Blessed are the Laid Back

Volume 44, Issue 3 :: Text and photos by Ellen Fisher

How the Emergent Church Movement is Questioning Mainline Religion

As members of the “Y” or Echo Generation, born in the 1980s and early 1990s, my age group spent our youth witnessing the rise of the religious right. Megachurches blossomed across the country as mainline religions consummated their move to the suburbs. The big-box churches allowed more congregants to gather and worship in one space, and charismatic religious leaders became megastars as they occupied center stage (and, in some cases, TV time) to convey messages to their congregants on a grand scale. The megachurch movement seemed to shift religious consciousness away from social justice in favor of morality. Conservatism, consumerism and cyberspace took precedence, while simplicity, personal interactions between church leaders and the congregants, and a concise faith community seemed to disappear.

Today, the conflict between freedom and fundamentalism has found religious expression in the “Emergent Church” movement. The Emergent Church has closed the hymnal and turned on the projector, and my generation has responded. Given birth by a number of Christians disillusioned with highly structured congregations and traditional religions, the Emergent Church focuses on the individual faith experience, something often overlooked in more established denominations. A shift away from making Church more relevant to the outsider also occurred with the rise of the Emergent Church. As megachurches focused on drawing in the “unchurched” and the “spiritual but not religious,” a dynamic emerged within those communities that mimicked that of producer and consumer, or entertainer and entertained. To many in my generation, megachurches have a fake, theatrical production feel to them. The Emergent Church movement sensed that discomfort within congregations and developed a paradigm that replaced rituals, songs, and symbols that had lost their meaning with a seeker-sensitive, community-centered mode of worship.

The Emergent Church is part of the larger emerging church movement, which is also very much present within the Jewish faith, as Jewish communities faced the challenge of bringing a sense of authenticity to a generation that seemed disillusioned with the rigidity and seemingly stagnant assumptions and traditions of Judaism. The emphasis on social justice, community focus, and flexibility led to the great expansion of the Jewish Emergent movement, which seeks to return to the fundamentals of learning, Torah study, and performing acts of loving kindness in the world.

The Emergent Church emphasizes the need for faith and practice to be present in the daily lives of people, not stuck within the bounds of church walls. As a result, some have called the Emergent Church movement post-evangelical, post-conservative, post-liberal, and post-charismatic, indicative of how it defies labels. But however much difficulty we have in pinning down this movement, all participants in the Emergent Church have a post-hierarchical character, with fluid identities that cater to the needs of each community that they serve.

The way the Emergent Church occupies space shows how far the movement has strayed from both old mainline religions and the newer fundamentalist ones. Many Emergent Churches inhabit formerly religious buildings, although they will often take out the pews so that everyone can face each other in a circle, with the leader in the center. Others occupy formerly commercial buildings, with art work, photography, and book shelves scattered about, looking more like a community craft fair than a traditional worship space. For my generation, the appeal of Emergent Churches lies in their deviation from hierarchy and from denominational affiliation.

Emergent Churches have also appealed to those seeking an alternative worship space to that of the megachurches that arose in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Those churches tried to fuse religion with contemporary culture by transforming worship spaces into large, theater-like settings to provide immersive experiences relevant to congregants’ lives. Megachurches frequently offered high-energy audio/visual worship in large auditoriums that had rock bands, projection screens, and charismatic leaders. Although such churches attracted many baby boomers, their fundamental lack of intimacy turned off many in my generation.

Emergent Churches, instead, highlight the individual worship experience, emphasizing conversations about faith rather than testimonials of faith, and focusing on what is real and true in the world rather than on the formalities and theatrical productions of megachurches. Informal, nonconformist, individually oriented, and community based, Emergent Church worship spaces reflect my generation’s dissatisfaction with all that did not work for us in mainstream, evangelical religion.

In Emergent Churches, who you are doesn’t matter nearly as much as what the church is doing and talking about. Unlike denominations that rely heavily on dogma, creeds, and the teachings of clergy to guide the community of believers, Emergent Churches use conversation, and emphasize equality out of a belief that God exists in every person and that every person should have the opportunity to articulate what God is doing for them in their lives. The uniqueness of Emergent Churches lies in the ability of community members to discuss, challenge, and raise issues in response to scripture as they see fit during the worship service, rather than in a small Bible or Torah study class.

Solomon’s Porch

Solomon’s Porch is a nationally recognized Emergent Church located in the heart of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Its pastor, Doug Pagitt, is an internationally renowned and often-criticized leader in the movement, who founded Solomon’s Porch in 2000 as a Holistic Missional Community to help congregants share their faith journey with one another. Shying away from calling themselves an institution or a structured church, Solomon’s Porch congregants prefer to think of themselves as a collective encouraged to express faith through writing, art, and music, and to articulate truth as each person sees it. Many Emergent Church followers view Christ’s teachings as radical, and find inspiration outside of traditional worship forms, maintaining the values of Jesus while encouraging genuine, meditative, and thoughtful connections to God.

The worship space reflects the nontraditional nature of Solomon’s Porch. Because the Emergent Church movement sees faith as an open discussion rather than blind adherence to doctrine, the main worship space is laid out in a set of concentric circles that echo the movement’s opposition to hierarchy and social status. Rather than focusing on the front and back of the church, as in traditional worship spaces, Solomon’s Porch draws your attention to the center of the church, around which the congregation gathers.

No pews or traditional chairs exist in the sanctuary. Instead, all of the congregants sit on a ragtag bunch of loveseats and sofas, most of which look as though members of the church had found them on the curb with a “free” sign on them. The pastor facilitates discussion and leads worship from a simple stool at the center of the space, making the service more casual (and to some, more genuine) while emphasizing the equality between the pastor and the community. By sitting in the center of the circle, the pastor takes on the role of discussion facilitator rather than preacher. Meanwhile, the outer edge of the worship space has a distinct coffee shop atmosphere, with kitchen tables and chairs scattered along the periphery of the sanctuary. Tea lights, candelabra, and accent lighting add a casual aesthetic that encourages conversation; sharing stories seems more natural when sitting around a table or on a sofa.

The sanctuary design also reflects the concept of community. In the traditional altar space of many mainline churches where a cross would stand, or in many evangelical churches where a projection screen would hang, Solomon’s Porch has the wall decorated with drawings and paintings of and by community members. The artwork, which surrounds a cross hanging on the wall, serves as a visual reminder that the community values the individual congregants and their walk through faith.

The music at Solomon’s Porch hints at traditional megachurch worship in the sense that you won’t find hymnals. Instead, congregants sing lyrics that are projected on two screens on opposing walls in the sanctuary. But unlike much contemporary megachurch music―with its rock bands, drum sets, and electric guitars―the music in Solomon’s Porch is low key, acoustic, and soft. Rather than energizing the congregation, Solomon’s Porch’s music has a downbeat and melancholic quality, encouraging reflection and meditation; the calm and nonintrusive music and dim lighting create a tranquil atmosphere. In contrast to many megachurches, which use music to encourage excitement and emotional response to bring the congregants closer to some sense of the divine, Solomon’s Porch encourages meditation and the quieting of the senses to allow the congregation to reflect on what is meaningful in their own lives and to make sense of the experiences they have had.

How Casual is Too Casual?

Some have criticized the Emergent Church movement for being too casual and lax in its worship, but how casual is too casual? On the night I attended worship, the service started 25 minutes late and, from where I sat, I could see ten people texting on their cell phones. Directly in front of me sat two people playing a video game on a hand-held device. This casualness remained ever-present throughout the service, which included opening songs, announcements, and the showing of a video clip followed by discussion, the offering of communion, and the wandering off of congregants. The worship leader announced communion and the congregation moved about the sanctuary visiting and munching on baguette bread laid out across the sanctuary. Communion time also signaled the end of the service, as far as I could tell, since many congregants wandered out of the building afterward, while others gathered around the sanctuary to discuss the books they were reading in their book clubs, their favorite yoga studio, and where to find the best coffee in Minneapolis.

With such a strong reaction against the hierarchy, organization, and centralization of power found in traditional denominations, the Emergent Church movement faces the danger of losing the necessary checks and balances that exist in mainline churches. With no central oversight of congregations, the leadership and direction of the church rest solely in the hands of the community and the pastor, making it possible for a congregation to veer far from their guiding principles or to breed greed and corruption among its leaders. It is possible that a church so deeply in tune to the needs of congregants will adjust as the community evolves and changes. But with so much power placed directly in the hands of the people and the pastor, can anyone entirely trust what they will do with it? That is a question upon which the Emergent Church movement itself needs to meditate.

Solomon’s Porch has captured what my generation, the Echo Generation, is looking for: decentralization of power, casual atmosphere, and faith based on conversation and action rather than on dogma and sermons. The casual atmosphere is designed to make worshippers feel welcome and at ease. However, there is certainly a fine line to consider. How casual is too casual? What makes Solomon’s Porch a church and not just a community lounge? There are no clear answers to these questions, but they are important for religious communities to consider. Is it the individual faith community that defines what is sacred? If a space is sacred to some, is it possible to find inspiration that can unleash the sacred in all?

Ellen Fisher is an undergraduate student in the Religious Studies department at the University of Minnesota. She is focusing her studies on social justice within the Judeo-Christian tradition. Upon graduation next spring, Fisher plans to continue her religious studies education in a Master of Divinity program.

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