Ancient Future Now: The Roots of the Emergent Church

Ancient Future Now: The Roots of the Emergent Church

“Mainline church folks and evangelicals find a common language to sing, pray and become disciples in love with Jesus and his calling to embody and serve the reign of God.”


What is the Emergent Church?

The words emergent, mission-shaped, and fresh expressions are all part of today’s conversation when talking about new movements in the church. But what are we talking about?

  • It’s grounded in emergent theory: movement happens when people build relationships and share passion in ever-widening networks (think grassroots and circles, rather than ladders and top-down).
  • It’s led by generations and cultures emerging from the margins and partnering with the center.
  • It’s a different kind of Christian community emerging from the rich soil of historic traditions.

“If ‘church’ is what happens when people encounter the risen Jesus and commit themselves to sustaining and deepening that encounter in their encounter with each other, there is plenty of theological room for diversity of rhythm and style, so long as we have ways of identifying the same living Christ at the heart of every expression of Christian life in common.” The Most Rev. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury (from the Church of England report Mission-Shaped Church)

A Brief History

In the mid-‘80s, English church leaders realized their congregations were dying and/or alienated from the communities around them. This crisis freed them to imagine fresh ways of being church: a church connected to emerging generations; a church yearning to return to Jesus’ radical calling and teachings; a church rooted in ancient traditions of worship, community, spiritual practice and evangelism; a church capable of expressing God’s eternal truth in a language un-churched generations could hear and claim.

By the early-‘90s, a parallel movement had kicked up in the United States. Post-baby-boomers were jaded with polished mega-churches looking like shopping malls and promising one-size-fits-all truths for complex lives. These young leaders want to sit with deep questions, listen to wise Christians from generations past – saints, early church mothers and fathers, Orthodox, Catholic traditions, Anglicanism. They began digging into the treasure chest their boomer parents tossed out, and discovered a fresh approach to being church.

Variety in the Movement

It isn’t just evangelicals emerging here. Leaders are taking creative, spirit-filled risks within liturgical, historic churches, loving our traditions enough to bring them to new life in today’s culture. We’re crafting fresh expressions of church that make God’s mission real in our own neighborhoods. We’ve taken some cues from England, but we’re building indigenous churches on American soil.  It’s a grassroots revolution springing up in all kinds of places, and it connects people in surprising ways. Mainline church folks and evangelicals find a common language to sing, pray and become disciples in love with Jesus and his calling to embody and serve the reign of God.

There’s a lot of variety in the emerging church, but there are some common passions and commitments: to context and to relationships. That commitment plays out in four areas contextual worship, collaborative leadership, radical community and serious discipleship … stay tuned to my next article to learn about these areas.


Stephanie Spellers is lead priest at The Crossing, the emergent community based at the Cathedral of St. Paul in Boston. An acclaimed preacher, she is the author of Radical Welcome: Embracing God, the Other and the Spirit of Transformation and co-editor of Ancient Faith, Future Mission: Fresh Expressions in the Sacramental Tradition.


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