Reinventing church

Young pastors explore new forms of worship in search of an 'authentic' Christian experience

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For a modern evangelical pastor, it was a dream come true. A successful ministry in one of the country's fastest growing megachurches, spanking new facilities – even the opportunity to start a Saturday night service aimed at youths not drawn to the regular programs.

"The only problem," Spencer Burke realized, was "that I'm not a modern evangelical pastor."

In anguish, he walked away from the church, not knowing where he was headed next.

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What he did know was that the institutional church wasn't attuned to the world he lived in; open to theological questioning; or responding to the challenge of a postmodern culture in which institutional authority, absolute truth, and even a rationalistic world view no longer hold sway.

And young people in particular are staying away from churches in droves.

Today, working out of his garage in Newport Beach, Calif., Mr. Burke runs THE OOZE, a Web-based community for some 50,000 Christian leaders in 60 countries who are part of a new "emerging church" movement aimed at reinventing the church for the 21st century. They are responding to what many consider the most dramatic cultural shift since the Enlightenment.

These innovators – who come from evangelical and mainline denominations, as well as independent churches – see both traditional churches and seeker-oriented megachurches as out of tune with current needs and styles. Not only are those approaches not reaching people born since the mid-1960s, but they are driving away individuals seeking to rethink their faith.

Yet the established church still meets the need for many, Burke says. "The post office will still run even though we've got e-mail, which will become extremely popular and accessible; what we're doing is the e-mail, and the established church has the postal routes."

In response to the changing culture, these spiritual leaders are experimenting with new forms of worship and looking at theology in fresh ways. In an age skeptical of dogma and creeds, their aim is to return to a simpler Christian experience based on the original message: the gospels. They're also trying to establish a more communal sense of worship – like Jesus' disciples did.

"We do have a church that is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, and old models are probably inadequate," says Edmund Gibbs, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, a prominent evangelical seminary in Pasadena, Calif. He studies church growth and is writing a book on the emerging-church movement. "[It is] placing a lot of emphasis on community worship, a new spirituality of people really committed to Christ and one another."

New forms, ancient disciplines

This can mean the formation of "house," or home-based, churches, or rediscovery of ancient spiritual disciplines of the early church. Many are also reaching out to unchurched youths through services that incorporate multimedia and the arts in an interactive style of worship.

"Church needs to be a family rather than a place you go once a week for an event," says Rudy Carrasco, who helped form an urban church for teens unable to find a "real connection" in other churches.

Styles of music and worship are important for youths to feel at home, but "what it really comes down to is, 'How do I do my life?' " says Jason Evans, a youth pastor who has formed a network of small house churches in San Diego.

At THE OOZE's annual "Soularize" conference last week in Minneapolis, some 500 pastors, theologians, and young church leaders from across the US gathered for dozens of workshops on topics from "theology's new groove" to "calling God Mother" to "following Jesus as rad whole-life disciples."

"The learning party" also engaged in creation of artistic works, a film festival on spiritual themes; musical celebrations; and humorous, contemporized biblical sketches, such as Abraham's encounter with the angel Gabriel (Abe and Gabe) and a reluctant Jonah debating with God.

With the postmodern perception of reality as subjective and morality as relative, theological circles are in ferment over questions of absolute Truth and the capacity of human beings to know it.

In a workshop, John Franke, of Biblical Theology Seminary in Hatfield, Pa., described two major streams of thinking among theologians. The first group says there is absolute truth, but only God can know it; human beings, coming from their own social and cultural perspectives, have to be open to learn from one another. Those in the second group say that not only is it impossible for humans to know absolute truth, it's not desirable, because such claims often result in attempts to control or repress others.

For pastors, this ferment translates into the need for a humbler, more communal approach to worship. Rather than a seminary-trained theologian dispensing truth, the pastor becomes a facilitator of a joint spiritual journey, encouraging churchgoers' active involvement.

"The emerging church believes strongly in the 'priesthood of all believers,' " says Tom Sine, a consultant familiar with the movement overseas. He and his wife, Christine, shared some of the innovative practices of new churches in Australia, New Zealand, and Britain, where the movement is more advanced.

"The traditional structures in Europe are crumbling to a large extent," Dr. Gibbs says. "What the young, more radical people are doing is being acknowledged and encouraged by the [traditional] church."

There really hasn't been any criticism of the movement so far, he adds. It's less visible in the US, "and the young people are not critical or of a bitter spirit – they're just seeking alternatives."

Young pastors in more conservative denominations who strike out in new directions in sermons and worship practices have often run into trouble, however.

"This [gathering] is a small part of something very big and in its very early stages," Brian McLaren, pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Md., told the Soularize crowd. "We have no idea what it will lead to, but we're trying to do faithfully what God wants us to do."

Such change demands new pastoral skills, and Burke, of THE OOZE, is experimenting with an "alternative seminary" called Etrek. Over nine months, participants meet via the Web, televideo conferences, and peer-to-peer discussions, exploring key issues facing the emerging church. Dr. McLaren says he's heard good reviews. Some seminaries give credit for the course.

While some pastors are nudging their congregations to change in order to reach out more effectively to the unchurched, others say the times demand establishing new churches.

Unlike traditional churches, where people must sign onto a belief system to join, or "seeker" churches, where highly organized programs treat churchgoers like consumers, these new houses of worship invite people to join with others who don't "have the answers." Services tend to be interactive and narrative – with a focus on storytelling rather than a structured presentation.

"Lots of youths suffer from biblical illiteracy, and you have to communicate biblical teachings in a way they can understand," says Jim Poorman, a young pastor in Orlando, Fla. "It's a marriage of Jesus, who told stories, and Paul, who brought in theology, but couched it in a way the people he was talking with could appreciate."

Mr. Poorman draws on his experience at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. During his sophomore year, he dropped in on a Bible study group.It got him to a local church, but he was embarrassed by the music, he says, and felt he couldn't bring friends along. So he and others started a campus group called H20. It grew, and had such an impact that eventually 14 other young people in the group decided they wanted to become pastors.

"People learn in different ways, so we use multimedia – including music from hard rock and salsa to mainstream and even opera," Poorman says. Personal testimonies of congregants are videotaped "so they can include talk about family and upbringing, like an MTV story on a band."

A mix of practices

Now he's moved on to Florida and started a new church for youths outside the mainstream, which holds a Thursday night gathering in a country and western bar as well as a Sunday service. Not all emerging churches are exploring such venues, but most are experimenting with a range of practices, including ancient spiritual disciplines such as lectio divina, a process of contemplative prayer.

"A lot of mixing is taking place – Lutherans using Catholic liturgy, Catholic churches using Pentecostal stuff, evangelicals borrowing the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer," says McLaren, who's written several books on the impact of postmodern culture on religion. Nondenominational churches, particularly, he says, feel free to borrow from many sources to enrich the worship experience. They see this, too, as helping break down walls between denominations, as Christians seek to create one body of Christ.

Chad Cleveringa, a young Michigan entrepreneur, and his wife drive 1-1/2 hours to attend Westwinds, a nondenominational church in Jackson. They find it offers a "more holistic service that appeals to all the senses," he says. And, it's both intellectually and spiritually challenging.

At the Pentecostal church he attended, "I almost had to check my mind at the door." In adult Bible study at Westwinds, they're reading the Old Testament, and tough questions are welcomed, he adds.

The multisensory experiments of some churches draw on forms other than music. Burke once handed congregants clay to shape according to the emotions they were discussing in the Psalms. A sculptor created a work of art from them.

"Afterward, the sculptor came to me very moved, saying it was the first time in his life he'd been invited to use his particular gifts in actual worship," Burke says.

Amid such efforts, pastors are keeping their eyes on the prize. It's not change for change's sake they seek, but "authentically lived" ways of following Christ and transforming society. "It's amazing what Jesus did in three years with 12 disciples," Mr. Evans said in a workshop. "My question is, 'How can we shape a culture that helps those kinds of Christians to develop?' "

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