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My History of the Emerging Church. Part One

A little more history of my love-hate relationship with what is now called “Emerging Church”. Put this account with other histories to get a fuller version of what has happened in the last two decades in the church of North America and around the Western world.

I should start by saying that what happened in USA twenty years ago was not called “emerging church” nor “missional church”. In fact, it wasn't even recognized as a movement or trend or even a 'conversation' until many years later. Here is the beginning of my history - at least from my viewpoint.

In 1985 I sold my car and bought a one way ticket to Europe. I found myself in Austria, leading a summer team for Operation Mobilization with about 15 young people. I was 21 - and obviously much older than the most of the group and, having two years training at a Bible College (WABC) I was supposed to know what i was doing [haha] so somehow i got stuck as the team leader. There was no church in the town we were living in, or the towns around it, so we started one. We met in a house weekly and was led by the locals. It didn't have its own building or paid leadership . . but it really was a church.

In 1986, I visited USA as a 22 year old missionary, working on a mission ship called the M.V. Logos. There were 130 of us on board, including Debbie, who I would marry the following year. Our goal was to stimulate USA and Canada towards a vision for what God was doing globally, and help them to think of their own backyard as a place for God's mission. It was a few years before the word “missional” was put into usage (1991) but it would have helped us a lot to have a better vocabulary back then.

It was highly unusual, actually, for the mission field to come to USA - a nation of mission senders and a country that thought of itself as a “Christian” nation. North America had sent out missionaries for years but for the first time it had come to them, and in the form of a ship headed up by a new breed of missionaries from about 40 countries, less than ten coming from USA.

We changed our strategy for North America, switching from missions mode to teaching mode - to encourage believers to see the mission field around them as well as the one overseas. We visited Norfolk, Baltimore, and quite a number of ports through Canada all the way to Montreal. We did prayer walks around the cities and ministry wherever we were invited. We preached in their churches, hosted conferences on board the ship around prayer, worship, missions, evangelism, and held quite a number of meetings for immigrants. In Baltimore we had a meeting for the Chinese and the missionary David Adeney preached. Quite a few famous preachers and missionaries came on board to encourage us. My favorites were Stuart and Jill Briscoe, Don and Judy Hamman [who took us all the way through Nehemiah] and Abe and Marg Van Der Puy. Abe's wife Marg (nee-Saint) told us the story of how her husband was martyred in Ecuador. Those were great times.

At a missions conference in Washington DC, I went out with a multimedia presentation created by the mission which involved two slide projectors and images of faces. Nothing else but faces. And the soundtrack of “People Need the Lord” - which i know you would think cheesy if you heard it now but this was 20 years ago and people were really moved. Even the other missionaries presenting at the conference left their booths and came over to see it. You might know that i kept on going with the multimedia thing - I have progressed from slide projectors to VJ software but throwing images on a wall still gives me a buzz. Actually . . . there are some multimedia worship events where we still bring out a few old slide projectors . . .

In 1987, I left the ship in Costa Rica and traveled back to USA with Debbie. We were married in Fullerton, California and I was hoping to do some more study in theology and missions. While we were there, I worked as an electrical assistant. We installed the computer system at Toyota headquarters in Los Angeles, which sounds impressive but it was mostly pulling coaxial cable through ceilings. Some of the electricians were interested in learning about God so once a week, after work, we gathered and studied the Bible. They all cracked open a can of beer and the event got stuck with the unfortunate name of “Beer and Bible”. I called it a Bible study but they called it CHURCH, since it was the only form of church that they were involved with.

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About this time, there were other movements happening in the American church-scape. On the TV one night, around July 1987, I saw a new church called Matthew's Party that had started in 1986 - perhaps one of the earliest forms of emerging church in USA. It was started by Richard Rossi and Jack Sims. They appeared to be meeting in a bar, enjoying a drink and worshipping God. Despite my “Beer and Bible” group, the Matthews Party scene looked really wishy-washy to me, but then I had just left a very committed team of mission commandos and a life of fasting, 6 hour prayer meetings, and intense discipleship training. But . . . I was intrigued with the idea of church that happened in a third space (club, coffee shop, etc) and had food as a major piece. Could church really look like a party??????

Another group also started in 1986 - in the living room of Dieter and Val Zander. New Song Church moved to a cafeteria and began to grow into the “flock that rocks”. Despite living close by, I didn't hear about this church until the early nineties when I first visited New Song. Dieter ended up going to Willow Creek to start Axis, and then came to San Francisco shortly after i was there. In 1998 I told Dieter I would move his furniture if he came to San Francisco and thats exactly what happened. His couch was REALLY heavy.

In 1988 we moved up to Portland Oregon, to study at Multnomah School of the Bible. I got a job at Southwood Park First Evangelical Free Church as the Outreach Pastor. My goal was ministry to those in the community on the fringe of church. The following year, I started a new service in the basement. It was modelled after a coffee shop - tables and chairs, coffee and danishes, a stool for me up front as seen at comedy clubs. The goal was to have a church service for those in the community that didn't like church, something less frightening and more similar to the cultural forms they were used to. In this we succeeded. Even some of the Christians from the traditional service preferred it and starting attending. This created some tension in the church. And when i was overseas on a trip, the elders decided to pull the plug on the “contemporary service”. That was the last time I tried to start a “church within a church” structure. From that point on, I was committed to new wineskins for new wine, wile respecting and blessing the inherited models at the same time. Dan Kimball wrote a good post on the Axis service that Dieter went on to start for Willow Creek. A new patch stitched onto an old garment washes off when things go through the ringer.

I didn't realize at the time that in the UK there were new models of church far more advanced than ours. But more about that another time.

Barco Lobos2-2

As for the Logos, it hit a reef six months after we left and was replaced with M.V. Logos 2. But in my mind, it remains as a visual example of missions thinking coming to America. I realize there have been lots of events and emphases that have led the church to take a missional stance towards its own culture. But if our mission back in the 80's was to get the American church thinking seriously about missions in their own country, then i like to think this current movement of missional thinking is in part an answer to our prayers and perhaps a little fruit for our labor.

BTW - an OM ships reunion happens on Oct 7-9 in Seattle.

The nineties were a wild time of experimentation and stupid mistakes and strategic breakthroughs - I will write some thoughts on this soon.