This article is the first in a series I am writing to document my effort to develop a new PC(USA) church in the greater Cleveland area. The article will appear in our upcoming Presbytery newsletter as an introduction to the Phoenix Project specifically and the Emergent Church in general. Over the next few months, I will offer more information about the project as well as my own reflections on being a new church development pastor. If you are interested in following this project, or even participating in ways that have yet to be determined, I invite you to watch the vinemerging group or the phoenix-project tag.
For thousands of years, storytellers have shared tales of a majestic fire bird continuously reborn from the midst of its own ashes. The bird, commonly known as the Phoenix, has become for many a symbol of wisdom, passion, renewal, and resurrection. The Phoenix is an icon of both constancy and dynamism – her eternal cycle of life and death inspired by the journey of the sun across the sky and her immolation and rebirth a testament to the radical power of transformation. The Phoenix, rising from the flames, kindles our imagination and nourishes our spirit – inviting us again and again to seek out those places where the fires of passion meet the unfailing promise of new life.
Today, the PC(USA), like many other mainline denominations, faces new challenges in an environment rife with competing demands, endless distractions, worthy causes, and shiny gadgets. Whether the difficulties are spoken of as declining membership, disparate politics, disappearing funds or diminishing enthusiasm – a great number of churches are seeking ways to respond to these issues while remaining a faithful and effective bearer of Good News and God's Grace to a world that needs this message as much as it ever did. For those of us within the Church, some of these questions are familiar and essential – will new technology improve our ability to communicate the Gospel, will a new minister bring us the energy of young families and the wisdom of lifelong Christians, will a Wednesday night program compete with prior commitments, will our new stewardship campaign be enough to sustain our budget? However, for the ever-increasing number of people who are outside the Church, these struggles are myopic at best, likely irrelevant, and at their worst, serve to further isolate the Church from the culture in which it finds a home.
In this time of transformation, our churches find themselves caught in a catch22 as it often happens that the changes we make to address the needs and encourage growth among our current congregations and participants often prevent us from understanding and responding to those people of whom the church has lost sight. Fortunately, this generation of Christians is not the first to struggle with this balance – since its inception, the Church has served the dual role both as a stable institution for the development of faith communities and as the bearer of God's Word to a strange and estranged world.
One way that denominations have accomplished the latter has traditionally been through the establishment of new churches. We have done this in many different ways, with myriad models and ecclesiological paradigms we have planted and parachuted churches in diverse and disparate communities, and we have done it all varying degrees of success. We have sought to faithfully interpret and translate the Eternal Word into words that speak to the current context and address the needs of those we encounter. In recent years, a new kind of new church development has begun to emerge from the desire to engage those people described above – the strange and the stranger. This style of new church is called, appropriately enough, the Emergent Church. It does not represent any single denomination or faith tradition but arises from the common desire of all to engage new voices and diverse people in the conversation of faith.
The Emergent church listens more than it talks and, although it might seem a strange way to spread the Gospel message, it is done with the conviction that God is already present and active in the places we are sent and that we are called to participate in what God is doing. The challenge of Emergent ministry is to hear God's Word as it is spoken in the language of a postmodern culture. In embracing this challenge, the Emergent Church takes shape as a manifestation of the passion and faith it encounters – telling the stories of our tradition through the songs, the dances, the artwork, and the poetry of our culture.
The Phoenix Project is a vision for an emergent New Church Development in the Presbytery of the Western Reserve. With its inception CDAR has embarked on a journey of exploration and education about a new way of doing and being church in the context of postmodernism. Our goal is to create a new Presbyterian church that intentionally nurtures, evokes, embodies, and responds to the presence of the Divine in the midst our culture. This is a church that encounters the world as a dynamic and creative manifestation of the Holy Spirit -- where God is actively working toward peace, justice, wholeness, and celebration. Seeking to invite people into an authentic and integrated expression of faith and life we want to build a church that empowers a community to participate in what God is doing in the world as followers of Jesus Christ. In the end, our ultimate goal is to build a church where, indeed, the saints are equipped for ministry and the building up of the body of Christ.
Meredith is the project leader for the Phoenix Project (www.codenamephoenix.org). She is a graduate of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (MDiv 2003) and a candidate for ministry under care of the Presbytery of the Western Reserve.