Britain is now a mission field. The notion
of Christendoma country so thoroughly Christianised that everybody knows the
gospelmay never have actually been a reality but there is no doubt that Britain
in the early 21st century is a pagan country which has little contact with the
good news of Jesus.
The following chart gives an indication of
how things were in the mid-1990s:
Richter & Leslies research suggests that
40% of the population have no experience of church at all. I suspect that this
gives too rosy a picture because this number is rising every year. Very few
children (4% according to Church Trends, cited in Cray et al 2004:41) now attend
Sunday School and the church is simply an unknown for them. This is not all bad
news as we shall see, but it is certainly enough to confirm that Christendom is
no more. It is also not justor principallyabout numbers, as Graham Cray
reminds us: The numbers are merely a warning sign that we are out of touch with
our God-given context. (2002:17)
Nick Spencers small-scale focus group
study (2000) help to put a bit of flesh on these bare bones. He talked to five
small groups of people who all identified themselves as neither committed
believers nor committed unbelievers. Two of the groups were 18-24, two 24-45 and
one 45+; two were male only, two female-only and one mixed. Socioeconomically,
all participants were B, C1 or C2.
Some of Spencers key findings were:
Religion is a dirty word and it
is smart to decry it.
Christians are hypocrites.
Christians are intolerant.
Each individual has the right
to choosepick n mixtheir own creed or belief system.
Churches are dreary,
antiquated, unwelcoming, with long sermons and are always wanting money.
Science has disproved religion.
Spirituality is good.
It would be nice to believe in
God but it isnt intellectually defensible.
People have lost any sense of
Spencers study, though small, graphically
illustrates the gulf between the church and the world which has opened up. It
also offers some grounds for optimism: there is a desire to believe,
spirituality is increasingly important, people still yearn for the numinous and
some people are beginning to sense that new forms of church are emerging. The
big question is, how should the church respond to all this? (The even bigger
question is, How is the church responding?)
What is the church?
Before considering how the church should
respond I will take a brief look at the nature of the church itself. What is the
church? Who is a member? Although according to the OED church is derived from
Old English circe and ultimately from kuriakon meaning Lords (house), giving
etymological justification for those who use it primarily to refer to a
building, in this discussion I am more interested in the ecclesia, the assembly
of Gods people.
Even so, there are considerable
difficulties since we are still prone to make a series of assumptions which may
not be justified. For instance, does an assembly have to be co-located? If so,
in what way? Modern habits of associationfew physical
meetings but much contact by texting, for instance (Ward 2002:88ff)and recent
reflections on the nature of community (Myers 2003) have started some to
challenge the importance of physical intimacy and contiguity in being church. I
am persuaded that these ideas are worth taking further but for the time being I
will focus on somewhat more traditional models.
So, who is part of the church? Once more,
a plethora of definitions suggest themselves. Since the notion of definition is
a rather modern one (though the question engaged the primitive church too) I am
drawn to the suggestion of Graham Cray (2002) and Pete Ward (2002) that the
church is made up of all those who are in Christ. From this it may follow that
churches are assemblies (whether in physical or virtual) of those who are in
Christ. The assembly will also contain a number of people who are not yet in
Christ but who are drawn towards him in some way.
But this brings up another key question:
if the church is the communion of all those saints who are in Christ, whether
here on earth or in the hereafter, what is a church? Is the church (assembly) in
a parish all those people who live in the parish and worship regularly at the
parish church? I doubt if this applies to many churches today. At Bacton at
least five core members do not live in the village but would be considered as
much a part of the local church as those who do.
If a church has several services on a
Sunday (or even during the week) and these develop into separate (though
possibly overlapping) congregations, is each congregation to be considered as a
separate church (see Lings 2001 for a discussion)? Or is the 10:30 congregation
superior to the 8:00 congregation or the youth congregation? When I was at St
Marys, Ealing I very much enjoyed worshipping with Grace, one of the first of
the alt.worship congregations. But it used to worry me that they did not
integrate better with the main church.
I have come to believe that this was wrong
thinking; each congregation should be respected as its own authentic expression
of Christs body here on earth (unless it is clearly apostate, of coursethe
Nine Oclock service provides an example of this). Each has the potential to
develop the marks of churchworship, mission & community (Lings 2001) or, as Bob
Hopkins (2000) suggests, a Jesus community of disciple-making disciples. On
the other hand, Cray et al offer three marks of church which may not be
applicable to individual congregationsself-propagating, self-financing &
Small groups also challenge traditional
ways of thinking about a church. Whether they are cell groups (Astin 2002,
Hopkins 2000) or base communities (Hinton 1998, Price 1998), transforming
communities (Croft 2002) or just good old-fashioned home groups, small groups
need to be considered as more than incidental assemblies in the wider life of
the church. In some cases they may be the church. In others they are not.
Perhaps in the end we shouldnt worry so
much. If we can move away from using the phrase a church and instead speak of
something like expression of church we will be better able to embrace Rowan
Williams mixed economy: there are many authentic expressions of churchsome
are small groups, some are traditional congregations, some look very different
What is an authentic expression of church?
But if there can be many expressions of
church, how can we tell if they are authentic? One test might be to see how
closely they conform to the 4D model (adapted from Cray et al 2004:98). This
suggests that there are four dimensions by which any Christian community can
test its own authenticity:
An authentic expression of church is
focused on God through Jesus. If Jesus is not at the heart of all it does then
it needs to ask some serious questions. We are not here to thrive and be
successful; we are not here to complement the work of social services; we are
not here to provide a social club or church preservation societywe are here to
worship God and be fellow workers with him in the work of the kingdom.
Through Jesus we experience a transforming
relationship with God. An authentic expression of church takes this experience
of communion and builds on it, so that a community is created which is mutually
supportive, encouraging, and seeks to live out a life of love.
The church of Christ exists to participate
in Gods work of bringing about his kingdom. The great commission is binding on
all expressions of church and a community of disciples which is not also seeking
to be disciple-making is missing a dimension. An authentic expression of church
will actively seek to help others come to a saving knowledge and relationship
with Jesus, no matter where they are.
The work of Gods people also requires
care for Gods people wherever they are (e.g. James 1:28). Ministering to the
wider community is a feature of the authentic expression of church. Neither
doing good to nor preaching the good news at will be effective but building
relationships of genuine caring and a real desire to listen and empathise will
enable the sharing of the good news of Jesus to be offered without causing
Of or With
The fourth dimension is somewhat different
from the others but no less important. Any expression of church must remember
that it is just thatan expression of something which is timeless, universal and
rooted in an absolute truth (no matter how partially we may grasp that truth).
The church is the body of Christ, the community of all those in communion with
him. Any expression which forgets this and starts to do its own thing will
quickly become a sect or even a cult. Any group of Christians may get together
to become an expression of church but if they lose their links to the one holy
catholic and apostolic church they will surely founder on the rocks of heresy.
Some expressions of church
Having been liberated from the tyranny of
the notion that there can be a church rather than expressions of the
church, we can start to look at how these expressions might be made manifest. If
we assume, following the thrust of Article 24, that it is a thing plainly
repugnant to the Word of God that church should be expressed in a tongue not
understanded of the people then each expression should be culturally relevant.
In a fragmented culture this inevitably means that we need a multiplicity of
expressions. This is the only way in which the church can respond to its current
situation; attempting to privilege one form over all the others will simply lead
us further along the path of irrelevance.
It is important to recognise that
traditional expressions of church continue to be culturally relevant to a large
number of people. We must respect that. I worry about attempts to impose a one
size fits all approach to traditional church. It would be better to offer
diversity, either within a single parish or at different parishes within a
beneficeBCP, happy-clappy, straight Common Worship, child-friendly, catholic,
contemplative and so on. The Church of England has a rich liturgical heritage,
which enables it naturally to find a number of different ways of expressing
Many of the denominational battles of the
past, with their liturgical totems, are coming to be seen as irrelevant to a
postmodern sensibility. Postdenomenationalism is gradually becoming a fact of
life for an increasing number of Christians; the battle lines drawn in a
modernist past are losing their meaning for even the average person in the
pewlet alone those outside the church. Choosing to focus on one traditional
expression has the effect of forbidding the little children who do not respond
to that expression. Our Lord may not look too kindly on us if we do this.
It goes beyond matters of liturgical style
into pastoral care and spiritual development. A BCP congregation may thrive but
it would be unrealistic to expect it to behave in the same way as a happy-clappy
congregation. The latter may thrive on mid-week small group meetings, the former
may require an entirely different approach towards their spiritual formation.
There is, especially in evangelical circles, an assumption that intimacy is the
only appropriate mode of relationship for truly spiritual Christians. This
assumption needs to be examined and possibly challenged (see Myers 2003 and Ward
2003). It may be that each traditional expression needs its own kind of
pastoring and its own modalities of spiritual growth.
I believe that many of the open
de-churched would be more likely to re-connect if there were fewer compromises
and more genuine options in the parish setting. We see in our villages that many
core members vote with their feet, only attending certain types of service. We
could berate them for their lack of faithfulness or we could respect their own
sense of how they can best come into communion with God. If we do the latter
then it will change the whole way we relate to them (in this I speak more to
myself than to others).
Fresh expressions of church
Although traditional expressions of church
are still relevant to many, it is obvious that they have no relevance to the
majority. I believe that we need to conduct holy experiments, seeking to
discover what will connect to different segments of society. Some will succeed,
some will fail; thats OK in this context. There are many examples of such holy
experiments (though those involved in them may not have conceptualised them this
way)the bibliography gives a little information about some of them; look in
particular at George Lings Encounters on the Edge and some of the Grove
Booklets. Here I will explore a few of the themes which seem to be emerging from
In the fresh expressions of church there
is an increasing emphasis on the value of small groups. Indeed, it is the
proliferation of small group expressions which has led to a lot of the
ecclesiological questioning. There is, however, no consensus on the role or
purpose of such groups. Most agree that the traditional home group or bible
study group is not radical enough to effect transformation or fresh expression
because the missionary emphasis has largely been lost though John Mallison, for
instance, includes preparation for mission as one of the seven core roles of a
small Christian group mission (1989:7ff).
More radical expressions of small group
come from South America (base ecclesial communities) and South Asia (cell
churches). The base ecclesial communities grew from the experience of
disenfranchised groups in South America who took matters into their own hands.
They are usually lay led and take their inspiration from liberation theology.
In this country the New Way of Being
Church movement, led by Bishop Peter Price, is perhaps the best known
manifestation of the base community approach. The focus is practical: Small
groups exist to make a difference, to bring about change. (Hinton 1998:29) and
focused on transforming the local community in some way.
In contrast, the focus of the cell group
approach (Astin 2002, Hopkins 2000, Lings 2003b) is growth, both growth of the
individual members and of the cell itself. The cell approach includes the
explicit assumption that cells will grow and divide just as living cells do.
Thus there is a constant pressure is to grow new leaders who can guide the newly
budded cell after division.
Most cell groups follow some sort of 4W
format as the basic structure for their meetings, though the exact phases vary.
Howard Astin uses Welcome, Worship, Word, Works, while Paul Bayes uses Welcome,
Worship, Witness & Word (Lings 2003b). The basic intent is the same, though, the
group pays attention to itself in the welcome (the in dimension), worships
(the up dimension), studies the word (the with dimension) and witnesses to
others (the out dimension).
It could be suggested that base and cell
each offer only a partial exposition of the out dimension: one emphasising
proclamation, the other social action. Both are crucial to the churches work as
a partner with God in the bringing in of the kingdom and it would be good to
have small groups which explicitly recognise the need for each even though base
and cell come from two different traditions.
Does the community always have to meet on
a Sunday? There is no biblical injunction to that effect although it was clearly
the practice of the early church. Today there are many people for whom Sunday is
difficult or impossibleshift workers, single parents who can only see their
children on a Sunday, families who only have Sunday together, and so on. There
are others, such as parents of children who want to do sports on a Sunday
morning, who choose children over church. Perhaps they should not, but they do.
One way to acknowledge this is to offer
the opportunity to gather together for worship and teaching at a different time.
George Lings (2001) offers some examples and I know of a successful after-school
gathering which meets on a Wednesday afternoon with a very child-friendly
service. Many of the mums were previously unchurched but have now become regular
and faithful members.
Midweek church often meets in a venue
other than the regular church building. This is not essential but it can offer a
way in for some people (we have observed that there are some people who will
come to our beach services who will not come into the building).
Some writers (e.g. Hunter 2000)
distinguish Roman and Celtic models of evangelism. The Roman model assumes that
existing church practice is the best and requires converts to adopt it. The
Celtic model tries to create new models which remain faithful to the core
beliefs of the church but which translate these into cultural forms which speak
the language of the people.
The alternative worship movement (often
known as alt.worship in homage to alt. news groups on the internet) adopts the
Celtic perspective, arguing that we must develop worship forms which are more
accessible to a postmodern generation: participatory, postliterate, exploratory
Alternative worship (Baker & Gay 2003,
Kimball 2003, Miller 2003, Pagitt 2003) will use contemporary musicboth
Christian and secularand the style may be upbeat dance music or chilled-out
ambient style. Video projection, of both still and moving images, is common and
PowerPoint presentations are often used very creatively (unlike in business!).
There is a richness of symbolism and although most alt.worship groups spring
from an evangelical home they make great use of traditional catholic rituals
such as stations of the cross.
Participation and choice are key
components in alternative worship. It is common for there to be times in a
service when participants can choose to visit one of a number of prayer
stations. Each prayer station will contain some activity to engage the senses,
such as lighting an incense stick, washing of hands or feet, drawing or working
with plasticene, lighting candles, and so on. Great attention is also paid to
the environment. Many alt.worship groups meet in church buildings but they often
transform them with drapes, gauzes and lighting effects.
Recently I was musing on the use of our
church building at St Andrews. We know that many people come and visit during
the week, some regularly, some just passing through. There seem to be two main
things which draw thema love of history and the sense of peace which they
experience there. The two are not necessarily entirely disconnected as each is
about connecting with something other, the imagined past or the numinous.
What if these visits are an expression of
church too? Of course, there is no sense of gathered community but is that
always necessary (see above)? And even if they are
not, it is still relevant to ask what we can offer to such people. As I was
contemplating this I was reminded of another ancient ritual which has been taken
up by the some of the alternative worship groupswalking the labyrinth. It
seemed to me that we could use some aspects of this to offer a more complete
experience of spirituality to those who visit our building.
Indeed, we could tie the historical and
spiritual together with a guided tour around the church, offering both a guide
to the history in the form of a booklet (we do have one but it is out of print,
waiting for me to revise it) and a number of prayer stations around the
church. We have already made a start on this with the candle stand and prayer
request book but we could take it further: for instance, we could have a pile of
stones and a bowl near to the font. We could invite people to take a stone to
symbolise sort part of themselves which they were dissatisfied with and which
needed cleansing and to place it into the water as a symbolic form of
Many other ideas crowd in but I want to
leave them for a time and get together a small creative group to work on this;
the results will be much richer and there will be a greater ownership of the
idea. I will broach it with the ministry team at the presentation.
The ideal, then, as portrayed in this
essay is for each ecclesial centre to offer a wide range of expressions of
church, some traditional, some modern, some postmodern. This is a formidable
challenge in terms of resources, especially leadership resources. Each separate
expression requires a different form of pastoral support and style of
I believe that the church can cope with
this but it will require bold thinking and a great deal of courage, especially
on the part of stipendiary clergy who have to learn new ways of relating to
their parishioners. As Paul Bayes, the newly appointed National Advisor for
Mission & Evangelism, said at the Mission-Shaped Church Conference on 23rd June
2004, stipendiary priests are going to have to be more episcopal while locally
ordained ministers will become the elders of local congregations.
Yet even this will not be enough; there
will also have to be a significant increase in lay leadership, though not
everyone will go as far as Martin Goldsmith of All Nations College who wrote
recently in the Church of England Newspaper: The laity should be set free not
just to do the non-sacramental work which the ordained person has not the time
or energy to do. They should be placed in full charge of their congregations
with decision-making powers. This must include the right to officiate in the
sacraments. (17th June 2004, p6)
I would quarrel with the use of the phrase
in full charge as it suggests a style of leadership far removed from Jesus
ideal (Luke 22:24ff) and it is also clear that the Church of England is still
not ready for lay presidency. Yet the pressure for this will certainly grow as
fresh expressions of church flourish. Rowan Williams was challenged about this
at the Mission Shaped Church Conference on behalf of youth leaders who find it
awkward to have to call in a priest whenever they want to celebrate the
I am unconvinced at present. The arguments
for lay presidency may be strong but they are not yet overwhelming. Indeed, it
seems to me that if fresh expressions flourish this will be one way in which the
with dimension can be emphasised. Ordained clergyand especially stipendiary
clergywill find themselves taking on yet another episcopal role: that of the
early bishop who would preside at the Eucharist in local churches as a sign of
Whether the Church of England can respond
to the challenges of a postmodern society is still in the balance. There is much
goodwill in the senior echelons but in many ways it is easier for them; their
way of working is not being challenged so much. There is also still a lack of
resources available for pump priming fresh expressions of church. Perhaps
until the C of E is ready to put its money where its mouth is the question marks