Thinking about an “emergent” liberal church

How can liberal churches reach the emerging generations? How can liberal churches successfully negotiate a post-church, post-Christian world? Since so many liberal churches are already post-Christian, you would think we would be the perfect haven for a post-Christian people — but so far we are growing at the miniscule rate of about a percent a year. I’ve been thinking more and more about the possibility of an “emergent liberal church” (while recognizing that the real Emergent/Emerging Church movement is theologically conservative) — and this post represents the first post in a new category on new and “engaging worship.”

It all comes down to changing the worship service….or does it?

From Unitarian Universalist Contemporary Worship, a page on the Web site of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) that also advertises a conference on “contemporary worship”:

Traditional UU worship services are often derisively called the “sermon sandwich.” Thin layers of music and readings surround a huge chunk of sermon, given in one voice from one perspective….

While there are many people gifted at presenting exciting and interesting sermons, contemporary worship services are generally more energetic and engaging than the sermon sandwich, and draw from a broad and post-modern array of voices and perspectives….

The next important aspect of contemporary worship is the format. Unlike in the sandwich, in which the sermon is one large (and often indigestible) chunk, contemporary worship spreads the message out. There’s not necessarily any less of it, mind you, but it’s given in manageable chunks and intermingled with other things, and more balanced in proportion to those things. Music, readings, and candle lighting or dancing allow people with different ways of learning to hear the message better.

From The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations by Dan Kimball (Zondervan, 2003), pp. 178-179:

Don’t insult people’s intelligence or desire for spiritual depth….

…People in emerging generations attending a worship service hunger for a deep experience of God’s wisdom. If we distribute sermon notes, they should be comprehensive and give the historical context for the Scripture passages we use.

One time, when preaching on Romans 6-8, I felt like I was teaching an English class, because I walked the audience through the definitions of “sanctification,” “condemnation,” “imputed righteousness,” and other terms. I put together extensive sermon notes to hand out, and that night, we actually ran out of them and had to print extra sheets for several weeks afterward because the demand was so great. Emerging generations are starving for deeper teaching, and our job is to respect them enough to give it to them.

We don’t have to limit sermons to twenty-minute quickies. Should messages always be under thirty minutes? On occasion you may want to limit them to that, depending on the worship service design for that night. But I know of several large churches drawing hundreds and thousands of younger people in which the message is forty to fifty minutes long.

The advice offered on the UUA Web site sounds like typical advice for developing a “contemporary” or “seeker-sensitive” worship service. Some advocates of the Emerging/Emergent Church movement, while acknowledging the continuing success of these services, point out that seeker-sensitive services were originally developed for the Baby Boomer generation and may not always work for the emerging generations.

Nor can we assume that there is one type of worship service will serve every person in the emerging generations. Tim Keel is lead pastor at Jacob’s Well (JW), an Emergent church in Kansas City, Missouri. From an article in the September 19, 2006, issue of Christian Century magazine:

Some aspects of JW — its post-Christendom political posture and its postliberal thological tone — are hardly unique. Even its effort at grunge worship and to be an artistic haven has imitators and precursors elsewhere. But Keel says, “I’d hate to think that JW could be imitated elsewhere,” since, as he sees it, churches need to be “environmentalists” — to take the temperature of their particular place and serve it accordingly….

My take on all this for Unitarian Universalists:– Forget trying to replicate Soulful Sundown worship services; there is no one answer to the worship needs of emerging generations. Do challenge every assumption you may have about worship. Do assume that the people who walk in your door have no idea how to do church: assume they don’t know how to use a hymnal; assume they don’t know why you sing hymns; assume they don’t know why you light the funny candle in the candy dish at the front of the church. Do assume that your place, and your location, are unique.

Is there anyone else out there thinking about trying to do “emergent” liberal church?

7 thoughts on “Thinking about an “emergent” liberal church

  1. chutney

    My posts are here and here.

    It’s been two years since those posts, but I’d still love to try it. I even put together an order for morning worship—and made some headway toward an evening order. But time and energy.

    My congregation is in the middle of a senior minister search, and my secret hope is that we’ll get someone who would like to put an emergent service together.

  2. Christine Robinson

    Perhaps another assumption might be that no one worship service is going to touch all members of a congregation, and that variety within and among services, and recognition of other church programs (Youth Group Circles, Covenant Groups, Pagan Celebrations ) as a part of the church’s worship program is important.

    I have to remark that when I went to the extremely contemporary, Multi Site, Evangelical North Coast Church in Southern California, rapidly growing, megachurch, I was treated to the fattest Sermon Sandwich I’d ever experienced. Singing, Sermon (47 minutes worth) Singing.

    I’m writing more on my blog.

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  4. Shawn Anthony

    Dan – Wonderful post. Personally, I think that the whole POMO/Emergent Christian movement, if anything, has shown us all that there is indeed a deep, deep hunger “out there” for spiritual depth. People are clamoring for a faith they can live.

    Personally, I am very interested in hearing more about what you called “Post-Christian” or “Post-Christianity.” I have not heard the term before. It may prove useful for me in my present crisis to self-identify myself with my own movement. :)

    Can you say a bit more?

  5. Administrator

    Christine — You’re right on target, I think, in saying no one type of worship service is going to reach everyone. Equally true:– worship in an urban church like mine will be different than in a suburban or rural church; and worship here in southeastern Mass. will be different than in other parts of the world. Which are some of the things Emergent church people are saying — and which are contrary to typical liberal religious vaguely colonial ideas that there can be one worship service to fit all places and all people.

    Shawn — I’ve put a preliminary definitaion of post-Christian here.

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