Episcopal Bishop Learns From Emerging Church

Let’s face it, the age demographic of the Episcopal Church skews heavily to the older part of the age range, and we have not done nearly as well as we should in atracting the twentysomething crowd. Bishop Kirk Smith of the Diocese of Arizona would like this to change, and he is taking lessons from the “Emerging Church” movement. Here is Bishop Smith’s email report to his Diocese about a visit to a storefront Emerging Church in Phoenix Arizona:

[W]e decided that instead of just reading about it, we would talk to some people actually involved. So we invited two members of a nearby storefront church called “One Place” to be with us for the morning.

Mark and Kevin are the co-pastors of this group of about 75 young people. Both are in their middle twenties, and both sport elaborate tattoos (except they are bible verses in both Greek and Hebrew!). They started this downtown community because they had been to the “First Friday” gatherings which attract several thousand young people to the downtown area to experience art and music, and they felt that God was calling them to be present here. They and a small group refurbished an old warehouse, and the church was born. Although they both have some theological education, neither one takes a salary, and they support themselves through various day jobs.

My group was very impressed. Here was a group of 20 year olds-a group largely absent from our ranks-living out their Christian faith in a deeply committed way. We were impressed by their theological depth (their favorite theologians were N.T. Wright, Dietrich Bonhoffer and Henri Nouwen), their commitment (many had moved into the city as a sign of solidarity with the poor), but above all with their willingness to accept people wherever they might be on their spiritual walk. Moreover, we were particularly impressed with their willingness to let God set their agenda, instead of trying to control their own future-“This is what we feel we need to be about now, in this way-but God may have different things in store for us.” They spoke a lot about “doing church” rather than “going to church.”

After they had left us, we compiled a list of the qualities that impressed us: Faithfulness, authenticity, a willingness to practice what they preached, a true hospitality and inclusiveness, a trustfulness in God that allowed them to experiment rather than to enforce rules or dogmas, and a prayerful humility that turned control over to God.

After we made the list, we realized that this could also be a description of our own congregations at their best! We had much in common (well, except maybe for the tattoos and the rock music), and our goals were the same. As one of the pastors said to me as he was leaving-“We don’t have any magic answers-we are just doing our best to live a Christian life.”

Their visit gave me hope. The Holy Spirit is always at work in the world in new and unexpected ways. When It is hampered by institutional structures that are moribund, fearful, and caught up in power issues, it will find a new place to work. We should never forget that.

When I was reading the Book of Acts last week, I was reminded from where our visitors took their name: “And when the day of Pentecost had come, they [the disciples] were all together in one place.” (Acts 2. 1). We look forward to learning and working with this new “emergent” group of young Christians. May we always be together in that “one place,” united in the Spirit and the work of the Kingdom.

This was an exciting visit. The church is close to the Cathedral in Phoenix, and the Dean of the Cathedral is eager make a stronger connection with the One Place church. Are there similar storefront churches in your area that are part of the emerging church movement? Has the Episcopal Church made an outreach to these churches in your area?

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