Worship in the Emerging Church

The Emerging Church movement is spreading around the country and it is attracting large numbers of people.  Those in the movement notice that scores of 18-35 year olds are dropping out of the church.  This age group is not attracted to the evangelical church as much as in past years, and this growing dissatisfaction points to something lacking in the eyes of these people.[1]  The lack of individuals from this age group has been the cause for much thinking among the emerging leadership and they feel that the Church (I believe they are thinking mainly in the U.S.) has not engaged the modern culture.  They point out that people in the world today are highly interested in “spiritual matters.”  But, they are not flocking directly to evangelical churches, and if they do visit they aren’t staying.  “When will the church – and specifically worship – rise to meet this seismic reorientation?  American culture had outgrown even our most progressive worship practices sometime in the early 1990s ” (Sally Morgenthaler).[2]  The purpose of this paper is to see what the conversation of the Emerging Church is bringing to the table in regard to worship.              The E.C. has proclaimed that the culture has shifted so much that the evangelical church is out of touch with it.  The culture has been developed to the point where people no longer believe that because they are born in the United States that they are Christians.  They have worked 60 hour weeks, owned 2 homes, 3 cars, and a boat.  They have found that these things do not satisfy, and since September 11th 2001 they have found that they cannot control their own destiny.[3]  Sally Morgenthaler a prominent leader within the movement says that society in the U.S. today no longer feels that they “are one government program or one scientific discovery away from utopia.”[4]  It is as if people in the world today have “seen the strings” and the illusion that man is in control has left their mind-set.  It is obvious that culture has changed.  Some of the leaders within the E.C. say that today people are celebrating diversity, and they no longer want to know about God, they want to experientially know God.            What does it mean to be emergent?  The following is an excerpt from a paper on the movement written by Dr. James King from Baptist Bible Seminary which he quoted from a blog on Tallskinnykiwi: What is Emergent?, “Emergent is the name that a lot of us are using, at the moment, to describe the church’s response to the current emerging culture and the peculiar aggregation of believers being called up out of this culture to follow Jesus back into it.”[5]  So the emergent movement is even by this definition a reaction to what is going on in the culture.  But, it is not only a reaction to culture, it is a reaction to the church.  There are many (not just the emergents) who have become dissatisfied with the state of the church and the Christians that it is producing.  The life of a Christian has become compartmentalized.  The idea of being a disciple of Christ is no longer a part of a Christians vocabulary or lifestyle.  The E.C. has found this to be lacking.  They are seeking a more compelling kind of Christianity.  In his paper Dr. King gives this definition:            The emerging church movement has at its center the goal of assisting believers in constructing a Christian worldview that is directed by the leading of the Holy Spirit through the text of Scripture, relational in chracter, missional in purpose, open to taking into account the traditions, practices, and historical manifestations of the faith of the fathers and the cultural context of the situation with an emphasis on the mystery of our faith for today.  The writers all express the concern  that believers are being asked to simply memorize theological statements without being asked and equipped to live out the truths in their daily lives.[6]                 This culture shift is one of the reasons the E.C. feels that the churches have grown become out of touch with the culture because they still employ the congregational singing followed by one pastor standing on stage preaching to everyone else.  Those within the movement feel that because of what is going on in culture that a multi-sensory approach to worshiping God is the answer.[7] The E.C. is very much opposed to viewing any single part of the “worship event” (a term of the movement) as being solely the worship or more important than any of its components.  The leaders within the E.C. are championing the movement back to holistic worship.[8]  As a result of the desire of the culture to experientially know God, the E.C. has tailored their worship events to meet this need.  The proponents of the movement look at the multi-formed worship of the Bible and they seek to emulate it in their own events.  The E.C. declares that there is great freedom allowed in worship, and that is what they are exploring.[9]  The emergents see worship as something that cannot be a separate category of a Christian’s life.  They believe that believers are to “adore the Lord all week, not just at ‘worship gatherings’”[10] This is a welcome comment on the compartmentalized way worship has come to be viewed among evangelicals.  The emergents have grown tired of the “self-referencing” in worship that is prevalent among Christians today.  The majority of things are concerned with the perceptions, felt needs, and desires of the individuals.[11]  This seems to point to a self-centeredness, instead of a God-centeredness.  This is an important observation made by the emergents.  Worship must always be concerned with God and our relation to Him.  The E.C. is focused on not being a spectator type of gathering, but a participatory gathering.  The worshipers are not gathered to observe and judge the quality of the worship, they are there to actively encounter and worship the living God.[12]                        There is an emphasis on visual and physical stimuli in the emergent worship gatherings.  As stated earlier the E.C. desires for worship to be holistic.  Sally Morgenthaler provides the following list describing an emergent worship gathering: “It is the hushed tones of a gathering prayer – the drama of John 1:1-5 recaptured in poetry and set to a video loop of a swirling galaxy.  It is the hymn ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence’ reconstituted in electronica and brought to life with a kaleidoscopic, digital backdrop.  It is any whole-person, experiential avenue of seeing God, seeing oneself, and being caught up in the unfolding miracle of divine grace.”[13]  The emergents have also implemented the use of liturgical elements in their gatherings.  The use of candles (meeting areas are usually dimly lit), incense, and Celtic or Orthodox crosses is widespread.  The E.C., if the specific congregation has the workable space “creates” what they refer to as a “sacred space.”[14]  This is a room that has been decorated with many liturgical items.  The emergents like to remind people that Christianity is an ancient faith.  The E.C. gatherings display visual images projected on screens of art from throughout history.  They include images stained glass artwork to tell the stories of the Bible.[15]  The E.C. has been critical of some of the modern uses of technology in the evangelical church, but the only way for the emergents to employ some of the historical elements that they use, is through the use of technology.  This is not a criticism of technology, but the realization that the emergents cannot give a broad criticism of technology when it is a significant part[16] of their own gatherings.  The multi-sensory worship gatherings that the emergents describe is very interesting.  The culture around us is in the middle of a multi-sensory onslaught.  Television shows, and commercials trade places with each other at a rapid pace so that there is always something to watch.  The computer and the internet have provided the same type of thing.  There are always images and sounds flashing and playing, and changing rapidly.  Now someone can experience the same thing on an mp3 player, portable DVD player, or a laptop computer.  It seems like the culture might be suffering from image overload.  This in some aspects has passed from the culture to the emergent church.              Today many churches have sought to separate themselves from all historical ties.  They have left denominational ties behind, and thought to have escaped what they considered historical baggage.  There is nothing inherently wrong with tradition, and the church cannot escape from its history, but that does not mean that all tradition is good.  The emergents realize this, but it makes one wonder if they are not very close to becoming caught up in idol worship.  This is the reason why so many evangelical churches have rejected and done away with all of these “visual aids” to worship.  One must venture carefully when using these liturgical elements, because God does not desire for us to have idols (Ex. 20:4).  It is possible for these things to become like relics.  That is probably why evangelicals are so wary of some of the elements that the emergents employ in their gatherings.  It is interesting that Morgenthaler portrays the E.C. worship as a “move forward”[17] but it seems to be a step back into the mysticism of the past.  It sounds so strangely mystical and Catholic.  These elements are not a step forward, they are more like steps backward.  It is good to learn from history (many times this helps one to avoid the same errors) but not to just adopt it all.  Many times history and tradition enables the church to see how the depravity of man leads to error and extreme reactionary movements.            The “order” of the gathering is fairly free.  Individuals are encouraged to move about freely.  They are able to visit prayer stations that have Scripture written out to guide people in prayer or they can write in a community journal, visit artistic exhibits set up around the sacred space, or watch video montages, or create their own artistic expression of worship.  There are communal readings, paraphrasing of the Apostles’ Creed, and painting all possibly happening at once.  The E.C. loves the freedom of being able to move about, and “respond” or participate at any time they wish during the musical worship.[18]  It depends on the number of people in attendance, but it very much seems like a recipe for chaos.  Creativity is very important in the worship gatherings of the E.C. and this is seen in the descriptions of the aspects of their gatherings.  They employ ancient songs with modern styles of music.  They use popular new forms of artistic expression with ancient liturgy.  The sermon time is quite different from other evangelical churches.  The first difference is that the emergents view the preaching as just a part of the worship, not the most significant part.  Traditional evangelical churches many times view everything else in the service as the build up to the sermon.  The emergents do not have the preacher stand elevated above the congregation, they stand on level ground, usually located in the middle of a half-circle, or full-circle of people.  In some emergent gatherings people are actually encouraged to get up to paint, draw, or sculpt clay during the sermon.[19]  The E.C. views the preaching portion of the worship gathering differently than most evangelicals, as seen from Brian McLaren’s statement, “The preacher becomes the leader of a king of group meditation, less scholarly and more sage, less lecturer and more poet, prophet, and priest.”[20]             This activity of getting up and moving around during the preaching time is quite foreign to evangelical churches, and seems like it would distract from the communication of the truth of the Word of God that is being communicated verbally.  There are not many people who can do multiple things at one time, and do them each well.  The order of the E.C. gatherings would seem to be a haven for people who suffer from A.D.H.D.  All of these things seem like they would be more of a distraction than a help.  In church auditoriums across the country people seek to make the decor and the amenities the least distracting as possible.  In the emergents sacred space, it sounds like there is something going on all around you at all times, and if you would like to go do what is going on around you, then you most likely can get up and do it.  The “educational style” of the emergents with all of the different stations does sound quite similar to the way that many evangelicals are doing children’s ministry today.  The motivation for this is the communicating of truth in many different forms with the hope of better retention.  It is not clear whether the E.C. would appreciate or agree with the label “educational style”, because the stations seem to be a way of worshiping/encountering God for them, not necessarily for the purpose of education. The use of the arts in the communication of the truth of God is a positive thing that the emergents have done.              After spending some time attempting to determine what it means to be emergent, now is the time to focus on the contributions that they have brought to the discussion of worship and the Church.  Many of the contributions that the E.C. has made to the discussion of worship are not the “forms” that they have introduced or reproduced.  Their contributions are the analysis of the weaknesses of the worship (or Theology) of the church.  The emergents have pointed out that worship must be God-centered and not man-centered.  This is extremely important, and has been pointed out by many evangelicals (who are not emergent).  The E.C. points out that many of the songs that Christians sing today are full of references to self, and not necessarily full of references to God.  The emergents want crosses in their sacred space, and they want symbols to make people think of God.  They want everything to make someone think about Jesus.              The E.C. also is very focused on the worship gathering being participatory and not spectator-based.  This is an important point to raise.  In many evangelical churches, God is no longer the one who is supposed to be impressed, the congregation is the one who is looking to be impressed.  This is a problem.  The E.C. has also made the arts are a large part of their worship gatherings.  The arts are an important way of communicating the truth of God’s Word to people in a completely different format.  The Holy Spirit uses the Word of God delivered in these different formats to accomplish the work of God in the hearts of men.  The emergents are also mission-driven in their approach to ministry, program-driven.  They are intensely focused on being disciples of Christ 7 days a week.  The E.C. has attempted to use their worship gatherings to reorient Christians to living for and worshiping God every day of the week and not just on Sundays when they come to church.  This is a good contribution/focus that the emergents have in their congregations.  God desires for His people to be serving Him 7 days a week 24 hours a day.  This E.C.  in its teaching and writings is attempting to help its people reach this point of commitment to Christ.            Community is very important to the emergent movement.  The worship gatherings are very communal in nature.  This is accomplished by smaller environments (houses, buildings, etc…), with seating that is not in rows but in circles (so that people can see and communicate with each other), and also from the order of things done in the gathering.  Communication between the congregation and the speaker is encouraged (which can happen if the church is small enough).  People that attend the worship gatherings are encouraged to pray with each other at prayer stations, and interact with one another.  The smaller the number of people, and the smaller the environment the more likely it will be for people to begin connecting relationally with one another.  The emergents believe that discipleship is a communal experience.[21]  The E.C. attempts to foster relational connections between its congregants.  Community is a must within the church, how this occurs may vary.  The E.C. seems to foster community by having smaller gatherings of people, and that most times is their church.  It is accomplished very well in other churches through Sunday School, home Bible study groups, etc…  The point is still very strong that these genuine relationships are important between believers in the body of Christ.            One of the areas that was looked at earlier in the paper was the role of preaching/teaching in the E.C.  On the positive side of this “new” teaching approach is that there is theoretically more teaching happening than there is preaching.  There are times when teaching of the Word of God needs to happen more frequently than preaching, or at least more of a balance.  Pastors/preachers should study the Word of God to know (as much as is possible) what it is saying so that they can accurately communicate that to the people.  But, there is a negative side to just standing up front and declaring what the Bible says, without teaching people what it says.  Dan Kimball has these comments on the issue:                        Please, please do not think I am downplaying the teaching of the Bible!  I still preach weekly in weekend worship gatherings.  I am very much a Bible-enthusiast and Bible lover.  I know the scriptures are alive and active (Heb. 4:12) and the scriptures are inspired by God.  I know it is critically important for people to know the scriptures, and to saturate our hearts and minds in the scriptures.  That is why I am so passionate about making sure the Bible is being taught and learned in the most effective ways possible for true spiritual formation to occur.  And that is precisely why I think we need to re-look at the long-term impact that our weekend worship gatherings have.  I think we need to revisit and rethink where we are spending most of our efforts and hours and hours of time each week.  I believe in the emerging church, if we are serious about spiritual formation and serious about Bible teaching, then we need to rethink if what we are doing is the most effective way of teaching for actual life – change.[22]             The positive contributions are more philosophies or values that the emergents have brought to the table.  The preceding contributions of spiritual intimacy with God, a focus on prayer, the different teaching forms through art, the belief in Christians being fully committed disciples of Christ, and the focus of worship being God are all excellent.  These things will affect the way that I look at putting the service order together, and how I communicate the Word of God.  Dr. King proposes the following possible scenario of implementation in his paper:[23]                        – Pastor preaches a message Sunday morning,– Sunday School teachers use the content focusing on the passage and questions about how the passage fits into their theological grid,                        – Small group leader uses the content focusing on application and interaction,– Prayer meeting uses the content as a basis for prayer concerning the application to daily life.             There are some negatives in the Emerging Church movement, but I believe there are some valid points that they make.  There are some things that we the church can definitely improve on. 

[1]Kimball, Dan.  “Emerging Worship: Creating Worship Gatherings for New Generations.” 

            Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 2004, p. xi.

[2] Morgenthaler, Sally “Exploring the Worship Spectrum.”  ed. Basden, Paul A. Grand

            Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 2004, p. 222.

[3] Morgenthaler, Sally. “Exploring the Worship Spectrum.”  ed. Basden, Paul A. Grand

            Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 2004, p. 221.


[5]Tallskinnykiwi: What is Emergent?  January 04, 2005. <http.:\\tallskinnykiwi.typepad.com

            /tallskinnykiwi/2005/01/what_is_emergen.html>accessed 18 March 2005.

[6]King, James.  “Emerging Issues for the Emerging Church.”  unpublished BBS Journal

            Article.  2005,  p. 10. 

[7] Kimball, Dan.  “Emerging Worship: Creating Worship Gatherings for New Generations.” 

            Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 2004,  p. 5.


[9]Baker, Jonny and Gay, Doug.  “Alternative Worship: Resources from and for the

            Emerging Church.”  Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004, pp. 19-22.

[10] Kimball, Dan.  “Emerging Worship: Creating Worship Gatherings for New Generations.” 

            Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 2004,  pp. 4-5.

[11] Morgenthaler, Sally. “Exploring the Worship Spectrum.”  ed. Basden, Paul A. Grand

            Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 2004, p. 223.

[12]Kimball, Dan.  “Emerging Worship: Creating Worship Gathering for New Generations. 

            Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 2004, p. 73.

[13] Morgenthaler, Sally. “Exploring the Worship Spectrum.”  ed. Basden, Paul A. Grand

            Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 2004, p. 224.

[14] Kimball, Dan.  “Emerging Worship: Creating Worship Gathering for New Generations. 

            Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 2004, pp. 78-79.

[15]Ibid. p. 79.

[16]Significant is maybe the wrong word to use, since the E.C. does not want to emphasize any             part of their gathering over another, all parts are to be equal.  But, they do use technology


[17] Morgenthaler, Sally. “Exploring the Worship Spectrum.”  ed. Basden, Paul A. Grand

            Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 2004, p. 222.

[18] Kimball, Dan.  “Emerging Worship: Creating Worship Gathering for New Generations. 

            Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 2004, pp. 89-90.

[19] Ibid. p. 89.

[20]Ibid. pp. 87-88.

[21] King, James.  “Emerging Issues for the Emerging Church.”  unpublished BBS Journal

            Article.  2005, p. 19.

[22]  King, James.  “Emerging Issues for the Emerging Church.”  unpublished BBS Journal

            Article.  2005, p. 24.

[23] Ibid. p. 25.


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