Foundation Story, Part One: Post-Evangelicals and Alt Worship (2000), by Tim Summers
Updated: Aug 23, 2020
This is the story of Foundation's journey told from the only perspective I can reliably offer - my own. I have started with my experiences, in London, of the innovative church movements which were later to influence Foundation.
I discovered "alternative worship" during the tail end of my decade in London, around 2000. My first significant experience of it was a service at St Luke’s Holloway on the Easter weekend of that year. Aesthetics and feel are important here, so I'll give you some context to help you picture the scene.
St Luke's is a traditional Anglican stone church on a quiet North London street. On the inside it is cavernous - painted white, not bare stone - but with lots of tucked away back and side rooms. It is in a part of town (a mile north east of Camden) that was the epitome of the London anonymity that I liked: street after street of tall townhouses; some down-at-heel, some smart; some white, some brown brick. The area felt almost as bohemian and mysterious as Notting Hill once had, in the 1970 film Performance. Up there in N7 one might likewise go missing, disappear from one's earlier life into the life of these obscure streets.
The St Luke's vicar Dave Tomlinson had, in one sense, lived out this fantasy of mine - except that he had ended up high profile, being a prolific author and Greenbelt speaker. (St Luke's was the Greenbelt HQ for a while.) Dave had famously coined the term "post-evangelical" with his 1995 book of that name (originally his postgraduate thesis). His big insight in the book was that many Christians growing up in, or first converted in, evangelical and charismatic churches were tending to become disillusioned with that environment after a period. This wasn't for want of seriousness about their faith; rather, it arose from frustration with what they felt to be a tone deaf subculture and a simplistic theology. Dave himself had made the journey from charismatic church leader to post-evangelical leader (his group was called Holy Joes and met in a South London pub) and finally he had holed up, Performance-style only respectable, as the Anglican vicar at St Luke's, N7. So The Post-Evangelical crackles with the energy of one who knows, firsthand, whereof he speaks. The book was the first of many published accounts of this tendency and it remains my favourite.
The point was that such Christians, instead of leaving the church altogether or finding a home within liberal congregations, were forging their own communities designed to be open to questions and a range of theologies (extending in all directions beyond the normal Protestant evangelical fare) while also exploring postmodern thinkers and innovative forms of worship. This worship, generally coming under the umbrella term "alternative worship" (or "alt worship" for short), could be expected to reflect the theological and theoretical interests of the group. It typically drew on a range of traditions (in a pick and mix fashion) and involved a variety of media, with increased participation by the worshipper. It was entirely different to charismatic church worship, which was led from the front and at times resembled performer and audience. The post-evangelical groups were setting fire to things, figuratively and sometimes also literally.
In London there were then four main groups: Grace, Vaux, Epicentre (later renamed Moot) and St Luke's itself in its Sunday evening gathering. (Such groups were often, although not always, hosted by a church.) The church I attended regularly at the time, St Stephen's Westbourne Park, was arguably a charismatic/Greenbelt hybrid. It did not itself host an alternative worship group but was theologically and aesthetically a fellow traveler, mostly via the influence of my friend and home group leader Luke Bretherton. Luke had been involved in running the London Christian club night Abundant in the 90s, alongside some of the protagonists in the 2000 landscape that I was now exploring. Anyway, this newly discovered world held much appeal for me at the time, having lately (like Dave Tomlinson a few years earlier) stumbled out of the mainstream evangelical scene, sated with its strange argot, looking for something fresh.
So it was via St Stephen's and Luke that I came to attend Dave’s gathering in North London that Easter. It was a three day affair called "Critical Mass". My memories include: people setting fire to things in the service; a darkened back room with people (tech geek types) crashed on sofas watching images on loop as ambient music played; another little room, this time up a winding staircase in the church tower, with the pieces of a broken mirror arranged so as to show a fragmented image of your face. "Behold the image of the one God loves," said the text beneath. I was enchanted by it all. In both the worship and the underlying spirituality there was an attractive openness to uncertainty, not found in any of the large evangelical churches (charismatic or otherwise) I had attended. There was also a far greater attention to aesthetics than in such churches - for in this sense alternative worship, with its passion for the numinous, was more aligned with Catholic or High Anglican culture. But in alt worship the liturgy and art were created by the group itself, in a flurry of activity over the preceding weeks, rather than being handed down by the institution.
For a drifty, dreamy English graduate this was all supremely exciting. I had given up the traditional Anglican kind of church in favour of the "hands down for coffee" evangelical scene in the first days of my faith a couple of years earlier, mostly because the charismatic church was younger and more lively. However my heart was always in the poetic and numinous, which reflected my reasons for becoming a Christian in the first place and my taste for CS Lewis and the Inklings. There had always been something incongruous about attending a huge triumphal celebration on a Sunday night and returning to my flat to read Russian novels. Whereas this new form of worship offered the best of both worlds: an engagement with mystery and uncertainty worthy of my favourite authors, but in a style in its own way as vigorous and passionate as that of the evangelicals. Lastly, and unusually for something Christian - it was hip.
The next step was discovering the Greenbelt Festival.
The above image shows an alt worship service in London during the period I am describing. This one is from the South London based group Vaux, the photo by Steve Collins. You can find more stunning images of worship from a range of groups on Steve's Small Fire website.