The Newest Kind of Church

Image credit: stevenjcamp.blogspot.com

by Tony Campolo

As we enter the 21st century, a vital new expression of Christianity is growing in the United States and worldwide – “the Emergent Church.”

This movement expresses what I call “progressive evangelicalism,” because it emphasizes traditional evangelical beliefs — affirming the doctrines of the Apostles’ Creed, a high view of Scripture, and the importance of a personal transforming relationship with a resurrected Christ — yet rejects the structures and styles of institutionalized Christianity.

The Emergent Church turns away from spending money on buildings. Instead, most congregations meet as “house churches” or gather in makeshift storefronts and warehouses. The members, mostly Gen-Xers, try to imitate many of the practices of the early church.

Emergent churches espouse a decentralized, grassroots form of Christianity that rejects the hierarchal systems of denominational churches. Each emergent congregation makes its own decisions by consensus. Leadership is fluid, with all members sharing authority and participating in the mission of the church. Task forces are assembled to undertake specific programs such as feeding the homeless, establishing a partnership with a third-world church, developing an after-school tutoring program for disadvantaged children, or organizing people in a poor neighborhood to solve pressing social problems.

The missionary programs of such congregations are committed to direct involvement with those they decide to serve. These churches want little to do with bureaucratic organizations with professional administrators. Members of these congregations want to be involved personally with those in need. They want to know the names and faces of the people they serve.

Emergent congregations must not be confused with those nondenominational mega-churches that seem to be popping up increasingly in communities across the nation. In fact, the two are markedly different. Emergent churches often express a disdain for the “contemporary worship music” heard in many mega-churches. The worship in emergent churches often includes classical music, and such congregations often follow a more formal liturgical style that may even incorporate ancient forms of praying such as that of monastic orders. The people who join emergent congregations are often folks who have tired of what goes on in churches that have “contemporary services.”

The Emergent Church is often somewhat indifferent to theological and social issues that seem urgent to mainstream evangelicalism. These church members tend to think the crusade against homosexual marriage is a waste of time and energy, and they tend to reject the exclusivistic claims that many evangelicals make about salvation. They are not about to damn the likes of Gandhi or the Dali Lama to hell simply because they have not embraced Christianity. In many ways these Christians express a postmodern mindset that may come across as being somewhat “new age.” They see care for the environment as a major Christian responsibility. They are attracted to Christian mysticism and its Catholic exponents from Teresa of Avila to Thomas Merton. They talk a great deal about “spiritual formation” and focus significant attention on the healing of illnesses through prayer.

This new expression of Christianity is growing faster than most sociologists could have predicted. It is thriving, in part, because so many people are fed up with the arguing and pettiness that they claim are all too evident in the rest of Christendom.

It remains to be seen whether the Emergent Church will fade away or become an ongoing expression of Christianity. But there is no question that it is attracting many sophisticated Christians who contend that traditional mainline churches are devoid of vitality and mega-churches are irrelevantly narrow.

As a member of a traditional mainline denomination myself, I am watching with great interest the development of the Emergent Church. Some call it heresy; others see it as a new form of Christianity that holds promise for the 21st century and beyond. Whether it’s the former or the latter, only time will tell.

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