‘Emergent church’ evokes past to attract youths

BOSTON – His friends assumed his covert Sunday trips to a cross- town Episcopal church were about a girl, but Rick Bennett was actually looking for some inspiring liturgy.

Bennett, then a high school senior in Live Oak, Fla., had heard the rituals in the Episcopal service were lifeless, but they seemed the opposite to him. The parish priest sang prayers in Latin, people knelt before God and shared communion from a common cup.

Bennett felt connected to his faith’s roots in a way he missed at the liturgy-free evangelical Baptist service he was ditching. “Something clicked,” said Bennett, 35, now pastor of a church that meets in his Boston home. “You realize people have been on the (Christian) journey a long time.”

Almost 20 years later, Bennett’s desire to connect to the past has found a home in what’s known as the “emergent church,” a small but growing movement nationwide.

Consisting largely of younger Christians, emergent churches cut across denominational lines in an effort to reclaim the sense of mystery found in the ritual and symbols of the faith’s ancient past.

But they’re also dedicated to engaging modern culture, often in small communities that draw from various traditions to seek an experience of God in many ways from painting during services to meditating on a forgotten Celtic prayer.

Leaders cite the apostle Paul as their guide, noting he used the culture of his time to spread Christianity. Some call emergent churches the “ancient future faith.”

“We’re trying to be authentic,” Bennett said. “We’re not trying to be cool, but be real.”

The movement’s growth has been fueled largely by Christians meeting on the Internet, or word of mouth. Some emergent communities are growing within existing churches, but others have started from scratch.

Their members hold to orthodox Christianity, but reject what they feel is a corporate, overly simplified presentation of the faith in today’s evangelical churches, said Robert Webber, a professor emeritus at Wheaton College in Illinois who wrote a book about the emergent church, “The Younger Evangelicals.”

Jennifer McKinney, a professor of the sociology of religion at Seattle Pacific University, said the emergent church is similar to other trends such as the Jesus People Movement, which embraced the hippie culture in the late 1960s and 1970s in which young people defied the worshipping traditions of their parents’ generation.

In this case, they’re rejecting the so-called “seeker” churches that drew baby boomers by reducing religious imagery and offering simplified messages to make church more accessible to people wary of traditional worship, she said. The boomers’ children are now in their 20s and 30s and known for largely ignoring church because it seems irrelevant and phony, McKinney said.

The emergent churches, she said, “feel that the way churches are set up today, they’re missing an entire generation of people.”

The movement traces its roots to the mid- to late-1990s, among a group of pastors concerned about drawing younger people to church.

Dan Kimball, a Santa Cruz, Calif., pastor and founder of one of the first emergent churches in the country, gathered Christian and non-Christian friends to sample a variety of church services, and find out what was missing.

The consensus: Services were often too scripted and musically showy like a performance and the sense of the supernatural presence of God wasn’t evident, he said.

Kimball, 42, began services geared toward younger people, with changes such as the reintroduction of ancient liturgy, abundant use of candles and a less formal structure that removed the pastor from an elevated pulpit.

The worship styles may differ, but a substantive Christian faith remains at the center of the emergent church, Bennett said, unlike some modern churches that rely so much on presentation that people miss the depth and mystery of the message.

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