Hip New Churches Pray to a Different Drummer

MINNEAPOLIS — It was “alt.worship” night at Bluer on a recent Saturday, and as a crowd of about 50 people, mostly in their 20’s and 30’s, milled around an open loft space filled with couches and candles, John Musick, the pastor, sat behind a drum set, accompanied by three other members of the musical “ministry team.” Light fixtures dangled from exposed pipes; slides and videos of old stone crosses or statues flashed on two screens.

Mr. Musick, 37, wore a faded T-shirt and blue jeans and had mussed hair and a soul patch beneath his lower lip. Instead of his weekly sermon, he directed the congregants to make their way among three makeshift altars, each with a stack of cards carrying a prayer and a list of topics to think about.

“You’re going to be put in a position where you have to think about your relationship with God,” Mr. Musick said.

Bluer, which began four years ago as a young adult ministry at a more conventional church, is one of several hundred small evangelical congregations that have formed around the country in recent years to pursue an alternative idea of how to do church.

Called “emerging” or “postmodern” churches, they are diverse in theology and method, linked loosely by Internet sites, Web logs, conferences and a growing stack of hip-looking paperbacks. Some religious historians believe the churches represent the next wave of evangelical worship, after the boom in megachurches in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

The label “emerging church” refers to the emergence of a generation with little or no formal attachment to church. The congregations vary in denomination, but most are from the evangelical side of Protestantism and some are sponsored by traditional churches. Brian McLaren, 48, pastor at Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Md., and one of the architects of the fledgling movement, compared the churches to foreign missions, using the local language and culture, only directed at the vast unchurched population of young America.

The ministries are diverse in their practices. At Ecclesia in Houston and Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, Calif., artists in the congregation paint during services, in part to bring mystical or nonrational elements to worship, said Chris Seay, 32, pastor of the four-year-old Ecclesia, which draws 400 to 500 people on most Sundays.

At Spirit Garage in Minneapolis, in a small theater, congregants can pick up earplugs at the door in case the Spirit Garage Band is too loud. At Solomon’s Porch across town, a crowd of about 300 takes weekly communion “house party”-style, chatting with plastic cups of wine and pieces of pastry before one announces, “Take and eat the body of Christ.”

In Denver, a gathering called Scum of the Earth, started by a Christian rock band and named after a passage in I Corinthians, features pizza and a D.J.

Many emerging churches, including Bluer, have revived medieval liturgies or practices, including prayer labyrinths and lectio divina, or sacred reading, a process of intense meditation and prayer over a short biblical passage. Some borrow Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox rituals that pre-date the Enlightenment.

“The Orthodox practices represent stability,” Mr. Musick said. “Marriage you can’t rely upon. With the dot-com failures, having mad computer skills doesn’t guarantee you a good job. That stability isn’t there.”

Since the churches are diverse, their numbers are elusive, but the Web site www.ginkworld.net, lists more than 300 emerging or postmodern churches.

Like discussion groups on the Internet, the churches are nonhierarchal and open to multiple points of view, which has drawn criticism from some leaders of established churches who say the emerging churches undercut absolute truths for the vagaries of multiple interpretations. Other leaders have embraced emerging churches as a way to reach young people.

Robert E. Webber, a professor of ministry at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, Ill., and author of “The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World,” likened the emerging churches to the growth of fundamentalism in the middle of the last century, which took root in small community churches.

“The same thing is happening now,” Mr. Webber said. “Lots of people are starting neighborhood groups or house churches. The emerging church is being birthed underground. Give it a few years, and it’s going to explode.”

The churches are a reaction to the highly polished services at megachurches, said Dan Kimball, 42, pastor at Vintage Faith Church and author of “Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations.”

Mr. Kimball, a former drummer in a punk rockabilly band, ran a youth group for a megachurch in the 1990’s when he noticed that the church’s services were out of touch with his charges’ popular culture. Like punk rock fans, he said, many young people wanted not an easier involvement with faith but a more interactive, demanding one.

Expanding his ministry, Mr. Kimball brought in candles and crosses from garage sales, and began reading long passages from the Bible, inviting people to talk back to him or discuss what the stories meant to them as a group. In contrast to the bright and cheerful big churches, he said, “younger people want it like a dusty cathedral.”

“They want a sense of mystery and transcendence,” he said. “Anything that sniffs of performance turns them off.”

Though the churches are often small, most break down into even smaller groups throughout the week and set a premium on eating together. Larry Eskridge, associate director of the Institute for Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College in Illinois, said this interest in small groups, in which everyone knows each other, marked a generational shift from baby boomers, who found strength in numbers, whether at Woodstock or in megachurches.

On a Tuesday morning in Minneapolis, eight members of Solomon’s Porch gathered at a Peruvian cafe for their weekly men’s breakfast. They were in their 20’s to mid-40’s, and most were musicians or artists; only one wore a tie. Though the group did not discuss religious matters, such meetings are just as important to the church as Sunday services, said Doug Pagitt, 37, the pastor, who started the church four years ago.

“It’s about us finding our way as a community,” Mr. Pagitt said.

Laura Bates, 25, a member of the church, said it was the sense of community that drew her to Solomon’s Porch.

“I’m not saying the Bible is watered down here,” Ms. Bates said. “It’s the opposite. We’re figuring it out together.”

Many emerging churches preach the same message as their sponsoring churches, but use different methods. In Basking Ridge, N.J., Peter L. Pendell, 59, preaches a conservative Baptist sermon on Sunday mornings, and Tim Lucas, 32, who is not ordained, leads a looser gathering called Liquid in the evenings.

“We both preached about baptism recently,” Mr. Pendell said. “Tim used a film clip from `Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?’ I’ll say, `This is what the Bible says about baptism.’ He’ll talk about people’s lives and why they get baptized, then get around to telling what the Bible says about baptism. I’m speaking to people who know what the Bible says, so I don’t need to win them into it as much as he does.”

Mr. Lucas said that the dialogue gave him leeway to discuss topics like homosexuality and pornography in ways that might be divisive in a conventional sermon.

“If anything,” he said, “we talk about sin more because we’re more forthcoming about our own lapses.”

At the same time, Mr. Lucas said, unlike some traditional churches, “we don’t pretend there’s an invisible hierarchy of sins.”

“As we live in community, someone living a homosexual lifestyle doesn’t have any more issues before God than I do as a heterosexual man,” he said.

At an Irish bar in downtown Minneapolis on Wednesday, 10 members of Spirit Garage met for the weekly Theology Pub, a mix of biblical discussion and other spirits. The discussion quickly moved through the history of St. Valentine and the personal life of Martin Luther to the question of how to be a Christian in the world. Most said they were put off by political declarations of faith.

“I always feel like I have to qualify it, like, `I’m not that kind of Christian, I go to a cool church,’ ” said Lindsey Gice, 26, a graphic designer who had given up church after high school.

The church and small groups provided a different kind of community, Ms. Gice said.

“I’d go to churches that were way too judgmental or too ambiguous,” she said. “At Spirit Garage, there is no question what we’re doing. We’re talking about Jesus. We’re taking communion. We’re just doing it together, as a journey.”


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The New York Times, USA
Feb. 18, 2004
John Leland
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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday February 20, 2004.
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