The transition from a casual, coffee-shop gathering to a Christian worship service is almost imperceptible. In a cozy space at Jammin' Java, a cafe in a Vienna, Va., shopping center, 18 young adults sit and chat, refill their mugs, or prepare the area for the coming service. A projector screen is set up; candles are arranged; a basket of rolls, a chalice, and small glasses of grape juice are set out. At 10 o'clock, systems engineer Deanna Doan steps up to the mike, and the group finds itself celebrating the second Sunday of Advent.
The Church of the Common Table, as the group calls itself, is part of a nationwide emergence of small, self-organizing religious communities. And to people who follow the world of contemporary religion, they are among the most interesting things going. The Rev. Frederic Burnham, a retired Episcopal priest and senior fellow at the Sims Institute for Servant Leadership in Hendersonville, N.C., draws on chaos theory to study how these spontaneously generated groups manage to walk the line between freedom and order. "Holding the balance is what the emergent church is dealing with," says Burnham.
Team leaders. One way Common Table does so, explains Michael Stavlund, a graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill., is by spreading the leadership role among three members of a team. Though he is the only paid staffer, Stavlund and the other team members try to stay in the background, encouraging everybody to take a turn leading services and activities. But is the steadying presence of a person like Stavlund necessary? "It would be different without him," says Kate Maisel, a newspaper editor. "He is one of the essential parts."
The service itself walks that fine line bordering chaos. A PowerPoint presentation of an Advent calendar and a talk on the difference between Roman and Christian conceptions of peace, followed by a freewheeling discussion, are typically innovative offerings. But the worshipers come together quietly for the confession and the Eucharist—a movingly simple ceremony that ties them to the oldest practitioners of their faith. Some chafe at certain practices, including saying the Nicene Creed. But others don't. "A core of tradition keeps us pointed in the right direction," says John Bozeman, a university administrator. "It keeps us from being just an encounter group."