Enjoying a spell of leave and travelling across a dazzling variety of cultures and sub-cultures gives me opportunity to explore some theological and cultural thoughts as they relate to missional church.
That last phrase – ‘missional church’ – is one that is now much used, but without much focus. It seems to be an amorphous term for having some sense of purpose, with or without a clear vision, planning and a strategy.
Yet the biblical notion of mission is much more specific than that. It is God who has a purpose and will, and we as the people of God are draw into that—indeed, our being gathered and formed as the people of God is part of God’s plan for the full realisation of creation and redemption.
In one of the central piazzas in Florence, I came across a small shop that was a telling story in itself. It was a regulation souvenir corner store, except that it also advertised itself as an outlet for Kodak film. The fact that it still had some stock of such film is noteworthy, but the Eastman Kodak brand is in a perilous business position, having filed for bankruptcy protection in January this year. Kodak is one of a string of high profile brands who failed to recognise shifts in their particular markets to the extent that they face significant challenges to survive in any viable form—companies such as Nokia and Blackberry which have previously enjoyed market dominance.
Of course it is true that the church is not a commodity seeking a place in the marketplace, but there are profound lessons nonetheless. Do I believe the church of God will survive in a post-Christendom, post-modern and post-Christian era? I do not doubt it. However, if the question is more focussed along the lines of ‘do I believe that the Anglican Church in western cultural churches will survive, I am far more doubtful. I believe there is a strong likelihood that the Anglican Church (in western cultural contexts) will all but cease to exist in any significant form within twenty years.
That may sound far off, but bear in mind that this is quite a bit less than the span of my ordained life (27 years). And the real pressure will be much sooner than that, with closures and declining provision of dedicated ministry dropping from the present less than half time patterns (my own diocese has an increasing number of .4 funded positions), alongside the significantly increasing average age profile of our churches. As the average age moves from the high 60’s, into the 70’s, so the energy levels and capacity to sustain existing ministry modes will come under even greater stress. With few exceptions, amalgamations and collaborative ministry arrangements have failed to provide for longer-term stability, let alone growth.
None of this is news to those on the ground. Yet I am still struck by a culture of complacency in all too many Anglican churches. There is a strong attitude of denial, and a form of ‘Dover Beach’ idealism (Matthew Arnold’s famous poem, waiting for the tide to turn and return to the good old days). There is still a hope that if we remain much as we are (because we value it so highly), and with just enough interest by the occasional newcomer who is attracted to our eccentricities, we are convinced that decline will turn around and the wider populace will start to return to our doors. Yet the reality is that we are ministering to an ever-diminishing socio-cultural pond that will soon be little more than a puddle. The church of the British Empire planted in colonial outposts will soon go the way of the empire itself, and find itself on the margins of significance. A culture of ministering from a position of privilege and social respect is very much a thing of the past, and the church is finding itself bewildered by the diversity of the global village on our own doorsteps.
While the language of being a missional church is increasingly adopted, I still get the impression that this is all too often on the basis of ‘church as usual, with an extra focus on welcoming visitors and potential newcomers’. If we can just do what we do that much better, and improve our community profile, interest will return. Or alternatively, if we can just find the right entrepreneurial leader, churches can be turned around and more vibrant churches re-established.
Yet such hopes will at best be the exception rather than the norm, and even then will only be sustainable if a steady stream of such able leaders can be encouraged and trained for ministry within our present church cultural modes (the most able are increasingly shying away from working within the existing institutional culture).
Something much more profound needs to be happening if mainstream churches are to move from being twenty to thirty years behind the pace, to ten years ahead—and in my estimation such change is needed within the next three to five years. And the clock to five years away starts right now.
The vital quality for a fruitful future is not strategic thinking or consideration of ‘market share’ in attracting people to Anglican forms of church, but faithfulness to the mission God calls us to. It is not an optional extra for those into such matters. It is intrinsic to our baptismal calling, to discipleship and the whole rationale of the kingdom.
This may sound obvious, but the implications are profound. To be candid, our goal is not just to establish (or improve) a church service (Sunday or otherwise) that attracts a sufficient number of people to be viable, but to gather a community of committed followers of Christ with a focus on growing in personal and communal discipleship and being about engaging with the non-churchgoing people in response to God’s missional call on that church.
This will involve ‘being’ church Monday to Friday and focus on every member ministry, on bridge-building initiatives, and on meeting people where they are.
Undergirding the call to missional ministry is not so much the proverbial ‘bank manager’ who wants to see our business plan, but a theological rediscovery of the missio Dei, and a deeper understanding of mission in incarnational terms.
While reference to the incarnational calling upon the church is generally well-recognised, it is largely limited to geographical location: to living in the context of some form of neighbourhood.
Yet I contend that to live incarnationally is to enter and adopt a culture as much as a location. Christ didn’t just take human form, but adopted Jewish culture, language, customs and all the socio-cultural realities of being identified with his community.
The onus in being incarnational is to set aside one’s own culture and accommodate other cultures to the fullest extent possible without compromising fidelity to God’s ethical expectations and core values of righteousness and justice.
The great missional exponent the apostle Paul recognised this as he moved from one culture to another in being dedicated to his calling as an apostle (see especially 1 Corinthians 9), and this imperative for cultural accommodation for the purposes of missional ministry is no less relevant to the church today.
And to return again to speaking bluntly: the Anglican church needs to get a whole lot better at it if it is to survive, let alone bear fruit of any consequence.