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Emerging, established or re-emerging?

By Steve Taylor.

This article argues that a social model of the Trinity provides a rich resource that speaks to the relationship between emerging and established church. To make this argument, a practical theology methodology is used. This allows reflection on lived ministry experience today, specifically the development of a multi-congregational model at Opawa Baptist Church. This lived experience is reflected on in light of theological categories (ecclesiology and Trinity) to consider the implications for ministry today of the relationship between, and the planting of, emerging churches within an established church.

My narrative

Once upon a time I was young. I began ministry as a church planter in an established city suburb. I was young and my wife was younger. Our concern was our friends, also young, and their sense of marginalisation from church. They retained a Christian faith but were struggling to resource it within existing forms of church.

A church plant offers a certain potential for innovation and, over time, we developed a number of unique practices.[1] About five years later, the language of emerging church appeared over the Christian horizon.[2] My friends and I began to feel less alone. Words like “postmodern” gave us a language to express our journey. Words like “narrative” and “image” made sense of the way we were engaging the Bible.

Equally, many of our church planting practices raised theological questions. What might be the shape of the Word made flesh and moved into a postmodern neighbourhood?[3] Given that new technologies are allowing for more visual forms of Christian expression, what might be the impact of image, imagination and creativity on spiritual formation today?[4] These questions became a source of PhD study, A New Way of Being Church.[5] The PhD study, mixed with my church planting experience became a book, The Out of Bounds Church? Learning to Create a Community of Faith in a Culture of Change.[6]

Emerging Three-in-One: Trinity as ecclesiological space for innovation

A central dimension of my theological reflection was to ponder the nature of ecclesiology in relation to tradition and innovation. How to situate emerging church innovation within established understandings? Could any missional capacities lurk in the Apostles Creed; “We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church”?

Historically, ecclesiologies have struggled with the location of this Creedal belief in one church. As Miroslav Volf humorously notes; “All churches want to be catholic, though each in its own way.”[7]

Should oneness be located in the church universal, or in the church particular? This was a daily question for us as an emerging church. In order to establish a redemptive community of faith in a postmodern world, do we try to change the church universal, or could we start something new, the church particular? Both options have problems. If you locate oneness in the particular by opting to do a start-up, it can smack of a rugged individualism. You risk being perceived as despising the wisdom and heritage of the past. Yet if you locate oneness with the universal church, the majority voice tends to dominate and innovation potential risks being lost.

In recent times, the notion of the Triune God as a social being has re-emerged in Western theology.[8] Drawing on an understanding of God as perichoresis (the divine dance), the interrelationships of the Three-in-One offer us an understanding of God as relational.[9] Father, Son, Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, are distinct persons who dance in a flow of shared love. This offers the church an identity as communal and relational and redemptive. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am among them.”[10] Church is “a present participation in the Trinitarian communion through faith in Jesus Christ [that] anticipates in history the eschatological communion of the church with the triune God.”[11]

Applied to the church, these relational understandings re-framed my understanding of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.[12]

Oneness is located in relationships.

This notion of relationality has immediate implications for notions of ecclesiological identity. If God is defined in relationships, then so is the church. The Trinity stands against a “rugged individualism.” We are one in our relationships with particular bodies; God, each other and other churches. Hence, the very act of calling oneself a church, means that one must recognize any other group that would call itself a church. And so all churches are linked through ecclesial self-identification.

No church, whether emerging or historic, can imagine itself as church apart from Three-in-One relationships with other forms of church. The links between the one and the many are both exemplified and energised by the Social Trinity.

The church leaks love.

The application of two or three are gathered in my name needs care. A gathered model of church often places a circle around the members. It can carry the scent of exclusivity. This has particular edge for those within the emerging church, which has made a lot of noise about the place of community within contemporary church life.

Yet careful application of the doctrine of the Trinity to the church will always note that the dance of the Triune God is not a closed circle. Rather, in the Incarnation of Christ, God’s circle dance is opened up.

In Jesus’ words and actions, we are shown how the Divine lives life to the full, dancing in open and sacrificial love. In Christ, humanity is invited into this Divine dance. Similarly, the Spirit of God now dances into the world, ushering all of creation into the perichoretic dance of God. Any community needs to reflect a similar life of openness and invitation. This speaks to our notions of church as holy, for a relational Trinity opens toward, rather than separates from, society.

Tradition is a relational participation.

This Triune relationality offers a fresh understanding of the historic church. To call oneself a church, whether established or emerging, demands we honour the life of any other group that would call itself a church. In the words of Miroslav Volf; “since the eschatological gathering of the people of God will include all these churches as its own anticipations, a local church cannot alone, in isolation from other churches, claim to be church. It must acknowledge all other churches, in time and space, as churches.”[13] This offers an understanding of tradition not as institutional or restrictive, but as in relationship with others, with the potential for mutual enrichment.

An ecclesiology nourished by a social model of Trinity will nourish a relational and contextually sensitive appreciation of other churches throughout history.

It’s time to get missionary

The apostles of the early church looked back in order to throw forward the story of Jesus. Hence to be an apostolic church is to walk forward into the world, following the missionary Spirit of Jesus, building new Jesus communities that are grounded in the Jesus story and embodying the Jesus narrative.[14] Again we find a Social understanding of the Trinity serving to encourage both ecclesial innovation and relational continuity.

I am suggesting that the Creedal affirmation of “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” needs to be framed in Triune relationality. Applied to the particular relationship between emerging and established church, I would argue that the Three-in-One calls us to encourage space for ecclesiological innovation, within the context of the nourishing relationships with other groups. All this is set within an apostolic vision of the church thrown forward, and the dream of the glorious diversity and vibrancy of the final Kingdom banquet. The music can be loud and the innovation extraordinary, while simultaneously, relationships with the many, synchronic and diachronic, are nourished.

Emerging inside historic walls: Opawa’s narrative

In 2003, after nine years as church planter and founding pastor, my family and I accepted a call to Opawa Baptist Church. It was a move of contrasts; from a church plant to a 95-year old church, from a community hall, café style, to a concrete block building with pews screwed into the floor.

I moved for a range of reasons, including family circumstances. Another reason, and a more personal challenge, was to explore emerging church within established church settings. I was increasingly concerned by the distance that so easily opened between established church and emerging church. I was increasingly convinced that the next decades would see many established churches wanting to grapple with the issues being discussed among emerging churches. Strategically, the future of the Western church must include relationships of missional partnership. Theologically, the Three-in-One demanded no less.

At Opawa Baptist, the change processes would be complex and multiple. For the remainder of this article I am going to focus on two. In doing so, I risk distorting the reality of a church bravely facing a complex and wide-ranging journey of change.

An emerging church

John* (name changed) phoned, wanting to talk about Christian faith. He arrived with three pages of questions and together we talked. John declared the conversation helpful. He wanted to meet again.

And John had some friends. Could they come?

I reflected on the encounter. For John, the spiritual quest was nourished by addressing his agenda in a conversational manner. To suggest John join an existing church service would not engage with the conversational nature of John’s spiritual quest. To suggest to John some sort of seeker space, from which he then might graduate to “real church” ran the risk of devaluing conversation and dialogue as God-encounter. There are many models of dialogue in the Bible. God dialogues with Israel in Isaiah 63.1. Jesus dialogues with the disciples in Luke 24.38. The heart of this narrative is a Divine revelation, not in the preaching of the Law and Prophets, but in conversation around table.[15] Paul dialogues, particularly in his missionary activities among Greco-Roman cities.[16] I sensed the potential for innovation and the emerging of a “church-as-conversation” congregation.

A second change process would be needed, that of emerging churches within what was already established at Opawa Baptist Church. I levered the fact that Opawa already had three expressions of worship; a weekly morning and evening congregation and a monthly alternative worship gathering. At an initial church forum I focused on mission and highlighted our cultural diversity by showing the opening few minutes from two Romeo and Juliet films (Zeffareli’s in 1968 and Luhrmann’s in 1996).

Both maintain original Shakespearean text. Both offer a stark, visual demonstration of our cultural shift. I suggested that, since some of Opawa loved Zeffareli and some of Opawa Luhrmann, our future as a church could not be “either/or”, but a “both/and” appreciation of the missionary complexity of our diverse cultural world.

Biblically I preached on the multiple pathways by which people experience God. A friend drew my attention to the range of responses of the disciples to Jesus after the resurrection.[17] Peter loves Jesus by vigorous action, running to the tomb. Mary loves Jesus through her devotion, getting up early to perfume a dead body. John expresses his devotion by writing a book which integrates theology with Greek philosophy. Thomas wants to ask questions and experientially connect with Jesus.

Jesus welcomes each pathway. He never tells Thomas to start thinking like John or running like Peter. Instead he engages with Thomas’s questions and offers him experience. What would it mean for a church to, like Jesus, offer a similar range of diverse pathways?

Three circles and one umbrella: an emerging multi-congregational model

The outcome was the multi-congregational model. We considered the question: “What is church?” We suggested that church could be defined as a space to:

Develop Community - participating in relationships, treating each other as God treats us;

Extend Jesus love - in word and deed, managing our resources with a Kingdom vision;

Grow in Christian life - applying the Scriptures to our lives, living life to the full, embracing the complete gospel;

Or, in the Social Trinitarian terms described earlier, the above three categories become:

Develop Community - relationships with other Christians;

Extend Jesus love - a leaking of God’s love in open, sacrificial relationships;

Grow in Christian life - experiencing relationships with God as Three-in-One.

We drew these as three overlapping circles. Opawa Baptist would be one church with multiple congregations. Each congregation would seek to express these three circles, yet, like the disciples after the Resurrection, in different ways. For example, some people might grow in Christian life through sermons, while others might grow through viewing art or, like John, through conversational dialogue.

Yet three circles ran the risk of locating oneness in the particular and not adequately expressing the potential for relationality between congregations. We drew a second diagram; an umbrella. Opawa Baptist is multiple congregations who are one church, under one umbrella and with one shared handle. We named this shared handle in a number of ways. We would put energy into all-church celebrations that gather the whole church. These would include our annual meeting as a meal, church forums, an annual week of prayer, social events and combined gatherings around the major Christian festivals of Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.

We would offer similar discipling and pastoral structures across all congregations.[18] We would work toward clarifying a set of shared spiritual practices across the congregations. We would offer mid-week block course teaching across congregations, allowing diverse people to gather around the Scriptures.

Organisationally, while no pastoral team member goes to all congregations, there is a division of responsibility to ensure the pastoral leadership team works across the whole church. While members are welcomed and people are baptised in their congregations, we would use contemporary technologies such as video and internet to share these highlights across congregations. All congregations have appropriate ways to contribute financially to the whole. Each congregation has a leadership group, working toward the Opawa congregational vision of growth in God, growth with each other, growth in reaching out.

Emerging churches

Two years on, Opawa Baptist now has two “emerging” congregations. Espresso was planted last year.[19] It meets on a Tuesday evening around couches. John’s initial questions were placed in a central bowl (more have been added over time). Each evening participants place something of themselves (keys, cell phone, wallet) in this central bowl and say a set prayer. A set of ground rules has been developed to encourage dialogue. Someone introduces the question and initiates discussion. Another provides some form of closing worship. Espresso develops community through the conversational ethos and structuring various ways for people to participate. People grow in Christian life through the dialogical approach to learning. It extends Jesus love by inviting an individual to share about their work. The gathered participants then reflect back to the individual on how their work might be an extension of Triune work in the world.

This year we planted a hymn congregation. Again, the three circles provided a useful framework. They develop community through sharing hot soup and listening to someone’s life story. They grow in Christian life through hearing a sermon. They also choose favourite hymns and share why that hymn is meaningful to them. They extend Jesus love with a dream of offering a sort of Third-age seeker service, a form of worship that is more likely to appeal to older people in the local community (and so we are reaching those who are more likely to appreciate Zeffareli’s 1968 cinematic interpretation of Romeo and Juliet).

Re-emerging as church through emerging churches

Two years on, these emerging church congregations have added much to a re-emerging established church.

Missiologically, our multiple congregations are allowing us to reach people we have not previously reached. The people who consider Espresso “my church” would not have stayed in Opawa’s existing forms of church. We have seen the Spirit of God active in the world, ushering people into the perichoretic dance of God.

Communally, it has enhanced our learning of “the unforced rhythms of grace.”[20] It is a phrase all change agents should ponder. People and communities have rhythms and seasons. Our arrival at Opawa raised expectations of change. A multi-congregational model allowed us to consider change at different rates with different groups of people. A social understanding of the Trinity seems to speak to this reality. We come not as bulldozers, with an agenda, but to dance within the rhythms and seasons of both God and people.

Our multi-congregational model also honoured a certain communal commonsense. Our existing forms of church were working. People were still attending and still finding spiritual resources. A multiple congregational model allows both continuity with what God is blessing, while allowing space for ecclesiological innovation.

Ecclesiologically, we have been forced to think more deeply about the nature of church. There is a constant temptation to shape our life around the congregation that is the largest, or contributes the most financially, or meets at what has historically been prime-time. The multi-congregational model remind us that church size and time have little biblical mandate. Dulles describes the early church as existing in a variety of forms: in a Jewish home, in a Jewish temple, in an Ephesian lecture hall, in Corinthian homes.[21] The multi-congregational model has forced us to consider more deeply our sociological preconceptions regarding church.

We have also been asked to face some of our fears. One is the loss of control. A multi-congregational model probes our levels of relational trust. Can you trust another congregation? What if they grow big enough to vote against you in a church meeting? A multi-congregational model has probed our core values and understandings of church and mission.

Organisationally, church life can be considered through the lens of three zones; an emergent zone (coloured green), a preformative zone (coloured blue) and a reactive zone (coloured red).[22] Just as individuals are born and grow rapidly (green zone), mature faithfully (blue zone) and age slowly (red zone), so do all organizations. Leadership imagination needs to appreciate, and cultivate, life in all three zones. Multiple congregations have increased Opawa’s “green zone” and our capacity to develop leaders and innovate within an organisation that was focused heavily on the “blue” and “red” zones.

Such has been the dance of the Triune God among us.


This is but one slice of ministry today, with particular reference to the relationship between emerging and established church, a reflection on the use of multi-congregational model in light of understanding the Trinity as social and relational. I wonder if the value of change is not in the outcome but in the process. At Opawa, deliberately nourishing relationships between emerging and established has grown our understanding of mission and our appreciation of diversity. We are a richer, deeper and larger church. Thanks be to the Social God, who dances in our world today.

Biography: Steve Taylor pastors at Opawa Baptist and lectures at Bible College of New Zealand (Christchurch). He is the author of The Out of Bounds Church? Learning to Create a Community of Faith in a Culture of Change and ponders ministry today at


[1] More about the story and practices are discussed in Mike Riddell, Threshold of the Future, SPCK, 1998, 160-162. More of the underlying theology and missiology is discussed in Steve Taylor, The Out of Bounds Church? Learning to Create a Community of Faith in a Culture of Change, Zondervan, 2005.

[2] While clear definitions are hard to find, I understand the emerging church as the creation of communities of faith in the amnionitic fluid of our changing contemporary culture.

[3] My re-phrasing of John 1:14.

[4] Doug Gay, an “alternative worship” practitioner, has argued that “one of the distinctive features of the “alternative worship” movement [is the] development and use of visual imagination in worship. See Doug Gay, “Visions of Heaven and Hell - Revelation and the Christian Imagination. Paper Presented at Lambeth New Worship Day. 13 September,” (1995): paragraph 4.

[5] Steve Taylor, A New Way of Being Church: A Case Study Approach to Cityside Baptist Church as Christian Faith “making do” in a Postmodern World, PhD thesis, University of Otago, 2004. Copies are available from the author, Box 30076, St Martins, Christchurch, New Zealand.

[6] Steve Taylor, The Out of Bounds Church? Zondervan, 2005.

[7] Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness. The Church as the Image of the Trinity. Grand Rapids, Michigan; Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans, 1998, 259.

[8] See for instance Stanley J. Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self. A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001. This was a first volume in a planned six volume series reflecting theologically on the Social Trinity. His untimely death has been a huge loss for contemporary theology.

[9] Moltmann writes that the “unity of the trinitarian Persons lies in the circulation of the divine life which they fulfil in their relations to one another. Their unity does not lie in the one lordship of God; it is found in the unity of their tri-unity.” Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, London: SCM, 1981, 175.

[10] Matthew 18:20.

[11] Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness, 129.

[12] The following section is an adaptation and re-forming of my Steve Taylor, The Out of Bounds Church? Postcard 6.

[13] Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness, 157.

[14] Thanks to Paul Avis, Church, State and Establishment. London: SPCK, 2001.

[15] For more on this, see Steve Taylor, The Out of Bounds Church?, Postcard 6.

[16] See for example, Ephesus (Acts 17: 2, Acts 18:19, 19: 8-9, 20:7, 9), Athens (Acts 17:7), Corinth (Acts 18:4) and in court (Acts 24:12, 25).

[17] Phil and Dan McCredden. The best window onto their ministry and that of their church, Northern Community Church of Christ, is at

[18] For more see

[19] For more on the journey, search under “espresso” in or type in

[20] To borrow Eugene Peterson’s The Message translation of Matthew 11:28.

[21] Avery Dulles, Models of the Church. A Critical Assessment of the Church in All Its Aspects. United States: Gill and MacMillan, 1976.

[22] Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk, The Missional Leader, Jossey Bass, 2006, 40ff.

Steve Taylor

Pastor of Opawa Baptist Church

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