It’s possible for emerging communities to be “loyal rebels” within denominational structures, being “Martin Luther radical” in terms of embedding in the church’s local context while holding fast to the tradition of one’s tribe, according to Karen Ward. Karen, pastor of Church of the Apostles (cota) in Seattle, made the last of four major presentations on “Lessons from the Emerging Church” at the just-completed PA Pastor’s Conference.
“Emergent leaders in the ELCA talk about relating to our denomination as the mothership,” she said. “We emergent leaders are a dinghy brigade. We’re totally in relationship to the mothership, but we’ve jumped into the water,” not jumping ship but “going overboard to explore the missional culture.”
“We’re loyal rebels. We like splashing around in the water but we also go on deck and report to the captain. We don’t want the ship to run aground. We see ourselves as scouts. And the mothership is beginning to take the reports from the field seriously.”
Karen said that cota is not a postmodern worshipping community but a church moving towards an emerging ecclesiology. “We’re trying to be a community of faith that radically reimagines church for a postmodern age,” she said. “This is not about a kit or cloning, it’s more about being a loyal rebel to your tradition, and being radically indigenous and contextual to your place of ministry. Martin Luther radical.”
As a result, emerging starts in the ELCA don’t all look alike; they’re more like local microbreweries than Budweiser, not “McChurch” but a lot like the meal in the film “Babette’s Feast.”
cota is a joint church plant of the ELCA and the Episcopal Church. Karen likes to say that it is the most traditional church in either tribe because of its deep ecclesiology, which starts with the tradition and adds contemporary and ancient elements that make sense in its context. The key is in the approach: “Our orientation to tradition is additive, and our orientation to the past is exploratory,” she says. “It’s not this or that, it’s this and that. We carry on tradition in a way that is native to us.”
In 98103, one of the most un-churched zipcodes in the US, with 95 percent of people reporting no religious affiliation, native looks different. Homemade icons are prominent, and a prelude might feature organ and DJ. One Easter Vigil was held in a nightclub, with baptisms in a pool bought at Home Depot. cota is “dumpster diving” tradition, she said; uncovering the ecclesiological equivalent of grandma’s pearls and grandpa’s skinny ties and wearing them in their own way. “Grandma is in heaven smiling because her granddaugher is wearing her pearls,” she says, even if its not the way she would have worn them.
Radical contextualization comes into play with Karen’s commitment to a church for the neighborhood, not an age group. “I walk a beat like a cop,” she says, noting that she spends much of her time out in the community and local organizations. There are some key features to the way they are living into this radical contextualization:
Attractional > incarnational
In Christendom the church was viewed as having a lock on spirituality, but the culture no longer views us this way. “People already see themselves as spiritual. They want to know how the church can help them with their spirituality.” So rather than hiding in a building hoping people would come in, cota is trying to live in the way of Jesus in the midst of the community. As a result, they focus on the community, not the building. The facility, dubbed the Fremon Abbey, is opened to the community; cota worships there, but views itself as being where its people are in their daily lives. “The church has left the building,” she said.
Assimilation > formation
“We don’t measure by the number of people” assimilated into the church through programs, she says. “Formation views effectiveness by changes in lives and communities.” Even with just 125 “on the list,” cota wants to shape people to make a difference for the reign of God locally and globally. “It’s not about size, its about deployment and capacity for ministry.”
Dualistic > holistic
“Any place we gather is hallowed by God,” she says. “Our first bible study was in a local pub. We don’t give the devil any territory.” As a result, cota focuses on helping people see all of life as sacred, not just church stuff.
Adopting the postmodern context has meant some visible changes in what church means at cota. Leadership is communitarian. Karen (or a visiting priest) presides at the Eucharist, but most other times of the service “it’s hard to tell who is in charge.” Karen stresses the ordination of baptism and cota doesn’t distinguish much between lay and ordained. “We’re a radical priesthood of believers. We lead from the midst, not the front.”
The dumpster diving approach has led cota to deeply engage other parts of the Christian tradition. They celebrated St. Francis day not just with a blessing of animals but by inviting three sisters from a third-order Franciscan community to lead a dialogue on Franciscan spirituality. They drew on one member’s Orthodox background to form a Lent/Easter cycle with an Eastern Orthodox ethos, and in preparation learned about it from Orthodox priests. (Their recasting of the Liturgy of St. Chrysostom went over well; “people loved the cosmology of it,” Karen said.)
However, Karen is careful to point out that cota does not do “seeker” worship. “We are living our life (of common prayer)… not changing what we do but inviting others into what we do. We make it open and welcoming, and listen to all different things. We have a balanced diet of word and prayer and sacrament and healing. People are welcome to eat with us but we’re not going to change the menu because they like it better.”