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Existing Church, or the Emerging Church

by Gary Roberts

     The linked article summarizes a report made by Rev. Steve Sterner, Executive Minister for Local Church Ministries, to the LCM Board last October.  Steve’s full report is also available at http://scncucc.org/church_development/church_dev.htm

     The essence of Steve’s comments is that Local Church Ministries serves two different churches today:  the Existing Church, and the (much smaller) Emerging Church.  Although he was speaking about the work of LCM now and in the future, I asked if it could be reprinted here, because his remarks are just as applicable to the work of any local church, or to the work of the 130-150 churches that together are the Southern California Nevada Conference.  In other words, Steve could just as easily been speaking to your church council, or to the SCNC Board of Directors.

     (Church junkies like me should note that when Steve uses the phrase “Emerging Church,” he’s not talking about the “emergent church.”   Emergent church is a movement in the last decade that focuses on experimental settings, liturgy, and styles of worship.   Steve’s definition of Emerging Church is much broader and more missiological.  Read his full report to LCM for a clearer idea of how he defines “Emerging Church.”) 

     Every church leader faces the tension between the two churches that Steve addresses.  On the one hand, there is our existing church, our daily reality in which we minister to faithful people, attend meetings, balance budgets, tend to buildings, worship and plan worship, and on and on.  And this has its reflection in Conference life – Search & Call, Church & Ministry, meeting people, phone calls, email, and meetings, meetings, meetings.  And in both settings, there isn’t really enough staff to tend to all that with excellence.  It makes you wonder what Eugene Peterson was talking about when he said that ministry is a call to “the contemplative life.”  Who has time?

     Meantime, the ground under our feet is shifting.  The culture that supported this existing church structure for hundreds of years has changed in the last few decades.  Church had been part of the rhythm of life; now it’s optional.   Sunday worship was a part of how we lived; now people have other choices, and often make other choices.  Being a Christian used to be part of a respectable life; now, identifying oneself as a Christian can be an adventure.

     But in the midst of all these changes, there is hope.  A new kind of church is emerging.  The shape of this new church is still unclear, and much smaller than today’s existing church.  It is much less organized.  As such, it is easy to ignore.  But I believe it is the Holy Spirit, tending to her church, creating a new thing, a new way of speaking to the world.  This is what Steve insightfully calls, “the Emerging Church.”  Partly, this church is emerging through new church planting.  Partly, it is emerging within some existing churches.  Partly, it is outside the walls of church altogether.  It is more and more clear that a new creation is emerging among us. 

     It is quite understandable that many, if not most, church leaders would prefer to ignore this Emerging Church.  It isn’t nearly as urgent as tending to our Existing Churches.  Further, if we are to tend to both churches, it is more work.  And a very different kind of work at that – creative work, work for which we are largely untrained and unprepared.   Of course, in congregational polity, nobody is going to make us tend to this Emerging Church.  Except perhaps the Holy Spirit.   In short, Emerging Church is less urgent, but more important in the long run. 

     Here in Southern California and Nevada, we are fortunate to be at the leading edge of these changes in culture.  We are also among the places where the Emerging Church is beginning to develop most clearly.  How else to explain the 20 or so new churches among us, or the Conference Board committing to a plan earlier this year to help any existing church who wants to develop a new-church spirit for itself?   Church Development Implementation Team is ready to visit any church that is interested, and offer our assistance.  Take a look at the plan at http://scncucc.org/church_development/church_dev.htm, then take a moment for a phone call or email that may not be urgent, but could be vitally important for your church’s future.

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