Are We on the Verge of Participatory Church?


TIME Person Of The Year 2006 - YouIn an op-ed piece in this Sunday’s New York Times, former NPR correspondent Eric Weiner describes his feelings as he faces the holiday season as a religious “none,” as in “none of the above.” Weiner is currently “unaffiliated,” but he writes, “We Nones may not believe in God, but we hope to one day. We have a dog in this hunt.”

That hopeful note is followed by a description of the kind of religion Weiner would like to see in the world (and particularly the United States):

“We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious. Like Mr. Jobs’s creations, this new way would be straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive. Most important, it would be highly interactive. I imagine a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment. A religious operating system for the Nones among us. And for all of us.”

I would like to suggest to Weiner — were we sitting together at Starbucks or Caribou having a conversation over a cup of joe — that for more than a decade, the emerging missional church movement has been seeking to agitate for and begin to construct such a path. My friends and colleagues who have been the architects and thought leaders of this movement may not be so bold as to claim that title or status as “the Steve Jobs of religion,” but I’d like to be bold enough to say that Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, Rob Bell, Shane Claiborne, and Peter Rollins (among others) have each, in their own way, played this role to some extent.*

Besides acknowledging the Jobs-like work that has already been done, I’m beyond ecstatic to hear this clarion call from a self-described “None” for “a religious operating system” that will serve both the Nones/Unaffiliated and the rest of us. This is what fuels the work I’m doing with Hope Partnership for Missional Transformation and TransFORM Network.

And I’d like to suggest that faith leaders — from across denominations and traditions — need to begin reflecting deeply on this idea of participation. What Weiner calls “highly interactive” and “experimental.” It’s essentially the same message that Landon Whitsitt wrote about earlier this year in his book Open Source Church, and it’s an idea that Dr. Ryan Bolger, from Fuller Theological Seminary, has been playing with recently, as well (see video below).

In an interview with Luther Seminary, Bolger suggests** that we are now living in a post-postmodern era that is characterized primarily by the participatory nature of the Internet and technology culture that has shaped it:

Bolger says, “The shift from postmodernity to participatory culture means people find their identity through what they create as opposed to maybe what they consume. … Our churches are still structured in such a way that we do it to them, not inviting them to create worship with us. So, if that’s the case, there’s really no space for people who’ve been formed by our participatory culture in our churches.”

Bolger’s provocative comments, coupled with Whitsitt’s book and Weiner’s op-ed in the Times, beg the question: Who will create the religious communities of the future that will engage participatory people?

That’s a revolution I want to be a part of.


* Yes, I’m very aware that these are all white males, and that has been the legacy of the first 10 years of the emerging missional church movement. The next 10-20 years promise to be far more rich and diverse, with broader participation from women and people of color as this leveling of hierarchies provides greater opportunity for developing platforms for greater influence. Stay tuned …

** Forgive me, Dr. Bolger, if I’m putting words in your mouth! I think my interpretation of what is said in the video interview is accurate, but it is my interpretation and may not reflect the actual views held by Dr. Bolger. In other words, results may vary.



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Posted on 12-11-2011


  1. Nathan Hill says:

    December 11th, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    Good response, Steve.

    I squirm a bit with the idea of an “open source” faith – I feel like Christianity already is that. Everyone has access to the “source code”, if you will – it’s up to any group of people what you make of it. Which can be both amazing or terrifying.

    Of course, I imagine that “open source” also means flatter too.

    I too dream of churches that create this open space for discovery. One goal in my ministry that is just taking shape is the idea to always have an atheist/agnostic/etc type space – and take that seriously. No manipulation, no forcing of ideas, lots of listening, lots of conversation.

    It’s scary and frightening for a lot of folks to move from being a consumer to a co-creator (w/ God) of worship. I am still learning how to lead others in such a process.

  2. Steven Neal says:

    December 12th, 2011 at 8:52 am

    Nice article.

    I understand the cultural shift towards participation and the view that worship is typically something the church does to people instead of with people. I come from a liturgical tradition and love ritual. Tools for creating worship with people already exist as a start. There’s ample room to grow but simple things like placing the font in the doorway of a worship space and inviting people to remember their baptism before the font is processed (maybe even by the worshippers?) is a way for worshippers to engage in creating worship.

    On the other hand, in my experience with where I serve this idea is ahead of its time. We Lutherans often have enough trouble answering simple questions in the middle of a sermon that for most it would be hugely uncomfortable to be asked to participate beyond standing and singing.

    The transformation is coming and I can’t wait for it but I don’t have the foggiest how it will happen, what will turn the corner.

  3. Shawn Coons says:

    December 12th, 2011 at 8:54 am

    I agree with the above commenter that a lot of emerging church communities are doing just what the author is describing.

    I disagree strongly that it reflects how Steve Jobs operated. Jobs created products under an incredibly controlling and rigid environment. It was his way or the highway. The religious equivalent of Jobs would be someone who told you which version of the Bible to use and what passages to read, but then gave you tools to explore those creatively and interactively.

  4. Knightopia via Facebook says:

    December 12th, 2011 at 9:00 am

    Related: from Seth Godin’s blog today: “We shouldn’t be surprised when someone chooses to publish their photos, their words, their art or their opinions. We should be surprised when they don’t.” Sounds like Godin agrees, this idea of participation is ubiquitous – agree or disagree?

  5. Susanne Johnson says:

    December 12th, 2011 at 12:29 pm

    Well, when all you can rattle off is a long string of male names and spokespeople–it doesn’t sound all that new to me. It sounds more like the good ole boys simply using different words. Hmmm. Some of the supposedly “new” insights have been said by feminist theologians for decades. How about giving some credit where credit is due?!

  6. Steve K. says:

    December 12th, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    Susanne – I was just speaking specifically about the leaders/innovators of the emerging missional church movement in the U.S. over the past 10 years. That’s where my list came from. I realize I’m naming a historical reality that is very white male dominated, which is why I included my original footnote. There’s much more that can (and has) been said about that already.

    Feminist theology has had a great influence on the emerging missional church movement, but those theologians haven’t had the popular appeal or impact that the people I named have had, I would argue. I don’t think giving credit to this group should take anything away from the leaders who have been pioneers and innovators in other previous movements in the Christian church in the U.S. This isn’t about “new” ideas, but who have been the popular leaders of this particular movement (the emerging missional church in the U.S.).

  7. Steve DeFields-Gambrel says:

    December 12th, 2011 at 2:10 pm

    Having just read a CNN profile of one of my favorite preachers, Fred Craddock ( doesn’t even email) this article is very “Craddockian”? To Craddock a sermon is the initiation of a congregation. Social media allows for the community to more creatively participate in the conversation. After reading this article, I was inspired to write 2 pages of handwritten notes on fresh ways to invite an ongoing conversation in my community. Thanks, Steve.

  8. Nick Larson says:

    December 12th, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    Nice read. I totally agree that the church is moving towards a participatory format. I think there is a long tradition of this in the christian faith, I just think most in America don’t.

    My thoughts here are how do we train folks to help faciliate that participatory model? I know that my worship classes and pastoral leadership classes in seminary did not train me to do this type of work. I was taught how to create things to be consumed in the church, not interactive elements for worship.

    So where does that training come from? I think like anything else poorly designed participation church is still just poor church, so how do we raise the quality of this participation invitation?

  9. Rachelle Mee-Chapman says:

    December 12th, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    Intriguing as always Mister Knight. 🙂

    As a long time postmodern practitioner, I find that the “None’s” don’t feel very comfortable in emerging churches. It still feels too much like old-school church for them. Why? The theology and doctrine is not flexbile enough for the level of questioning they are engaged in. The sexual mores are too restrictive and too big of a concern. And the ratio of theological debate vs. living-out the gospel of love through service/charitable giving is still too heavy on the debate side.

    While Rob, Brian et al have been trailblazers into a more creative ways to do church, I don’t think they are the “Steve Jobs” the “Nones” are looking for.

    Just as emergent pastors are captured by the idea of hybrid denominations, the Nones are captured by the idea of hybrid faith. They aren’t asking “Am I cathlobaptist or mennoanglican?” Rather they are self identifying as ChristianBuddhist, or Jesus+Reiki, etc. As a minister, I’m interested in creating spaces for these folks who practice faith-hybrids, and since these folks are scattered in the diaspora, online relig-ish communities are indeed one way to begin such a re-creating. (I’ve been running one for the past two years.)

    What does it mean to create a relig-ish sanctuary? How do we gather the folks in None diaspora? What does it mean to pursue common truths across religious borders? If anyone is else is practicing in that particular playground, please let me know! I’m anxious to break out of this crisis of imagination into a new kind of relig-ish movement.

  10. Pete Zimmerman says:

    December 12th, 2011 at 6:08 pm

    I am not sure how to address nones. I do know that I need other people to follow jesus. I need their help. I need community.

    I hope to start a Jesus sangha. there are three things a Buddhist sangha hold as precious jewels. Buddha, dharma, sangha. the enlightened teacher, the teaching, and the community that follows. I respect the emergent soft sell, but I am skeptical about it. we will stress that the three jewels of our community are Jesus, his teaching, and the local community/sangha–these are the 3 precious jewels that will help transform us and the world. We will will have zero doctrinal requirements. we will have a a communal meal that is real lunch but also given a spiritual, Eucharistic dimension. the 5 ways we grow towards the divine, according to Hinduism are: bhakti-devotion/worship of the divine jnana–study of holy texts/study/learning/intellectual pursuit. meditation/prayer, act of self negation/social justice and finally asceticism. we will offer all five practices. No one practice is more important than the other, different people need different things. we will not be about belonging/membership. nor just seeking. but we will be about spiritual practice in the context of helping each other practice. Most religious groups have a member/spiritual home paradigm. Others are more seeker oriented, but seeking what? What Robert Wuthnow says is needed are groups committed to spiritual practice. What binds us is practice/praxis not doxies and dogma.

    To belong for us is not to believe anything specific at all. To me Jesus is divine, but I don’t care if you believe that. I care if you are considering committing to the practices of jesus and if you think you might fit into our adoptive community. Jesus practicesRadical forgivenss, radical self negation, radical non violece, radical commitment to the least of these, radical love for the divine and each other, radical acts of healing and deliverance….if jesus said it we want to experiment with making his way a reality.

    but on the nones side, I am thinking about a spiritual fellowship that is sybiotic with the jesus sangha. the sangha for those interested specifically in the way of jesus, the fellowship for those who are not. you don’t have believe the narratives or words of jesus to become like the christ/buddha.

  11. Steve Kerr says:

    December 12th, 2011 at 6:45 pm

    I wonder if it is about changing, or about communicating the reality. We need to re-vision the participatory nature of our faith to re-engage the members, reminding them that the mission is their’s, and that these buildings/communities are not for bringing them together but for sending them out.


  12. Adam Copeland says:

    December 12th, 2011 at 11:13 pm

    I just got back leading a book group of 6 nones (and, interestingly, two pastors who like the discussion).

    I responded more fully on my blog, but I do think the participatory angle is a wise one. For me, the most interesting question is how one moves from Nones to a community and tradition.

    My post, with a re-written Weiner last paragraph, is here:

  13. Steve Knight on Participatory Ch - Brian McLaren says:

    December 13th, 2011 at 12:56 am

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  14. Cynthia says:

    December 13th, 2011 at 6:41 am

    Echoing Rachelle …

    Some days I am a none but I don’t agree with the Wiener that I though I may not believe in god that I hope to one day. Been there, done that. I am done chasing.

    Other days, I am a little of each of the above. I find great beauty in many different faith traditions. As Rachelle said … hybrid faith.

    But I want community … online is fine and I am applaud Rachelle for her relig-ish space that she creates online. It’s not enough for me though. I want real, in person community.

    I think it’s already been created so forgive me if I am just weary of more talking about it. The Unitarian Universalist church has created space for pursuing common truths across religious borders.

    In fact, they have a coming of age program for fourteen year olds that helps young adults establish their belief system that is sort of like a confirmation in the Unitarian Universalist church. ( I personally think that is a bit young. They need to offer it as well for adults) That program has to be preceded by Neighboring Faiths which is a year of exposure to different faiths. The idea is that a person shouldn’t commit to something when they don’t know all the choices.

    I applaud any effort to create space for people to explore, to question, to experiment. And if those in the emerging missional church conversation can move beyond debate and discussion to actually seeing action, practice and participation, that will be a good thing.

    I’ve already found it.

  15. Steve K. says:

    December 13th, 2011 at 11:01 am

    Cynthia, the UUs have come up several times in response to Weiner’s op-ed piece. Be sure to check out this blog post from a UU minister in Chicago:

    I think UU churches will still have some of the same challenges as any other church in adapting to a new way of being community with “Nones” as co-creators and collaborators, simply because the formal structure/form of a “church” is very limiting/hindering to even getting the conversation started. Will “Nones” even walk in the doors of an established “church” (of any stripe)? Or will new forms and models need to be constructed from the ground up? Just some things I’m really pondering and wrestling with right now …

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  18. Christian Reyes says:

    December 14th, 2011 at 10:23 am

    Anthropological studies shows humans to be inherently religious/spiritual in some way,shape or form. We seem hardwired for it. ‘Nones’ may spearhead the spiritual evolution that has already taken place biologically.

    As a believer in Christ I’m really excited to see where this stuff leads too. God always seems to interject herself onto the scene in unexpected people, i.e. The Baby Jesus!
    Then again, maybe this ”spiritual Steve Jobs’ will simply be the Antichrist. Bummer.

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