Alternative worship & emerging church

The same or different?

When this site was first planned in 2001, the term 'emerging church' was not in widespread use. In Britain, Australia and New Zealand the term 'alternative worship' had for ten years been the generally recognised name for the kind of church expression listed here.

Nevertheless people had long been dissatisfied with the term. 'Alternative' implies only ever a minority taste, and misleadingly alternative worship has nothing to do with alternative rock. And worship is just an element of what it's about - it's not just an exercise in changing worship styles.

So calling this website 'alternativeworship' was controversial. Many in the movement felt it would perpetuate a name they'd like to leave behind. And yet it was still the only widely accepted name, however grudgingly, for a very distinctive Christian movement.

The picture is now different. New church expressions of a similar kind in America called themselves or were called 'postmodern' or 'emerging church', and the term 'alternative worship' never really took root there. 'Emerging church' was also taken up by many in the original alternative worship movement as a less limiting and more accurate description of their intentions.

At the moment, then, the two terms are used side by side and often interchangeably to describe the same general area of church expression.

Emerging church is itself an awkward term. Strictly speaking, the term should be 'emergent church' [by reference to the science of emergence], which is the most technically accurate description for these self-organising and networked groups. However, during the 2000s the terms 'emergent' and 'emerging church' became associated with the US-based Emergent Village network; as that network became controversial in various ways, the terms became problematic and were even declared dead by some former supporters. Meanwhile the label 'alternative worship' was taken up again by some from more liberal or liturgical backgrounds who saw 'emerging church' as meaning a Baptist-based, more 'evangelical' position.

However, behind the political and ecclesiological controversies a broad movement can still be discerned. The people involved are linked by friendship and collaboration across the world. They often disagree, but the disagreements have shaped the movement and given it impetus. Because this is an ethos and not a recipe, there are diverse forms of expression - indeed part of the ethos is that there is not a single answer or direction at this time.

This site is for church expressions within that ethos, whatever they call themselves. The expressions on this site share a set of values and take part in an ongoing conversation - a movement, in fact.

In Britain a third term, 'fresh expression' can be heard. Fresh Expressions is an initiative by the Anglican and Methodist churches to support non-conventional expressions of church community - this includes 'alternative worship' or 'emerging church' communities, but also covers many other things such as cell churches, mother and child groups, weekday services in non-church venues etc.

Another widespread term is 'neo-monastic', meaning communities that have some structures and a shared rhythm of life derived from the monastic tradition. These groups de-emphasise the bold creative worship that is considered the mark of 'alternative worship'. However this unspectacular community focus has always been a stream within the movement in spite of its name, and these groups still share the movement's loose and creative relationship to tradition.