The use of the label ‘emerging’ for describing a variety of congregations suggests similarity, but it actually covers a range of distinctive practices, writes Jason Wollschleger (Withworth University, Spokane, WA) in an article published in the Review of Religious Research (March).
The article is primarily based on case studies of three congregations in the Pacific Northwest. The emerging church is generally understood as the latest step in a transition from Church 1.0 (traditional and institutional) to Church 2.0 (contemporary) to Church 3.0 (emerging and missional). Culturally postmodern and blending ancient forms and current local styles, the emerging church is an outcome of evangelical efforts to reach out to younger populations.
It tends to be portrayed as a monolithic movement, but it is not. Wollschleger identifies three types of emerging congregations. The ‘emerging’ represents a notably distinct Christian subculture, with its own moral worldview. The ‘relevant’ congregations are evangelical conservative congregations engaging young adults. The ‘wilderness’ congregations are ‘struggling toward emergence’ without yet achieving it.Describing a congregation of the ‘emerging’ type, Wollschleger reports that the core allegiance is to radical authenticity, overcoming the divisions between liberal and conservative while incorporating aspects of both: rather than being in the middle, it would see itself as being at both ends at the same time.
Such congregations also reject the sacred/secular dichotomy and refuse to see the world in compartmentalized terms: “thus, this congregation is willing to ‘do church’ in a nightclub.” The layout of the sanctuary can adapt to the themes of each liturgy. There is room for individualized worship experience. Leadership is about creating a space for participation. Genuineness in worship, community, hospitality and egalitarianism characterize this type of congregation.
The congregation of the second type has a very strong evangelical foundation, clearly expressed in the preaching. Regarding music, its ‘experimental orchestra’ can be described as “rock meets Gregorian chant.” While it shares little with other emerging congregations studied, it has a congregational life that makes it appear similar from the outside and engages in ‘hip’ practices appealing to younger people (e.g. theology pub nights). All three types of groups observed connect with the pop culture, have a young leadership and reach the “missing demographic.”
Otherwise, however, they represent a spectrum of congregations. Further research shows that they gather people with different previous experiences in relation to (Christian) religion: for instance, many faithful in the congregation of the first type are people alienated from the conservative evangelical milieu in which they were brought up, while the second type attracts people with positive experiences, but looking for a congregation not clashing with their culture. This may not yet be the end of the road: “The pastors of ‘emerging’ congregations [first type] interviewed … indicated that they were increasingly looking to their denomination and tradition.”
(Review of Religious Research, http://rra.hartsem.edu/)