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Small groups embrace Christian gatherings

Star-Telegram, USA
May 1, 2004
Leila Fadel
www.newsok.com

ReligionNewsBlog.com • Wednesday May 5, 2004

ARLINGTON, Texas — It’s Sunday, and about 20 people mingle in the Coffee Haus on Mesquite Street. Some pick up a doughnut and a cup of coffee, and others leave their children in a makeshift nursery.

A hodgepodge of furniture — couches, love seats, plastic lawn chairs — is arrayed in front of a two-person band with an acoustic guitar and a conga. People sit, some tucking a Bible beneath their chairs and bow their heads in prayer.

The worship service has begun at Axxess, one of hundreds of small emerging churches sprinkled across the United States and other Western nations. Rather than sanctuaries, many of these church communities meet in bars, coffee shops and other places frequented by young adults. Many members are in their 20s and 30s. Most are disillusioned with traditional churches.

“These congregations are a little bit different. They recognize that transformation comes from relationships,” said Brad Cecil, pastor of Axxess. “We meet at a coffeehouse. It’s much more casual. We have breakfast together; we sing.”

These Christians are trying to recapture some of the intimacy of the early church, and members stress the importance of community and faith, said Bill Leonard, dean of the Divinity School and professor of church history at Wake Forest University in Winston- Salem, N.C.

“It reflects the ‘Friends’ motif for organizing the church, where the atmosphere is more like the coffeehouse on ‘Friends’ than the huge auditorium of the mega- church or the colonial architecture of the traditional church,” Leonard said. “The concern for intimacy and cultivation of community is a response to the mega-church movement, with its huge numbers and mass meetings.”

Still, the emerging churches are often fostered by traditional churches, which see them as a means to reach people who either have never attended or can’t connect with traditional churches, said the Rev. Dennis Wiles of First Baptist Church of Arlington.

“It’s in response to these unreached pockets of our culture,” Wiles said. “The emerging churches are growing in tandem with traditional churches. … It reflects the diversity of this culture.”

Axxess, for example, started as a young adult ministry at Pantego Bible Church in nearby Fort Worth, Texas. Cecil was the young-adult minister at the time. Axxess branched off in 2002.

“We have no desire to be the biggest,” said Cecil, 45, who works as a consultant for nonprofit organizations. “We’re just trying to work with the people who are falling through the cracks.”

Because the churches are unstructured, it’s difficult to gauge membership or how fast they are growing. Texas has at least 15 emerging churches. An Internet search found communities in Arlington, Dallas, Plano, Richardson, Fort Worth and Grand Prairie.

The online presence helps draw followers. Many members write online journals or blogs. Some discovered the movement online, where members converse about topics including spirituality, life, politics, music and God. Web sites such as www.emergent village.com are described as a network of friends.

“There’s a lot of different expressions. The commonality of a lot of emerging churches is they’re not just rethinking the worship service, they’re rethinking the church as a whole,” said Dan Kimball, pastor at the Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, Calif., and author of “The Emerging Church” and “Emerging Worship: Creating Worship Gatherings for New Generations.”

Emerging churches often attract people younger than 35 who don’t relate to the large, structured churches of their parents’ generation, Kimball said. The atmosphere is not chainlike, or the same from church to church, and people don’t get lost in the crowd, he said. Each “emerging” church paves its own path to being Christian, he said.

“I look back on the New Testament, and the church was always changing. That word ‘emerging’ simply means what’s coming to the surface,” he said.

Axxess has sponsored art nights, during which members present short films, write short stories or recite poetry. Communion is an individual act. Each week a type of bread, such as a bagel or a dinner roll, and a goblet of juice are placed on a low table. Members kneel and take communion when they feel moved.

Other emerging worship services forge their own traditions.

At Journey in Dallas, people write their sins in sand and brush them away. A journal is always open for people to write their prayers and read the prayers of others. The group uses the liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer.

Ecclesia in Houston has a painting station set up during the worship service. People are encouraged to use a paintbrush to express their thoughts.

The Vintage Faith Church has interactive prayer stations, such as a table with a flashlight and a bowl. Members are asked to turn on the flashlight, cover it with the bowl and think about what blocks the light in their lives. It’s a reflection on Matthew 5:15: “Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.”

Leonard said the churches affirm ancient Christian history and traditions through the use of classic prayers and litanies, such as the Book of Common Prayer.

“These churches want intimacy, but they also want a connection to the ancient worship traditions of the Christian churches,” Leonard said.

The movement dismisses much of Christian history between the time of Jesus and the present, said Mark G. Toulouse, professor of American religious history at the Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University. The churches, which use terms such as “ancient future” or “vintage faith” to describe themselves, attempt to recover what they believe are true Christian practices and adapt them to the contemporary world, Toulouse said.

“It’s rather ahistorical, even an anti-historical movement,” he said. “It’s this interesting mix in some respects of dismissal of the important traditions of Christianity but of affirmation of ancient house churches and contemporary popular culture.”

Larger churches offer their support because they recognize that some people feel disconnected from the modern mega-church or the traditional church, Kimball said.

Only three of 10 people in their 20s and four of 10 in their 30s attend church in a typical week, compared with nearly half of those 40 and older, according to a 2003 study by the Barna Research Group, a California-based marketing research company that studies cultural trends and the Christian church.

“Most larger churches are recognizing that teenagers are disappearing from their churches as soon as they get to their college years because they are not connecting to that form of church,” Kimball said.

Will Canon, 25, joined Axxess when he returned to Arlington after graduating from New York University. Canon, who was raised Baptist, said he has always questioned mainline religious institutions.

“They’re not really interested in asking questions,” he said of traditional churches. “They’re more interested in telling you what to think.”

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