What's in a name?
So what is this thing called 'alternative worship'? Well, the name emerged in the early 1990s when the movement was small and semi-underground, by reference to alternative music and alt.groups on the pre-web internet. Why 'worship' not 'church'? Because the initial motivation was dissatisfaction with the culture of worship, an attempt to bridge the gap between what went on in church services and the styles and concerns of the world outside. The impulse was partly missionary, and partly that Christians themselves were feeling alienated by what they were doing on Sundays.
Alternative worship is about people making church for themselves, without too many prior rules about what is and isn't allowed. The intention is to get past the conventions of church into a deeper place where people can bring their whole lives honestly before God.
Alternative worship is more about power structures than presentation styles. Groups try to work as teams of equals, whether or not there are ordained persons involved. Roles aren't predetermined. The team isn't an elite group, delivering expertise to the congregation, but a representative group, creating something on behalf of the congregation. Consequently, boundaries between team and congregation - that is, the *rest* of the congregation - are fluid and hard to spot.
Alternative worship belongs to and reflects directly the people who made it. Consequently it's attuned to their cultural context, but it isn't designed specifically to appeal to some third party we think it'd be good to reach. The alternative worship approach to mission is, if our church doesn't work for *us* how will it work for anyone else? If it doesn't represent *us* to God won't it ring hollow to visitors? It imposes the humility of starting mission with our own people, rather than trying to be people we're not.
Alternative worship, emerging church and Fresh Expressions
In the 1990s the movement was called 'alternative worship' or 'alt.worship', by its participants in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. The US equivalent, arising in the early 2000s, used the term 'emerging church', by reference to theories of 'emergence'. Both terms have their problems - 'alternative' to what? Isn't it about more than worship? How can a church still be 'emerging' when it's established? And so on. Many in the alternative worship movement found the term 'emerging church' more holistic, a better description of what was going on, and it looked for a while as though the older name would disappear.
However, during the mid-2000s developments around the US-based Emergent Village network caused some to see 'emerging church' as meaning a US-Baptist-based, more 'evangelical' format; in reaction, the label 'alternative worship' was taken up again by those from more liberal or liturgical backgrounds. In America 'emerging church' became almost synonymous with the Emergent Village network, and as Emergent Village was engulfed in controversies the term became problematic and people distanced themselves from it.
Meanwhile, the term 'alternative worship' has tended to be used as a stylistic label for a type of church service - candles and projections - without regard for the organisational reinvention that originally produced the style. In any case communities continue to do what they feel called to do, whatever it might be useful to call it. In my opinion it helps to have some kind of term, 'alternative worship', 'emergent church' or whatever, in order to identify the real underlying structural differences of such groups regardless of aesthetics.
In England a third term, 'fresh expression' can be heard. Fresh Expressions is an initiative by the Anglican and Methodist churches to support non-conventional expressions of church community - this includes 'alternative worship' or 'emerging church' communities, but also covers many other things such as cell churches, mother and child groups, weekday services in non-church venues etc.