Emergent Church

I am forty-four years old, I have been ordained for nearly 18 years, and I continuously lament over the fact that when I attend Church gatherings, I am still one of the “young” ones – often being the youngest in the room. It was different last month when I attended the Emergent Convention in Nashville. For the first time, I was actually one of the older ones in the room. Hundreds of pastors and church leaders – and I was in the oldest quartile of participants! It felt good – but odd; hopeful – but unfamiliar.

Emergent is a conversation regarding the characteristics, thoughts, and shape of the emerging Church in North American and, actually, around the world. It started with a few people realizing that the younger generations are becoming lost to the church, but still very interested in Jesus, God and spiritual things. Church-going parents and grandparents used to console themselves with the assurance that when the younger generations grow up, settle down, and have kids of their own, they’d come back to church. But they’re not. And now we are more than one generation into this trend, meaning that today’s young adults are very often total strangers to the church – they didn’t even attend Christmas and Easter services as children. They sometimes don’t even know that Christmas or Easter are religious holidays. Yet, they long for spiritual experience and meaning in their lives.

Many young adults are cynical of the institutional church. After a book-signing at which she was the guest musician, a young woman asked Brian McLaren, a Christian author, if he really believed the stuff he wrote or if he was just trying to sell books.* Fortunately, McLaren heard the deeper longing in that question – a curiosity about what difference faith makes in his life. And, fortunately, he was able to respond with an authentic articulation of the path of discipleship he was following. I think that’s our biggest challenge in evangelism, in church transformation, in new church planting – we need to hear the questions which may not even be posed as questions, and respond not so much out of our answers, but out of our journey … sharing together, living together, and loving together.

Our culture has changed. Stanley Hauervas claims that anyone over the age of 40 is an alien in our own culture. At Emergent, though, we’ve learned that it’s not so much about a person’s age as it is about their mindset. It’s more than a generation-gap – it’s a different way of experiencing the world. Some church members are convinced that if we’d just change the style of worship music, they would come. No, say the people I met in Nashville, it goes much deeper than that. Contemporary music, relevant sermons, casual dress, friendly greeters, or icons and candles don’t attract young people to the church. No, it’s changed lives that attract. What is appealing to the younger generations of adults is seeing how discipleship in Christ can make a difference in our lives, in their lives, and in the world.

*to know more about the spiritual relationship which developed between Brian McLaren and this young woman, see his book, More Ready Than You Realize, which I review on page of this issue of Connections.

Printed in the July 2005 issue of Connections, a publication of the Presbytery of New Covenant.