1. Overview

For many, church is a loaded term.  The religious side of “I’m spiritual, not religious,” church connotes institutional structures and hierarchical power. As Diana Butler Bass laments, “Jesus fascinates millions, but Christianity, the religion that began with Jesus, leaves countless people out in the cold.” (A People’s History of Christianity, 1) …and many have chosen to leave.

On December 7, 2009, The Barna Group  published current demographic information related to mainline denominations in an essay title Report Examines the State of Mainline Protestant Churches.  Focusing predominantly on six ecclesial bodies – the American Baptist Churches in the USA, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church, it offered that “church membership dropped more than one- quarter to roughly 20 million people” and mainline churches lost more than 8,000 churches since their peak membership in the 1950s. It identifies that “only 15% of all American adults associate with a mainline church these days” and their median age – for parishioners and pastors – is rising. 

Similarly, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a U. S. Religious Landscape Survey: Religious Beliefs and Practices in June 2009. In addition to chronicling the downward trend in religious affliation since the denominaitonal golden years, this 276 page report identifies emerging characteristics of both church goers and the unaffiliated.  For those who have a religious affiliation, there appears to be a growing openness to diversity within and across communities as dogmaticsm and literalism wains and religious practices increase. Of those who say they are unaffiliated, 41% of the population says religion is at least somewhat important in their lives.

Taken together, these reports highlights that faith-based meaning-making is not gone; rather, traditional forms of  denominationally-based organizations aren’t working.

In a context of increasing disillusionment with hierarchical structures, an array of grassroots efforts are coalescing into a movement that seeks church renewal and vitality. Spread around the globe (New Zealand, Australia, UK, USA….), participants are recognized by various names. Among them are emerging church (Mike Riddell and Mark Pierso), “a new way of being church” (Arthur Baranowski), fresh expressions (Ian Mobsby, ), alternative worship (Jonny Baker), emergence (Phyllis Tickle), emergent village (Brian McLaren), organic church (Neil Cole), Liquid church (Pete Ward), and Mutual Ministry (Roland Allen). 

Although each is unique and typically context driven, these groups share some common elements and key themes. Refocused on Jesus and The Way he called us to live, participants are engaging simple lifestyles, social action, and radical hospitality as ways of witnessing belief and inviting others to participate. With the ultimate goal of transforming society, ecclesial images are moving from “a church-shaped mission” to a “mission-shaped church.” Correlatively, prayer and worship have expansive expression ranging from simple chant to multisensory immersions.

Amid this landscape, new forms of church are gaining recognition. Claiming roots in the diversity of the earliest christian communities, people are gathering to share Jesus’ stories in one another’s homes and pub churches, in monastic-style communities and through virtual churches online.  

Inherent to each is a particular context that shapes self understanding, grounds theologically interpretation, and directs Gospel-motivated expression. Throughout history, contexts have shaped images of the church and its self understanding. By creating a framework for analysis that draws on the earliest church,  we will be able to correlate past with present to situate these emerging expressions.

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