I have been reflecting for a while on how things are progressing with this question, and now feel able to articulate something, but want to start by telling the story as I see if from the late 1980s. Some will know that I became a Christian through an early alternative worship come emerging church community in York.
Looking back, I can see that many people like me were searching for a deep spirituality in the late 1980s, and for some younger churched people, the gap between church and the sensibilities of a post-modern culture had set the scene for two streams for experimentation.
The first stream was very ideas driven, drawing in the humanities and especially philosophy. People were not happy with the prevailing theology of many churches, so philosophy became an opportunity to critique the language of church which was predominately modernist and foundationalist. Understandably, this stream was thinking driven, where this was focused on a post-foundationalist ideology, using a strongly philosophical narrative. The groups and communities that grew out of this stream were focused on deconstruction, seeking to explore the area of spirituality and alternative worship. Many of these groups burnt themselves out after a while, but their contribution to opening up the spiritual landscape and possibilities, were enormous. These included the Late Late Service in Glasgow, Holy Joes, Parallel Universe, Live on Planet Earth, Thursdays, NOS, Abundant and others.
The second stream was driven less by philosophical ideas, but the desire for community and a more creative and artistic response to post-modernism. Again, many of these groups would self-define themselves as alternative worship communities. Many of these have continued into the present, groups such as Visions, Grace, the Epicentre Network, Foundations and Gracelands.
There were in these early days, a few groups that straddled these two streams, Vaux being a very good example, but most I would say, straddled these two streams.
Somewhere around 1993, the term emerging church became more apparent. This being because some in these two streams were increasingly happy to use the word church. This was not however a consensus decision. Some of these communities had expanded what they were doing to cover worship and community, and some, were now exploring the need for mission to an emerging new social group, never churched post-secular spiritual seekers. So initially the two streams expanded to three streams, and many groups called themselves emerging churches whose worship was alternative worship. It is I think fair to say, that largely most of this new emerging church grouping came from the second stream, because most in the first stream perceived themselves as post-church and some post-Christian.
So where are we now? Well I think I want to say that there are three streams still. Groups such as the Garden in Brighton and Ikon in Belfast are good examples that the first stream has continued. Vaux I would argue has moved firmly into this first stream. Judging by their pull at the annual Greenbelt Festival, these groups still have a big role to play with the dechurched.
The second stream I would argue is now predominately emerging church, and now many of these also see themselves as fresh expressions of church, but at the radical end of fresh expressions, many of which are still very committed to alternative worship at least as part of their expression of worship, mission and community. This second stream has also diversified in focus, in response to local contextual needs. So some have become more focused on catholic and sacramental resources for worship and mission, groups such as Contemplative Fire and Visions are good examples. Others such as Moot and Safe Space see themselves as New Monastic Communities with a commitment to reframe the ancient into the contemporary, drawing heavily on the contemplative traditions. Others are seeking to be café church communities, where such public space becomes the loci of relational mission. So this second stream has expanded a lot since 2003, and has become the largest element of those who would call themselves ‘emerging and fresh expressions’ of church. Increasingly, this group are interested in the ‘un or never churched’ as much as the dechurched.
With the advent of fresh expressions in England and now increasingly in Scotland, I want to argue for a third stream. This grouping is reacting less to post-modernism, and more to the consequences and impact of post-modernism on contemporary culture - the highly consumptive and technological culture that has emerged. There are numbers of experimental and missional communities within CMS, Church of England, Methodist Church, United Reform and Baptist denominations. So fresh expressions of church, where there are unique communities, have not been on the same journey as those of a more alternative worship/emerging church DNA, however, their contribution is increasingly significant. This stream are predominantly focused on the ‘un or never’ churched, and may operate as a community attached to a traditional model of church.
So reflecting on all of this, the emerging church is still alive and kicking, helped I am sure by the emergence of fresh expressions of church. It will be interesting to see how things progress next, in a culture under pressure, and a Church increasingly resistant to fresh expressions of church let alone the emerging church. We shall see where the Spirit of God leads next!