This is an article I wrote on Fuuse over a year ago. I'm not sure my ideas are exactly the same now, but I thought it was worth sharing.
Before I start this article I think it is important to put some definitions on the table. These are not definite final definitions, because the nature of alt worship and emerging church is evolving, but they will do for a start.
Alternative worship is what happens when people create worship for themselves, in a way that fully reflects who they are as people and the culture that they live their everyday lives in.Because most forms of church have become culturally disconnected from the wider world, alternative worship can seem like a radical break with conventional church practices. It uses the technologies and media of our everyday lives - TV, video, CDs, computers - things that we take for granted in a domestic environment but seldom see in churches. It takes much of its content from the secular world - the music, the language, often the imagery - because it sees the presence of God in these things, and knows that spirituality has to make sense in the context of our secular lives if it is to nourish us and help us be salt and light.”
From Steve Collinshttp://www.smallfire.org/intropage2.html
The Emerging Church is a label that has been used to refer to a particular subset of Christians who are rethinking Christianity against the backdrop of Postmodernism…
One definition of the Emerging Church is that it is the collective noun for the individuals who are emerging from this process of deconstruction and reconstruction of Christianity, or those who have joined groups lead by such individuals.
While there is no co-ordinated organization behind the emerging church globally, and no guarantee that the Emerging Church will mature into a coherent movement at all, the term is becoming increasingly common currency among both leaders of Emerging Church groups and Emerging Church thinkers. Many of these leaders and thinkers have written books, articles and/or blogs on the subject.
So far, Emerging Church groups have typically contained some or all of the following elements:
Highly creative approaches to worship and spiritual reflection. This can involve everything from the use of contemporary music and films through to liturgy or other more ancient customs.
A minimalist and decentralised organisational structure.
A flexible approach to theology whereby individual differences in belief and morality are accepted within reason.
A more holistic approach to the role of the church in society. This can mean anything from greater emphasis on fellowship in the structure of the group to a higher degree of emphasis on social action, community building or Christian outreach.
A desire to reanalyize the Bible against the context into which it was written, in search of a reconstructed theology that is free from Modernist baggage.”
What would I add to that? Well, emerging church for me means creatively rethinking what it means to be ‘church’ then experimentally acting on reforming ‘church.’ Alt worship usually goes along with emerging church. Alt worship is creatively rethinking what ‘worship’ means and reforming worship practices imaginatively, experimentally and sometimes radically.
These movements generally come out of Australia, New Zealand, the USA and the UK. In the US, the movement is more of a direct reaction against, and growth out of evangelicalism. In the UK, Australia and New Zealand, it seems to come out of Anglicanism.
They tend to be theologically conservative, in the sense of coming out of, and still using evangelical language, but socially more radical in the sense of dreadlocks, tattoos and nose-rings in the congregation. They are in the truer sense of the word, completely evangelical – they are missionary – they want to reach out to the unchurched by creating something that appeals more to people today, mainly but not exclusively young adults. They pick ideas and practices from anywhere within the Christian tradition: modern praise songs, Taize, Catholic and Orthodox, church practices from Africa and Asia; and the secular world: modern art galleries and nightclubs.
So what has this got to do with Unitarianism? Well, I believe a hell of a lot. Unitarianism is an evolving faith, one that has grown from liberal Christianity to a faith that is more pluralist and open to a number of traditions. The central tenant is this: nothing in our faith is so sacred that we cannot question it: we can question the divinity of Jesus, human depravity, the doctrine of hell, the existence of God, the superiority of Christianity, the superiority of heterosexual white men to the rest of humanity etc etc. So it seems very strange to me that we have never questioned what it is we basically do religiously. We are open and questioning of doctrine, but we are in fact deeply conservative and dogmatic about what we do. I can say “I’m not sure I believe in God” in my church and that is fine. But what if I say –“I’m not sure I believe in sermons” – will I be branded a heretic?
Unitarianism is defined by religious freedom and a certain ethical approach that is politically liberal or at least libertarian. And yet is there really any difference in what happens on Sunday morning now from other protestant churches? Or from our own churches 300 years ago?
We turn up at 11, we sing, we listen to a sermon. That’s pretty much it. Our hymns are generally set to old tunes like any other church. Most of what we do religiously is basically listening. When it comes right down to it, we listen. That’s about it. And it’s boring, even when it’s good, it’s pretty boring.
I believe that that the emerging church movement is never going to be a powerful religious movement while it is limited by a theologically conservative language. Emerging church leaders are openly questioning simple condemnation of homosexuality and simple dismissal of other faiths. Yet few/none (?) of them are openly coming to the conclusion that homosexuality isn't a sin, and that other faiths, in some sense, contain religious truth. Sexuality and religious diversity are always the issues that cause problems for many people becoming evangelical Christians.
Equally Unitarianism is never going to be a powerful movement while what we offer on Sunday morning, our praxis is still so conservative. People will agree with our ethos, but they will see no real reason to stay with us. We offer a worldview that people can agree with, but not enough of a powerful experience of the divine and real community to give people a reason to get up on Sunday morning. Because what we offer in our praxis is old-fashioned and irrelevant and not distinct at all.
What I’m saying is that Unitarian theology needs to be married with emerging church praxis. This means deconstructing and reconstructing the practice of Unitarianism: why do we meet on Sunday morning? Why do we sing hymns? Why do we have a sermon? Why is it not acceptable for me to shout “Hallelujah!” in a Unitarian service? Why do we have an organ? Why don’t we have drums? Why do we all face in the same direction? Why does it last an hour? Why can’t I lie on the floor during the service? Why can’t we just sing for half an hour? Why can’t we just sit in silence for half an hour? Who decides what music is acceptable or unacceptable for our worship? Why can’t I dance in the service? Why can’t we honour our ancestors in the service? Why are we indoors? Why can’t we meditate on images? Why can’t we have a service based on touch or smell or taste?
The point is not so much the answers we come up with to these questions as giving ourselves the permission to ask them: the creative process of deconstruction and reconstruction of our religion. For me this is the way of both Unitarianism and emerging church. It is the call to be an experimental church, trying new things and reaching out to new people.
So what would an alt worship/ emerging/ Unitarian church look like? This question cannot be answered definitely because the emphasis of this kind of project would be to be experimental, evolutionary and democratic, but I think it is worth giving a hint at how one person (me) could see this working out.
• We would be a group that would meet when it suited us. This may be on a Sunday morning, or it may be on a Friday night.
• Music would be varied and experimental. We play the piano, or maybe guitar, drums, maybe music would be played from a CD or computer. Music may be from any genre – world music, classical, religious, rock, dance, chillout. Most music would involve everyone singing, not just listening.
• There would be an element of equality expressing the priesthood and prophethood of all believers. This could be expressed in a number of ways: being in a circle, having a time for candles for joys and concerns, and as much of the service as possible being deeply participatory. There may be a worship leader, there may not be.
• There would be space for a variety of spiritual practices.
• There would be a place for silence.
• There would be a place for ritual. Not just the lighting of the Chalice, but many different rituals from different traditions, secular and sacred, and rituals we invent ourselves.
• There would be an element of play and fun to worship (yes fun!)
• Related to the above, our practices would be embodied, (incarnational in traditional Christian theological language) – this means that we would see the holy not just in our minds/spirit but in our bodies. This could mean that we would have religious practices that would be bodily, such as movement or dance, walking, eating, smelling, touching.
• We could also see the divine in the physical, in objects and imagery and sounds and lights from both the religious and secular world. In traditional religious terms this would mean meditating on images/icons. But it could also include mediating on any human-made or natural object: a pine-cone, a picture of Saturn, or anything.
• There would be a variety of prayer/meditation/contemplation practices. This could be sitting meditation, walking meditation, guided meditations, use of prayer beads etc.
• Where it could enhance the worship, technology would be used. This could involve the use of a power point presentation projected from a laptop computer.
• The worship experience could be deeply personal. This could mean that a room could be divided into different experiences depending on the mood of the individual worshipper. So for at least some of the time a worshipper could build their own experience. They could do nothing but sing for the whole time, they could nothing but meditate for the whole time, or they could chat with one of the other worshippers the whole time, depending on what their soul needed at that time.
• The experience would be incredibly informal, yet also deeply spiritual and holy. People could sit in chairs, or lie on the floor, or stand, or dance, depending on how the Spirit moved them.
• Dialogue would be an integral part of this experimental church. This may be incorporated into the worship in a free-flowing way. Current issues, life issues and building your own theology would be topics always discussed. A way to facilitate genuine, honest, life-enriching dialogue would be worked out.
• The church would be community-centred. We would seek to develop a real loving community through honest dialogue and shared spiritual experience. Pastoral care would be a priority for this church.
• There may not be a clear beginning and end to the time of worship. Rather people could come and go as they felt they needed to.
• The church would be outward-and-onward-looking. This means that we would advertise our existence to as many people as possible, believing that what we offer could be life-giving to many people, though perhaps not all people. We would be an actively welcoming, actively justice-seeking, always seeking to be relevant, getting our hands dirty church.
• The church will evolve, seeking always to be relevant: personally, culturally, politically and spiritually.
This is just the beginning of the possibilities of emerging church practice in a Unitarian setting. But I believe if we begin to think along these lines, and give ourselves permission to be radical and relevant in our practice we may become something quite amazing. Isn’t it worth trying?