Update: Wondering what a NOS-styled ‘Planetary Mass’ would look like in the US, minus the scandal? Check out Sunday Devotional: Matthew Fox, Cosmic Mass
Historians tracing the birth of self-consciously ’emerging’ forms of church – if they seek to trace such things – will quibble about where and when, as historians do. But my best case is that a modest Anglican church in a small northern England city visited by Vineyard leader John Wimber in 1985 is the genesis of all that emerges today: An eclectic band of cultural creatives serious about radical discipleship began to craft one of the most creative, aesthetically appealing, and theologically forward-looking congregations ever – for the 1980s/90s or today. The congregation called itself the Nine O’ Clock Service, and its leader was Chris Brain. Under Chris’s leadership, NOS (as it was known) became a model in the Church of England and beyond – a template for what later became Fresh Expressions, as well as the alternative worship movement, which eventually spread (in at least some respects) to American innovators in the Young Leaders Network, which eventually became Terra Nova and then Emergent Village.
With that said, NOS could never fully emerge out from under the ‘radical discipleship’ and ‘shepherding‘ movements that marked the charismatic church – UK and American – in the 1970s and 80s. From the beginning, something was quite…off.
What was it?
I got to visit the NOS incubating church, St Thom’s of Sheffield, in 2003 – less than a decade after NOS’s demise, and ask St Thom’s members what went down. It’s legacy – both helpful and hurtful – was still palpable in this church and this town. I received further, in-depth clues after reading (at Phyllis Tickle’s recommendation) The Rise and Fall of the Nine ‘O Clock Service. As she said,
This is everybody’s idea of the perfect cautionary tale. As such, it is also one of the saddest reads in the growing literature about Emergence Christianity; for the Nine O’Clock devolved into scandal instead of evolving into a fresh expression of church. Its story needs to be known, however, by anyone seriously interested in being part of shaping an Emergence community.
It was hastily-written and could have used a better editor, but it’s a treasure trove of relatively-even-handed information and reflection. But more recently, I discovered a documentary that aired in the UK just as the national scandal – yes, national scandal – involving the NOS broke. As much as I’d read, as much as I’d talked to St. Thom’s members, I was unprepared for actual video feed of both NOS’s stunning services and face-to-face interviews with the brilliant/delusional Chris Brain and his co-creators/victims.
If you consider yourself an ally of emergence or a nemesis – or a charismatic movement enthusiast, or antagonist, for that matter – you owe it to yourself to watch this documentary. Here it is:
My reflections? I feel ambivalent. I think it would be all-too-easy to dismiss Chris Brain, when in fact trying great, bold things often seizes hold of our darkest shadows, and leaves open the possibility to great, bold failure. But is it better to have tried nothing? If Brain erred on the side of authoritarianism and prompting anxiety in his co-congregants that was very against the grain of the grace, freedom, and exploration he proposed, well – I’ll just come out and say it: I think that many of today’s emergent leaders (and I count myself in this, sometimes) suffer from a failure of nerve. Because we don’t want to be a “sage on the stage” we become “a guide on the side,” muting our deepest wisdom and most provocative gifts. Because we don’t want to be a Falwell or a Hinn or a Piper or a Mohler, we’re often diminutive in our impact.
I’ll say this: If we had more leaders like Chris Brain today – hopefully who have done substantial shadow work, a la ManKind Project or Women Within, which do fantastic work helping people transform their personal banes into blessings – the Great Emergence that many of us feel is in fact arising right now during our time of cultural transition would be more self-evident to every follower of Jesus today, not to mention the culture at large – whether they ‘agree’ with it or not.
None of this excuses Brain’s excesses, of course, or our all-too-common desire to latch onto a cult of personality.
But who else has stepped up to take eco-spirituality seriously in the past 20 years in a high-impact, visible way?
Who else has stepped up to bring truly beautiful worship into our midst that incorporates the ancient with the postmodern?
The answer, of course, is “lots of us.” From Matthew Fox and Brian McLaren to Karen Ward to Jonny Baker, Kester Brewin to Lilly Lewin, there has been a much more distributed effort. But for those who call out for a “Steve Jobs of religion,” well, for one thing be careful what you wish for. But for another thing – we may have had it, in the 1980s and 1990s, in Chris Brain and his dedicated team of worship-crafters and experience-curators.
If anyone is reading this who used to be part of the Nine O’ Clock service at any level and would like to respond with a comment or even a proposed guest post, please let me know.
Bonus: Download a rare MP3 of a 1992 NOS Planetary Mass here.