Students, alumni making space for "laboratories of community and worship"

With a tradition of diverse and ecumenical worship in Marquand Chapel, YDS has always harbored a rich culture of creativity and experimentation. For some students and alumni, their experience has inspired them to create new churches with creative ways of worshiping and organizing communities, shedding traditional forms or reinventing them.

Cleaning up after church at St. Lydias“Emergent” is a nebulous, but useful way to describe an approach to creating churches that self-consciously does not look traditional and institutional. Yet many new churches resist the label; labels can be closed-ended and institutional. And since emergent churches vary widely from one another, the movement is frequently called the emergent “conversation” instead.

“Emerging churches challenge institutional church assumptions about certainty and authority by stressing theology is local, conversational, and temporary,” explains Melanie Ross, Assistant Professor of Liturgical Studies at YDS. 

Yale Divinity students and alumni are a part of this conversation, exploring what church may look like with new structures and new approaches to liturgy. Among them, current student Christian Watkins ’14 M.Div., founded Ekklesia, a small group in New Haven, along with Jean-Daniel Cathèll-Williams ‘13 M.Div., and his wife Sara.  

When they began meeting weekly for communion at an apartment, they were not intending to start an official church, and certainly not one with the label “emergent”.  

For Watkins, a member of the Disciples of Christ tradition, the formation of the community reflected her desire for egalitarian, progressive worship with communion at the center. As the name suggests, the group was inspired by first-century churches.

“These were communities that met in homes, or shared space,” says Watkins, noting that Ekklesia has often gathered in borrowed spaces in New Haven. “The community worshipping together was sacred space. They worshipped with what they had, and they were not bound by the traditions that have emerged in later in Christian history.”

Several YDS alumni have become pastors of their own emergent congregations, including Emily Scott ’06 M.Div. who co-founded St. Lydia’s in Brooklyn in 2009 with Rachel Pollack ’07 M.A.R., the church’s community coordinator.

Scott recently preached at Marquand Chapel and spoke to dozens of YDS students about the intention and structure behind St. Lydia’s, which organizes the entire service around a common meal. Like many emergent congregations, St. Lydia’s reaches across denominations, affiliating with both the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island.

“St. Lydia's is a place where we can practice how we want to live our lives outside of St. Lydia's,” said Joel Avery ’15 M.Div., an intern at the church. The structure of the service is collaborative and centered around a grouping of tables where congregants eat dinner. 

“Working together to make and share a meal—and clean up, which is really important,” Avery explains, “and sharing our lives through liturgy, sacrament, word, and story — all of this with both friends and strangers — is offered as a taste of the kingdom of God, which we hope to carry with us into our lives with others.” 

While living in New York in 2012, Sean Lanigan ’09 M.Div., participated in St. Lydia’s. “I discovered there a passion for nurturing deeply intimate forms of Christian community,” he said. Today, Lanigan is the community organizer for Beach Progressives in Long Beach, California. Beach Progressives is an intentional Christian community designed to minister to young adults in the area.

It is a community that crosses denominational boundaries in an effort to bring young people together, yet it is still liturgical. “Most of our folks were raised in either Evangelical or Roman Catholic churches,” said Lanigan. “I'm adding Lutheran theology and Episcopal sacramentality into the mix, and together we're creating a brand new hybrid out of the fragments of faith that have been brought into our circle.” 

Scott Claassen ’11 M.Div. is Associate Pastor at Thad’s in Santa Monica, an experimental community out of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. Thad’s is responding to the established church in their liturgy, structure, and stated mission to bring Jesus “to the streets.” Claassen recognizes a connection between their church’s vision and broader conversations that are happening that are called “emergent.” 

“We play with liturgy and seek an authentic expression of postmodern life in our gatherings,” he said. “From the language we use to the music we play, we are an emerging church.” Still, theirs was not a conscious choice to join a movement but an organic expression of the mission of Thad’s in a changing cultural landscape. “We aren't officially part of any trend,” said Claassen, “ We are just one church doing what seems right to us. Turns out, other folks are doing similar things.” 

For other congregations, the word “emergent” has become less helpful.

“I don’t really care much for the term ‘emergent,’” admitted Ivar Hillesland ’10 M.Div., pastor of church of the Apostles in Seattle, WA. “It’s become too tied to whether a church is cool or not.”

Though the Church of Apostles has described itself as an “emerging” congregation at various points in its twelve year history, Hillesland now prefers to think of the church as a group of people “trying to be church in a way that makes sense to our community, rooted in our ancient faith and our future church. And that way doesn’t look quite the same as other places.”

And at Church of the Apostles, this looks like creating their own music and liturgy, opting for democratic leadership, starting local art and music schools, and practicing radical hospitality—including hosting a church-like atheist group twice a month in their basement. 

“I don't think every church should be like our church,” said Hillesland, “but I do think our larger church bodies need vibrant laboratories of community and worship to investigate and envision our collective future existence.”

Date Posted: Tuesday, February 4, 2014 - 4:30pm