Tie That Binds ‘Emergent’ Church

An oldie but a fun piece…

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


ajc.com > Metro > September 1, 2004

Douglasville man is the tie that binds ’emergent’ church

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution



Michael Morrell keeps the emergent church network informed with a Web site that promises ‘the best Jesus-infused sites you never knew about.’

If you could imagine a religious movement with no denomination, no property and no living charismatic figure, then you might grasp what drives young Mike Morrell, a postmodern Christian activist trolling in the lively headwaters of what has become known as the emergent church.

Morrell, 24, a self-employed writer and editor born in Marietta and reared in Douglasville, has become one of the movement’s linchpins, connecting thousands of previously disconnected people and emergent groups through the Internet.

zoecarnate.com (Sites Unseen)

Revolution Church
If Coffee House

• “Beyond Foundationalism” by John Franke and Stanley Grenz
• “Postmodern Youth Ministry” by Tony Jones
• “A New Kind of Christian” by Brian McLaren
• “The Emerging Church” by Dan Kimball
• “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society” by Leslie Newbigin
• “The Church in Emerging Culture” by Leonard Sweet and Andy Crouch

“The question that constantly comes up is, ‘Are we really emerging or are we just forming our own codified theology and practices that will become like any others?’ he says.”So there’s a lot of introspection. Whether that’s healthy or morbid, who knows?”

Described in a front page article in The New York Times this year under the headline “Hip New Churches Sway to a Different Drummer,” emergent churches have become a phenomenon that carefully resists becoming a movement.

Congregations blend ancient worship practices, using meditation, candles and incense, with rock music. They exhibit evangelical ardor and yet cautiously resist fundamentalist dogma. Their pastors insist they are less interested in conversions than in ongoing conversations.

Some describe themselves simply as part of an organic, experimental process with postmodernist roots. But whatever it turns out to be, the emergent church is rapidly gaining the attention of Christian book publishers, seminaries, even theologians — and Morrell is excitedly tapping in.

His Web site, “Sites Unseen,” which lists about 400 emerging churches worldwide, has had more than 30,000 visitors since its inception last year. It is considered perhaps the most comprehensive site for exploring the underground network. Morrell has been collecting them since 1999.

As a result he also has become something like the movement’s unofficial archivist and an editor for what is one of the most popular emergent sites, called “the Ooze,” an online forum for discussion and publication.

‘Denominational mutt’

A graduate of Berry College, Morrell fell into the emergent experiment out of curiosity and a longtime devotion to evangelical Christianity. He describes himself as a “denominational mutt” who bounced from Southern Baptist to Pentecostal to Reformed Presbyterian churches during his childhood.

It was this encounter with Christianity through varied perspectives that eventually prompted his venture into the unknown. “It was the exclusivity claims of each denomination that bothered me,” he explains. “Where each one says, ‘By golly, we’re the best and here’s why . . .’ I just didn’t see each one’s uniqueness as needing to compete with another’s.”

Consequently, Morrell has worked during the past five years to find people, like himself, who are attempting to transcend “exclusivist” boundaries that divide Christians between conservative evangelicals and liberal mainline churches.

In particular, he became a member of a house church in Douglasville, where a small group of people from across the country relocated to form their own community based, in part, on ideals of the Jesus Movement in the 1960s.

What he has discovered (and is introducing people across the world to) are ways of recasting 20th-century church cultures that many find anathema to 21st-century life.

It is a mission born naturally on 21st-century terms — through the Internet.

“This really is a trans-local phenomenon because of the Internet,” Morrell says, “only because many of these connections might not have been possible otherwise. I first began using the Internet when I went to [Berry College] in 1998 and started finding discussion groups and message boards and realizing that there were more of us out there than I ever thought.”

Meeting in Atlanta

Today, Morrell and a friend, Philip Scriber, have built the world’s most extensive list of links for the so-called “po-mo Christians.” He has read extensively from the burgeoning literature of the postmodern movement, attends their conventions across the United States and has even traveled to Britain and Europe to meet some of the movement’s innovators overseas.

As an editor for “the Ooze,” Morrell keeps in touch with the central people and ideas sparking the movement. Next month, when emergent leaders meet in Atlanta for theological conversations with noted Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, he hopes to report on the event as a journalist.

While some religious historians believe the emerging church could become the next great trend in evangelical circles, Morrell is cautiously optimistic.

“I see so much potential in the emerging church to transcend what has come before, especially when I see the consumerism and commodification of American Christianity,” he says. “I just hope those same forces won’t subvert the focus of what this is about.

“We simply want to place more of an emphasis on the quality of our life together than propagating it into some kind of mass phenomenon. On the other hand, the emerging church could become the dominant expression of Christianity in this country in the next 20 or 30 years. So who knows?”

Article originally appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution September 1, 2004; it was online at http://www.ajc.com/metro/content/metro/cobb/0904/02emergent.html Note: Since the time of this writing, Mike is now in his 30s old and living in Raleigh, North Carolina; Sites Unseen contains over 8,000 links.

What others are saying about Sites Unseen (zoecarnate.com):

“An exhaustive roundup of Christian sites, [with] the emphasis is on “alternative” Christian resources. You can further explore virtual churches, Christian Goth, dozens of perspectives on postmodernism, art, music, literary journals and church history. The subcategories are well-organized, and the links are current and chosen with deliberation. There are enough surprises to draw you in and keep you engaged for hours.”

The Dallas Morning News

“Maybe the best Website for Websites in the world!”

Scot McKnight, author, Jesus Creed; professor, Northpark University

Thank you for the good things you are doing with your website. Keep up the good work. We need guys like you speaking out and saying what needs to be said.”

Tony Campolo, bestselling author; Professor Emeritus, Eastern College; President, The Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education

“I never would have found the[se] unique websites otherwise.”

Philip Yancey, author and journalist; editor, Christianity Today

“Holy cow –zoecarnate.com is a massive list of links to everything alt.Christian. Emerging church, neo-monasticism, justice, left and right political commentary, blog-heaven, and clearly a special love for the house church movement. I am appreciative for the hosts’ labor of love.”

Mark Oestreicher, President, Youth Specialties

“I sometimes refer to Mike Morrell as ‘Dr Linkage’. He is a historian of the emerging church. Mike has put together a list of Jesus/ministry links that is now numbering about 8000.Happy surfing!”

Andrew Jones, writer/practitioner, Tallskinnykiwi.com

“Sites Unseen is an amazing collection of links to house, cell, emergent and other alternative congregations and movements.”

The Hartford Institute for Religion Research, Hartford Seminary

“Zoecarnate.com is a central site on emerging church… [one] of the most influential sites.”

Religion Newswriter’s Association

“Zoecarnate.com is an amazing resource.For finding Christian content from many different streams of the Church, check this site out. Especially for a wide range of content within the emerging church, this site’s a gem.”

Alan Hartung, Actor; Editor, TheOoze.com