Some Things I’m Learning About Church & Mission

A few things I'm learning about church & mission as a church minister. Nothing probably surprising.

Most Christians if we are honest are not missional – concerned more for ‘me and mine’

Need to create crossing places – blurred encounters – where it not clear always what is church and what is not

Can’t do it at arms’ length

Can’t presume to have all (or any of) the solutions

It’s costly – but not necessarily financially

It’s a long-term commitment, it requires more than a day or week or even a few years 

Need to be passionate about following Jesus, gospel emerges out of that (so not principally passionate about preaching the gospel, subtle difference) ... 

Hospitality is vital – people feeling welcomed & invited & remembered, allowed to be, listened too

Need imagination and creativity (which sometimes seems difficult to find in our churches)

Mission is mostly not separate from pastoral care; mission often follows from being a person who is willing to listen to another person’s story

Social action is always messy (when helping hurts), because it contains a politics, e.g. foodbank

Church needs to foster a positive public profile in community – known to be a welcoming, trusted, generous community

The task seems huge, impossible, overwhelming and so need to constantly be reminded that we are called to be disciples not heroes, i.e. the mission isn’t ours, we are co-opted co-workers/partners of God

There is a lot difference in being a Christian and not, and at the same time, there is no difference at all – ‘we are all beggars before God’ (St. Augustine)

Potential of ‘weak ties’ – churches and Christians have lots of ‘weak ties’ – relationships that are never nurtured, developed (e.g. building hirers)

Slow Church Coming

In the last year I've been introduced to the phrase 'slow church'. The Ekklesia Project took it as its theme for its 2012 conference and Chris Smith (of Englewood Review of Books) and John Pattison run a blog and are working on a book (due in 2013) all under the same idea. So it was a nice surprise to open at Stephen Pickard's new book Seeking the Church: A Introduction to Ecclesiology (SCM, 2012) to find its final chapter titled 'Slow Church coming'.

The rest of the book as its subtitle suggests is an introduction to ecclesiology (from a particularly Anglican perspective). It engages, as expected, with Paul Minear, Avery Dulles and Nicholas Healy, but its major conversation partners are Daniel Hardy (especially his work on 'sociality') Colin Gunton. It has chapters on models of the church, relation to the Trinity, mystery, and worship, which all look interesting, but it was the last chapter that grabbed my attention.

Pickard seems to be using the language of 'slow church' independent from others mentioned above. His major conversation partner in this chapter is a former Hauerwas student, Peter Dula, and his recent OUP book on Cavell, Companionship and Christian Theology.  Pickard distinguishes slow church from the fast asleep church (indifferent to cultural changes) and the frentic church (which you could say is indifferent to tradition). Slow church is a pilgrim church, moving and travelling, but with patience, for good things take time. Dula is introduced as a critique of communitarian approach to ecclesiology (identified with Hauerwas, Milbank, MacIntyre and co.), which he ulimtately calls a 'fugitive ecclesia' because it is always disappearing, on the run, beyond our grasp. Pickard ends with suggesting we need a travellling church, a pilgrim church, picking up companions on the way. 

Lots to ponder here, not least it makes me want to read Dula's book. I think there is some mileage in this language of 'slow church'. The best practical theology these days seems to want to remind us of things lost, without wanting (I hope) to trademark a new brand and as a solution to all our ills. 

Multi-Voiced Church

W400.9781842277669Multi-Voiced Church is a new book by Stuart and Sian Murray Williams. It is a very good book, a very helpful book, a very accesible book and as such deserves a wide readership. Written in a similar format to Stuart Murray William's Post Christendom and Church After Christendom, it says what it is - here a multi-voiced church; why and how it was lost; and how it can be recovered, in lots of different practical ways. The basic argument is that the early church was a multi-voiced community - an active congregation - which during Christendom became increasingly mono-voiced - pastor/priest dominated and so a passive congregation - and therefore we need to re-balance church life again to be more multi-voiced in worship and preaching, discipleship and in decision-making.

I do think re-balance is the right word, as I would argue still for the importance and necessity of ordained ministry in the church, but not to the extent that this excludes the ministry of the church as a whole.

Stuart and Sian say the book emerged in part out of the work of Eleanor and Alan Kreider (see their Worship and Mission After Christendom, especially chapters six and seven), but also the conversations within the Anabaptist network and amongst the ministerial students Sian has taught at Bristol. It is thus a multi-voiced book!

The practical chapters, that follow the historical introduction, are packed full of ideas and suggestions for encouraging and enabling the church's worship, learning, community discipleship and decision-making to be more multi-voiced, and more Baptist (for those of us in that tradition).

I've asked the deacons in the church where I serve to read it over the summer and I'm looking forward to some positive discussions in the autumn and hopefully the beginnings of a more multi-voiced church.

Get a copy, read it, share it with your church. You will not be disappointed.

Seven Sacred Spaces

I'm part of a barefoot reading group (name was borrowed from Brodie McGregor and is from the excellent AoC 2011 Lent book Barefoot Disciple by Stephen Cherry) and we've been reading George Lings Encounters on the Edge booklet Seven Sacred Spaces. The book arises out of a study of monastic life and time spent with the Northumbria Community and the Anglican Franciscans at Hilfield in Dorset. Lings discerns seven sacred spaces in monastic life: Cell, Chapel, Chapter, Cloister, Garden, Refectory, and Scriptorium. While most churches focus on chapel, Lings argues that a healthy Christian community needs to be balance all seven spaces, with chapel and refectory being 'the twin centres of life' (p.24). The booklet is well worth reading and be purchased here. We had some rich discussion about where these spaces might be in our community life and how we might be more intentional in developing them. Looking forward to where this may go.

Talking about monastic, I'm hoping to make it to some of the first Baptist Order Convocation happening this week. An exciting development that is emerging for British Baptists.

They come or we Go?

This is a video put together by Peter Dominey from Church from Scratch (a Baptist church plant) and he's asked me to post - knowing perhaps I might not wholly agree with it.


I'm trying to work out exactly what I make of it. It certainly is thought-provoking - what is the wall? - is it church buildings (Church from Scratch don't have one) or it is it something more along holiness lines (church holy/world unholy). As John Flett says in his fantastic The Witness of God, following Barth, there is no other way for the church to be but missionary. This critique of church, offered by this video and others, I sometimes think is too negative about church and it avoids the theological questions of what is church and ultimately that all communities have boundaries of one sort or another. It also suggests that a church like the one in which I minister is not somehow engaged in mission.

Keith Clements Calls for Ecumenical Vision

Baptist Times reports this week:

THE ECUMENICAL movement in the UK is arguably in serious trouble, according to a senior Baptist ecumenical statesman.

The Revd Dr Keith Clements, formerly general secretary of the Conference of European Churches, has issued an open letter to the Churches of the UK arising from a 24-hour ecumenical consultation in Bristol recently.
The ecumenical movement is, he says, 'seen by many as a failing, lost or irrelevant cause', with some talking of an 'ecumenical winter'.
There are, he says in Called to be One - What Now? genuine difficulties regarding ecumenical work, including Church decline, divisions within Churches on ethical issues, and culture shift away from organisations towards personal relationships. However, he adds, 'In such a situation it is all too easy to drift into sheer resignation and to forget that the call to visible unity is not an optional extra but a central and urgent imperative of the Gospel.'
Called to be One urges the Church to revisit the 20-year-old commitments of the Swanwick Declaration which set out the principles of modern ecumenical engagement, and particularly the statement that 'our churches must now move from co-operation to clear commitment to each other, in search of the unity for which Christ prayed and in common evangelism and service of the world'.
Churches, Dr Clements argues, should ask themselves serious questions about what changes they would need to make to fulfill this vision, and what is blocking the path to unity - which at least, he says, means mutual recognition of ministries and fellowship at the Lord's Table.

He urged fuller discussion of the report at denominational and local levels by anyone concerned about ecumenical life. It is available by emailing:

The full letter can be read here.

Will Willimon on starting ministry

HT to Jason

Pt4 One of the most important decisions that a new pastor can make is to obtain a good pastoral mentor. Ministry is a craft. I am unperturbed when new pastors sometimes say, “Seminary never really taught me actually how to do ministry.” I think seminary is best when it instills the classical theological disciplines and exposes to the classical theological resources of the church, not so good at teaching the everyday, practical, administrative and mundane tasks of the parish ministry. One learns a craft, not by reading books, but by looking over the shoulder of a master, watching the moves, learning by example, developing a critical approach that constantly evaluates and gains new skills.

Pt3 Be open to the possibility that the matters that were focused upon in the course of the seminary curriculum, the questions raised and the arguments engaged, might be a distraction from the true, historic mission and purpose of the church and its ministry. On the other hand, be open to the possibility that the church has a tendency to bed down with mediocrity, to accept the mere status quo as the norm, and to let itself off the theological hook too easily. One reason why the church needs theology explored and taught in its seminaries is that theology (at its best) keeps making Christian discipleship as hard as it ought to be. Theology keeps guard over the church’s peculiar speech and the church’s distinctive mission. Something there is within any accommodated, compromised church (and aren’t they all, in one way or another?) that needs to reassure itself, “All that academic, intellectual, theological stuff is bunk and is irrelevant to the way the church really is.” The way the church “really is” is faithless, mistaken, cowardly, and compromised. It’s sad that it is up to seminaries to offer some of the most trenchant and interesting critiques of the church. Criticism of the church ought to be part of the ongoing mission of a faithful church that takes Jesus more seriously and itself a little less so. I pray that your theological education rendered you permanently uneasy with the church. Promise me that you will, throughout your ministry, never be happy with the church.

Pt2 Devise ways to learn to speak their language. Laity sometimes complain that their young pastor, in sermons, uses “religious” words like “spiritual practice,” “liberation,” “empowerment,” “intentional community” (this is an actual list a layperson collected and sent to me) that no one understands and no one recalls having heard in Scripture. Such “preacher talk” makes the pastor seem detached, alien, and aloof from the people and hinders leadership. At the same time, prepare yourself to become a teacher of the church’s peculiar speech to a people who may have forgotten how to use it. This may seem contrary to my first suggestion. My friend, Stanley Hauerwas, says that the best preparation for being a pastor today is previously to have taught high school French. The skills required to drill French verbs into the heads of adolescents are the skills that pastors need to teach our people how to speak the gospel ... Keep telling yourself that the difference in thought between the laity in your first parish and that of your friends back in seminary is not so much the difference between ignorance and intelligence; it’s just different ways of thinking that arise out of life in different worlds ... It is my prejudice that, if you have difficulty making the transition from seminary to parish it is probably a criticism of the seminary. The Christian faith is to be studied and critically examined only for the purpose of its embodiment. Christians are those who are to become that which we profess. The purpose of theological discernment is not to devise something that is interesting to say to the modern world but rather to rock the modern world with the church’s demonstration that Jesus Christ is Lord and all other little lordlets are not.

Cherie Blair on Willow Creek as the future of Christianity

The final episode of Christianity: a history was presented by Cherie Blair.  She argued that the future of Christianity may lay in the kind of Christianity that is represented by Willow Creek. She interviewed Bill Hybels and showed clips from the service. I was amused by the words 'SERVICE STARTING IN THREE MINUTES' and 'YOU ARE LOVED' which appeared on the screen in the auditorium. Blair failed to understand the differences between Christianity in the States and in the UK and the rest of Europe. There are huge differences in why Europe has a falling church attendance ('Europe is the exceptional case' according to Grace Davie) and the States doesn't (yet?).  Where the United States was viewed as the future, Blair also failed to present the many hundreds and thousands of vibrant church projects in the UK which are making a more positive contribution to society. She focused entirely on the downward trend, specifically within the Roman Catholic church. The programme along with Ann Widdecombe's (another practicing Roman Catholic) on the Reformation failed to make any reference to non-conformist churches and the contribution they have made to the life and faith of Britain. Willow Creek will never be the future of the church in this country and I for one am thankful. Hybels in the interview suggested that with Willow Creek they had returned to a New Testament church (the claim that all new church movements, including Baptists in the 17th century claim) - although what you saw - a slick, business-model, entertainment-orientated style operation, didn't match my reading of the NT. The programme failed to level any critical comment on these megachurches. So all in all, a programme which generated a response, but a not very positive one from me. 

ministry after christendom

How seriously should we take the arguments of the 'after christendom' series?  The series' fourth book - Youth work after christendom was published earlier this year. At Regent's we spent Friday with Nigel Pimlott, co-author of Youth work after christendom, as part of a week looking at working with young people. What struck me was how Nigel's presentation was in many ways at odds to the approaches taken by other speakers (all good) from earlier in the week. I found myself asking are those training for baptist ministry being trained for a christendom church or for a church after christendom?

Milbank takes a sideswipe at Fresh Expressions and Mission-Shaped Church

From 'Stale Expressions: the Management-Shaped Church', Studies in Christian Ethics, April 2008 by John Milbank. I think he partly has a point.

The projects known as ‘Fresh expressions’ and ‘mission-shaped church’ are, therefore, the outcome of this evangelical-liberal collusion. For all the protestations, they are a clear conspiracy against the parish. Perfectly viable parishes, especially in the countryside or the semi-countryside, are increasingly deprived of clergy who are seconded to dubious administrative tasks or else to various modes of ‘alternative ministry’ such as ‘ministry to
sportspeople’ or ‘ministry to youth’. In all this there lies no new expression of church, but rather its blasphemous denial. The church cannot be found amongst the merely like-minded, who associate in order to share a particular taste, hobby or perversion. It can only be found where many different peoples possessing many different gifts collaborate in order to produce a divine–human community in one specific location. St Paul wrote to Galatia and Corinth, not to regiments or to weaving-clubs for widows. He insisted on a unity that emerges from the harmonious blending of differences. Hence the idea that the church should ‘plant’ itself in various sordid and airless interstices of our contemporary world, instead of calling people to ‘come to church’, is wrongheaded, because the refusal to come out of oneself and go to church is simply the refusal of church per se. One can’t set up a church in a cafe amongst a gang of youths who like skateboarding because all this does is promote skateboarding and dysfunctional escapist maleness, along with that type of private but extra-ecclesial security that is offered by the notion of ‘being saved’.