Someone once quipped, “There are more books about emergent churches than there are emergent churches.” That seems like hyperbole, but my experience confirms it.
I’ve read several books about the emergent church, but I’ve never actually been to one. Tonight’s experience may change that, but I’m not sure.
My wife, Candy, and I have an opening in our normal Sunday evening plans. This is an opportunity to visit a site plant of our home church (Church #53, “Home for Easter Sunday”). They meet at 5:30 for a community meal and then have a service afterward—more or less.
For the past couple of weeks, we’ve discussed going. I’m in favor of it, but my bride is reluctant. It’s not that she fears adventure, but she fears the neighborhood. I offer the suggestion, but I don’t push it, hoping she’ll agree to go, without me having to talk her into it.
Talking with the Pastor
Sunday morning, I’m still waiting. The decision happens as Candy talks with one of the site plant leaders. He’s a friend and fellow writer. We hang out a couple times a month.
His plans for tonight are to share a meal, offer a brief teaching, and then go for a prayer walk in the neighborhood. I’m sure his intent to wander the streets surrounding the church building will discourage Candy from going.
It’s one thing to drive to a semi-safe area and scurry inside a building, but it’s another to traipse around the neighborhood. (In all honesty, I’m apprehensive of the semi-safe prayer walk, too, but I’m willing to push through.)
His words don’t offer the assurance Candy seeks, but she asks what food to bring.
A Shared Meal
As visitors, they’d forgive us if we showed up empty-handed, but during our year of visiting fifty-two churches, we did our share of mooching, and I don’t want to do so again.
Vegetables, we learn, are typically lacking at their weekly potluck, so on our way home from the morning service, we stop by the store to pick up our contribution for the evening meal.
The building is familiar to us. It’s the one our church first used until outgrowing the facility and moving. At first, a contingent of people remained, but our church leaders did poorly at managing multiple locations and eventually shut the site down.
Now—wiser, better equipped, and armed with a new plan—a cadre has returned, intent on serving this underserved neighborhood: the area’s poorest and least safe, crime-ridden and void of hope.
Arriving at Church
After a minor detour, because I made a wrong turn, we arrive right at 5:30. My all-too-familiar anxiety about confronting the unknown rumbles in my gut. My pulse quickens as we pull into the small, but mostly filled, parking lot.
I want to make a U-turn and race home, but the likelihood of my wife laughing at my panic steels my resolve enough to park our car. Another family exits their minivan, with kids in tow and food in hand.
Feeling a bit assured, we follow them through the back door that leads directly to the lower level.
With only a handful of people present, there’s even less food, mostly desserts. Round tables fill the basement. The one nearest us holds the food while one further away accommodates some people awaiting the meal.
Between the two is a room of empty spaces, except for a solitary woman sitting at her own table. Pleasant-looking and approachable, my instincts are to talk to her, while mindful that she could misunderstand my efforts or feel uncomfortable.
If I can get Candy’s attention, we can go together, but she’s at the food table, talking with someone who just emerged from the kitchen. To my relief, someone eventually joins the woman so she’s no longer alone.
Seeing Friends—and a Dog Named Beau
I scan the room, expecting to see friends who are part of this adventure, but I don’t see them. From upstairs come sounds of the worship team practicing. Surely, some of my friends are there.
Although I see a few familiar faces, I don’t recall any names. While I survey the situation, one of the familiar faces comes up to talk. We have a friendly, yet awkward, exchange that lasts too long.
A small white dog meanders over to welcome me. I squat, offering my hand for him to smell. All he does is sniff and tremble. He doesn’t withdraw, yet he’s not advancing for me to pet him either. He’s apprehensive and has found a kindred soul in me.
I later learn his name is Beau, nicknamed Bobo. He serves as the church’s unofficial mascot, esteemed by all, and cared for by many. He belongs to our friends: the site pastor and his wife.
They welcomed Beau into their home and later adopted him. This is poetic preparation, for they will soon welcome a foster child into their home with the intent to adopt him too.
Eventually, the site pastor descends the stairs. Dismayed with the low turnout, he concedes we should not wait any longer for more to arrive. We gather in a circle and hold hands while he prays. He reminds us that sharing a meal is communion.
As we eat and drink together, we do so to remember Jesus. With the Amen said, people surge toward the food table.
We’ve now grown in number to about thirty, yet the food hasn’t kept pace, and it’s still half desserts. Some people bought prepared food at the store, others share leftovers, and one person made some stew.
It smells tasty but is gone before I get to it. I hold back, as do a few others. Some people may depend on this for their evening meal. If I don’t have enough to eat, there’s more awaiting me at home. Others may not have that luxury.
Candy and I sit at a nearby table with our food, and others join us. We get to know them, making connections as we eat. As a bonus, today is the birthday of one of our leaders. We sing to her and share cake.
My focus is more on the fellowship than the food. But I reckon they cut both short when they urge us upstairs. As we do, more friends show up.
With four young children, it’s too much work to get their brood’s tiny mouths all fed before the worship time starts, so they eat at home and show up a bit later.
The Worship Space
The sanctuary is different from the last time we were here some five years ago. The antiquated pews are gone, replaced with comfortable, padded chairs. The ambiance of the coffee house next to the sanctuary is gone with its accessories stripped away to provide only the most basic options.
In the back, areas are set up for kids to play, with plenty of open floor space for physical worship. The overhead lights remain off, with mood lighting taking their place. The result is a peaceful, subdued setting.
There’s a short teaching, though our leader misses his goal of keeping it under ten minutes. He references Exodus 14:19–22, speaking about slavery, drawing present-day parallels for us to contemplate.
He wraps up about fifteen minutes later. With the planned prayer walk canceled due to a light rain, a time of worship starts, now an hour into the evening.
A few of the people from the meal are missing, but several more have arrived, swelling our group to over forty. Candy and I are at the upper end of the age spectrum. Most are in their mid-twenties and thirties, with a good number of children present.
The other site leader—the birthday girl—sits at the keyboard and leads us in song. A skillful and spirit-filled leader, she moves us forward with music. For some people the songs are the focus, while for others the sounds become reverent background music.
Candy soon wearies of the repetition, repetition, repetition of the choruses. For me it’s not the words that matter but the atmosphere: a worship space where we encounter God in multiple ways, according to each person’s preference.
Some people stand as they feel led, raising their arms, swaying, and reverently dancing. Others sit, bow, or kneel.
Some kids wave worship flags, praising God through solemn movement. A few adults join them. Other kids play quiet games, build with foam blocks, or create art on a wall-sized chalkboard. A couple of women dance in the back with graceful movement.
I want to watch, worshiping God through the beauty of their motions, but I fear that in doing so I may intrude on a private moment between them and the Almighty.
The teaching pastor stands again, signaling his wife to pause her playing. He offers a bit of encouragement and instruction. We sing a final song, and he dismisses us with a traditional benediction.
The planned service is over, but no one leaves. Everyone tarries. We chat with several friends, offering prayers and blessings as needed. We say our goodbyes to the new friends we’ve made, thanking them for the opportunity to get to know them and wishing them well.
Many people attempt to leave, but they’re unsuccessful. There are simply too many conversations to have. Among the first to exit, we leave at 8:00 p.m., two and a half hours after we arrived.
The time passed quickly for me, as it does when I’m in the company of winsome Jesus followers. I relish the experience, suspecting this group is approaching a truer meaning of church than I’ve ever experienced on a Sunday morning.
Candy has a different assessment, saying that had she not already gone to church today, this would have left her wanting. This must be one reason why there are so many types of churches.
Regardless of our differing perspectives, I think we just had our first emergent church experience.
[See the discussion questions for Church 54, read about Church 53, or start at the beginning of our journey.]
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Peter DeHaan writes about biblical Christianity to confront status quo religion and live a life that matters. He seeks a fresh approach to following Jesus through the lens of Scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices.
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