These Christians Radically Rethink What a Church Is

Times Staff Writer

The 1-year-old church in Orange County has no name, no building and no set time to meet.

For its members, church can be spending an afternoon at a Costa Mesa park, where they share lunch and conversation with the down and out.

Sometimes, church for them entails an excursion to Los Angeles, where the mostly white group worships at an African American church. And, sometimes, they visit a Buddhist gathering in Fountain Valley and talk and write about the experience afterward.

Shepherded by Spencer Burke, a former pastor at the 10,000-member Mariners Church in Irvine, a small band of men and women belong to this highly movable congregation.

They're part of a new phenomenon -- "emerging churches" -- growing out of evangelical Christianity.

The movement was started over the last six years or so by Christian leaders disillusioned with churches that they complained were run like big corporations, stressing celebrity preachers, glitzy services and huge budgets. The movement aims to bring churches closer to people, with small communities of prayer and learning -- mostly fewer than 50 people.

Although varying widely in membership and practices, emerging churches shun hierarchy, emphasize outreach to the poor and worship creatively.

"Our goal is to be there for each other and try to find activities [through which] we can service our community," said Matt Palmer, a Newport Beach graphic designer who belongs to the no-name church.

"Our tithe is to buy a bucket of chicken for people at the park instead of [contributing to] some pot of money where I don't know where it's going," he said.

On a recent Sunday, the group spread out chicken, salad and fruit on picnic tables at Lions Park in Costa Mesa and invited everyone there to join them. More than 30 did. They also gave out small cardboard cameras, with self-addressed envelopes, and invited people to take "pictures in celebration of life," then mail them to Burke's 700-square-foot Huntington Beach "shack," his garage that serves as the church's office.

At its next meeting in the park, church will be an "art gallery" with easels and exhibited photos, said Burke, author of 2003's "Making Sense of Church: Eavesdropping on Emerging Conversations About God, Community and Culture."

Six years after leaving his well-paid job at a mega-church, disillusioned at "contemporary Christianity as an institution," Burke said he now finds church "an adventure every week."

Like many leaders of emerging churches, he receives no pay. The son of the late state Assemblyman Robert Burke (R-Huntington Beach), he said he and his wife manage on her salary in public relations and money from his writing and speaking. The couple have two young children.

"Church for us isn't just for us. It's for everybody," he said. There is something "very beautiful" about eating with strangers in a park and getting to know them. "Their stories are as rich as any Bible story. You wouldn't believe the amazing rags-to-riches and riches-to-rags stories."

The Rev. Eddie Gibbs, professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, says Burke is an "influential thinker" in the emerging-church movement.

Burke's influence stems in part from his website, TheOoze, which discusses issues facing the church today, said Gibbs, who, with another Fuller theologian, Ryan Bolger, is writing a book on emerging churches.

"From my perspective, Spencer has flipped too far to the left, but he represents the voice of younger leaders within the emerging church," said Gibbs, an Episcopalian minister who recently invited Burke to lecture at Fuller.

In an emerging church, everyone, including pastors, is on a first-name basis. Dress is casual. And words such as "community," "authenticity" and "experiential" crop up often.

Robert Dugan, a former deacon at a large Baptist church who joined the group last year with his wife, says he prefers the no-name church because of its size, collaborative approach and creativity. "There is no 'in group' here," he said. "Everyone is a leader in their own right."

Between get-togethers, members keep in touch by phone and e-mail. Though most heard of the church by word of mouth, Dugan learned of it on the Web.

The group is one of more than 100 emerging churches in the country, experts say.

Emerging-church leaders such as Burke believe the institutional church is no longer relevant to the younger generation.

"We can't go to church; we are the church," said the Rev. Dan Kimball, pastor of Santa Cruz's emerging Vintage Faith Church, which he started in February. "Churches get stuck in the tradition and lose sight of why they are there," said Kimball, author of "The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations."

Kimball's group has grown to 400. Members are organized into small groups called "home communities" to maintain a sense of family, he said.

Vintage Faith rents space from its sister church, the Santa Cruz Bible Church. Prayer books and meditation are important parts of worship, held at 6 p.m. Sundays. Music is contemporary, and sometimes artists paint during the service to express their spiritual experience.

Bolger, who teaches at Fuller about the church in contemporary culture, sees the movement positively. "They are new missionaries to their own culture," he said. "These are communities that are looking to express the way of Jesus in our culture in noninstitutional forms.... They are willing to deeply interact with other faiths in a way that's not dogmatic."

A recent study found that weekly church attendance remained steady over the last decade, at about 40% of Americans. But another survey showed that Bible reading outside church within the previous week climbed to 44% of adults from 37% in 1994. Among Protestants the rise was greater, from 47% in 1994 to 59% this year. And the increase was most striking on the West Coast, where Bible reading outside church among residents rose from 29% in 1994 to 44%. Both studies were by Barna Research Group of Ventura.

President George Barna said the findings reflect people "piecing together the different activities that are important to them in ways that fit their unique needs, as opposed to fitting into the schedules of religious institutions."

He predicts that "within the next 20 to 25 years, there is going to be a significant decrease in the number and influence of the congregational churches and a substantial rise of and influence of the new model churches."

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