In an apartment a few steps below street level in San Francisco's Mission District, several people — most in their 20s — sat in a horseshoe of couches to consider the meaning of service.
In black high-tops, Crocs, hoodies and jeans, they looked much like the hipsters who wait in line Sunday mornings for a table at Boogaloo's a few blocks away on Valencia Street.
This group of Christians gathers each week to grapple with seven intangibles: service, simplicity, creativity, obedience, prayer, community, and love. A young man in a cap reads Colossians I aloud while some look down, others into the distance. Midway into the evening, all take to the streets, battling an icy wind to pick up trash, scrub graffiti and post signs in shop windows exhorting people to honor their neighborhood with cleanliness.
The group is part of the decade-old emerging church movement, an eclectic wave of change propelled by the Internet and peopled globally mainly by the young.
Their Jesus is a radical. They have little use for the institutional church, with its buildings, budgets and boards. They meet in homes. Their aim is to live like Jesus, compelled to service among the poor. They eschew congregations for communities. Their faith is not a doctrine but a conversation — fluid and evolving.
"Experiment is a word we use a lot," said Adam Klein, who helps lead the loosely organized San Francisco community that calls itself reIMAGINE. "Nobody has lived in 2008 before and lived the way of Jesus, so you have to figure out what it means to you."
Their expression of faith harkens back to the early days of Christianity, he said.
"Part of Paul's job was to encourage people to continue on but without the dogma. When Constantine came around and nationalized the church it became a place where power and control were brokered."
Estimates place the number of emerging church communities at several hundred and growing. The Internet has figured hugely into the movement's growth, "not only in connecting, linking, promoting, recording and communicating, but also in the new media mind-set that it is creating," said Andrew Jones, a New Zealand emergent who blogs from Czechoslovakia under the name tallskinnykiwi.
"The net affects the way we think and relate and store knowledge. It is creating a new set of values and a new hierarchy of leaders. We haven't seen the half of it yet."
They know they are not the first believers compelled by faith to give to the needy. Their difference is that traditional Christian charity may involve compassion but not always a commitment to justice, said Brian McLaren, one of the early emergent thinkers and the author of several books, including "Adventures in Missing the Point," which he wrote with Tony Campolo.
"Eventually, we have to deal with the people causing injustice," McLaren said.
That kind of comment has stirred dismay among some conservative Christians, who say McLaren is a political progressive. He has countered that he is not politically progressive if that means living a secular life with government meeting all human needs.
The emergent church emphasizes Christ's message of social justice, seeks the kind of spirituality that flows from that and creates a community that supports that spirituality, he said.
Some emergents embrace ancient ritual, including the Eucharist, and they evangelize, although in social action they may not necessarily talk about their faith at all.
"St. Francis of Assisi said it best: Go preach the gospel and if necessary use words," said Darin Petersen of Oakland, who travels frequently to Philadelphia for community projects. "The best evangelism is living a contagious life."
"The problem with (traditional) evangelizing is that it is delivering answers to people who are not seeking them," he said. "We need to be a peculiar people. Jesus gives the order of what that looks like and what that means."
In an early project, Petersen and 30 others invited homeless people to a cash give-away on Wall Street after receiving a legal settlement.
"It was a beautiful expression of sharing this abundance," he said. "We walked away thinking, what would a daily rhythm of this be like?" After studying the Jewish tradition of using tithes to help care for widows and orphans in the community, they developed a global community of people who share one-tenth of their earnings with those in need. "Jesus was political," said Klein, whose community helped pay for his recent trip to Africa to build mobile medical clinics. "If it was all about the life after, he wouldn't have been killed the way he was."
Some reIMAGINE participants just bought a duplex on an East Oakland street that has been rocked by sideshows and three murders over the past few weeks. They want their new Shalom community to love, serve, and engage the troubled neighborhood, said Nate Milheim.
"What I've been excited about is taking Jesus more seriously as a teacher as well as a savior," Milheim, 30, who is cleaning up the house with his wife, their two daughters and a couple who will share it. "Let's learn from this master, Jesus, this revolutionary, radical guy. I want to explore what it would be to live like him."
"I realize we have a lot to learn," he said. "If the things happen that I dream of happening, it will take a while."