In 1992, I really was an outsider in this proto-emerging church. Not in a bad way, mind you. In fact, I would say in a very appropriate way. I was 17. What did I know? A little bit, but not too much. And I think I have always had that trait of knowing what I know and knowing what I don’t know. I was an outsider in that I didn’t have a place on the inside. But that’s perfectly fine, and the way NewSong was flying at the time the outside was a perfectly great place to be.
Let me tell you a little bit about the demographics. Roughly 70% single. And the average age was probably somewhere around 25. This for what was, I think, about a 1200 person, regular attender, church. I might be off on that last number, so don’t quote me on that. I was on the outside after all. Me and my brother started attending after a good friend told us about the church. The music there was amazing, the preaching was amazing, and all with a really strong sense of deepening spirituality. It wasn’t emphasizing a seeker sensitive message, even though Dieter Zander was a big fan of Bill Hybels.
It was, in my mind, defined by a real openness to those who were there, to be shaped by those who came. While there was a clear leadership team, there was also, it seems, a lot of investment in all kinds of people, giving opportunities for all kinds of participation.
The church, at that time, met in a gym. Every week there they set up the stage, the lights, the sound, the chairs, the whole thing. And that was my first area of participation there. I don’t know why I did it, but I suppose it was because I wanted to somehow contribute to the church as I could, and I could move chairs and stage parts and stuff. Couple times a month I would show up early on Saturday evenings and stay late after the Sunday service, helping to set up, and then helping tear down.
This wasn’t my only area of participation. My brother became a lot more interested in getting connected than I did. I still had my high school friends and my high school youth group helping me feel involved. He needed Christian friends, and a place to find some holistic influence from others. So tried various small groups and finally got really excited about one. In the summer of 1992, my friends and I went on a month long road trip around the country, to DC and back again in a big loop. During this same time my brother got more and more involved in this small group, where he was very quickly welcomed in and included. The group was entirely made up of college age men and women, the leaders were a sophomore at Claremont McKenna and a student who I believe went to APU.
Jon, my brother, invited me, and I started going around the fall of 1992. This group, which I think was named the Claremont Care Group, was technically a small group as commonly conceived, but in just about every way, thinking back, it was a real proto-emerging church. There was leadership, but it was functional leadership that provided order not power. There was a regular meeting time, but this was surrounded by casual activities throughout the week, not formal, but friendships developing and deepening. We sat together on Sunday mornings at the big celebration service and ate together afterward. There was pretty lively conversation, and hearty laughs, and earnest sharing. There was going beyond conversation and people pushed to be involved in ways outside the group, helping others in the community, bringing others in wherever they were at in their spirituality. It was open, it was inviting, it was deep. To this day this remains the best example of a small group I’ve ever experienced.
It was led entirely by those who were in their early 20s. NewSong helped. They gave an environment and a weekly service which was encouraging, and challenging, and inspiring–lifting morale and reminding of the call. They also had a great leadership structure (from my perspective), in which all the various leaders of all the various small groups met together regularly for their own meeting, and were taught and helped and led in a way that both gave opportunity for freedom within a context of growth.
There was a lot of trust in those days. Most other churches treated their college students like augmented high schoolers, with college groups reflecting only slightly more development than high school groups. But NewSong was one big college group, led by college students, who “did church” better than most people I’ve seen since. And, given my training since, I’ve seen a lot.
Now, the insiders of NewSong weren’t all on staff. There was a massive leadership network in which people were identified, encouraged, trained, given responsibilities (sometimes beyond their abilities to meet). There was trust and there was a lot of risk, risk that the God who calls people works in those people, and that those people, given a place, will express a diverse creativity within a shared unity. People began to take notice, from all around the world there was visits and conversations and observations. For the most part those people talked to the staff and saw the weekend service–a big production that while meeting in a junior high school gym had world class talent–people who got involved because they saw their involvement was valued and excited and shared.
I loved those weekend services, still remembering the days where Communion was served as being among the most spiritual, prayerful, resonating communion services I’ve been too. But, I treasure that Claremont Care Group, an earnest expression of what church was always meant to be–diverse people sharing life together and growing together in spiritual maturity.
It was the Flock that Rocked. And it really, really did. I was an outsider, but even an outsider at that time felt part of something, felt included and valued. That’s a good trick.
My 1992 turned into 1993, and in the Fall of 1993 I left Southern California to start at Wheaton College. I was eager to deepen my intellectual and spiritual life, and that was the place, I felt, it could best be done. But, I never left NewSong. I was 2000 miles away during most of the year, but it was still my home church.