Arrow-right Camera
News >  Features

Beyond Church

It is a church without walls, sometimes without words, without the same old ways associated with worship.

Isaac Bubna, 23, doesn’t even call himself a pastor.

“Church” – to this young man who gathers regularly with a growing group of 20-something Christians – is no longer a place they go to every Sunday. Instead they discover “church” within themselves and in the world around them.

“Church is about being and doing,” said Bubna, who organizes Origin, a Spokane group he describes as a “Jesus community.” “I stopped going to church and wanted to find a way to be the church.”

Origin, which was established earlier this year, is part of a movement known as “the emergent church” – a holistic approach to Christianity that encourages conversation, creativity, fellowship and social action. The movement also takes into account the fact that churches are no longer at the center of power and authority in this contemporary, post-modern culture and that Christians now must reach beyond their own congregations in order to embody their faith.

Although there are few area churches that fall into the “emergent” category, local pastors and religious leaders are seeking ways to relate to young people and to better understand this movement that’s slowly spreading among Christians in both Europe and the United States. This weekend, Whitworth University and the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest have organized a conference called, “An Emergent Mainline Dialogue: Listening to Generations Past, Present and Future.” The emergent church movement started several years ago during a conversation among evangelical leaders who were troubled by the large number of young people dropping out of church. These pastors formed a network called “Emergent” and their dialogue soon became the stuff of blogs and Internet discussions.

It’s a movement that’s nebulous in nature – one that doesn’t really fit into the tidy boxes of “conservative” or “liberal.” Nor do the people involved wish to be labeled. For instance, most of the people who are part of Origin don’t even use the word “emergent.” As far as they’re concerned, they’re a group of friends who share a meal in an atmosphere where people feel comfortable to ask questions and explore ways to express their love of God.

“Emergent” is about exploring what the church can be for a post-Christian world, explained the Rev. Craig Goodwin, pastor of Millwood Presbyterian Church and one of the organizers of this weekend’s conference. Although his mainline Protestant congregation wouldn’t be described as an emergent church, Goodwin and others want to be part of the dialogue in order to be more relevant as a Christian community.

“How do you be a church if Christians aren’t going to church?” asked Goodwin. “What I like about this conversation is that there is an emphasis on how we can seek Jesus together. It’s not so much that the church has a mission, but that God who has a mission of redeeming all things – that mission has a church. … Our role is to get on board with this mission and be ambassadors to the world.”

These days, the institutional church in North America has adhered to two models of identity, according to the Rev. Scott Kinder-Pyle, a Presbyterian minister who’s planting a church in Latah Valley. The first is the “museum motif,” he said, describing the way that some churches with a rich, long history have tried to maintain their traditions. The other he calls the “market-driven church,” the kind that “packages the Gospel” and tends to treat people as consumers.

Emergent is an alternative to both the museum and the marketplace, he said.

“The goal isn’t for church to help you live your life in an individual way or to be the biggest and the best,” said Kinder-Pyle, a graduate of Princeton Seminary whose previous experiences include working as an associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Spokane. “The goal is to develop a community that demonstrates God’s coming kingdom to the world.”

So instead of just blogging about faith and offering a new kind of worship service, those in the emergent church often take into account the context of their local community and finding innovative ways to “be” church, explained Goodwin.

At Millwood Presbyterian, one expression of the emergent movement can be found in the farmers’ market that was established this past year in the church parking lot. “By getting people together, by supporting local businesses, by being good to the environment, we’re trying to embody the kingdom of God in our community,” Goodwin explained.

Because of the local emphasis, emergent churches are “not cookie-cutter operations,” said Kinder-Pyle. Instead, they’re all different and tend to draw people from diverse populations, he said.

“We gather together to scatter – to the pubs, the homeless shelters, sporting events and other places and be a Christian witness in the world,” Kinder-Pyle said.

Every Tuesday night, the young people who belong to Origin gather at Bubna’s West Central home, where they share a potluck meal and talk about their lives. Their worship gatherings include Scripture reading, music, prayer, meditation and art. Members of this Jesus community also take part in a monthly club called “Book and a Beer” which entails reading and discussing books that challenge them to live a life of faith.

“We wanted something community-based,” Bubna said. “It’s definitely different, but we’re not doing new things just for the sake of being hip and doing new things. We’re asking ourselves how we can renew our sense of community.”