NCLS Research

Beyond the Fringe - the Church Emerging

Here is some old news: the mainstream churches are in numerical decline.  Not only have many people left the churches but, as the NCLS 2001 confirmed, there are many on the fringe of church life who are in the process of drifting away.  Participation in traditional forms of worship and church activities is no longer meeting their needs or aspirations and they are gradually letting go of their church involvement.  Now here is more recent news: new forms of being Church are emerging.  Some of those who have left their churches or are on the brink are founding alternative communities that are distinctively Christian but "post-Christendom".  And the quite new news is that some mainstream Churches are supporting these experiments.

The Baptist Union of Victoria is one denomination that has decided to get into the midst of the fringe.  Baptist leaders recognised in 2002 that the writing is on the wall in terms of declining church participation and that they needed to read and respond.  Accordingly they put $1 million into funding alternative models that might enable people to explore and express their Christianity outside the walls and boundaries of traditional churches.  Specifically, they decided to "identify, train and resource 20 people who will plant and lead some new models of the Church over the next 5 years".

One of the first things undertaken in this project was to invite Anne Wilkinson-Hayes to come here from the U.K. to facilitate the development of the new communities.  Anne is a Baptist minister who was working in South Oxford and had both fostered and researched emergent forms of church in Britain.  She says that the communities being established here are a clear break from the old paradigm of being church.  What they are exactly is difficult to define, pin down or label, precisely because they are still emerging and are more "edgy" than anything we have known.  But Anne is able to tell stories of a fascinating tapestry of communities which have already begun to spring up across Melbourne: a group of people in a Western suburb live together and do outreach work among young people in nearby schools, then share meals and Bible study with them in their home; a group of artists share prayer in the midst of canvas and paint and exhibit works which reflect their religious experience; a couple on the outskirts of Melbourne are building relationships among young people who have experimented with New Age groups and now are seeking a new space to fit; some couples are hoping to occupy apartments in an up-market harbourside development and act as community builders; a suburban church has closed down but a new community is emerging around the childcare centre on their premises.

Talking with Anne reveals that there are many more examples of fledgling communities. She is somewhat protective of them and cautious about contact with them, in case too much public scrutiny proves to be detrimental to them in their early days. Part of this comes from expectations floating her way from mainstream church life, expectations of how many numbers are being claimed for Christ and signed up for church activities. For Anne and Baptist leaders, it is enough that the experiment is ongoing and that Church is happening in new ways for people now.  If it blossoms into something more durable that will be a bonus.

One community that Anne is not reticent about giving publicity to is The Living Room, a community of people who live around inner city Fitzroy.  Most of what happens in the Living Room on a daily basis is published in cyber space on the blog of one of its founders, Darren Rowse.  Over a coffee in a Carlton café Darren talks about his own journey from working as a young adults minister in an eastern suburbs church, to managing a Christian band as it toured the nation doing high school evangelism, then becoming a Baptist youth pastor and beginning to explore alternatives to church-based community.  The emerging of the Living Room began around a barbeque in March 2003 when Darren and six others shared their stories of seeking Christ and community but feeling distant from mainstream Church.  After more talk and prayer, they decided to meet once a week, guided by key commitments to an inner journey with Christ, an outer journey in mission and a together journey in community.  The blog says that:  "We are a small group of people seeking to live life to the full and to join Jesus in his life giving process in the inner north of Melbourne. We call ourselves Living Room because we want to be a life giving space where people connect with the teachings of Jesus in natural and culturally relevant ways."

The group has gradually grown to 18, a mix of students, nurses, artists, lawyers who share a love of the vibrance of the inner city, its arts, its culinary delights and environmental diversity - a criterion of affiliation has been that they are all within a bike ride of each other.  Each week they meet for a meal, a catch up on significant events, prayer or meditation and bible study or sharing of some aspect of spirituality.  

Part of the together journey is an openness to "letting our lives collide": this means that each allows the others to be in touch with aspects of their work, outreach, and recreation so that the actual textures of each person's life can be appreciated and that mutual connections might be sparked.  So, at Christmas time last year, the Living Roomers held a party to which each member invited half a dozen of their friends, just to have them all in the one room and to see what the Spirit might evoke.  Every now and then after a meal, they might head off as group to where someone works, praying along the way, and when they get there, taking in the place and its surrounds and praying for the person's colleagues and the work they undertake together.

All are involved in some mission activity such as with the people in the Fitzroy high rise, in peace and justice or with the environment.  Their blog has a mission character itself, taking around a thousand hits a day from all over the world.  It is well worth a visit to get a feel for the diverse life of the Living Room and for its intersections and dialogue with so much of the emerging church both here and overseas:   There are around 30 links to Australian communities and individuals and about 80 worldwide, a sign of the growth which is happening in the emerging scene.  As Anne Wilkinson-Hayes says "people are catching the vision".

Bryan Cussen
NCLS Research team

Photo Source:Ron and Margaret Reeson

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