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Book Review: The Hospitality of God by Mary Gray-Reeves and Michael Perham

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In my new work as mission developer for The Project F-M, a new faith community in Fargo-Moorhead, I think a lot about what a new worship gathering might look like. I also try to attend a wide variety of worship services in the community so I get a feel of what the worship scene is in these parts. If I’m honest, most of those visits leave me pretty wanting. But reading the book, The Hospitality of God: Emergent Worship for a Missional Church, got me really excited about alternative, creative, and faithful forms of missional and emerging worship.

The authors, Mary Gray-Reeves (serving in California) and Michael Perham (serving in England) are both Bishops in the Anglican tradition. The book is their take — simple reporting and thoughtful analysis — on 14 Anglican-related emerging worship communities in the US and England. The result is a readable comprehensive study that’s chockfull of smart reflections that critique carefully and judge with humility.

Organized according to topic rather than worship community, in each section the authors give a generous snapshot of a worship community or two, and then reflect how this community connects with traditional Anglican principles.

For example, “Authority is a Conversation” explores how the traditional notion of pastoral authority and institutional church authority is often supplanted in emergent/missional communities. Instead of giving authority because a priest wears a collar, emergent communities function with what the authors call, “indigenous authenticity.” The congregations they visited were connected to their ministry context, invested in their communities, and cared for their partners but from their own very intentional terms rather than those dictated from a church hierarchy. Along those lines, sermons in emergent churches the authors experiences “were preached by laity, sermons responded to in conversation during a feedback time, or individuals creating their own reflections by participating in Open Space.”

Though the variety of the faith communities the authors visits is vast — from house churches, to once-a-month worship experiences connected to traditional congregations, to a very traditional Compline service which attracts 500 folks in their 20s and 30s — the one thing the churches seem to have in common, the authors write, is an open communion table with much emphasis on all being welcome regardless of age, baptismal status, or belief.

I also appreciated their description of Open Space worship (which my buddy Adam Walker Cleaveland curates) from a few different settings. The authors conclude the chapter with their assertion: “What is evident here, despite a huge variety of approach, is a deep and reverent commitment to the Bible, serious study of it, and frequent use of it, most of the time in step with the rest of the church.”

As I visit congregations in Fargo-Moorhead, I find myself pretty-much being able to guess what their worship services will be like from their website whether they’re a traditional ELCA congregation or a Baptist new church start. It could be argued this is a good thing for sure. But, in many ways, that seems problematic to me.

For folks who want to go to church there are options — an attractional service with big band and long sermon in an auditorium, a high church liturgical service in an old building with pews, to name two. But what of the woman who says to a bishop, as quoted in the book, “I don’t go in for that church shit, but I need something more, and this [worship experience] is my something more?”

In the closing chapters, the authors make this clarifying — and telling — distinction. “Emergent churches,” they write, “do not hold as their first matter of importance the survival of the church…This distinguishes them from many institutional churches who are primarily concerned with their own survival, and only secondarily with the spirituality hungry, or those otherwise in need.” The authors mean it not as a crack on the institutional church, but merely an observation. For this reader, however, it was both telling and true.

More and more books are being published which look at emergent congregations, but this analysis of Anglican-related emergent and/or missional faith communities is the best I’ve read yet. It has it’s flaws for sure — the authors’ voice is sometimes confused by different use of American or British English, I couldn’t stand the lack of pictures and videos, and the included liturgy just left me questioning more — but I wholeheartedly recommend this little gem.

If you’re a member of a traditional congregation, read this with your Worship Committee. If you’re not, read this book for a glimpse into what creative new faith communities can be, or at least, what the emerging faith communities the authors studied are exploring right now.

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