Course Wrap-Up: Observations and Thoughts

Pubs, Clubs and Alternative Worship in England

By Professor Kevin Corcoran

For two full weeks the members of this course immersed ourselves in the emergent and alternative worship movements in the UK, especially in and around London. We had the privilege of meeting key leaders and important figures in UK church life. We met with Pete Rollins (Ikon) from Belfast, Northern Ireland; Kester Brewin (Vaux), Jonny Baker (Grace), and Dave Tomlinson (soul space), all from central London; Jason Clark (Vineyard) from Sutton, and Archbishop Rowan Williams, the leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion. We also had the privilege of participating in worship services—some emergent (Vineyard Church, Sutton), others alternative (Feast, Grace, Revelation, soul space) and yet others historic (St. Paul’s and Westminster). Some of us had the great pleasure of serving in a soup kitchen alongside one of our hosts (Feast) and all of us had the pleasure of breaking bread in the homes of Feast members. Indeed the latter was a real highlight of the trip for many among us.

But what exactly is emergent/altworship? I’ve been getting that question a lot lately from those who’ve stumbled upon our course via the web. People want to know what it is about these cultural phenomena that would make a Calvin philosophy professor, a local media team and 23 Calvin students think them worthy of intensive study for several weeks in January. Okay, so the course was offered in London. And the words “pubs” and “clubs” do feature in the course’s title. But aside from all that, what’s all the fuss?

I think the first thing to be said in answer is that these are movements that enthusiastically embrace the postmodern cultural context in which we find ourselves, and Calvin students, having quite literally grown up in such a context, find it a natural habitat. Some of the cultural features of this context include new technologies, new forms of connectivity, and decentralization. Those in the altworship and emerging movements embrace new technology as well as the decentralization of power and decision making that current technologies make possible. The most stunning experience for me this interim was participating in an anglo-Catholic Mass in a very old church that blended ancient ritual, liturgy, and creeds with the use of image and sound reproduction, including a flat screen computer monitor which was perched on the altar table just to the left of the consecrated elements. I found this juxtaposition shocking. But what to me was a bit incongruous was to my students ho-hum. And I think it’s easy to see why. Bread and wine are ordinary things; so too a computer monitor. The former can become for us the body and blood of Christ. The other, ordinary though it may be, can function as a window through which God can communicate via images and sound. No incongruity at all.

Postmodernism is not just a cultural phenomenon, however. There is also what we might call philosophical postmodernism. And this involves, among other things, calling into question “meta-narratives” or grand stories of the world and our place in it, like Marxism, atheistic naturalism, consumerism and Christianity itself. Consciously or not, each of us fits our own particular story into a larger story (or stories), like those just cited. What gets called into question by philosophical postmodernism is our ability to float free of the grand narratives we find ourselves in and to view things from a “God’s eye view.” Those sensitive to the postmodern situation, like those in the emergent and altworship movements, recognize therefore that our grasp of reality is always partial, incomplete, and fragmentary. And this recognition can engender humility, tolerance, and an opening for dialogue with others. Tolerance and dialogue are two practices those in emergent and altworship both welcome and invite. Someone who really appreciates our human finitude and situatedness might be more inclined to say, “Here’s how I see things and here’s why. But, I recognize that I am a finite and frail human being; so I could certainly be the one with blind spots. How do you see things?’ as opposed to saying “I’m right. You’re wrong, and going to hell. End of story.”

Second, emerging Christians tend to be theologically pluralistic and quite suspicious of tidy theological boxes. They believe that God is bigger than any theology and that God is first and foremost a story-teller, not a dispenser of theological doctrine and factoids. Theology for them, therefore, is conceived as an ongoing and provisional conversation. Emerging Christians are also allergic to thinking which fixates on who is going to heaven and who is going to hell, or on who’s on the inside and who’s on the outside. They stress the importance of right-living (orthopraxy) over right-believing (orthodoxy). What’s important, they often say, is whether you engage in God-love and neighbor-love. Or as one of our conversation partners put it, “We’re more interested in doing truth than believing ‘truths’.”

Third, emerging Christians believe the church must change if it is to speak meaningfully to a postmodern culture. So, like the prophet Amos, the rhetoric of emerging Christians can be shocking, alarming and hyperbolic. They are frequently given to dramatic overstatement. But it should be kept in mind that, at its best and most sincere, the aim of the rhetoric is to rouse us (the Church) from dogmatic slumber, to get us to see old things with new eyes, or sometimes to see completely new things. The aim, one might say, is to unsettle us such that a space is open for God to break in and to speak afresh, and then for us to get on with God’s agenda in the world.

Fourth, participants in the emergent and altworship movements are passionate about the present. The gospel, they want us to realize, is about the here-and-now, and not a ticket to secure a place in the there-and-then of heaven. This passion for the present manifests itself in four overlapping foci: community, transformation, worship and social engagement.

Community: Emergent Christians place a premium on community, living life together in all its messiness. However, community can take many shapes, and emergent or altworship communities often do not resemble traditional church community with a paid staff and centralized leadership. It’s a dispersed community that is lived in the rough-and-tumble of everyday life. So a premium is placed on togetherness, journeying with and alongside others.

Transformation: Emergent types are passionate about transformation, both personal and structural. They tend not to view themselves as finished products, as “saved” or even as “Christian.” Instead, they speak of themselves as “being saved” and “becoming Christian.” They tend to be political activists and socially “liberal” in the sense that they care deeply about the proverbial “widow, orphan and alien,” those who are marginalized, oppressed, and disenfranchised and about changing the personal and structural realities that perpetuate the disenfranchisement and marginalization. They believe that engaging in such tasks is to follow Jesus.

Worship: Emerging Christians are innovative and imaginative in the aesthetics of worship, and they are technologically savvy. They’re sacramental and incarnational, sometimes employing large-scale transformative theatre (Ikon). Revelation, one of the communities we visited, offers a sophisticated blend of ancient ritual and liturgy and cutting-edge image technology and participation. Typical of the worship in these communities is worship that engages us as whole and embodied beings, providing a feast for most if not all of our sensory modalities: sight, sound, smell, and tactile experience.

Social Engagement: Emerging Christians enthusiastically endorse Jesus’ claim that “by their fruits you will know them.” Thus, they seek to be active agents of God’s reconciling, redemptive, and restorative agenda in and for the world.

I believe that there is much to praise and get excited about in altworship/emerging expressions of faith and practice. Indeed, for those in the Calvin community it is easy to hear in these emerging voices and stories echoes of the Kuyperian vision that animates Calvin College itself. But there are also places to pause and register concerns. For example, some in the emerging/altworship movements are allergic to creeds and the particularity of Christian beliefs, falsely (in my view) believing that finite human beings cannot say true things about an infinite God. Moreover, in their bid to be culturally relevant, there is the risk of unwittingly succumbing to the same sort of base consumerism that is the hallmark of this generation. There is also the risk of capitulating to the cult of hip and celebrity that is consumerism’s offspring. So while emergent/alternative worship is not without its risks, it is, to my mind at least, a legitimate way of expressing authentic Christian faith. And it is resonating not so much with a particular demographic (e.g., well to do 20-somethings) as with a psycho-graphic (i.e., people of all ages with a certain cultural aesthetic and particular cultural sensibilities). I believe it deserves a welcome, even if critical, reception wherever it turns up, be it in Protestant denominations, evangelical non-denominational communities, or Episcopal or Roman Catholic traditions. And make no mistake about it, it is popping up in all these places.

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