking God’s grace.  For ten years, I was then, what some now are calling, a religiously unaffiliated person.  I was a “None.”  I was a person who, if I had been polled about my religious affiliation in a national survey, would have claimed “no religious affiliation at all.”

I, like many of my colleagues experimenting with community in the 21st century, came to this Emergent movement not through a desire to save the institutional church, but from a life of spiritual searching, seeking, and yearning, and a desire to help others grow in a love of Christ and neighbor.  It was through these external doors, and through this process of searching, the Spirit developed a passion in me, to provide others the opportunity to gather in community, to find God’s grace, to grow in a deeper love of Jesus, and to go out into the world and share that love with others, not as propositional evangelism but rather, as a spiritual journey of questioning, searching, learning, and yes, Christian formation.

Phyllis Tickle, in her book, “The Great Emergence” quoted Rowan Williams the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who once said, “We are not to read and study and discuss Emergence Christianity in order that we might save the Anglican Church (fill in your own affiliation) or any other such institution.  Rather, he said, we are called to read and study and discuss Emergence Christianity in order that we may discern how best to serve the kingdom of God in whatever form God is presenting it.”2   The Emergent movement is not a formulaic program for church growth; it is a risk taking adventure in God’s mission of reconciling the world to Godself.  So, whether we see the Emergence Christianity movement as “nailing Jell-O to the wall” or an “impossible mission of trying to explain, harness, and use ‘Dark Matter’,” at its simplest, “the Emerging Church movement is about forming church communities that fit the postmodern cultural context.”

Postmodernism

Phyllis Tickle, a major voice in the Emergent movement wrote, “There is a hard fact that something dramatic and irresistible is happening to every part of our lives right now, that it has been first building and then occurring for some several decades, that it became irrefutably obvious and present at a popular or lay level somewhere around or in conjunction with the opening events of this century, and that we can either be its passive medium or its active architects.” 2  Tickle, and many other scholars attribute the social upheaval we are experiencing today, to the dramatic, exponential changes in every aspect of life, taking place in the 21st century, and technology has been a major influence on some of these changes.  

Postmodernism is a cultural phenomenon in societies that have challenged the values and practices of the modern world.  The availability of data, opinions, globalization, and social interactions have influenced, are influencing, and will influence our society in the days, months, years, and decades to come.  Postmodernism is an overarching term for skeptical interpretations of culture, literature, art, philosophy, economics, architecture, fiction, and literary criticism.  When we accept the influence of postmodernism on all aspects of life, we as theologians, pastors, and religious leaders, must surely see the impact it has on the faith communities we lead, the way we relate to the communities around us, and how we share the Good News of God in Christ.  Ian Mobsby, Priest in Charge of the Guild Church of St Mary Aldermary in the City of London and Missioner to the Moot Community, a Fresh Expressions (emergent) Christian community asserts, new research suggests that the cultural combination of consumerism and information technology has created a new spiritual hunger that stems mostly from a devotion to material possessions that cannot answer the existential questions of life.”1    

Social media with its offering to connect virtually through technology, along with the ongoing societal pursuit of material fulfillment, and culture’s readily available products to satisfy those desires, our culture seems to be increasingly spiritually empty and relationally detached.  Ian Mobsby asserts, One of the most crucial hallmarks of the postmodern situation is what might be called `the return to relationships’ … Humans are fundamentally social creatures and therefore the emptiness individuals sense can never be filled by the abundance of possessions but only in relationships with others.” 1    It seems the key to effective and lasting ministry in any culture, is that those ministering must recognize the uniqueness of that culture and thus, examine how they might create space for open dialogue within that culture.  I believe at the heart of the movement, the folks experimenting with Fresh Expressions of Christian community and the Emergence Christianity Movement, have discovered that in the 21st century, there is a profound need for “robust, theological dialogue” within our ever-changing culture.    This discovery is nothing new, because if we look back through the history of the Christian community, we will recognize that intimate relationships of trust, birthed through authentic communities, is embedded in the DNA of the followers of Jesus.

Consider the story in the Acts of the Apostles of the Apostle Paul’s visit to Athens.  Paul was a little discouraged to learn that the city was full of idols, but this did not stop him from sharing the Good News.  Paul did not stay in the synagogue rather, he went out and engage in “robust theological dialogue” in the marketplace, and with all types of.  I imagine that Paul went out into the public and talked with people about their dreams, struggles, concerns, and yes, their spiritual uncertainties.  Paul debated with some well-learned philosophers (Epicurean and Stoic to be exact), but Paul engaged openly with them, only after he had been in the marketplace and learned about the culture.  Those same philosophers invited Paul to join them at the Aeropagus, and it was there that Paul used what he learned from the marketplace to continue to share the Good News.  Paul proclaimed, “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.  For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god.  So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”  (Acts 17:22-23 NIV)

Paul modeled for us, a fundamental concept in discipleship, because he learned it from the Master himself; Jesus.  We must intimately know our context.  Jesus spent time in the marketplace listening to the people, getting to know them, hearing about their culture, experiencing their societal nuances, and it was here where he taught about the Kingdom of God.  According to Ian Mobsby, the work of the emerging church today, is predicated on a “movement characterized by: contextual and experimental mission; new forms of church; the removal of barriers and division; a blend of evangelism and social action; attention to both experience and tradition; the breakdown of clergy/laity distinctions.”1

 

Why is all of this Important

OK, so we see a cultural shift taking place, we know technology is changing faster than we can keep up, we know that social media is beginning to change how we relate to one another.  “So what,” you may say.  In 1989, the American Religious Identification Survey showed that 8% of the American population claimed no religious affiliation at all (the so called “NONES).  In 2009, twenty years later, that number moved to 16% of the American Population responded to the survey as “NONES.” 6  In 2012, the Pew Research survey indicated that 19.6% of the American population now claims, no religious affiliation.7  Diana Butler Bass asserts,  “The religious unaffiliateds are primarily young adults. In the United States, somewhere in the range of 25 to 30 percent of the population under thirty neither attend religious services nor have any religious preference, although about half of the unaffiliated group still say that they believe in God or understand themselves to be spiritual.”3   I wonder, if the Apostle Paul were to traverse the American frontier today vs. the ancient Athenian metropolitan, would he say to us, “People of America! I see that in every way you are very spiritual, but increasingly less religious.”

There seems to be a misguided paradigm in U.S. culture today, that somehow one can travel a lone spiritual path, just as one might traverse the lone path of technological social interaction.  Many people describe their self-directed spiritual path using the phrase, “I am spiritual, but not religious.” I wonder though, does a lone journey seeking spiritual encounters, lead merely to an emptiness of the soul?  Ralph Peters, a New York columnist once remarked, “The great paradox of the 21st century is that, in this age of powerful technology, the biggest problems we face internationally are problems of the human soul.”8   The phrase “spiritual but not religious” seems to be a cry from the soul for a deeper engagement with the divine.  I know in my own journey, the path I chose traversing, the “Religious Cereal Aisle”-the plethora of spiritual experiences available to me-I yearned for authentic relationships of trust in which, people would challenge me, pray with me, and guide me in the “Way of Jesus.”  Diana Butler Bass in her book Christianity after Religion asserts, “To say that one is ‘spiritual but not religious’ or ‘spiritual and religious’ is often a way of saying, ‘I am dissatisfied with the way things are, and I want to find a new way of connecting with God, my neighbor, and my own life.’ It might not be a thoughtless mantra at all— in many cases, it may well be a considered commentary on religious institutions, doctrine, and piety.” 3 What Bass seems to be saying, many of us may not like to hear.  The church may need to change how we relate to the world in order to be a light to the world.  In other words, we may need to return to our heritage of evangelistic mission in the world, but we may have to do so not only wih words, but also through action!

We MUST Experiment

In my current ministry in the Diocese of Southwest Florida, I assist the Bishop in forming new communities of faith. As Missioner, I explore, plan, and work through ecumenical, diocesan and community partners to set the conditions and plans that lead to such communities.  I am a seeker of “modern wells,” “safe spaces,” and “third places” in which, I try to gently hold hearts that are seeking grace, reconciliation, and love in Christ.   I encourage and send out new leaders to do likewise.

I am less like a practitioner of “tried and true” methods of church planting or even “hip and happening” methods of emerging church.  My pioneering colleagues and I, are more like explorers, experimenters, and ecclesiological scientists.   Our laboratories are out there in the marketplace, where we are trying to create spaces for robust theological exploration with people who are on the margins of the institutional church.  We invite people to Pub Theology groups, Dinner groups, home churches, and coffeehouse groups where we explore deep, theological questions like, “Who is Jesus, and what is this “Way” that he taught?” “What is liturgy, and why is tradition something in which we might find something beyond ourselves?” “What is prayer, and what do the ancient prayer practices have to do with life today?”

Currently, in the Diocese of Southwest Florida we have several new groups gathering in various venues, led by clergy and lay leaders in many of our parishes, meeting with people from very diverse backgrounds, and having discussions with people of varying levels of faith community experience.  Recently, my spouse and I facilitated a group in Sarasota, where we spent two hours with a couple we had never met before; one of our group was a self-proclaimed atheist who does not attend church, the other a woman who grew up in a Jewish family but had never participated in the faith.  We explored so many topics that evening and by the end of the night, my head was spinning.  I would not have traded that evening for anything, because the last remark the woman made to me after our little dinner gathering was this, “My prior negative impression of all Christians, is no more.”

In addition to gatherings like this, each week, I spend two to three hours in a coffeehouse in one of the fastest growing, youngest communities in all of Southwest Florida.  At this little coffeehouse, I know all the Baristas and they know me, both as a priest and as a friend.  When I arrive, they readily tell me what is going on in their lives, they ask me to pray for them, and we discuss God openly.  Every single time I sit in my favorite chair and sip my latte, I find myself in a robust theological discussion.

In my experience, the statistics we hear about in the ARIS survey and the 2012 Pew report, seem to hold hold true.  More and more people are “spiritual but not religious,” but I believe people are still yearning deeply for authentic community in which, they can explore their questions with others who will listen, who are willing to wrestle with hard questions, and who will readily seek understanding, provide attentive hearts, and are willing to be patient, as they walk a spiritual pathway.   Presenting the Good News of God in Christ Jesus in this postmodern culture, is going to take much more than merely finding and implementing the latest marketing scheme, buying and starting the hippest new young adult program, or hiring the best contemporary music band.  In the book Ancient Faith, Future Mission, Stephanie Spellers offers some sound advice for those of us, who wish to effectively continue God’s mission in the 21st century,  “We start by creating some common ground where we can sit down and learn the language and culture of the people we are seeking to serve; listen to their questions; understand their concerns; and then begin to share with them the story of Christ.  As we serve, listen and proclaim, so the possibility of church is born: a community formed by the impact of the story of Christ and the witness of his church.” 1

What we can do

It would seem then, in order to come alongside our sisters and brothers who are experimenting in the Emerging Church movement and for us to respond to this renewal movement of the Spirit, the institutional church does not have to shrug off our heritage, our tradition, or even our liturgy, and we do not have to add another program to the plethora of programs, already overflowing on all our plates.  It would seem, we may just need to embrace that which, the emergent movementfavors now; “the sharing of experiences via testimonies, prayer, group recitation, sharing meals and other communal practices, which many Emergents believe are more personal and sincere than propositional presentations of the Gospel.”4

We must move out of our four walls, and move out into the marketplace.  We must meet people, just as Our Lord met them; we must meet them, not to proposition them or to sell them the Gospel.  Lord knows, people today are confronted with nearly 5,000 propositions, enticements, or advertisements every single day.  It would seem, the message of Jesus, the Good News of love, reconciliation, grace and mercy, is getting lost in the plethora of messages offering consumer fulfillment.  Sharing the Good News today requires us to once again, develop relationships of trust through conversation and listening.  My friends, that takes time, it takes some effort, it takes patience, and yes, it requires that we be present.

In the book Ancient Faith, Future Mission, the Rev. Tom Brackett wrote these words, and I return to them often, especially when I am discouraged, “Start this ministry now-don’t wait until you have this all figured out.  Experiment joyfully and publicly with new forms of ministry that match the cultures in which you find your ministries. Fail early and fail often until you learn what works. Learn to trust the young prophets in your midst and don’t be afraid when the visions they share are out beyond your comfort zones. Be daring and be bold!”

I encourage you to get out their in the marketplace and listen to those whom God loves, those with whom God offers reconciliatory grace, and those to whom we are sent as messengers.  We must never forget, as we weigh our decision to step out and take a risk to go out and make disciples, that “every church owed its existence to the dedicated ministry of a particular group of Christians, at a particular time who were seeking to respond to the needs and challenges of their day, by establishing some new expression of Christian life.” 1

1 Steven Croft;Ian Mobsby;Stephanie Spellers. Ancient Faith, Future Mission: Fresh Expressions in the Sacramental Tradition (Kindle Location 82). Kindle Edition.

2 Tickle, Phyllis (2012-09-01). Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters (Kindle Locations 270-272). Baker Book Group. Kindle Edition.

 

3 Bass, Diana Butler (2012-03-13). Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (Kindle Locations 578-580). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

4 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emerging_church

5 http://www.npg.org/facts/us_historical_pops.htm

6 http://commons.trincoll.edu/aris/publications/american-nones-the-profile-of-the-no-religion-population/

7 http://www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx

8 http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/r/ralphpeter170327.html

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