The Complexity of Authenticity in Religious Innovation: “Alternative Worship” and Its Appropriation as “Fresh Expressions”

Steve John Taylor


The use of the term authenticity in the social science literature can be rather eclectic at best and unscrupulous at worst. (Vanini, 74)

We live in an age of authenticity, according to Charles Taylor, an era which prizes the finding of one’s life “against the demands of external conformity” (67–68). Taylor’s argument is that, correctly practiced, authenticity need not result in individualism or tribalism but rather a generation of people “made more self-responsible” (77).

Philip Vanini has surveyed the turn toward authenticity in sociology. He has parsed the word authenticity, and argued that it has been used in three ways—factual, original, and sincere. A failure to attend to these distinctives, mixed with a “paucity of systematic empirical research” has resulted in abstract speculation (75). This article responds to Taylor’s analysis and Vanini’s challenge.

My argument utilises Vanini’s theoretical frame—authenticity as factual, original, and sincere—to analyse empirical data gathered in the study of recent religious innovation occurring amongst a set of (“alternative worship”) Christian communities in the United Kingdom. I am drawing upon longitudinal research I have conducted, including participant observation in digital forums from 1997 to the present, along with semi-structured interviews conducted in the United Kingdom in 2001 and 2012.

A study of “alternative worship” was deemed significant given such communities’s interaction with contemporary culture, including their use of dance music, multi-media, and social media (Baker, Taylor). Such approaches contrast with other contemporary religious approaches to culture, including a fundamentalist retreat from culture or the maintenance of a “high” culture, and thus inherited patterns of religious expression (Roberts).

I argue that the discourse of “alternative worship” deploy authenticity-as-originality as essential to their identity creation. This notion of authenticity is used by these communities to locate themselves culturally (as authentically-original in contemporary cultures), and thus simultaneously to define themselves as marginal from mainstream religious expression.

Intriguingly, a decade later, “alternative worship” was appropriated by the mainstream. A new organisation—Fresh Expressions—emerged from within the Church of England, and the Methodist Church in Britain that, as it developed, drew on “alternative worship” for legitimation. A focus on authenticity provides a lens by which to pay particular attention to the narratives offered by social organisations in the processes of innovation.  How did the discourse deployed by Fresh Expressions in creating innovation engage “alternative worship” as an existing innovation?  How did these “alternative worship” groups, who had found generative energy in their location as an alternative—authentically-original—expression, respond to this appropriation by mainstream religious life?

A helpful conversation partner in teasing out the complexity of these moves within contemporary religious innovation is Sarah Thornton. She researched trends in dance clubs, and rave music in Britain, during a similar time period. Thornton highlighted the value of authenticity, which she argued was deployed in club cultures to create “subcultural capital” (98-105). She further explored how the discourses around authenticity were appropriated over time through the complex networks within which popular culture flows (Bennett; Collins; Featherstone; McRobbie; Willis).

This article will demonstrate that a similar pattern—using authenticity-as-originality to create “subcultural capital”—was at work in “alternative worship.” Further, the notions of authenticity as factual, original, and sincere are helpful in parsing the complex networks that exist within the domains of religious cultures. This analysis will be two-fold, first as the mainstream appropriates, and second as the “alternative” responds.

Thornton emerged “post-Birmingham.” She drew on the scholarship associated with the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, glad of their turn toward popular culture. Nevertheless she considered her work to be distinct. Thornton posited the construction of “taste cultures” through distinctions created by those inside a particular set of signs and symbols. She argued for a networked view of society, one that recognised the complex roles of media and commerce in constructing distinctions and sought a more multi-dimensional frame by which to analyse the interplay between mainstream and marginal.

In order to structure my investigation, I am suggesting three stages of development capture the priority, yet complexity, of authenticity in contemporary religious innovation: generation, appropriation, complexification.

Generation of Authenticity-as-Originality

Thornton (26, italics original) writes:

authenticity is arguably the most important value ascribed to popular music … Music is perceived as authentic when it rings true or feels real, when it has credibility and comes across as genuine. In an age of endless representations and global mediation, the experience of musical authenticity is perceived as a cure both for alienation … and dissimulation.

Thornton is arguing that in this manifestation of youth culture, authenticity is valued. Further, authenticity is a perception, attached to phrases like “rings true” and “feels real.” Therefore, authenticity is hard to measure. Perhaps this move is deliberate, an attempt by those inside the “taste culture” to preserve their “subcultural capital,”—their particular sets of distinctions.

Thornton’s use of authentic slides between authenticity-as-sincerity and authenticity-as-originality.  For example, in the above quote, the language of “true” and “real” is a referencing of authenticity-as-sincerity. However, as Thornton analysed the appropriation of club culture by the mainstream, she is drawing, without stating it clearly, on both authenticity-as-sincerity and authenticity-as-originality.

At around the time that Thornton was analysing club cultures, a number of Christian religious groups in the United Kingdom began to incorporate features of club culture into their worship services. Churches began to experiment with services beginning at club times (9.00 pm), the playing of dance music, and the use of “video-jockeying.” According to Roberts many of these worshipping communities “had close links to this movement in dance culture” (15).

A discourse of authenticity was used to legitimise such innovation. Consider the description of one worship experience, located in Sheffield, England, known as Nine o’Clock Service (Fox 9-10, italics original).

We enter a round, darkened room where there are forty-two television sets and twelve large video screens and projections around the walls—projections of dancing DNA, dancing planets and galaxies and atoms … this was a very friendly place for a generation raised on television and images … these people … are doing it themselves and in the center of the city and in the center of their society: at worship itself.

This description makes a number of appeals to authenticity. The phrase “a generation raised on television and images” implies another generation not raised in digitally rich environments. A “subcultural” distinction has been created. The phrase “doing it themselves” suggests that this ‘digital generation’ creates something distinct, an authentic expression of their “taste culture.” The celebration of “doing it for themselves” resonates with Charles Taylor’s analysis of an age of authenticity in which self-discovery is connected with artistic creation (62).

The Nine o’Clock Service gained nationwide attention, attracting attendances of over 600 young people. Rogerson described it as “a bold and imaginative attempt at contextual theology … people were attracted to it in the first instance for aesthetic and cultural reasons” (51). The priority on the aesthetic and the cultural, in contrast to the doctrinal, suggests a valuing of authenticity-as-originality.

Reading Rogerson alongside Taylor teases out a further nuance in regard to the application of authenticity. Rogerson described the Nine o’Clock Service as offering “an alternative way of living in a materialist and acquisitive world” (50). This resonates with Charles Taylor’s argument that authenticity can be practiced in ways that make people “more self-responsible” (77). It suggests that the authenticity-as-originality expressed by the Nine o’Clock Service not only appealed culturally, but also offered an ethic of authenticity. We will return to this later in my argument.

Inspired by the Nine o’Clock Service, other groups in the United Kingdom began to offer a similar experience. According to Adrian Riley (6):

The Nine O’clock Service … was the first worshipping community to combine elements of club culture with passionate worship  … It pioneered what is commonly known as “alternative worship” … Similar groups were established themselves albeit on a smaller scale.

The very term “alternative worship” is significant. Sociologist of religion Abby Day argued that “boundary-marking [creates] an identity” (50). Applying Day, the term “alternative” is being used to create an identity in contrast to the existing, mainstream church. The “digitally rich” are indeed “doing it for themselves.” To be “alternative” is to be authentically-original: to be authentically-original means a participant cannot, by definition, be mainstream.

Thornton argued that subcultures needed to define themselves against in order to maintain themselves as “hip” (119). This seems to describe the use of the term “alternative.” Ironically, the mainstream is needed, in order to define against, to create identity by being authentically-original (Kelly).

Hence the following claim by an “alternative worship” organiser (Interview G, 2001):

People were willing to play around and to say, well who knows what will happen if we run this video clip or commercial next to this sixteenth century religious painting and if we play, you know, Black Flag or some weird band underneath it … And what will it feel like? Well let’s try it and see.

Note the link with music (Black Flag, an American hard core punk band formed in 1976), so central to Thornton’s understanding of authenticity in popular youth cultures. Note also the similarity between Thornton’s ascribing of value in words like “rings true” and “feels real,” with words like “feel like” and “try and see.” The word “weird” is also significant. It is deployed as a signifier of authenticity, a sign of “subcultural capital.” It positions them as “alternative,” defined in (musical) distinction from the mainstream.

In sum, my argument is that authenticity-as-originality is present in “alternative worship”: in the name, in the ethos of “doing it themselves,” and in the deploying of “subcultural capital” in the legitimation of innovation. All of this has been clarified through conversation with Thornton’s empirical research regarding the value of authenticity in club culture. My analysis of “alternative worship” as a religious innovation is consistent with Taylor’s claim that we inhabit an age of authenticity, one that can be practiced by “people who are made more self-responsible” (77).

Mainstream Appropriation

In 2004, the Church of England produced Mission Shaped Church (MSC), a report regarding its future. It included a chapter that described recent religious innovation in England, grouped under twelve headings (alternative worship and base ecclesial communities, café, cell, network and seeker church models, multiple and mid week congregations, new forms of traditional churches, school and community-based initiatives, traditional church plants, youth congregations). The first innovation listed is “alternative worship.”

The incoming Archbishop, Rowan Williams, drew on MSC to launch a new organisation. Called Fresh Expressions, over five million pounds was provided by the Church of England to fund an organisation to support this religious innovation.

Intriguingly, recognition of authenticity in these “alternative” innovations was evident in the institutional discourse being created. When I interviewed Williams, he spoke of his commitment as a Bishop (Interview 6, 2012):

I decided to spend a certain amount of quality time with people on the edge. Consequently when I was asked initially what are my priorities [as Archbishop] I said, “Well, this is what I’ve been watching on the edge … I really want to see how that could impact on the Church of England as a whole.

In other words, what was marginal, what had until then generated identity by being authentic in contrast to the mainstream, was now being appropriated by the mainstream “to impact on the Church of England as a whole.” MSC was aware of this complexity. “Alternative worship” was described as containing “a strong desire to be different and is most vocal in its repudiation of existing church” (45). Nevertheless, it was appropriated by the mainstream.

My argument has been that “alternative worship” drew on a discourse of authenticity-as-originality. Yet when we turn to analyse mainstream appropriation, we find the definitions of authenticity begin to slide. Authenticity-as-originality is affirmed, while authenticity-as-sincerity is introduced. The MSC affirmed the “ways in which the Church of England has sought to engage with the diverse cultures and networks that are part of contemporary life” (80). It made explicit the connection between originality and authenticity. “Some pioneers and leaders have yearned for a more authentic way of living, being, doing church” (80). This can be read as an affirmation of authenticity-as-originality.

Yet MSC also introduced authenticity-as-sincerity as a caution to authenticity-as-originality. “Fresh expressions should not be embraced simply because they are popular and new, but because they are a sign of the work of God and of the kingdom” (80). Thus Fresh Expressions introduced authenticity-as-sincerity (sign of the work of God) and placed it alongside authenticity-as-originality. In so doing, in the shift from “alternative worship” to Fresh Expressions, a space is both conflated (twelve expressions of church) and contested (two notions of authenticity). Conflated, because MSC places alternative worship as one innovation alongside eleven others. Contested because of the introduction of authenticity-as-sincerity alongside the affirming of authenticity-as-originality

What is intriguing is to return to Taylor’s argument for the possibility of an ethic of authenticity in which “people are made more self-responsible” (77). Perhaps the response in MSC arises from the concern described by Taylor, the risk in an age of authenticity of a society that is more individualised and tribal (55-6). To put it in distinctly ecclesiological terms, how can the church as one, holy, catholic and apostolic be carried forward if authenticity-as-originality is celebrated at, and by, the margins?  Does innovation contribute to more atomised, self-absorbed and fragmented expressions of church?

Yet Taylor is adamant that authenticity can be embraced without an inevitable slide in these directions. He argued that humans share a "horizon of significance" in common (52), in which one’s own "identity crucially depends on [one’s] dialogical relations with others" (48). 

We have already considered Rogerson’s claim that the Nine o’Clock Service offered “an alternative way of living in a materialist and acquisitive world” (50). It embraced a “strong political dimension, and a concern for justice at local and international level” (46). In other words, “alternative worship’s” authenticity-as-originality was surely already an expression of “the kingdom,” one in which “people [were] made more self-responsible” (77) in the sharing of (drawing on Taylor) a "horizon of significance" in the task of identity-formation-in-relationships (52).

Yet the placing in MSC of authenticity-as-sincerity alongside authenticity-as-originality could easily have been read by those in “alternative worship” as a failure to recognise their existing practicing of the ethic of authenticity, their embodying of “the kingdom.”

Consequent Complexification

My research into “alternative worship” is longitudinal. After the launch of Fresh Expressions, I included a new set of interview questions, which sought to clarify how these “alternative worship” communities were impacted upon by the appropriation of “alternative worship” by the mainstream. The responses can be grouped into three categories: minimal impact, a sense of affirmation and a contested complexity.

With regard to minimal impact, some “alternative worship” communities perceived the arrival of Fresh Expressions had minimal impact on their shared expression of faith. The following quote was representative: “Has had no impact at all actually. Apart from to be slightly puzzled” (Interview 3, 2012).

Others found the advent of Fresh Expressions provided a sense of affirmation. “Fresh expressions is … an enabling concept. It was very powerful” (Focus group 2, 2012).  Respondents in this category felt that their innovations within alternative worship had contributed to, or been valued by, the innovation of Fresh Expressions. Interestingly, those whose comments could be grouped in this category had significant “subcultural capital” invested in this mainstream appropriation. Specifically, they now had a vocational role that in some way was connected to Fresh Expressions. In using the term “subcultural capital” I am again drawing on Thornton (98–105), who argued that in the complex networks through which culture flows, certain people, for example DJ’s, have more influence in the ascribing of authenticity. This suggests that “subcultural” capital is also present in religious innovation, with certain individuals finding ways to influence, from the “alternative worship” margin, the narratives of authenticity used in the complex interplay between alternative worship and Fresh Expressions.

For others the arrival of Fresh Expressions had resulted in a contested complexity. The following quote was representative: “It’s a crap piece of establishment branding …but then we’re just snobs” (Focus group 3, 2012). This comment returns us to my initial framing of authenticity-as-originality. I would argue that “we’re just snobs” has a similar rhetorical effect as “Black Flag or some weird band.” It is an act of marginal self-location essential in the construction of innovation and identity.

This argument is strengthened given the fact that the comment was coming from a community that itself had become perhaps the most recognizable “brand” among “alternative worship.” They have developed their own logo, website, and related online merchandising. This would suggest the concern is not the practice of marketing per se. Rather the concern is that it seems “crap” in relation to authenticity-as-originality, in a loss of aesthetic quality and a blurring of the values of innovation and identity as it related to bold, imaginative, aesthetic, and cultural attempts at contextual theology (Rogerson 51).

Returning to Thornton, her research was also longitudinal in that she explored what happened when a song from a club, which had defined itself against the mainstream and as “hip,” suddenly experienced mainstream success (119). What is relevant to this investigation into religious innovation is her argument that in club culture, “selling out” is perceived to have happened only when the marginal community “loses its sense of possession, exclusive ownership and familiar belonging” (124–26).

I would suggest that this is what is happening within “alternative worship” in response to the arrival of Fresh Expressions. Both “alternative worship” and Fresh Expressions are religious innovations. But Fresh Expressions defined itself in a way that conflated the space. It meant that the boundary marking so essential to “alternative worship” was lost. Some gained from this. Others struggled with a loss of imaginative and cultural creativity, a softening of authenticity-as-originality.

More importantly, the discourse around Fresh Expressions also introduced authenticity-as-sincerity as a value that could be used to contest authenticity-as-originality. Whether intended or not, this also challenged the ethic of authenticity already created by these “alternative worship” communities. Their authenticity-as-originality was already a practicing of an ethic of authenticity. They were already sharing a "horizon of significance" with humanity, entering into “dialogical relations with others" that were a contemporary expression of the church as one, holy, catholic and apostolic (Taylor 52, 48). 


In this article I have analysed the discourse around authenticity as it is manifest within one strand of contemporary religious innovation. Drawing on Vanini, Taylor, and Thornton, I have explored the generative possibilities as media and culture are utilised in an “alternative worship” that is authentically-original. I have outlined the consequences when authenticity-as-originality is appropriated by the mainstream, specifically in the innovation known as Fresh Expressions and the complexity when authenticity-as-sincerity is introduced as a contested value.

The value of authenticity has been found to exist in a complex relationship with the ethics of authenticity within one domain of contemporary religious innovation.


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authenticity; alternative worship; Fresh expressions; religious innovation

Copyright (c) 2015 Steve John Taylor

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