Sunday, 8 July 2012

Local mission and the Christian Union model

Like many of my generation, I was converted at university through the efforts of the Christian Union. The way this came about was simple but typical. I got to know some Christian friends, I got to hear about their faith. I was invited along to some meetings, including during the biannual mission. Eventually, the penny dropped and after much wrestling, I took the step of asking Christ to be my Saviour and Lord in August 1971.
One other thing was important in getting me where I am today. On my return to Keele in the autumn of 1971, I got involved in the Christian Union myself, as the Publicity Officer. I became involved in missions and having found that to be exciting and rewarding, thought that it might be good to do this full-time and get paid for it. That led eventually to ordination, and here I am today.
Of course, as many Anglican clergy will testify, it is the mission bit that didn’t quite work out. Ministry in the Church of England seems to involve an incredible amount of work, but evangelism rarely gets the attention it should.
I have often thought about this, and wonder at the relative effectiveness of the Christian Union, compared with the relative ineffectiveness of the Anglican parish.
In the CU we were all young, and therefore all young Christians (in my case, very young!). We had no full-time clergy. Our officers were all elected from the membership, and though we had older ‘advisors’ they left the work to us. Yet we managed to evangelize our friends and neighbours — there was a constant trickle of converts coming in to the CU. We ran our own meetings and set our own agenda. We had our own support network, including Bible study groups.
At the same time, we managed to avoid too much wackiness. There was some. This was the early days of the Charismatic Movement, and I read and believed some things at the time which I now look back on as fairly daft. But on the whole, we weren’t blown about too much by the various winds of doctrine.
All this we did as students, yet such effectiveness is rarely, if ever, matched by ‘adult’ churches. On the contrary, despite decades of talking about the need to do away with ‘one man ministry’, we have made very little progress, except to introduce the ‘one woman ministry’. (I know two women clergy locally looking after eleven parishes between them, and once met one running thirteen.)
In fact adult church often seems to be ‘infantilized’, compared with the student Christian Union. Adult Christians look to the clergy, and the clergy very often play along with this by treating the adults as children, not quite to be trusted.
And there is some justification for this. For when the adults have been allowed more of a free rein, in my experience wackiness is sometimes not very far behind. Moreover, and sometimes in company with this, we often find the community is taken over or dominated by the powerful personalities, who can be guilty of domination and even bullying.
Much safer, in my experience, to have the clergy in charge!
But then with the clergy in charge we are back to the earlier problem — churches which are passive and ineffective, dominated by ‘passengers’ rather than ‘crew’. We avoid the problems of personalities and cults, but we fail to reach our neighbours in evangelistic mission.
This, I think, is a genuine dilemma. But there are, I suggest, a number of clues from the Christian Union world that we would do well to think about and perhaps apply.
The first is the principle of emergent local leadership. We find this in Christian Unions, where members are elected to leadership posts, and we find it in the New Testament, where elders are appointed from the local population.
In the Church of England, and actually in most denominations, we have, by contrast, a professional elite of ‘church leaders’ — outsiders who are parachuted in and imposed on the local community. Inevitably the ‘led’ tend to be people who don’t mind that sort of thing and indeed are fairly happy to leave things to these professionals. When there is a problem, people take it to the ‘professional’. When there is a need, for example when someone is sick and needs a visit, it is not really addressed unless the ‘professional’ has addressed it.
Secondly, Christian Unions have a clear agenda, focussed on evangelism. Now of course the local church in the outside world has a broader agenda. But there is no reason why it should have a different focus. Indeed, the agenda for the Christian community set by the Apostle Peter is essentially evangelistic: to declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his marvellous light (1 Pet 2:9).
As I have frequently argued, the Church of England will not discover its true calling until it returns to the agenda it set itself in 1945: the conversion of England. Over against this, the consecration of women bishops is of little consequence. And incidentally, I have seen no sign of the church becoming more evangelistic as a result of the ordination of women than it was before — which is to say, not very.
Every member of our Christian Union knew they belonged to an evangelistic body. Every member of our churches should know the same.
Thirdly, people were allowed and encouraged to get on with things on their own initiative. There were controls, exercised by the local leadership, but people were expected to be active.
Fourthly, the discipline of the CU was supported by an external body. And here the Church of England is actually quite well placed in comparison. We are not a congregational denomination, and the Christian Unions similarly are not ‘congregationalist’, even whilst they exercise a good deal of autonomy.
Fifthly and finally, there were doctrinal standards which were maintained amongst the members. To be a member of the Christian Union (as I recall), you just had to sign a declaration of faith. To be on the committee, you had to sign the doctrinal basis.
How many members of our PCCs have made any formal declaration of what they believe? (Apart from at their baptism, when it was probably said by someone else.) We’ve stopped doing the catechism by and large. Is a particular ‘belief’ even seen as a necessary part of the qualifications for membership of, let alone leadership in, the church? We have the Declaration of Assent for clergy, but I have seen it emphatically argued that this doesn’t really mean that clergy have to believe the particular things expressed in the ‘formularies’. So if that is how the clergy see things, how much less will the laity be expected to have a grasp of, and commitment to, ‘right doctrine’.
Yet I would argue that it was the doctrinal basis, coupled with the principle of local elections (and the inevitable effect of people being ‘stood down’ from committee membership by finishing their courses) that kept the CU from too much wackiness and domination by powerful personalities (the bane of adult churches).
One of the reasons I would like to see a resolution to the women bishops debate in the Church of England is so that we can move on to addressing the issue that really matters — the conversion of England. And incidentally, when are we going to have a motion before General Synod promoting that agenda? I think we have had attempts, but they haven’t had support or excited much interest, which might say something about our Synod membership.
But if England is going to be evangelized, it is not going to be done by our clergy with the laity in a support role. The model of Christian Unions has much to say about mission and lessons for us to learn, and it is high time we learned them.
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  1. Elwin Cockett, East London8 July 2012 at 09:16

    Hear hear to this, John. Your last two paragraphs, especially, are very much in tune with 'Transforming Presence' as I understand it - and certainly as I plan to see it being implemented in my part of the diocese.
    The irony, of course, is that for this to happen will take leadership. I welcome the emphasis on mission coming from our bishops, but the best news for me is that in our transformed leadership structures archdeacons will, for the first time, be clearly understood as 'leaders of mission'. If that is to mean anything, it is that we will enable and inspire others to engage in evangelism, using the CU model and others as appropriate to the setting.

  2. As someone who considers himself a born again agnostic, I think much of what you say here makes good sense. I think the time is coming – and perhaps has come – when the parish system as we endure it at present has to go and something more dynamic has to replace it. Three of my close friends are CofE ordained ministers – two loosely Evangelical, one conservative Anglo-Catholic: further to these dog-collared chums, I have another five or six lesser friends and acquaintances who are also ordained. All of these – nine in total – were once in parish ministry (six were vicars/rector); all are now in other roles (NSM university lecturers, hospice chaplains, university chaplains etc.). Almost to a man (and bar one, they are all men – one being the wife of another) when asked why the left parish ministry to give a similar answer – that they became priests to minister and spread the Word, yet were shackled by parish and diocesan administration.

    As part of my own post-doctoral research (sociology of religion) I have recently spent several months with the Jesus Army in the Midlands. I must confess to having some misgivings about this, but like a true social scientist I separated my thoughts and feelings from the opportunity to gather data as objectively as possible. Yes, I found the charismatic worship a little OTT for my tastes (give me the English Hymnal any day!) and some of the teaching (tho’ certainly not all) revealed some gaping lack of theological knowledge and Koine Greek (but then I heard CofE minsters do worse!). I found the patriarchal structure archaic. But I was also deeply moved by the hands on compassion of the ‘church’ – where everyone got their hands dirty. I found the notion of communal living, a share purse and the emphasis on witness to each and all, rather difficult to comprehend (tho’ as someone who has lived in community, I probably understood it better than most). I found the emphasis on supporting single people and providing 7/7 fellowship and family for those normally marginalise in favour of married couples with children, more than refreshing.

    I am not advocating the Jesus Army lifestyle, organisation and church life as a template for the Anglican Church, but I do think something radical needs to happen. At present government or liberals or the acceptance of the odd minority are seen as the ‘enemy’ – impediments to the spreading of the Gospel. The onus of responsibility for various social and moral ills lies elsewhere – if we are to believe the yards of blog space given over debate – or accusations – about such things. Yet perhaps the ‘fault’ and problems lie a little closer to home? If the voice of the churches is muted and congregations are waning is this really the fault of government or liberalism or whatever else ‘out there’? Surely it is time to look a little nearer home and instead of pointing the bony finger of accusation and apportioning blame elsewhere, it is time to do something less palatable and requiring more courage and hold up a mirror to the churches? Something radical indeed needs to happen – and it is not in-fighting or blame-mongering or scapegoating...

    1. Peter,
      Are you publishing your research on the Jesus Army? I know little about them, and share some caution. But I would love to know more about the way they work out their emphasis on supporting single people and providing 7/7 fellowship. There must be some great lessons in this for others of us.

  3. What John has written is most interesting but from a sociological point of view I wonder how many converted through the CU are still christians 10 or more years on? I seem to remember seeing some sociological work done on CICU which suggested a good proportion of Presidents had fallen by the wayside within a decade or so.The key is surely that they are young and keen and network amongst their peers.
    Re Peter Denshaw;my only knowledge of the Jesus Armycomes from a chap who banged on my rectory door ( about 12 yrs ago I think and began "I've just escaped from the Jesus Army!"
    Perry Butler ( Canterbury)

    1. I remember from my days as UCCF Team Leader for Greater London that various rumours to this effect did the rounds on a regular basis. All the inquiries and surveys we did at the time (which, admittedly I no longer have to hand) indicated the exact opposite - that CU members and leaders continue in very high percentages and make brilliant contributions as church members and leaders later on

  4. My view on evangelism has always been that those in leadership are responsible for getting those I church to the point where they can go out and evangelise, as well as then joining in the evangelism both directly and through organising the likes of missional events.
    Would it be fair to say that one of the problems the Church generally in the UK has failed to do is do that building up and releasing and simpy kept things within the 4 walls of the church building, either by not being capable of building up the Body or simply not willing to?

  5. I don't think John is saying copy EVERYTHING about a CU. So long term continuity of a Pastor for e.g. would be good. But, point taken, they did get something right (do they still, I'm not sure).

    But take John's suggestions. Locally congregationally appointed leaders, confessional, autonomy, but overseen by another body (not one individual) which shares that confession...
    That's confessional Presbyterianism. I think it's a great idea.

  6. @Perry – this is a very interesting point. I seem to remember a study done in the 1980s (when I was on the periphery of Leeds Uni’s CU) concerning this very issue: how many who were members of a CU continued as Christians..? It wasn’t good – particularly for CU presidents!! However I have not been able to find this research since – and I have access to most journals and data bases via Athens/Shibboleth... So I wonder about its credibility or whether it really existed! I have just had another root around the internet, but only come up with blog posts, with no reference to academic studies. I am sure some research probably exists out there on this topic, but I can’t find it!

    Yet there could be a very simple explanation for this paucity of research on the proportion of CU members who remain Christians: churches and religious organisations are very good at telling up about conversions, but there is much less said about ‘drop outs’. The JA, I mention above, were quick to tell me about converts, yet, the actual number of JA members who are Covenant members of the church has remained fairly static over the years; suggesting that although there are many converts, few stay. I suspect this is true for many Evangelical congregations – moreover how many members are ‘converts’ and how many are those who have gravitated from another church or denomination is also difficult to calculate. Indeed, I am sure many who claim ‘conversion’ via a CU, would probably be counted as nominal Christians anyway in wider surveys of Christian belief and practice in the UK.

    It’s an interesting area and anyone with links to appropriate research, please post them! I’ve left a message with BRIN ( to see if they have any research findings on the subject.


    1. Peter, the mass falling-away thing is actually a myth. Research done into the subject has shown that a relatively high number of CU members continue following Jesus in the years to come.

  7. I share Peter Denshaw's reservations about this oft-quoted but rarely referenced finding. As it happens, last week at the Evangelical Ministry Assembly I met the son of the Christian student who first welcomed me when I arrived at Uni. Dad is still going strong, and passing it on.

    However, I must insist that this doesn't become a discussion about the long-term fate of CU presidents. PLEASE.

  8. @Perry P.S. – yes, the JA certainly had a reputation along the ‘cult’ spectrum in the 70s, 80s and 90s – but like many New Religious Movements (NRMs) that begin to take on the flavour of a denomination, they seem to be coming in from the cold! They have now regained membership of the EA. My research is participative and eventually I have ‘blended’ in and although there are some practices that I am not comfortable with; similar practices also found their way into many Evangelical churches via the Charismatic Movement and particularly Wimber in the 1980s and 90s. As you seem interested in sociological research, I’d spend a year or so with the JA doing sociological research before jumping to conclusions from one incident!

    As Eileen Barker notes, one has to be very careful when listening to the tales of those who have left cults or NRMs – tales of abuse or brainwashing etc. tend to be convenient excuses for an individual not being able to measure up to the life and standards that he or she was so enthusiastic about on conversion. After all, if Brainwashing was so successful, we have to ask ourselves why the number of those in the Moonies or Scientology remain so woefully small! Membership of the Moonies in the UK has never got above a few thousand – so much for the ‘brainwashing’ thesis.

  9. The Jesus Army experience is one illustration of a problem I have raised in my post - wackiness can tend to go with independence. However, CUs mostly seem to avoid this.

    I would also observe that Judaism largely seems to avoid it as well. One of the questions I would seriously ask is why Judaism, by and large, tends not to proliferate into a multitude of sects, whereas Protestant Christianity clearly does. If the latter is 'true', why is it not 'united in the truth'?

    1. Revd John, I think it is a bit simplistic to say that Judaism hasn’t split into sects and factions. There are many sects and groupings in Judaism. All religions suffer schism and sub-schism. The broad social scientific theories offered for this phenomenon are far from simple, but in short can be summed up by saying religion and its host society are in far more of a symbiotic relationship than might be thought at first glance. In part I think this is because believers of a given religion like to think they are separate (‘above’?) wider society, when in reality their beliefs are part of, and informed by, society and thus prone to change and ‘reformation’. The relationship is certainly not made up of two hermetically sealed compartments – ‘religion’ and ‘society’; instead each informs the other.

      The Hassidic branch of Judaism is a good example of this – it is often seen as a remnant of antiquity, but is actually a fairly modern development of the Jewish religion – it arose as a reaction to the exclusive intellectualism that had dominated European Judaism from the late 17th century onwards – removing access to the ‘divine’ from the ‘common’ people and restricting it to an intellectual elite. The sociological mechanisms that gave rise to Hassidism can also be seen to have parallels with the emergence of the Amish, Methodism, Plymouth Brethren and other Evangelical sects in Christianity. From the 17th century onwards, the notion of the individual strengthened in European societies, hence it is no surprise that we see an emergence of religious strands that are likewise geared towards the notion of an individual ‘salvation’ or experience of the ‘divine’ – and one that was available to the many and not just an elite intellectual class. Similar movements have arisen in Islam, particularly as literacy increased: folk Islam, with an emphasis on ritual and saint cults, found in agrarian societies, is superseded by a ‘high’ or scriptural Islam as literacy increases (usually because a society’s economy becomes more mercantile) – the rise of Protestantism followed a similar course in Northern Europe.

      Schism is often preceded and by a ‘prophet’ like figure, who in turn posses a degree of charismatic authority. He or she challenges the status quo, usually making charges or claims against the prevailing religious beliefs or observance. This challenge frequently takes the shape of a ‘rationalisation’ of religion. As Max Weber notes, rationalisation is the process by which social change occurs: change to an increasingly legalistic/rationalistic normative social order.

      Hence your suggestion that ‘wackiness’ is peripheral and something borne out of independence is – to my mind at least – a little naive. A good portion of what takes place in even the most conservative Anglican Evangelical church today would be seen as ‘wackiness’ a hundred years ago! While doing research on the Salvation Army a few years ago, I was pawing around British Library’s collection of religious tracts and pamphlets and came across a damning tract, written in 1885 by a conservative Anglican Evangelical damning the Salvation Army for its ‘wackiness’!

      How a given society or group within a society interprets the ‘truths’ of a religion tend to change according to outward, rather than inward forces – and particularly economic forces and the means of both intellectual and economic production. Protestantism itself is a clear example of this: it arose as northern Europe changed from a feudal to nascent capitalist society – greater literacy, the inventing of printing and the transference of wealth and power from a elite few to a greater proportion of society led to a privatisation of religion and a contingent religious divergence. We are seeing this repeating itself at present in Islamic societies and in the developing world where colonial Christianity is being replaced with Pentecostalism and individualistic Evangelical Christianity, as these societies undergo rapid sociological, economic and intellectual changes.

  10. I think I'd like to mirror Darren's bracketed Q about CUs. The structures haven't changed, but their effectiveness has rather I think. I was involved with the University of York CU for some of the 90s and 00s and then spent 3 years working with London CUs. I would say in general that over that time CUs were more passive (more like our churches) about evangelism. That doesn't undermine the helpful point John's making (clearly the structure has been effective for evangelism), but I wonder if it points to something key that is often missing now that was there in earlier times?

  11. Dear John,
    My college did not have a CU as far as I was aware so it was a group of very keen young Christians in a local Evangelical CofE Church in west London that attracted my attention and was invited to the Billy Graham crusade of 1966. My friendship with this group extended some years but was concurrent with solid teaching from inspired preachers.

    Over the years I have heard about the good work that has continued by the young people in Uni. The ongoing Christian life by the graduates is very dependent on the ongoing teaching and fellowship that they receive. If the church is dead, even a rat knows when to leave a sinking ship. The possibility of church transfer also becomes likely when members perceive that the grass is greener on the other side.

    It would seem that churches keep their members if they keep them through involvement in high ceremony, or alternatively they actually have life.

    You are right that the CofE parishes should not be Holy huddles but people concerned for those who do not know Jesus.

  12. Over on Cranmer's Curate Julian Mann has a very enlightening post on the "therapeutic contract". I suspect that part of the reasons CUs are effective is that they don't have this contract. On the other hand, it is integral to the parish system- which is why all attempts by bishops to promote "mission" (whatever they mean by that) run into the ground.

    And Darren: will you stop being so convincing about presbyterianism?

    Stephen Walton

  13. Steve Watkinson is right, CU's aren't as affective nowadays. In part society is more secular than even when I went (which I like to think was recently, but was 1/2 a lifetime ago).

    I think Steve Walton is right, partly the above is worse by the therapeutic contract and, Presbyterianism IS convincing.

    AND, I was a CU President, the 2 before me I'm still in touch with, the 1 before is a missionary, & the 3 after are still going. I'm in touch with quite a few members from my CU days.

  14. Nigel Atkinson9 July 2012 at 19:45

    Presbyterianism is not as convincing as Anglicanism. Who every heard of a Presbytery before Calvin invented it? Have you read my book on Hooker??!! Nigel

  15. More seriously... I was responding to John's post, slightly (slightly) tongue in cheek. But, it does meet some of what he was getting at, locally appointed leaders, plural leaders, the right blend of autonomy & oversight and confessional.

    Presbyterianism ticks those boxes. Makes sense of Biblical data. The early Church seemed to have bishops who had congregations, often plural Elderships. Bishops, as we know them seem to "evolve".

    I think (Nigel knows what I think), there are parameters of how the church could be governed. There is an Episcopal version that would be OK.

    But right now is Anglicanism REALLY looking more convincing? Especially the C of E, but globally?

    (I'm refering to confessional Presbyterianism, rather than C of S & PCUSA. Confessing Anglicans aren't always that sure what they're confessing, only what they're denying)

  16. Thanks for the contributions so far.

    On the effectiveness of CUs, I'm sure they reflect the life of the local church, and insofar as there has been a drift from the clear evangelizing mode of the 1950s and 60s (look at what happened to the successive NEACs) I'm sure this will be reflected in CU life.

    That notwithstanding, my point is that the local congregation model, if followed by the CUs, would mean that the CU president would run the Bible studies, give the weekly talk, and be responsible for most (if any) of the evangelism.

    Were that to be the case, I suggest the CU movement would now be dead in the water. The fact that the CofE isn't entirely is down to a number of other factors (including the 'therapeutic contract' Julian identifies), but hopefully you see my point.

  17. See my reply to anonymous above. During 13 years in UCCF, including time leading the work for Greater London, the rumour regularly surfaced about large numbers falling away afterwards. As far as we were able to ascertain the rumour had no foundations.

    But even assuming it did, I nevertheless seriously doubt that the witness, conversion, retention and emergence in to long term of people in many other contexts equals that of a well-functioning CU. I can think of hundreds of people in ministry and missions around the world as a result of CU ministry and many hundreds more who came to Christ in that context and continue to go on well.

    Just because there may be some drop out rate doesn't invalidate John's positive comments. It would be interesting to compare between CUs and the average Anglican church, but my estimation is that the CU model wins hands down in both witness and generating emerging leaders over just about anything else

  18. Good post, John; and a stimulating comparison with CUs.
    You mention the down-sides of putting clergy in charge: yesterday I heard a cynical but relevant quote from Alan Hirsch:
    If I was the devil, wanting to dis-empower the church, one of the things I would do is Ordination! I'd make people wait seven years before they were allowed to lead a church. I'd make them spend that time questioning their faith. And then I'd put them up the front, so that all the people ask "OK, so what do WE do now?"

  19. We should also remember that students have a lot more time available to them to spend time with friends, and they also have much larger networks of friends to spend time with. That majorly contributes to the success of CU evangelism. Having regular events to invite friends to also helps.

    So the challenge to all churches must be, spend time with more people outside of church, take the chance to speak to people, and have regular events to invite people to.

  20. I think is it too late for me to response hear but I just want to say that I'm amazed. :) Continue to lift up the name of God!