January 25, 2021

The Monk Emerges

candlesthrere.jpgA few weeks ago, I was invited to speak at a Charismatic church in a neighboring community. (Take it to the comment threads, people.) I discovered that I was actually speaking at an “emerging” worship service designed for the younger adults in the community. As this was my first experience with an “emerging” service, I wanted to pay close attention, so I took extensive notes and have given some thought to the entire experience.

I read painfully inept TR criticisms of “emerging” churches every day. Just a few moments ago, I read another expert pronouncement that any “emerging” movement is “heretical.” This is written by someone who, as far as I know, has never been part of an emerging worship experience and may have read a few excepts from the infamous Brian Mclaren (from whom you will learn virtually nothing about emerging worship, btw.) I valued this opportunity for my stance of basic openness to a positive contribution by this movement to gain some credibility through experience. I appreciate the invitation, and though I may post some critical comments, what I saw and heard was in no way “heretical.”

Having now read several books on the emerging church, and most recently Dan Kimball’s original book, I felt better equipped to interpret what I would see.

Should this evaluation of my experience make it to those who invited me, I hope you will invite me again. I’d like to learn more. BTW- I have changed many details about this church and event in the interest of privacy.

I became aware of the “emerging” nature of this service in emails that described the theme and format of the service.

The church is an Assembly of God church in a community in rural north central Kentucky. The church is relatively new- probably less than 30 years old- and has a nice facility. The worship center appeared to seat around 200. The church has adopted a typical Charismatic name that does not reveal their denominational affiliation.

The worship service of which I was a part was called “the Bridge.” It was a regular Sunday evening service time, with a fellowship following. It was under the responsibility of a youth director/student pastor who I know to be a recent graduate of a nearby denominational college where he would have taken courses in creative ministries. The pastor was present and supportive, but was not in charge.

I arrived, according to schedule, about an hour before the service began as soundchecks and musical rehearsal was happening. I observed a good bit of the media and music that were planned for the service.

The theme of the service was “Love and Sacrifice,” following a Valentine’s Day theme. There was candy and Valentines placed in every seat. The chairs in the center of the room had been moved to allow for a very large “heart” shaped arrangement of approximtely 30 candles. (The student pastor obviously is well liked, as most staff would be in the “youth room” with those candles on the carpet.)

A prayer room/area had been prepared in an upstairs loft. This was populated with many candles, but I did not go into the loft itself. During the service, people were made aware that the prayer area was there, and they were encouraged to go to it whenever they chose to do so.

After a time of prayer as a group, those leading the service concentrated on welcoming everyone who was arriving. By the time the service started- a few minutes past the stated time- there were approximately 50 persons present.

One thing I immediately noticed was that this seemed much like the usual Sunday evening crowd at most rural Kentucky churches that have a tradition of Sunday evening worship. While there were many youth and young adults, there were other people in the 50’s and beyond. These appeared to be the “supportive core” families that come to anything the “young people” are doing at church. This included several senior adults. This took away any distinctive feeling that the service was a “unique audience” type of service.

The service began with the performance of “More Than Words,” originally done by the early 90’s rock band, Extreme. Here are the lyrics:

Saying I love you
Is not the words I want to hear from you
It’s not that I want you
Not to say, but if you only knew
How easy it would be to show me how you feel
More than words is all you have to do to make it real
Then you wouldn’t have to say that you love me
Cos I’d already know
What would you do if my heart was torn in two
More than words to show you feel
That your love for me is real
What would you say if I took those words away
Then you couldn’t make things new
Just by saying I love you
More than words
Now I’ve tried to talk to you and make you understand
All you have to do is close your eyes
And just reach out your hands and touch me
Hold me close don’t ever let me go
More than words is all I ever needed you to show
Then you wouldn’t have to say that you love me
Cos I’d already know
What would you do if my heart was torn in two
More than words to show you feel
That your love for me is real
What would you say if I took those words away
Then you couldn’t make things new
Just by saying I love you
More than words

This was followed by a very positive “amen.” I’ve read these words several times, and I have difficulty seeing their relation to the Gospel, or to human experience. The idea that true love is “more than words” certainly fits with where the theme of the service was potentially going, however. These connections are there, but they should be, it seems to me, be at least moderately suggested in the course of the evening. (It seemed to me that the “amen” came from someone who thought they had just heard the latest worship tune on K-Love.)

This was followed by prayer, scripture and announcements, leading into an “ice-breaker.”

The Valentines on the seats were keyed to organize the participants into small groups. It appeared to me that everyone participated in this without encouragement, and the groups were given a list of questions to discuss. A designated person then reported the results of the discussion back to the large group.

If you are a youth minister, this is very familiar to you. I was a bit surprised to see all the adults in the room participating. This was a good time of visible fellowship, very noisy, with a lot of laughter. The questions dealt with the theme of “Love and Sacrifice.” This took approximately 15 minutes.

This was followed by a set of worship music. The music was familiar praise and worship music, some by the David Crowder Band. The music was followed by time of prayer led by the pastor, which included a pastoral admonition.

My part of the service was approximately 30 minutes, though if the drama team had performed as planned, it would have been less. I am not a “Charismatic” type preacher, and no matter how hard I try I cannot transition into something vastly different from my usual approach. My message was about understanding Love and Sacrifice through the the story of Jesus, and how that story changes our tragic loves stories into God’s own story of love for the world. My goal is to challenge Christians to see Jesus as relevant to all of life, and particularly to those points of life where we are most broken and in need of God’s grace and mercy.

The message seemed to be well received, but it was noticeable I’m sure that I do not walk around the room, but stay at the “pulpit,” i.e. music stand, and actually “preach” rather than just talk, tell stories or anecdotes. In that sense, I was probably the most noticeably “non-emerging” aspect of the evening, but I believe I put the Gospel of Jesus into the context of the theme, and invited people to follow Jesus.

Since I do not do a public invitation, and wasn’t told to do one, I closed in prayer. The worship team did another set of songs, and the evening ended.

What I saw was very recognizable to me as the kind of worship experience I led on many retreats, camps and youth weeks during my years in youth ministry. It is a worship experience that sets aside many of the usual rituals, but is still recognizably evangelical and revivalistic. A person coming into this service from off the street would still feel he was in church and was in a Christian worship service. It appeared to me that, with a Charismatic speaker comfortable in the setting, the service would have been much like many other services at an Assembly of God on a Sunday night these days, minus the candles and the small groups.

I believe the desire to use “emerging” approaches faces some limitations in the average church. One is the church itself. An emerging service is probably best off site, at a “neutral” location life a pub, coffeeshop or a home. For several years, I had a weekly guys’ Bible study at a different site each week, and it was very successful. Some of my site choices were somewhat exotic (like an abandoned railroad tunnel) but it was more of a neutral, “missional” setting than a church.

I also believe traditions that do not utilize some liturgy or frequent communion will tend to fall back into churchspeak and familiar ways that Christians express themselves. An emerging service shouldn’t look like what we use to call a “special emphasis” outreach service. There is a missional aspect to doing things “differently,” but what the emerging church is offering, I think, is the opportunity to rethink everything in terms of the postmodern, secular setting. Liturgy makes connections, and allows a lot of intentionality. For those who are outside of the church, it is more understandable than an evening of churchspeak.

In that vein, I now believe secular media should be aggressively used in an emerging setting. I do not say this for innovation’s sake, but for the sake of a missional approach. The story of David and Bathsheba works within the Christian community, but a secular story needs to be the lead in a missional setting. This is the difference between a “seeker sensitive” takeover of “worship” in the church- which is a bad thing- and a missional, emerging worship experience, which can be the best of what we have learned from missionaries down through the years: go to them, speak their language, adopt their culture/symbols, but use the story of Jesus.

I see emerging churches as a more revolutionary way for the church to do its mission, not a creative way to make church more interesting to a younger demographic.

Still, it says a lot to younger people when a church is willing to be creative, invest time, be less traditional and reach out to them. Efforts like “Bridge” have the potential to be good and helpful outreaches.

I came away thinking much more clearly on the emerging church in and out of the regular lines and boundaries in which worship happens. I felt welcome and blessed to be among good Charismatic people. Their love for Jesus and for the people Jesus loved was a blessing to me. I hope to see them again.

At the same time, I believe I am coming to understand missional, emerging approaches better, and to appreciate those who are stepping completely outside of the traditional. They run risks, and not all that is being said or done in their efforts is good or to be commended. But as I said earlier, missionary strategy comes from mission fields, not from the 11 a.m. service.


  1. Thanks, Michael. It’s great to have these “field reports” from those who have “visited the natives” rather than just written opinions about them.

    I have a question about one small aspect of the service you described: the prayer room. I’ve noticed that many emergent services I’ve heard described include some kind of private prayer area for people to go off into during the service. I’m wondering how that fits with the communitarian, anti-individualistic impulses I usually hear from emergent folk. Seems to me that the last thing they’d want to do is have people go off an be on their own during a communal event. I wonder if this lends at least some support to the criticism that much of postmodernism, as it is actually lived out, is really modernity taken to its extreme conclusion of hyper-individualisation and consumerism?

    I suspect that the prayer lofts/rooms/stations/mazes come out of emergent folk’s attraction to medieval mysticism. Granting for the moment that there’s something good there to be attracted to, wouldn’t it be better to have such places available during the week, but to emphasize the community/body during the time of public worship? I’m certainly not opposed to either “prayer spaces” or individual devotion; I always loved the old, now largely defunct, practice of city churches whose sanctuary doors were open during the week for anyone to come in and pray.

    Sorry your first comment on this post is picking a nit out of the larger sweater you knitted for us. This is just one little detail out of emergent worship that has always puzzled me.

  2. I, too, am thankful for the live report. I have heard much talk about the emerging church, but have not read much about it. But just about everyone has an opinion. Your thoughts and insights have been helpful! Thanks!

    Doctrine Matters

  3. KimberDill says

    I really appreciate your unbiased perspective on the emergent service you preached at recently. As someone who grew up in a very liturgy-heavy denomination and more recently attended for some time, two emergent churches in two states before returning to the denomination of my childhood, I think I have an interesting perspective on this issue.

    This comment in your entry, is, in my opinion, spot on when it comes to describing how I feel about the emergent church: “I see emerging churches as a more revolutionary way for the church to do its mission, not a creative way to make church more interesting to a younger demographic.”

    I think that all churches can look to other faiths, other ways of practicing religion, etc. and draw from them ways to “do worship” that more completely serves the mission of the church, while not betraying their guiding principles, doctrines and beliefs. To say that somehow, simply because we have accepted Christ as our savior, that we have all the answers on how best to worship him or lead people to Him, is foolish.

    I think the complaint many people have about many emergent churches, however, is also valid. Most emergent churches spend too much time trying to use “modern, real-life analogies” to explain Christ’s love or the Bible, rather than using the Bible to lead people, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, to an abiding relationship with Christ and to confess that they are unworthy of forgiveness without his grace. In the emergent churches I attended, there was too much time spent on the “rules” of how to be a proper believer, too much time on believer-to-believer judgement and too much emphasis on the “seekers” with no attention being paid to those who would walk alongside those seekers who chose to become believers to aid them down the path to Christ. Rarely was the Bible opened, referred to or used beyond the seemingly numb references to the “John 3:16”-type verses of the Bible. Granted, John 3:16 is an important verse, but the Bible is chock-full of such messages and should be used in its depth and breadth as often as possible, in my opinion.

    I truly believe a balance can be struck at an emergent church between remaining true to the Great Commissioning and the cultivation of strong, devoted followers of Christ and the ideas of drawing in unbelievers and seekers by giving them the world in a “non-church-looking church.”

    I only can hope there are more emergent churches out there similar to the one you preached at, than of the two churches I attended that left me longing for more.

    If only there was less critical analysis of churches and more of an open dialogue between them on how they could learn from each other to do things better (i.e. much the perspective you offer here in this post) — but alas, that is the age old, neverending struggle of Christianity and not something that could be solved by one comment on one blog.

  4. Histrion (Jay H) says

    I’ll have to come back and read this again once I’ve gotten over the immediate disgust I feel at their use of Extreme’s “if you really loved me, you’d have sex with me” song.

  5. iMonk,
    I want to thank you for being willing to interact with the emerging movement/conversation. I appreciate what you have to say about it, and I tend to agree with you on most of it… good and bad.

    I must say though… if the people who hosted this service really wanted to use a “secular” song to relate a message, couldn’t thy have picked one that didn’t suck so much?

    Oh, and BTW, you said: “I see emerging churches as a more revolutionary way for the church to do its mission, not a creative way to make church more interesting to a younger demographic.” I completely agree, and so I must wonder… whats with all the heresy labels?

  6. Histrion (Jay H) says

    Cultural Savage writes to the Monk: Oh, and BTW, you said: “I see emerging churches as a more revolutionary way for the church to do its mission, not a creative way to make church more interesting to a younger demographic.” I completely agree, and so I must wonder… whats with all the heresy labels?

    I suspect not all of the emerging church leaders see it the same way Michael does. A few of them probably don’t even make the distinction. But I think we both agree that Michael’s points are still valid.

  7. Non Emergent type conservative here with a question that I hope comes across in a non threatening or overly opinionated manner.

    I keep getting the take that the Emergent church is great at reaching the un-churched seeker but that there is a lack of meat over the long term. How does an Emergent church take an un-churched person, talk to them in a manner that is readily understood by a secularist and then proceed to teach them beyond an infants understanding?
    I’m asking this because my church is trying to create a service that is more outreach in nature.
    Any thoughts?

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