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The Emergent Church: Worship That Works

When we started our sabbatical research and travels, we both believed that we would find the vanguard of worship life in the large evangelical churches. We were especially interested in what we could learn about contemporary and praise worship and how we could use these forms in a Unitarian Universalist (UU) context. What we found instead was that the most exciting and creative work in worship and liturgy was being done in “emergent churches”—smaller evangelical and mainline congregations offering services that attract younger adults into explorations of older worship forms in new ways. The seeker service worship involving praise songs, prayer, and lengthy sermons had begun to feel as dated to many younger Christians as the traditional Protestant hymnody, responsive prayers, and sermons in the mainline churches their parents attended.

A light bulb turned on over our heads when we realized that younger evangelicals and mainline Christians were discovering and experimenting with older traditional worship forms, and reinventing them in innovative ways. They were discovering that worship could have new depth for them as a spiritual practice, encouraging them towards greater commitment in their faith, not only to evangelism, but also to a life of integrity, service, and devotion. One name that turned up regularly in our Internet and literature searches under “emergent church” was the Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville Maryland, led by Rev. Brian McLaren, its founding pastor.

On our way to Washington, DC, from Philadelphia, we realized that we were not far from Cedar Ridge, and we called to see if anyone would be available to talk to us. The staff member who answered our call told us the pastor had left the building, in more ways than one. The interest in his work had made him much in demand as a church consultant and he had transitioned to a new senior pastor role that no longer involved routine responsibility for the operation of the church. However, we were very fortunate to be directed to one of the most engaging worship leaders we found during our entire sabbatical, Betsy Mitchell-Henning, director of liturgical arts at Cedar Ridge. Betsy was welcoming and generous with her time, telling us the story of Cedar Ridge Church and its philosophy of worship, showing us their worship space, and describing the ways that her role had evolved. We found Betsy at the mixing board in the sanctuary working on sound and video for next week’s service. Her spiky red-black hair, jewelry, and tattoos did not match any stereotypes for a director of liturgical arts in any evangelical church we knew. Neither did the worship that she had assisted the Cedar Ridge Worship team in creating.

When we dropped in on Cedar Ridge Church, it was twenty-five years old. It had begun in Rev. McLaren’s apartment and was originally based on the Willow Creek model of excellent preaching and a multimedia liturgy that could rival television. At the time of our visit, they saw themselves as having moved in a different direction from Willow Creek, by emphasizing more participatory worship and a commitment to church life as a spiritual practice engaged with the world. They also stood out as an evangelical Christian church with many liberal social values, including an understated but clearly welcoming attitude to gay and lesbian parishioners. The theological and social spectrum of people attending Cedar Ridge rivaled the diversity in UU churches, but they were still a largely white church in a suburban neighborhood that had a lot of ethnic diversity.

Cedar Ridge grew out of the Community Church (Baptist) in the College Park, MD, area. For ten years they met in high school auditoriums. By 1995, they had bought a historic farm and by 1998 moved onto the property and into their own new worship facility. Their facility was in auditorium style, with classrooms off all the surrounding hallways. It was intended for multiple uses: worship, social events, youth activities, weddings, banquets, etc. They had completed a renovation of the barn on the property for use as a youth ministry and program building. As of 2006, they had fewer than five hundred members, but their worship attendance each Sunday was higher than their stated membership, exactly the opposite of most mainline Protestant churches.

When we visited, Cedar Ridge hosted two services, one at 9:00 and the other at 11:00; both services were the same. They had about 250 in worship at the first service, and about 350 in the second. Their sanctuary had moveable chairs, and a center platform surrounded by seating on three sides. There was no pulpit. Preaching happened from the platform, and the preacher was free to move around the congregation. Behind the platform was a table with votive candles and a decorative holder that could hold many candles. Behind this was a standard stage where the worship band played. On either side of the stage were two angled white walls that were painted with a special paint for projected images. The sanctuary could seat as many as seven hundred in a standard and crowded theater-style arrangement. The room as we saw it was set for four hundred people.

Around the sanctuary were several stations marked by banners for prayer, offering, and communion. The space was otherwise without adornment, with a simple wooden cross on the central table. Despite using some of the Willow Creek/Saddleback formula for music and preaching, Cedar Ridge went in an entirely different direction by reclaiming some of the older worship practices of the Orthodox and Anglo-Catholic traditions. During the communion ritual, the congregation engaged in one or more of several choices for personal devotional practice. One involved receiving communion from the minister, although communion could also be taken privately at one of the worship stations along the walls or, with a group of family and friends, shared around one of the tables set up in corners of the sanctuary for that purpose. Worshipers could also engage in private prayer or meditation accompanied by music. They could engage in lighting devotional or commemorative candles. Alternatively, they could meet with a minister or worship leader to make prayer requests or pray.

Betsy described herself as a former Episcopalian, who came to Cedar Ridge in 1991 looking for a church that combined both the incarnational qualities of Anglo-Catholic worship and the powerful preaching of the Protestant style. She was clearly a person with more liberal social values than the right-wing views held by most evangelicals, and Cedar Ridge reflected such a mix. They were clearly an evangelical church on the “left hand of God,” to use Rabbi Michael Lerner’s phrase.

We found ourselves both excited and challenged by the emergent church movement, and by the style of this particular church. Cedar Ridge by no means defines the forms of worship being practiced in emergent churches. These forms include independent entrepreneurial congregations primarily serving young adult populations, new church plants started by established evangelical churches who give them independent authority for designing a different style of service, and established churches whose leadership culture has envisioned a new way of worship based in Christian retraditioning. What all the forms have in common is a flexible post-modern creativity reminiscent of what Unitarian Universalism has always claimed as a defining characteristic.

The freedom in Unitarian Universalism has always invited experimentation and adaptation of traditional forms. This has been one of our attractions to seekers who call themselves spiritual but not religious, which turns out to be territory that a generation of younger Christians is now exploring. The worship lives and worship services of these individuals are becoming more creative, more participatory, more accessible, and more explicit about worship as a primary spiritual practice. Worship as spiritual practice is hardly a new understanding. In our travels, we saw it frequently named as an important dimension of congregational life in thriving mainline churches. We realized that the performance aspect of evangelical megachurch worship and the passivity it engenders in the worshiping congregation has begun to disenchant this new generation of evangelicals.

In the Unitarian Universalist churches we visited, we found fewer people in the pews who were articulate about understanding worship as spiritual practice. On the contrary, a significant amount of the current writing about worship, and a great deal of the conversation we had with our colleagues during the sabbatical travels, was about worship as a focus of conflict in a congregation, rather than as a cherished commonly held spiritual practice. At the end of our first month of traveling, we discovered a church consultant whose writing on churches of intentional practice helped us better understand why worship has the potential to become a congregational war zone.

When a congregation experiences conflict over traditions or innovations in worship, it is because they are conflicted about who they are or who they want to become. In her book The Practicing Congregation, Diana Butler Bass comments:

To outsiders, arguments over worship may seem trivial. However, they are not. These arguments are conflicts regarding religious practice, and when properly understood and interpreted, they reveal a much deeper fissure in American spirituality than does the “liberal vs. conservative” framework. Such conflicts expose a practice continuum—an often-invisible field of expectations, style, and activities. The practice continuum exists in many mainline congregations as these churches struggle between the poles of established and intentional churchgoing.

Intentional churchgoing involves seeing worship as the primary spiritual practice that informs everything else a person does in the church. Intentional churchgoers believe that participating in church life has the power to transform their lives towards greater depth, joy, and meaning. Intentional church life engages members in a community that sees itself as more than a civic institution or club or school; that sees itself as a continuing embodiment of a religious way of life and tradition. That way of life is revealed in stories, images, music, and metaphors that speak of ethical imperatives and incarnated truths. It is revealed in worship.

As we visited several more congregations identified with the emergent church movement, we began to understand that the shift they represented was not just a change in how these younger evangelicals viewed the possibilities and the promise of their worship life: It was a change from established to intentional churchgoing. No doubt the founders of the megachurch movement represented the same kind of shift when they started these congregations in homes, drive-ins, movie theaters, and storefronts. As their model for doing church has become the prototype for evangelical congregations, the inability of these churches to sustain creativity and intimacy within these formulaic structures has created the passion for more intentional churchgoing among emergent church leaders.

Where is that passion for intentional churchgoing in Unitarian Universalism? Where is our emergent church? Newcomers unfamiliar with spiritual practice as a regular part of life rarely find explicit instruction about how to think about the worship experience as spiritual practice. Longtime UU members, particularly those uncomfortable with traditional religious language, balk at the idea that their church attendance is spiritual practice. They come for the intellectual stimulation of the sermon, they say, or for the community, or for the religious education classes for their children.

The truth, however, is that attendance at worship is the primary and often the only explicit spiritual practice that many Unitarian Universalists undertake. If the members of our congregations are not approaching their worship life with passion, the ministers fail to do so at their peril. In passionately describing how this realization made a difference in his own ministry, Rev. Tom Schade of First Unitarian Church of Worcester, Massachusetts, said to us: “If worship is their primary spiritual practice, then I’d better be fully present when I am leading worship.” Being fully present means being able to take every moment of the worship service seriously, to plan it thoroughly, to engage with it fully, and to value each part of the service as critical to this life-changing practice.

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Last updated on Thursday, August 9, 2012.

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