A definition of alternative worship

by Steve Collins 2012

This definition was last rewritten in 2005. Since then the picture [and my own understanding] has moved on in some regards, notably the emergence of the neo-monastic approach and the curation model for worship leadership. However the intention of this definition has always been to give a broad view of the generalities of the movement without too much attention to sub-genres.


  • Christians reinventing faith expression for themselves within their own cultural settings
  • a response to postmodern Western society and cultural change
  • faith expression within culture not in a parallel 'Christian' culture
  • reconsideration of all inherited church forms and structures, including recent modernising ones
  • rediscovery of ancient and alternative Christian traditions as resources for the present and future
  • shift from centralised into networked forms of church


  • not intended to transition people into existing forms of church
  • not an attempt to reach particular social or cultural groups
  • not about making Christianity appear cool or fashionable
  • not a restyling of existing forms and structures


  • a diverse network of individuals and small groups, practitioners and theorists
  • no single centre or authority
  • no single theological position or statement of beliefs but mostly within Christian orthodoxy
  • sometimes working within existing church structures, sometimes forming separate churches
  • crossing denominational and theological boundaries, even within single groups
  • variety of forms - full-time ministry, spare time, emphasis on events or community, result of lay or clergy initiative
  • high levels of friendship and exchange of ideas throughout movement
  • many of the people in positions of influence or leadership are not ordained or church employees


  • beginning UK late 1980s
  • Nine O'clock Service, England, 1986-95, first deliberately postmodern 'club culture' church but its hierarchical structure was unlike other groups
  • numerous smaller groups inspired by NOS appear in the late 80s - early 90s
  • movement established in Australia and New Zealand by mid 90s
  • facilitated by simultaneous rise of the internet - the movement contained many technological early adopters exploiting its openness to new contributions
  • collapse of NOS in 1995 due to abusive leadership caused period of suspicion and difficulty for other groups in Britain
  • movement emerging in USA/Canada/Europe since 2000
  • Church of England 'Mission Shaped Church' report 2002 and subsequent 'Fresh Expressions' initiative marked institutional acceptance and encouragement of the movement in UK
  • Emergent Village as focus for movement in USA during 00s
  • emergence of denominationally based groupings with varying emphases in late 00s

‘Alternative worship’ and ‘emerging church’:

  • movement known as 'alternative worship' or 'alt.worship' c. 1990-2000
  • original reference to alt. groups of early internet
  • 'emerging church' general use from c.2000
  • reference to science of emergence, ie self-organising systems
  • both labels ambiguous, 'emerging church' more representative of intentions
  • however 'emerging church' label identified by some only with 'low church' 'postmodern evangelical' tendency
  • consequently 'alternative worship' label reclaimed by some to indicate liturgical 'high church' background
  • 'Fresh Expressions' umbrella term in England covering many things beyond alternative worship/emerging church
  • 'neo-monastic' groups emphasise community built around a rhythm of shared spiritual practices, rather than creative worship events


  • authenticity - faith expression that truly represents the people who make and take part in it
  • faith as journey, to be facilitated rather than controlled
  • giving people space for their own encounter with God
  • an exploration of creativity - in everyone, not just a gifted few
  • risk-taking, experimental - openness to failure and mistakes
  • holistic - life not divided into sacred and secular
  • any part of our lives and abilities as potential material for faith expression
  • participation - involvement encouraged, passive consumption discouraged
  • minimal exclusion - shaped by whoever gets involved
  • consensus - not one person imposing their direction
  • low threshold of permission - in general if you want to do something go ahead
  • high quality, as good as we can make it - culturally aware
  • awareness of ourselves as part of God's creation, and a concern for its welfare
  • the entire expression of the faith community seen as 'church' not just one event
  • reluctance to draw boundaries that determine who or what is in or out of God's kingdom
  • openness to God's presence in any area of life or culture
  • worship is gift - gift is whatever you can bring
  • belief that everybody is creative because they are made in the image of God


  • belief that God is active and emergent in the material and cultural world
  • if this is so then the visible Church is not the only potential place of encounter
  • the Church as servant/enabler of the Kingdom rather than its container
  • serving the Kingdom means being/doing whatever God is, not just 'Christian ministry' - salt dissolved
  • an emphasis on growing the Kingdom - everything that is of God - not just growing the visible Church

Implications for church services:

  • church service as 'clear space' for examination of the Kingdom as experienced in the world
  • no specific rules about content of service, because anything might be a site of encounter with God
  • implications for power structure: it's not possible/appropriate for one person to do all the reporting/creating; open or representative access, openness to the unexpected/unusual
  • a more radical conclusion: the church service is not the public interface with Christianity but a resource for Christians - a point of renewal/reconnection


  • "if we fix the service, they will come" - we fixed it, they didn't
  • life as chief instrument of mission not church service
  • non-believers won't come to church to receive 'product'
  • so 'product' must leave church as point of delivery
  • encounter with Christ through individuals and communities rather than through events
  • mission as actions of individuals and communities in world, resourced by their communal events and practices


  • community as means of personal formation/discipling
  • framework or 'rule' - explicit declaration of values and practices to shape life of community
  • community as support for countercultural living
  • prophetic community - public demonstration of alternative values and possibilities
  • community as missional tool - undertaking and enabling christian action in the world


  • leadership as facilitation of the faith journeys and gifts of others
  • leadership from different people at different times according to circumstances and inspiration
  • no fixed roles or hierarchies - leadership expected to be temporary and passed on within the community
  • the ‘core team’ are not an elite group delivering expertise to the community, but a representative group creating something for the use of the community
  • gifting understood in a very wide sense - not just preaching/teaching/music
  • re-empowering people who think they have nothing to offer, or have nothing to offer that fits within the confines of a conventional church event


  • events created and led by many people not one or two
  • congregation are active not passive participants
  • emphasis on community worshipping together rather than team leading congregation
  • elements and activities that emphasise hierarchy or authority generally avoided
  • behaviour generally relaxed, informal - permission to use the space as you wish, to not take part
  • movement and discussion often encouraged
  • learning by exploration and interaction, not located in a single 'teaching' slot
  • periods when people can do different things at the same time
  • rituals and liturgies often newly created for specific events or communities
  • pre-existing rituals and liturgies usually adapted and mixed with new elements
  • events not restricted to conventional church timetables or venues

How events are made:

  • curation model - organiser assembles team, shapes contributions into coherent event, but is not sole or dominant voice
  • events often planned around a chosen theme which determines all of the content
  • no fixed or obligatory elements
  • almost anything permitted if it makes sense within the event context
  • shape of event worked out in group
  • individuals take pieces of the event to do
  • event comes together on the day, generally without rehearsal, in accordance with the shape agreed during planning
  • high level of trust in people's ability to deliver appropriate content

New forms of church environment:

  • avoidance of arrangements that embody hierarchies, such as stages, pulpits, pews
  • non-directional space - no front to face, things happen all around
  • centralised space, symbolising community
  • cafe spaces and communal tables - eating and drinking together
  • informal seating arrangements - comfortable and domestic in style, or sit or lie on floor
  • atmospheric lighting for intimacy, warmth, a sense of mystery - spotlights, candles, projections
  • installations and artworks
  • ambient music - often as background to everything including speech and prayer
  • ambient video - relevant to event content but not attention-grabbing
  • creative use of available technology and media, including from home or work
  • technology and media used for environment or art as well as presentation tools
  • venue may not be existing church building