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One spring sunday morning, I was on my way to visit Mars Hill Bible Church, one of the largest and youngest churches in the country, with 10,000 meeting weekly for worship in a converted mall outside Grand Rapids, Michigan. As I took the freeway exit, unsure of the exact directions, I noticed a bumper sticker on the car in front of me. "Love wins," it said, in distressed white type on a black background. In the rear window was a decal with an intricate pattern—half Art Deco, half Goth tattoo—that incorporated a cross and a fish.

Neither the bumper sticker nor the tattoo-decal alone would have induced me to set aside my hastily scribbled directions and simply follow the car straight to the Mars Hill parking lot. But I knew I'd found my mark when I saw the passenger lower the sun visor, look into the makeup mirror, and meticulously adjust his hair.

Gentlemen, start your hair dryers—not since the Jesus Movement of the early 1970s has a Christian phenomenon been so closely entangled with the self-conscious cutting edge of U.S. culture. Frequently urban, disproportionately young, overwhelmingly white, and very new—few have been in existence for more than five years—a growing number of churches are joining the ranks of the "emerging church."

Like all labels, this one conceals as much as it reveals. But the phrase "emerging church" captures several important features of a new generation of churches. They are works in progress, often startlingly improvisational in their approach to everything from worship to leadership to preaching to prayer. Like their own members, they live in the half-future tense of the young, oriented toward their promise rather than their past. But if their own focus is on what they are "emerging" toward, perhaps ...

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In the Magazine

November 2004

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