Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Re-imagining Church

The Church of England is often said to be dying, and many of the indicators are indeed of a patient on life-support. But remember what happens with monarchs. The death of one is the opportunity for another: “The king is dead. Long live the king!”
With that in mind, I have been re-reading the classic work by missionary Roland Allen, TheSpontaneous Expansion of the Church (subtitle, ‘and the causes that hinder it’), which should be a required study for all bishops, priest and deacons.
Allen developed his ideas in the wake of the great missionary movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This was the era that brought us the Student Volunteer Missionary Union (later the SCM of liberal publishing house fame), and a huge amount of interest amongst the western intelligentsia in evangelizing the ‘heathen’ nations.
Enormous effort and expenditure was poured into sending missionaries abroad. Yet as Allen observed, the outcome was often disappointing in relation to the effort involved, giving as an example, the following:
In the year I924-25 when a force of 1,233 foreign missionaries, aided by 15,183 paid native helpers, and supported by 603,169 Baptized Christians was under the direction of the most highly organized of our Missionary Societies (the C. M. S.), the number of adults baptized in the year amounted to 31,329; that is 1.9 to each paid worker, on the assumption that the 603,000 baptized Christians did nothing at all to spread the Gospel.
Of course some would have regarded some 30,000 baptism candidates in a positive light. Allen himself wrote, “That is no doubt efficient as we count efficient work; but,” he added, “it surely leaves something to be desired.”
By contrast, Allen pointed to the early church, where missionary work happened without any ‘missionary organizations’ other than the church, where there was no overseas agency supporting foreign mission stations and where the local work was done entirely by locals.
In short, whilst the western model of missionary work seemed to involve huge efforts for little result, the New Testament model produced its results ‘spontaneously’.
At very least, Allen argued, the aim should be to establish genuinely self-supporting, self-extending and self-governing native churches to which should be entrusted the work of the gospel. Moreover, these churches should not be imitations of the western institutions, seeking their own status and security in the closeness of their mimicry of their parent bodies, but should be first and foremost evangelistically structured, aiming to reach as many of their own people as possible.
When I first read Allen’s book about twenty years ago, however, one thought immediately struck me: if you substitute ‘institutional church’ for ‘missionary organization’, ‘parish church’ for ‘mission station’, ‘ordained minister’ for ‘western missionary’ and ‘neighbourhood’ for ‘foreign country’, virtually all Allen’s criticisms could be levelled at our own pattern of evangelization.
Since then, nothing has really happened to change my opinion. In our own diocese of Chelmsford, for example, we are reorganizing and retrenching to reflect the fact that in the next ten years something like fifty percent of our full-time clergy are due to retire. Yet at the same time, the diocese is being put on an evangelistic footing, beginning with a year of outreach in 2014.
Now the second goal is, in my view, admirable. But I have to question the coherence of the first goal in relation to it. I recognize that within the present ecclesiological framework retrenchment is absolutely inevitable. If the supply of workers and the money to pay them (and let’s face it, both are important factors) is inadequate, then one must of necessity cut back to what is manageable.
But there is an alternative. The document putting forward the current proposals for the diocese is titled ‘Re-imagining Ministry’. Why not, though, re-imagine church itself? If the old ‘church’ is dying, perhaps it is time to let it die and to hail something new.
One of the great insights of Roland Allen’s approach was that the early church did not have missionary organizations, it was a missionary organization. Where the word of God took root, what sprung up was a church, which was both the fruit of mission and the agent of further mission.
His other great insight was that a church, to be a church, must be complete in all respects, including both a sacramental ministry and, to that end, sacramental ministers.
Now these might seem strange words coming from a Conservative Evangelical like myself. Either that, or it will automatically be assumed I am arguing for ‘lay celebration’. But in fact if we go about things in an orderly fashion, there is no reason why we need have a revolution with regard to church order, provided we are prepared to be radically imaginative.
If the person who administers the Lord’s Supper must, in the Anglican way of doing things, be an episcopally ordained priest, then let the bishop designate those in each local congregation who administer the Lord’s Supper as priests. In short, let him ordain them. If the sacraments are important to the life of the congregation, then it only makes sense to ensure that they are available to the congregation. Otherwise, those congregations are weakened and their mission is therefore undermined.
Now having said that, it is also clear, as Allen observes, that a lot more needs to be done to explain the sacraments themselves. And here there is a great deal of work to do.
Allen emphasizes the sacraments because he believes that, properly administered, they embody and pass on the core of the Christian message. And I agree with him. But we ought not to assume that just because we are ‘sacramentalists’ this is actually happening.
Consider, on the one hand, baptism. I have often remarked on the fact that after Philip had explained to the Ethiopian Eunuch that Isaiah 53 was pointing to the gospel of Jesus, the latter said to him, “Here is water, what is to prevent me being baptized?” Yet very few of our gospel presentations today would ever lead anyone to ask the same question. Does this not mean there is something missing in the way we present the gospel (and not just ‘believe and be baptized’)? As Colossians 3:11-12 shows, baptism was central to the early Christian understanding not just of ‘how to become’ a Christian but what ‘being a Christian’ actually meant:
11 In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.
On the other hand, it is also clear from the New Testament that their version of the Lord’s Supper was much more a supper, much less a symbolic gesture, than our own. As such, it was a practical embodiment on a regular basis of what baptism expressed in an initiatory way — our union with Christ and with one another brought about by his death and resurrection and our incorporation in him:
17 Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.
And arguably, a proper handing on of this sacramental tradition might go some way to preventing the schism that is so often feared (and sometimes indeed results) from a freer, less controlling, approach to church life.
But for this to be attempted, there is another change which needs to take place in our ecclesiology.
I have often heard things said along the lines that the task of the church is to discover God’s mission in the world and to involve itself in that (or something along similar lines). The image is of a God who is carrying out his own mission, and a church which comes alongside that work and joins in with it.
I believe it is a popular model. And I believe it is not only utterly wrong, but totally debilitating when it comes to the life of the church.
The reason is it wrong is that the church is not ‘involved’ in God’s mission, it is the instrument of God’s mission. Consider what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:18-20:
18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.
Here we see a proper understanding of the Church in the missio Dei. In Christ, God indeed did a unique and direct work of reconciling the world to himself. But now that work has been committed to the Church. The Church is the instrument of the missio Dei. Therefore we cannot tolerate the Church being cut back and reduced. On the contrary, we must constantly seek to multiply and increase the Church!
The problem is our understanding of ministry and ministers. As I have said, our attitude to them closely parallels the attitude of western missionaries in native lands critiqued by Roland Allen.
Ministers must have a particular sort of training, of equipping, of authorizing, of calling and so on. Even the discernment of their ministry takes years! And of course it must if it is going to cost tens of thousands of pounds to train them and deploy them and support them — to say nothing of their pensions, given the ridiculous longevity they seem to have.
But what if we said, the important thing is not maintaining our standards of what we presume to be the necessary quality and qualities of ministers, but the expansion of the Church? What if we were willing to multiply ministers, yes even to multiply bishops, because we saw the mission of God, and the Church’s place in that, differently?
Of course the result might be chaos, but wasn’t that what the European missionary bodies said about the natives back in the 1900s? And what do we think now of the attitude they had then?
Roland Allen was, I believe, a visionary. But his vision has yet to find its full realization. Yet perhaps the time has come and our sheer inability to keep the old system going will force us to confront new possibilities. One such may be discovering that the problem was not our orders so much as our protectiveness of them, which in the end reflected a mistrust of the work of the Spirit of God in the people of God.
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  1. Thank you very much, John for pointing us back to Roland Allen (former vicar of Chalfont St Peter among other things). I have long suspected he was way ahead of his time, certainly in the questions he raised if not all the answers. He dreamed of an organic church grown from the hearts of disciples outward, rather than an engineered top-down centralised organisation. Apart from Vincent Donovan, probably the most forward thinking missionary writer of the last century, I'd love to revisit his ideas in the light of today's concerns — in these days of Amazon second hand, it might happen. For now, thanks again for pointing me back in RA's direction.

    1. So you will be getting a proper job, will you, Alan? Getting involved in a local congregation, growing organically from there? Or will you continue to be part of the engineered top-down centralised organisation?


  2. thank you John - another post that I'm sure I'll come back to re-read frequently.
    one question, though: given that we do indeed need local teams to lead each local congregation and expand the church, now that the requirement (at least in Chelmsford diocese) to have a weekly communion in every parish has been relaxed, is it really necessary to ordain one of the local church team in every place? or might communion be given a greater prominence by being celebrated less frequently but as the climax of (say) each month, with the visionary leader of the pastoral unit present to celebrate it and inspire the peoplle for the coming month? this is the model used by churches in some other parts of the world to some effect.
    andy griffiths
    southwest chelmsford mission and ministry unit

  3. Andy, the 'communion every Sunday' rule was, of course, relaxable anyway. And we must bear in mind that the way we do communion can be a deterrent to fringe members. At the moment our congregational meetings often act as a shop window and a place for outsiders. We need to 'rediscover' the Lord's Supper and do some thinking around that.

    We have to ask, how does the Lord's Supper 'proclaim the Lord's death' and unite and build up the body? The I am saying we need to have a mechanism for allowing congregations and gatherings of the Lord's people to 'do this in remembrance of me' and 'as oft as you drink/eat it' (though the 'it' in this case is, I presume, the wine drunk 'in remembrance', ie the wine of the Lord's Supper, not a pint down the pub).

    Sorry if that's a bit rambly.

  4. If within 'the Church' you include the other Christian denominations, then the pattern is already quite varied ... there is much to learn from that variety.

  5. Devon Main, but if I may say so, there is a tendency to 'mimicry' of the 'traditional' way of doing things, just as 'native' churches in Allen's missionary areas were mimicking what they saw as 'real church', rather than being released to follow a model that reflected (what Allen at least saw as) the NT model.

  6. Speaking as a non-Anglican, some of the things that are being discussed on this thread are already happening in other Christian denominations. I am currently working towards accreditation as a lay Baptist pastor. I did my theological and pastoral training at Bristol Baptist College (which has links with Trinity College Bristol) over three years part-time on a special course that is designed by BBC for ‘lay ‘ members who feel called to participate in leadership roles in their local churches.

    I have a full time secular job and am part of the leadership team at my local Baptist church which is a small rural church in a coastal community in Devon. My training means I am able to perform all the functions of a full time Baptist minster. The advantages of this arrangement is that the church does not need to have a full –time minster – we do have a part-time one but that the pastoral and other ministries are effectively devolved to members of the congregation who have been trained to do them ( I am not the only one who has done this course). It also saves money!

    The interesting effect on our church on this style of leadership has been that the membership has grown in an area which is really quite remote from large populations including more baptisms and people coming to know Christ. We are also closer together as a congregation.

    While Baptist churches are not the same as Anglican ones (we are wet all over), I think the way forward is most definitely from the local church outwards rather from the top down.

    I remain challenged by the passage in Revelation 2 and the letters to the seven churches. It has always seemed to me that lesson to be learnt here is that God judges individual churches by their local witness and their faithfulness to the truth – not as being part of some larger ecclesiastical institution. If we want to keep out lamp stand in its place then this is the way to go.

    Chris Bishop

  7. John. You have said much in your post which impose constraints on time and space.

    Allen was indeed a visionary and you are,I believe, wholly right that "his vision has yet to find its full realization". His book on the 'Spontaneous Expansion.....was preceded by its forerunner, namely, "Missionary Methods: St Paul's or Ours?" in 1927.

    Both books are dated in the sense that he was addressing the ecclesiology of a different era, yet I'm sure the principles he discerned and espoused are, as I think you agree, never more needed.
    However, I wonder if you are aware that your post title "Re-imagining Church" is the actual book title of an equally visionary treatment of the doctrine of the church - with the additonal sub-title "Pursuing the Dream of Organic Christianity" by F. Viola.

    It was first published in 2008 and in my view and that of its many reviewers is one of the best works on the NT concept of the church of Christ available today - and it has quickly become something of a 'classic'. Roland Allen would have approved of Viola's clear vision too!

    One reviewer, Dr Jon Zens, says of it: "The body of Christ has been stifled by human traditions for far too long: Reimagining Church charts a fresh course for the church that recovers the simplicity of Christ and listens seriously to what the voice of the Great Shepherd is saying to his people"

    One central question: Can the C of E recover such a vision, and can it reform its deeply entrenched institutionalism? I think not, and for that reason many reformers, recognising this virtual inevitability have had to leave the church, and do something else in order to fulfill the realisation of which you speak. (Viola - available from Amazon for about £8. An absolute gem!)
    Graham Wood(York)

  8. Thanks Graham. Like you, I am not at all sure we CAN do this. For a start, there is far too much investment already in status. I remember Bishop Colin Buchanan saying that one of the most significant things about bishops was their rarity value - in other words, we kept the numbers small quite deliberately to make the post important. Where would the prizes be if we had lots of bishops?

    Nevertheless, I am willing to knock on the doors to see if any of them open.

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  10. There is no dying church its a people who are dying.. They have lock to believe and faith to the Lord. That is why missionaries are here to keep reminding us.

    Thanks and God Bless!