Measuring Emergentness by Smilies

60494cSmilies, of course, were one of the most familiar symbols of the "happy" 1980’s rave culture, which gave birth to the British alt. worship movement.  But the Americans want to know . . . . Are the British really so far ahead in Emerging Church? I have been getting comments from Americans that show they are feeling a little behind and I want to encourage them with this post. Hope the Brits dont get too upset with me. [hi guys – anyone for curry?] – I also wrote up a big response today for Fuller Seminary’s Ryan Bolger and Eddie Gibbs, who are writing a book on the emerging church. So i am giving thought to the origins of emerging church, and how to measure when it first happened.

A lot of people trace the history of the emerging church back (in the West) to the mid 80’s. The response to UK’s  dance culture with Nine O’Clock Service in England and Late Late Service in Scotland was a huge kick-start for the British scene and certainly the first appearance of what we now call Alt. Worship. The English and Scottish will no doubt be pushing that narrative in their histories, since it gives them a 10 year head start on USA and probably 5 years on New Zealand. So yes, in that regards, Americans were behind the 8-ball. Or behind the English snooker ball, in this case.

But is the Rave Factor the best measurement of emerging church? How would you measure emergentness in this way? Maybe . . .
1. BPM (beats per minute) ?
2. LPS (video projector Lumens Per Service) ?
3. Smiley faces?

Derrida, if he were still around, might suggest that this Imperial measurement system should be open to some more deconstruction and imploding since it privileges the English "One" over the ex-colonial "Other". "One" should not do such things, should One?
Even if you could measure it,  it would also priviledge me, since i was involved in the very early (mid 90’s) rave worship scene in USA. Early, I say, but still behind the British and even behind my colleagues in New Zealand. Which doesn’t bother me, BTW. In fact, I was inspired by the courageous acts of the Brits and encouraged that others had already contextualized worship inside the dance scene.

But what if . . . there was more to emerging church than just cool electronic worship and God-annointed DJ’s and stageless environments of labyrinthian interaction, and non-linear ambient music in a minor key, and blacklighted Bibles? Well. . . then we would have to look at other criteria for evaluation.
I hope to do this soon, in another blog. But first, let me try and answer the pressing question . .
Why were the Americans so reluctant to take on postmodern forms of music, ie, alt.worship in its electronic, stageless, interactive rave-based form?

2 words:    THE GUITAR

– There was the guitar factor. Americans love their guitars. They make the best ones and they make them sound good. Lets remember that the sound of the Jesus Revolution was guitar driven. The emerging church in USA was strummed into being in the 1960’s and would be far more resistant to the DJ’s needle than the church in UK.
The rave scene in UK was probably the dominant youth culture at the time, while in USA, rave culture (despite having started in Detroit and Chicago) remained an underground culture until the 1990’s. America’s commitment to the guitar, and its bias towards live culture over disc culture, prevented dance music from entering the mainstream until the 90’s. American Alt. Worship, if I can borrow that term from the English, during the early nineties was producing grunge bands and hard core clubs, while their UK counterparts were layering electronic sounds in multi-sensory environments without stages and without bands.
And where were the American Christian ravers and dance scene DJ’s? Not in the churches. They were doing their thing in clubs.

Which leads me to 2 more words . . .


– . The disconnect in USA between church culture and secular culture was much greater than UK. Radical change in worship forms were accepted into the church in UK, but American churches closed the doors to new forms, or perhaps they thought their current forms were successful enough. The result is that emergent believers involved in emerging dance culture in USA often bypassed the church and took their worship straight to the clubs, coffee shops, poetry slams, concerts, raves, galleries and to whatever environment would accept it. It really wasn’t until the late 1990’s that some of the postmodern forms were integrated. In that sense, we could say that UK had a big headstart on USA. There was no place for Christian DJ’s in the American churches, and so they set up in the local clubs, or in the case of the Found Kids, traveled the country to throw electronic parties and gospel breakfasts at large Rave events. Wherever they were, they were well below the radar of the American mainstream church.
I know. I was there.

If we look at the emerging church in its various forms over the past 30 years, then we see the Americans coming up with many postmodern church forms before the Brits.
– UK’s Greenbelt Festival (where NOS made a splash) was paritally inspired by USA’s Cornerstone Festival, started by the Jesus People USA who were also experimenting with forms of intentional community and church businesses, and that was back in the late 60’s!!!!
– House churches in USA were also happening in the 60’s, before their UK counterparts and are now way ahead.
– Self publishing (a pre-runner to today’s emerging church bloggers) was a key communication tool for the early American Jesus Movement. There were 50 "Jesus" papers by 1968

In fact, I believe that most elements of emerging church were already in existence by 1968, as the response of the Jesus Movement to the counterculture of the 1960’s. Certainly the coffee shops and Christian clubs were going by then, and by 1968 there were house churches and intentional communities that have not really changed over the past 35 years. The Aussies, also, were responding to the countercultural surfing culture and had new forms of church and ministry by the the very early 1970’s. More on this later.

In the meantime, heres a book title for someone:
Exodus: The 40 Year Wandering of The Emerging Church (1968 – 2008)

However, having said all that . . .

. . . . there is something FABULOUS about the alt. worship scene in UK and much to learn from it. Still. One of the greatest resources available, apart from  and smallfire,org websites (both created by Steve Collins) is Jonny Baker’s worship tricks that offer a wealth of creative ideas on using media in worship, as well as giving a connection with the trippy, happy past of UK’s alt. worship.


Andrew Jones launched his first internet space in 1997 and has been teaching on related issues for the past 20 years. He travels all the time but lives between Wellington, San Francisco and a hobbit home in Prague.


  • karen ward says:

    good question…
    the answer is probably cultural, with the usa being much more rock/blues based, with electronica only having a major footprint in our biggest coastal cities (and detroit) but it is still more ‘underground’ and ‘minority compared’ to the ‘brittany lovin, back street boys listening, house of blues and hard rock going majority.’
    as emergents go, apostles seattle fits more with the u.k alt folk as we partly reflect the seattle alt/rock post grunge thing, but also the electonic heavy culture of the northwest, which for the over 21 is no longer ‘rave’ based (raves are for teens with glow sticks here) but more an adult a dj lounge vibe, small clubs with less than 150 folk with dj’s kickin’ hardware electronica, laptop electronica, ambient noise, idm, glitch, trip hop… like my friends who are starting a world culture/music thing here with
    about the rave thing, we did our ‘rise’ easter vilil last year with a rave theme. we had a theme smiley face and motto of ‘happy resurrection’ and gave out glow sticks and bracelets to each person. we had a vj and five dj’s and did it was wondeful rave pardoy fun!
    as the rave asnf goa/trance culture understands resurrection at least in some form.

  • Bill says:

    Sorry, but I don’t get what all this alt. worship stuff has to do with emerging. Correct me if I’m missing the point of what you’re saying, but emerging (admittedly, from my pov) is not about changing the style of your music or your ambience. It’s got to be about a change in theology. Granted there may be some theological immaturities that restrain communities from worshipping from within their own cultural forms, but to me it’s got to be about more than that.
    BTW, I really dig your comment about Americans and guitars. That’s something that constantly annoys me. It’s like if we were writers and we only used adjectives that start with the letter “g.” Then, you have Americans Emergent leaders who gripe about how they don’t like Andy Hunter. That’s annoying.

  • cloudburst says:

    yay found kids! *insert smiley here*
    sorry, not a terribly deep comment..

  • si says:

    good post, however, it strikes me that the smiley faces had their home in the acid house movement which whilst being a precursor to the then underground clubscene, was quite different to the rave scene in the UK. Hope Debbie and the kids are all well mate.

  • cheryl says:

    I’m not part of anything emergent or alt.worship, most of what I know about these things I’ve learned from blogs. However I find myself on a parallel path which I can trace back to my younger years influenced by u2 and reggae music, which at the time I found expressed spirituality in a much more natural way than I was hearing at traditional church. And there, slowly, began my departure, looking back into history ( like Celtic Christianity) looking at how other cultures worship Jesus (like First Nations churches)and asking lots of questions about….most everything. I’ve come to identify with “emergent” most in my thinking.
    As for the smileys, I don’t remember life without them growing up in a So. Californian beach community in the 70’s. 🙂

  • A bit of a tangent here…but I think one thing that will be increasingly addressed in the “emergent conversation” is that the convo is primarily an English-speaking, predominantly white one. Yes, the cultural difference between the Brits, Aussies, Canadians and USAmericans are greater than we think but the cultural differences with our brothers and sisters in the Developing World are greater still. I’m curious as to how the traditional idea of “missions” (Euro-N.American churches going to the Developing World) is going to change in the postcolonial emergent context. I think to avoid a neo-colonialism in missions, we English-speakers have responsibilities to build relationships with the church in the global south and, if we can, conduct the convo in *their* language.

  • + Alan says:

    Interesting stuff Andrew. I suppose it really depends on what you are calling “the emerging church.” Now that’s a whole can of worms right there that you and I and others have been talking about and reacting to for a while. I think there is also what might be called “the postmodern church” and the two are not necessarily the same thing. I think there are definiely overlaps but there are different things going on.
    I think there is a deeper revolution going on in the Church than how we worship – as you say, more than alt worship and cool installations. There is a wave of new, simpler, emerging churches which have sprouted up out of the ground of deep theological reflection about what it means to be the church – what it means, getting rid of harmful things and picking up helpful things, etc.
    Many of these communities meet in houses, have no paid staff, have more flattened leadership, are rediscovering ancient liturgical life, and are undergoing a deep redefinition of “mission” and “evangelism.” Those are a few things. This, to me, is very different than what is going on in the whole “pomo” scene. It really doesn’t matter who’s “ahead” or who’s done things first. And I’ve never lived there – hell, I haven’t even been there, but I do know people there and communicate with others all over the world. So, just a cursory observation, but it seems I’m seeing more of the deeper ecclesiological revolution type stuff going on here and more of the alt/postmodern thing going on over there. Perhaps, dipping into my anthropoloical background now, it has to do with our respective ecclesiastical histories and landscapes, including the state church thing, etc. It’s very interesting stuff. Shhheww, sorry for the long ass post. Peace and Merry Christmas to you!

  • Charlie Wear says:

    We just can’t help labeling and comparing, can we? It helps us make sense of our lives and our place in the cosmos. A smiley to you Andrew 🙂 for being one of those guys who lays it on the line to serve God in what he is doing to reach those who are unreachable by our “normally” effective methods….

  • davidt says:

    I appreciate the history of emergent here. It serves to provide a background for friends that don’t know that this is about.

  • J. Lo says:

    I am not sure what the connection is between “emergent” and alt. worship. Perhaps you could elaborate further. Are you saying that the non-linear, non-stage format of electronica allows for emergent things to happen. I don’t know because I haven’t really spent any time in these type of non-linear worship environments. Or are you saying that the emergent church was sort of a byproduct of the UK rave seen, where later services featured higher concentrations of rave culture thinkers, whose hobnobbing became the springboard from which the emergency sprung?
    Any comments?

  • Ben says:

    There are a lot of connections between Alt Worship and “emergent” My own journey into emergence came through alt. I started to play around with ideas about how we connect with God and what our worship might look like using the things I was immersed in, and at the time that was partly electronica.
    Thing was, once I started to rethink your formats it can also affect your theology. So first it was just the style of worship that was changing, but gradualy that began to affect the way I think about God, about mission and so on.
    Does that make sense?

  • J Lo says:

    Ben, thanks for the heads up. I came from a very secularist background into a church full of people that were already deep in the process of reexamining both worship and theology. I probably don’t realize how much this has shaped me.
    I never had to go through a serious examination of worship and then a subsequent redirection of theology. Instead, I began from a theological standpoint that made the irrelevant irreverent. I had been harassed by traditional churchgoers while growing up in a small town, so the more traditional ideas of church life never even occured to me.
    This is both a blessing and a curse. I am not chained to traditional mindsets and practices, so the ideas of emergent worship and theology seem natural. However, I am not grounded in common experience/history with a lot of people in the church either. The idea of emergent and emergent history is difficult for me because the only thing I’ve emerged from is being lost. This makes it difficult for me to relate to Andrew’s story, because I never had to live those experiences. I’ve never been told to cut my hair, to play music softer, to conform.
    I see where you are coming from on the music thing. And I have gotten to see others making this journey. Aside from exploring new avenues in worship as a way to open up your theology, do you think that there are macro level cultural factors and movements of the spirit that are powering the emergence? I am sure there are, but not so sure as to what. I tend to think in terms of history, and a big question for me right now is, are we really any different than those before us, and are we really doing anything new / thinking differently? Right now I am leaning towards yes. I think that we are witnessing the zenith of a long building change in human thought and history. I wonder if you agree and how this affects the church.

  • Teriffic post, Andrew. Nothing is every really new, just brought up again when the time is right. Many of the comments here reflect insights I’m fining in Roger Ellis and Chris Seaton’s (of Revelation Church) book New Celts.

  • Andrew says:

    Hi Justin
    Roger and Chris are friends of mine and their book is great – they recommend following Jesus in the celtic way rather than getting weirded out and stuck in outdated retro celtic modes – something that the celtic believers themselves did not do.
    happy new year

  • Eric says:

    The Brits and the rest of Europe was not emerging spiritually in the early eighties, nor is or was there really any kind of emergent stuff going on in the US. It is very possible that there might be a few emergent churches in the world today. We have a long way to go . . .
    [Andrew – only a few, Eric? do you mean only a few thousand (in which case you are right – we have a long way to go) or only a few hundred thousand (in which case we still have a long way to go)???]
    As for the spiritual state of Europe in the 80’s, i will let those from the “Dark Continent” answer for themselves. They will probably disagree with you. . .. ]

  • Eric says:

    I wrote a long post in response, but it was not that edifying. I am shocked that you actually believe that there are 1000 emgerent churches in the world. I guess I would probably put he number around 100 at best. We probably just have different criteria for the emergent label

  • J. Lo says:

    How is a community defined as emergent? I go to a small house gathering and know of several other such gat;herings in our area. The people are highly thoughtful / intelligent and we are very centered on experiencing Christ daily through community and prayer. We, like many of those around us, have had to reexamine what it means to be Christian both individually and as a community. IS this an emergent community? I would think so, from my studies on the emergent movement. This being the case, would put the number of confirmed communities that are emergent in Dallas at 3, and this is just to the extent that I know. Assuming three metropolitan areas per state, that would make approx. 450 emergent gatherings in the states alone. This may even be conservative, as North Texas is a very conservbative place and probably isn’t that friendly to the idea of emerging from things that they have a death grip on.
    {Andrew} hello – good counting. if you are interested in teh number of house churches like the ones you described (which i think are one of the more exciting emerging church models) then you might like to know that a friend estimates there are 2,500 house churches in USA.

Leave a Reply