This is a workshop given by Melissa Graham Burke at the Vital Church Planting Conference 2011.
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This lecture was delivered at the Vital Church Planting Conference in Toronto Feb 2008 : Session TWO
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The 2nd session takes DNA in another sense and teases out how it happens – what are the processes or mechanisms of creating or planting churches.
In England we have nearly stopped using the noun a church plant for at least two reasons. One we have found there are many kinds of churches that can be planted so the language of church plant is too restrictive. 2nd our experience has been that too many so called church plants have been unhelpfully similar to the parent body that sent them and not well enough adapted to their mission context. If effect they were transplanted. So we prefer to call what is being created “fresh expressions of church”. However we still think that the verb church planting is valuable, it describes a process, and the first session partly explored why. Church Planting is the discipline and Fresh Expressions are the fruit of that discipline. So we would talk of planting fresh expressions of church. [FXC]
This connects with the first point to make about DNA understood as how planting FXC happens.
1 Seeds are key
Going our from existing church in apostolic mission we take with us seeds – of both the gospel and church – as we saw in session one. The seeds only get taken out and planted as the missionary journey unfolds. These seeds then must die to take root in the context to which we are sent. The essential principle is, SEEDS MUST BE ALLOWED TO DIE. The report
Mission-shaped Church talks about this both in its 3rd chapter on church planting and its chapter 5 on theology.
This instinct is rooted in Jesus words in John 12; they suggest that dying to live is inherent in the Christian way. This is not some weird game only those in planting FXC play. Baptism should have reminded us of that, it is symbolic enactment of, and identification with, the Death and Resurrection of Christ. He makes it clear that his patterns are to be ours. John 12 contains the text “If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also.” It is curious and worrying that while we have taken the notion of death and resurrection into some liturgical rites, we link it to the church’s year, we embrace it in some patterns of spirituality, but we have broadly omitted taking it into mission. Yet the very person who taught mission to us said it was the pattern of his mission. Jesus made it quite clear that his followers are committed to his pattern. Turn on in the same Gospel, to John 20, and the same Jesus is bringing peace among the startled disciplines. He shows them his hands and his side – the cost is not glossed over. Then these missionary headline words follow, or if you prefer ecclesiological language – at this point apostolic identity, is conferred on the church.”As the Father sent me so I send you.” What a word as is: As – in the same manner as I was sent as God’s apostle – so I send youAs – on the same journey from incarnational identification with culture, to disclosure of the Lordship endorsing counter cultural engagement – so I send you.As – in the same way as I the seed died in the ground and have now emerged both similar and different – so I send you.As I – [in the way Paul described in Philippians 2] the eternal Son was willing to die to the glories of heaven, to be transformed into the form of a dying slave – so I send you.As – in the same way of becoming very different to become like those to whom I was sent, – so I send you. Have no doubt that the patterns of Jesus are for us all. They are for the whole church, most especially when it gets clear that Church is extension of the mission of Jesus. The patterns apply to the creation of Fresh Expressions of Church. They apply in all cross cultural work. Dying to live is normal., because it was the norm set by Christ.
Jesus teaching on dying to live , is normative for the church. In John 12 he shows that he saw his own life and ministry, as a seed that would die, only by this could new life come as he was raised by the Father, and would this lead to the creating of much fruit.
Lets move from theology to practical experience. We know that to grow a plant you must sow a seed. Seeds left in an unopened packet cannot be described as planted. They must be moved out of the packet. What then happens is that they are buried in the soil. That means an intentional end of their existence. You don’t see them again. But then something related to the seed, but different from it, starts to grow up, out of the ground. Paul knows this factor of similarity and difference and he teaches it in 1 Cor 15 in relation to death and eternal life.
Let’s translate that dynamic into the church planting process in any mission context. The seed stands for the incoming church planting team, bearing in their bones the essence of the gospel and of the church. This seed dies to its previous identity in this sense. These people were part of a particular sending church; which had its own particular manifestations and culture. They have to be willing to set aside those preferences and likes, to find how to be church and how to communicate gospel in the context to which God sends them. This is not new. It is like Paul saying in 1 Cor 9 “to the Greeks I became as a Greek”. For some today it might mean, to the Pagans, I became as a Pagan. So this seed will become a body, a plant, that it was not before. The Plant and the seed are related, but also different, as 1 Cor 15 teaches. Dying to Live is inherent in the church planting discipline and process. The planting team [or seed], by mixing with its mission context, becomes rooted there. It draws nourishment and resources from that environment as it sends out roots and then a shoot emerges. By this process, it dies as a seed, changing from what it was. In church planting, the seed community becomes a new body of believers, as well as a body of new believers. As such the planting analogy has real strengths. It conveys by analogy, what should occur theologically, in all mission and is especially obvious when it is cross cultural.
There are however a dangers in the planting way of thinking. One comes from a view of what is being planted. Seed is just a helpful analogy. The reality is that a Jesus centred community-in-mission are entering another area or culture in order to be gospel and create church that relates to that area of culture. This is certainly not a mechanical process that can be totally controlled like a production line. Some teaching about church planting feels rather like that – do the following 17 precise steps and you will have church. Sorry its more organic and uncertain than that. Nor is it even only biological, and if a few dozen seeds die it doesn’t matter because you’ll get enough vegetables in the end from ones that make it. That won’t do either – this is a human and spiritual process. It needs the kind of love, intention, care, thought and skill that we apply to human reproduction from pregnancy to birth.
Willingness to die to my preferences about how to do church, so that others in the receiving culture may be found by Jesus and a fresh expression of church suited to them comes to life is honourable and essential. Being mechanistic about the process or cavalier about the costs is quite another matter.
Here’s another skill we learning about in the process – of how you decide, in the dying to live process what kept and what can change.
2 Double Listening
The next principle in methodology, for all cases, is what the Church of England report Mission-shaped
Church calls DOUBLE LISTENING. It is related to the seeds dying principle. To reach other people different from them, those sent have to die to their own preferences about how to do church – then what is the essence of what must be kept ? This is very like asking what is the DNA of gospel and church within the dying seed, that grows into the roots put down and emerges to shape the newly planted church? We looked at that content in session one.
This process of finding that out involves two things. Both are forms of attending to what God is saying. Double listening means entering and understanding the culture in which a church might be established, truly listening to the mission context – like Paul did in Athens in Acts 17. It also means sifting the inherited tradition of both gospel and church and finding its essence, not its forms. This is what Paul is doing when he rejects circumcision as necessary for new Greek Christian believers. Double listening is complex, but it enables hearing a richer more accurate sound and better for determining what expression a new church might take.
Some people misunderstand about the sources to listen to. Here is an example from the Church of England Board of Readers website
Double Listening is the faculty of listening to two voices at the same time, the voice of God through Scripture and the voices of men and women around us.
This builds on the John Stott view that we listen to God’s Word and God’s world. I agree that both belong to God. I agree that the Word has a higher authority for us in determining what we believe and do.
However this view is narrow in two ways. It separates out listening to the Word, from the listening that comes from knowing the living tradition, which has grown from the word, and helps us be more humble and flexible in returning to the Word, but which never has a higher authority than the word. It also separates listening to the Word, from listening to the Holy Spirit, who will be active in the world and the particular culture to which any apostolic person is sent. There will also be the factor that God, as Creator, has left some finger prints of himself within that culture. The classic NT examples of this process of listening to God through the world would be Peter learning from the Cornelius story and Paul learning from his
Athens visit. So double listening, as I meant it inMission-shapedChurch, is seriously saying that the voice of God is being sought with both ears – the ear that listens to the living church tradition and the ear that listens to the culture to which a person is sent.
In mission we do not come with empty hands, hearts or brains, but it is key to have open ears. In this sense there is an order to this double listening process. We do bring what we have inherited, but we suspend that to pay attention and listen to the mission context, to culture and the world,. This comes before discerning how the inherited Christian tradition works within that culture.
Mission precedes the shaping of the resultant church, when the seed of the gospel and church roots in the mission culture.
Some might think listening to context is all about evangelism, and listening to tradition is all about church. I’d say that was disastrous. Using a farming metaphor, that’s the way fruit of evangelism might be gained, but then it gets left to rot in the fields – because the barn of the church is no good to store it. Changing the metaphor, though still staying biological, – Jesus talked about the need for new skins for new wine. We work at double listening over Church and Gospel. Creating Fresh Expressions of church is two listenings – over those two tasks.
Lets go back to the order in the double listening and the different dynamics as the discernment within the process unfolds. Listening to the cultural context shapes the gospel bearing church that emerges.
Mission shapes church. Then the second ear of double listening – hearing our inheritance of the faith uniquely revealed in the Scriptures – validates and assesses what the expression of gospel and of church that is emerging. Even then it is sometimes possible that those in the context will rightly challenge how we, the incoming outsiders, have understood the Word and they may be right. Examples of this are found in the classic mission book, Christianity Rediscovered. At points Donovan found that the Masai understood better than he did, as a highly trained Spiritan missionary.
So Double Listening is a process which enables something to evolve as its context changes. It holds in tension both a creative engagement with context and a faithfulness to the good news in Jesus. It is not easy, not simple, but essential and creative. Remember too that the order of double listening is very like the theological principle of following the Jesus pattern; firstly incarnation into culture, then counter cultural engagement with it.
Let’s apply that briefly to the dominant culture we shall encounter – consumerism. Following paul we might start be saying “To the consumers I became as a consumer” but in the case of consumerism, the gospel-shaped community that grows up will have to address questions at the core of the human self, which does make choices. Living the gospel is only partly about what and why I choose, as well as it is about who chose me. This informs whom I serve and whom I will be prepared to die for and what I will gladly die to. Jesus will bring new choices about my supposed right of choice.[3D thinking ]
Listening to context, then validating it by our inheritance connects to the next insight about process. Mission-shaped
Church chapter 6 spells that out very clearly, insisting we must ask the right questions, and in the right order. If Mission shapes Church, it follows we must begin by asking who is a fresh expression of church for, before going on to ask who will staff it and how it will relate to the wider church.
Mission Shaped Church put it like this. p 116
start with the church and the mission will probably get lost.
start with the mission and it is likely that the Church will be found.
In the language that Mission Shaped Church has adopted, To make fresh starts that are thought through, the expression of church should be formed by three considerations, 3 dimensions, taken in this order, for the theological reason that
Mission should shape the Church, not vice versa. And for the methodological reason that listening to context comes first.
1 Who it is for – what is the Mission goal – who are we sent to ?
2 Who is it by – who are the Mission Resources – or the sent team ?
3 Who is it with – who are the Mission partners -or sending churches?
You could read Mission-shaped Church Ch 6 to see how these questions develop.
The Church of the Saviour Washington DC has created a diverse range of congregations each around a specific mission context. These are the 3 questions they always ask in the process – good questions and in my view in the right order.
I now want to give you a field observation that goes beyond what Mission-shaped Church dared to say in full, though there are hints on p 117 about worship.
4 Don’t assume starting with worship
If we begin to realise that mission shapes church – and this creates a go shape not a come shape, this profoundly questions whether provision of worship is the obvious theological starting point in mission.
Go back to some 1990’s theory about the functions of Church – from Robert Warren. What does Church do – it worships, offers community and acts in mission. Spirituality beats at the heart of these three activities.
Then contrast that ideal picture with much western practice.
Then you notice a dominant circle about worship. That can be measured by investment of money time, money and personnel in buildings, programmes and clergy to run them all.
All too often the Community who meet in this building are somewhat dysfunctional and unattractive. As some wag said – “the main reason others aren’t in church, is because we are.” Third, in practiceMission is a weird thing that either happens overseas or is done by enthusiasts, who thank God, are not people like us.
Try to make such a beast mission minded, let alone mission centred is difficult. So attempts to change it often turn out only to be a temporary foray out of the fold, in order to invite a few weak minded others to come and worship with us in our way.
Contrast that to the varied mission field we now face. How do elements of the mission field and of being church connect ?
This matrix shows what we have found, on the ground in England. We have learnt to recognize there are different groups in our society. Our members who are our people, the fringe who are willing to explore being our people, the dechurched to used to be our people and they divide into those who would come back and those determined not to come back. Then there are the non churched who have never been our people. In the Western world the proportions of these groups are different, but what is common to all places are two features. The percentage of the non churched is growing and it is larger, the younger the section of society you take. In short, it is the main mission field of the future. Here then are those groups in a table with the question how do we connect with the different groups?
Its also helpful to look at these groups by context. Some fringe people still live as though Christendom is alive and well. But there are increasingly those who are post Christian, Anti-Christian and among young people who are children of the latter groups PreChristian.
The arrows show the overlaps between the two rows. So you will see that I don’t suggest the Open dechurched and the Pre Christians are the same group – its just that they do share one similarity I’ll explore later.
Where then do you start with each group?
Those fringe people still in Christendom mode may well be helped by more accessible worship, that is attractive to them, with a quality welcome that is not over the top. They may well even come to traditional worship if it has quality.
The open dechurched and the prechristians – because they don’t have baggage may well be open to forms of process evangelism – Alpha is the best known example, but not the only way to do it. They may welcome the chance to explore, to put their questions and observe what Christians actually do to relate to God.
However if you offer worship to the non churched they will yawn and make excuses. If you dive in with evangelism they are likely to run away. In England the second worst social sin after intolerance is evangelism – because it is seen as imposing your views on others. So you can’t do worship or evangelism. What’s left in the Christian locker?
It turns out to be living out community. That will probably mean helping other build their community and also living out a quality of attractive community among them. This had been one of our principal discoveries in the last decade. Unless our lives pose questions, the answers we might want to give cannot be heard.
What about the dechurched who are hurt and angry. I only know saying sorry. It’s a painful and slow start.
Please notice the colour coding in the table. But remember these are not necessarily attitudes to God, they are attitudes to the church.
Do notice the difference in style. We actually like to stay in control and that’s partly what pushes us to offer worship. As soon as real evangelism begins actually it’s a dialogue – more double listening going on. With community building it can mean partnerships with those who don’t share our faith, but entering them shows if we are secure in who we are. Listening speaks for itself and requires vulnerability to be done well.
There’s one more vital thing about the table. It only works in one direction. Good community will appeal to virtually everyone. Worship actually reaches the fewest and can’t do much for the other groups. Evangelism does work wider but for many it starts too far on. Community will lead to good questions; conversations can eventually lead to commitment, worship then nurtures it.
So it seems from Mission Shaped Church thinking and from field study there is an inherent order in the creation of Fresh Expressions of Church. It is very unlike what we are used to.
It is essential to start with the apostolic or missional community. This group go bearing seeds of the gospel and the church. They live in such a way that others are drawn to them; strangers become friends, prompted by what they see to ask questions.
As the planting team connect with the culture, learn its language and find its priorities, the shape of mission to that culture or area grows clearer. Only by being there does the specific shape to the mission emerges. It is part of connecting with discernment of what God is doing there.
Only then as local people respond to Christ and are discipled in the Christian community does indigenous worship slowly begin to emerge. It grows out of the stories of finding faith, stories of answered prayers, it meshes with the local musical culture and local people’s creative gifts.
What must be characteristic of the worship – is that it feeds the life, gifting, calling and aspirations of the growing community. Monastic groups would describe this process as worship nurturing the charism of the community.
But note the order: Public Worship does not come first. Indeed it cannot – it must be grown as the community in mission co-operates with God in evolving a mission shaped church.
I want to end with an image/ an analogy – quite different from DNA. One danger of DNA thinking is that we might be tempted into ecclesial genetic engineering. It shouldn’t be like that. and frankly when done well usually isn’t. We need to get back to surprise and not being really in control and working as junior partners to God.[Springboard to Surfboard]
An image I offer you is that to think the Church in its mission is being moved on, from bouncing off a springboards to something both similar and different. The analogy of a Springboard “says” take a humanly controlled risk; the diver decides how vigorously to jump off the board and what difficulty of dive to attempt. Note too the dive is in a very often in the controlled environment of the indoor heated swimming pool. The picture “says” – lets tap into resources that enable us the church to do better, what we have already been doing and that will be quite sufficient for what we need and risky enough thank you. Riding a Surfboard “speaks” of a higher risk, in an environment the surfer cannot control. The analogy suggests a way of working which is also inherently far more reactive; it necessarily involves the surfer waiting for, spotting and then getting up on the wave. The wave itself is created by two factors. It crests because of the immediate context of the shelving sea floor beneath it and the fetch of the wind blowing across it. To me that in turn says read the cultural context beneath you and discern what God the Spirit is doing in mission beyond you. When you are up then it really gets fun. Are you in control ? Well yes and no. Of course the wave may well carry you somewhere you have not chosen. Another big difference is this, by definition all surfboarders operate in an outside, perhaps even hostile, environment. There is similarity: both diver and surfer harness power beyond themselves. Both diver and boarder possess great technical skills. But the diver is more in control, by deciding the forces to be unleashed by the springboard, and when and how to dive. Whereas the boarder is not in control of what occurs – only of how she/he reacts. Yet it is immediately clear that it is the picture of the surfer that conjures the greater sense of adventure, freedom and wildness. I suggest the paradigm of a springboard; of better ways back to existing church is being overtaken. In surfing, a far more uncertain but creative apostolic journey is calling, as the way onwards to hitherto unknown fresh expressions of church. Yet this route in the wild is not new.
It is the path of Donovan and Allen, of Venn and Anderson, of Ricci and Xavier, of Aidan and Cuthbert, of Martin and Anthony, of Paul in 1 Cor 9 and Peter in Acts 10. This way has never been very welcome. For it demands trust in the Spirit beyond obvious prudence, it makes the church bound up with mission, and forces her to surrender control of outcomes. It breaks the barriers of who may belong, it flows messily over the boundaries of how we are organized and even disturbs how we understand what we believe – again that’s not new – ask Peter on the roof top at Joppa.
Yet it is our Lord who underpins risky surfing. His patterns are fascinating: · John highlights Jesus living reactive attentiveness to waves of the Father. · Luke portrays his surprising outrageous acceptance of the outsider. · Mark shows us immediacy of response not measured tread. · Matthew stresses his cultural particularity, · Paul in Philippians 2 tells the cost of it. · Gethsemane and Golgotha show us Jesus carried to where he did not wish to go. Surfing in Mission sounds glorious. But Death and Resurrection of the Church as we have known it might be its consequence. I pray the Church of our day can tolerate its own Holy Saturday – or period of Exile – long enough, to sow the seeds of Jesus-centred gospel communities, so that it may be raised, different for tomorrow in the ongoing Mission of God. I guess nothing less will actually do. What would be dreadful would be if the church only got half the point. It is very capable of saying something like. “Yes I see that waves are rather good and could be fun. Why don’t we install a wave machine in our swimming pools. We could also start courses on responsible safe indoor surfing.” “Let’s stay in control, let’s change the game but we’ll use the new language to try and show that we’ve got it.” To which I say no – please not. Let’s do the real thing. Let’s go with the Spirit of God already blowing across the face of our culture. Let’s listen, wait watch and catch the waves of what God is already doing. Let’s risk that sometime we will fall off and sometimes we will also get the ride of our lives. That’s what some of us meant we meant when we wrote Mission-shaped Church. Funnily enough we actually thought that only by being caught up in a particular mission could you find out what church would result. We didn’t mean Church shaped mission and don’t think it will do because that is back to the springboard. Let’s do it knowing that even if we may look like artists actually we are totally junior partners. We didn’t make either the wind, the sea bed or the resultant wave. We just co-operated with what we spotted.
Let’s do the surfing even if as yet we aren’t very good at it, even if we can’t see where it might take us and what waves might come along, and who they might carry us to be among.
This lecture was delivered at the Vital Church Planting Conference in Toronto Feb 2008: Session 2
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I share the view of the Archbishop of Canterbury that we live in the most creative time, that has occurred for many hundreds of years, over thinking about what church is. As the 21st century unrolls our questions have become more searching and more foundational because of a raft of external contextual changes and also because of creativity from within the church. Here are some external reasons that have overtaken us:
1. Nearly all institutions are regarded with suspicion; this makes the past dominant model of Church as institution, with its ponderous structures, emphasis on buildings and a separate caste of clergy rather unconvincing.
2. With the burgeoning interest in a whole variety of spiritualities, church is seen as foundering in a muddy backwater of religion. We are thought to be into repression of feelings, concern with outward form and instincts to control others.
3. Cultural and intellectual pluralism, together with the high value placed on tolerance of others views, makes obsolete any concept that “one size of church fits all”.
4. Consumerism is possibly the dominant force in westernised society and this has injected a questionable high level of choice into church affiliations. It has increased the transfer rate between them. It may have changed committed members into worship tasters.
5. The dissolving of Christendom and the rise of society based on networks has led to a double sense of liminality. By that word I mean going through what is both a threatening but also promising transitional stage beyond an old certainty. This liminality is characterised by the church both being at the edge of society, rather than being at its centre. It is also about existing in a world that no longer has centres at all, which is very different from our territorial instincts based on place.
There are also some changes from within, that I believe have arisen not just because of external changes in society, but have their genesis in the creativity of the Missionary Holy Spirit. I am not saying each new development is perfect, or above criticism. I make a more modest point that despite our muddles and imperfect experimentation, God is at work among us and I rejoice in it.
I then notice the following:
1. The creation of fresh expressions of church, and that very language, has prompted new questions about what church is. Crucially these questions are unanswerable by using the skills of how to sustain existing churches, nor are they much helped by talk of how to increase the size of existing forms.
2. Some examples of fresh expressions of church, like Cell Church and its derivatives, and the equally recent but growing group of people, who have what, Alan Jamieson calls, “Churchless Faith”, point up sharply that some assumptions about Church are just that. Sacred buildings, congregations, paid and ordained ministers are no longer seen as essential to being church. Not all would agree with that view but the question has been logged.
3. The variety of fresh expressions, and indeed the inherent provisionality and partial character of the very phraseology “expression”, has further opened up the realisation that no one expression of church is complete and none of them, either the emerging or inherited church, can fully represent Christ, whose body the church is supposed to be. As Rowan Williams put it. ‘If Christ is the embodiment of God, and the Church is his body on earth, then no single expression of church can ever exhaust Christ.’. In that sense no local church is completely church. It is only an expression of church.
So then we find ourselves in a time when the question “what is church?” is more live than for a long time. This is actually very helpful in our mission context of needing to plant churches. The worst thing we could do would be to simply replicate the expressions of being church that have partly led to our problems and which only appeal to the current dwindling insiders. Yet at the same time we need some clarity about what church is, otherwise we shall not know what to plant. In this context people have turned to the analogy of the DNA of church. They may mean quite different things by it and I will use the two talks to explore the two most helpful meanings.
1 DNA as isolating the essence of Church
People are now reaching out for ways of talking about the essence of church, that go behind any specific form, to what is generic about it. [In an organic world that favours emergence, the analogy of DNA also has become one way of trying to talk about its essence in such a way as enables its principled ongoing evolution.] This talk of DNA means the search to encapsulate the irreducible essence of what needs to be reproduced to deserve being called church. This use of DNA language appeals to the search for a portable minimalism and for yardsticks to assess all expressions of church. At worst this could be an illusory search for simplistic answers to a complex reality. I like the aphorism “Simplicity on the near side of complexity is useless; simplicity on the far side of complexity is priceless.”
But at best here is a search for ways to talk about church that are meaningful, accessible and useful for today’s mission context.
The second way to look at DNA is to talk about it as the mechanisms by which something is reproduced. This is fair to the analogy and a legitimate question. It will be the controlling metaphor in the second talk.
What then is to be planted, or reproduced?
I detect in the UK there are two equally flawed positions seeking to understand this which we need to avoid. Some are not sufficiently ecclesial and some are blatantly not missional. Neither will do.
Two distortions to avoid
One is an undue emphasis on the Gospel. Some evangelists are guilty of this; it is what I call the “Jesus is great, though the church is awful”, approach. It is a view that the Gospel changes lives, while church is just a holding receptacle for them. It’s a view that focuses on the harvest and complains about the barns. Another picture could be to say the Gospel is the active ingredient, like yeast, while the church is passive, like a lump of dough. This view says we plant gospel and reap church. It colludes nicely with the belief that Mission precedes church. And in the story of the NT it is true historically that the mission of Jesus had to occur before thechurch ofJesus appeared.
At the other end of the spectrum, others over-emphasise Church. Creating fresh expressions then becomes no more than improving a worship service, or perhaps offering another one in the same ecclesial location. This is no more than the fading actress putting on lipstick and hoping she will attract new fame and suitors. Perhaps worse it assumes that church attendance by outsiders is the aim of the game. The Cyprianic view, that he who would have God as his father, must have the church as his mother and there is no salvation outside the church, has been co-opted in an unhelpful ecclesiocentric view.
Why they are distortions and their dangers.
The view that only Gospel is needed is blind to the realisation that there is no disincarnate Gospel. It always has a bearer, who is part of the church. Indeed its embodiment in people is a key part of the witness to the Gospel. We are finding in the UK that those communities who by their life together demonstrate the life of Jesus are those which pose helpful questions to surrounding society and draw people to Christ. “See how these Christians love one another” is the gospel embodied. Over emphasis on gospel also leads to unsustainable activism, the leaders driving congregations, often through guilt, to the point of rebellion, resignation or exhaustion, and it confuses the growth of the church with the purpose of the church. This becomes like the odd situation of a couple only getting married in order to have children. I would argue
Mission is not the identity of the church, though it is within its DNA.
The over churchy view is dire for other reasons. In places with such a distortion you will notice the person of Jesus is seldom mentioned for that would be embarrassingly personal, the idea of the church as a counter cultural force engaging with society is missing and discipleship, involving a changed life, is not talked about. As opposed to activism, the danger is quietism. As opposed to existing for others, these churches exist for themselves. Worship and reactive pastoral care become everything. Yes, these are in the DNA of church, but they too are not its identity.
A way forward
In church planting it really matters what we think we are planting, because the worrying reality is that we can reproduce our own distortions of church. Let me try to suggest a better way. I have always thought that the language of Church planting should help us here
Here we meet two words, Church and Plant. The first is obviously ecclesial and planting rightly sounds missional. I want to suggest that Church and Plant, ecclesial and missional, are not just like pancakes and maple syrup, which go well together – but more like chicken and egg. With those two it is hard to say which came first. Yes, historically the mission of Jesus led to the Church, but ever after they are intertwined. Church is the foretaste of God’s ultimate purposes, it is what Gospel produces. Yet, people made fully alive by encounter with Christ, in such a way that how they relate to each other shows the life of Christ, embody and bear the gospel to others. So Gospel and Church are a more like a helix, interweaving with one more visible at particular moments, but both needing each other. The need for connection is was graphically put over 50 years ago by Bishop Lesslie Newbigin. “An unchurchly mission is as much a monstrosity as an unmissionary church”. A monster is language we use when something created has gone badly wrong. I have shown you what those distortions look like.
I think there are yet deeper reasons why the two, Church and Mission, must co-exist. We best come to know what Church is, that is the people of God, the body of Christ, the Temple of the Spirit, by what God the Trinity are. This was hinted at in the theology ofMission shaped church presented last year. Let me put it another way this year. Eastern Theologians like Zizioulas for many decades have been insisting that we think of God as Communion or community more than singularity. Some Western theologians like Barth and Bosch for a similar length of time have been recovering for us the missionary character of God. It is time to insist that these two rather disconnected streams of thought be brought together and must belong together. Thus I am finding it both helpful and persuasive to speak of God the Trinity as community-in-mission.
I am entirely serious about the order of those three words, that Community is put first. Missional Community is an alternative term, that is not so good. Here are a few reasons. The Godhead existed in loving community before the mission began, though the mission was the natural overflow of their loving life. Being is always deeper than doing, and identity is prior to activity. Thus communal love comes before missional purpose. Then we see the same in Jesus. He came from the Trinitarian Community before the mission unfolded. His identity preceded his activity. He was God the Son in the manger before he had done anything at all. God the Father expressed his approval of his Son at his Baptism, before the public ministry began. Jesus himself then chose his followers before they had much of use and note the order in Mark 3.13. “He called to him those he wanted… He appointed 12 .. that they might be with him, and that he might send them out”. Community-in-mission is the better order of words to speak of the Trinity. Their own mission embodies the same order. This sets the pattern for the church.
What then is being planted? Why, Jesus centred community-in mission. Consider the definition the Church of England came up with in Mission-shaped Church, in 2004.
“Church planting is the process by which a seed of the life and message of Jesus [that’s a way to say gospel] embodied by a community of Christians [in other words church] is immersed for mission reasons in a particular cultural or geographic context. The intended consequence is that it roots there, coming to life as a new indigenous body of Christian disciples [ecclesial] well-suited to continue in mission.[missional]
But what will that community look like, what will it do? How will we know it is church?[Let me immediately put in a caveat. For me this is like asking the question, what is human? – not what is adult, or mature, much less what is white, male and middle aged? It is a generic question and it deals with inner identity, not outward features, size or success. It also embraces potential, more than measuring performance. Babies are human though all they will become is not yet clear. This way of thinking also requires modesty; for which of us is perfectly even the particular human being we were created to be – let alone an embodiment of all the talents that the human race possesses. We are, if you like, only expressions of being human. None of us is the completeness of being human. Our very gender makes certain of that and our ages underline it. Perhaps its like that with church, the new humanity. There are only incomplete expressions yet there are marks upon them that are diagnostic.]
I confess that my knowledge of the science of DNA is limited to an enjoyable reading of Bill Bryson’s book A Short History of Nearly Everything. Yet I learnt from Bryson that DNA has four chemical components. The list is adenine, guanine, cytosine, thiamine. They are apparently all very common substances. The genius is not in some highly specialised existence of one or more of them, but rather in the way they interlink; the particular way they pair in the now famous double helix. Because I am not the author Dan Brown, who wrote the Da Vinci Code, I do not seriously suggest to you that these four chemicals are actually secret code for the four marks of the Church; One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. Yet in some Anglican circles these four dynamics are being taken as DNA like components that do need to be reproduced in any further expression of church. Last year John Bowen gave conference attendees my mapping of the four historic marks of the church, [One Holy Catholic and Apostolic] onto the directions and labels of four simpler words: In, Up, Of and Out. Here’s the diagram by way of reminder. Let me now push that a bit further, not least in terms of Bryson’s point that the interlinking of the 4 is crucial.
The pleasant thing about the 4 directions diagram is that it is cross shaped. It also suggests that the four key roles of the church are distinct and that all matter. Mission is no substitute for worship and vice versa. It also suggests that there is a centre at which they all meet. I could call that being Jesus centred and that church is community, centred in Jesus. That is what it is, from which all these directions need to be explored.
Here’s another shape – a pyramid – that does some other work we need. It’s technically a regular tetrahedron and it has a couple of other virtues. Unlike the cross shape, with four directions, going in different ways, so that they only meet at the centre and only some are next to others, in this shape every one of them is connected to all the others. This is far more like it is in church life. The mission needs to be sustained by the community, energised by its meeting with God in worship and supported by the wider church. The worship is fed by resources from the wider church, needs to spring out of the ongoing life of the community and to be in conversation with the mission. The four are dimensions more than directions and they are far more interrelated than the simple four directions diagram visually suggests.
Its other virtue is that however you look at it, there is always some element you cannot see. This reminds us that the church will always defeat our attempts to fully describe it. There is always a sense of mystery. This is partly because the church is on earth only partly what she is called to be. She is the bride who awaits consummation, the temple not yet in New Jerusalem, the New Israel not yet in its promised land, the people on pilgrimage. The New Testament testifies to this mystery by never fully defining the church and using a riot of images to describe her. Read Paul Minear’s Images of the Church or Dulles’ Models of the Church if you require a second opinion about how essential the mystery is. Of course the Church must be mystery for it was called into being by Grace and who knows exactly how that works, it is indwelt by the Spirit and there’s a constant source of disturbance and surprise, and it is described as the body of Christ – an image that is desperately familiar and yet the longer you ponder it, the more elusive and mind boggling it becomes. As Pope Paul VI put it at Vatican II “The church is a mystery. It is a reality imbued with the hidden presence of God. It lies therefore within the very nature of the Church to be always open to new and ever greater exploration.”
So let me push the four marks a bit further. Not as demanding measurement to condemn what has been done so far, but as what a group centred in Jesus might aspire to. I also want to explore them as two pairs because it is also clear that the four marks derive their meaning and dynamism not so much from being utterly separate from one another, but through their interconnections.
I have looked at how some current thinkers understand the Apostolic. I suggest what is held in common is that this is a dimension of the church that connects across time, and yet stays faithful. It looks back in time to its origins in God, Christ and Scripture that give it authenticity and authorisation. It also looks forward with momentum from that very past. Apostolicity is concerned for how those foundational values are faithfully transferred, whether in human lives, by doctrine, ordinations or all of them. By it the church is also called to look forward, through mission, to what is not yet; sending members out and beyond itself into the world and into the future. That journey will take it to fresh locations, though today these will also be defined by culture, not only places or territory.
But being apostolic is more than an existing ecclesial community learning to face outwards, it includes some members leaving and starting a fresh further community elsewhere, as was the case with the Trinity, shown in the Incarnation, and then by Christ calling disciples. Planting fresh expressions by reproduction is closer to this divine pattern than much attractional mission practised by existing churches, let alone the barely missional existence of many churches, for whom apostolicity is too much about authenticity brought by past links. Reproduction by definition then leads to the birth of related but non identical churches. Here note that the apostolic mark alone cannot encompass this. Principled diversity, by which there can be churches that remain apostolic in faithfulness, yet differ from inherited patterns needs engagement with views both of oneness and of catholicity.
This is in effect a complementary relationship to the Apostolic; Catholicity is concerned for the dimension by which the church exists and connects across space, and across difference. It seeks to express the wholeness of the Church in each place, through insisting on enduring connection between its twin callings of both universality and particularity, but without the universal degenerating to uniformity. Catholicity enshrines all Christians as being in relational connection. This repudiates us seeing ourselves primarily as individual Christians or independent churches. Relational connection with others, who are to some extent unlike us, is what gives us identity as persons. Our model for this is the diverse yet united loving community of the Trinity. Connectivity is also with the communion of saints, for ultimately there is one church and one new heaven and earth. Connection with others unlike us also informs the mission to all, so that the Christian faith may become more universal in geographical scope and yet remain particular in each cultural context. In this sense Catholicity is a mandate for inculturated mission and church.
Reproducing churches is a process which reminds all churches that they came from an outside yet relational source. They were generated humanly speaking either by a founder or a group from another sending church. They are inherently part of something greater than themselves. Such newly born churches have relational catholicity with their apostolic forebears. Here the dimensions of being church across both time and space meet in an obvious way. Young churches should be very conscious of a wider belonging, or catholicity, that gave them birth. Such a birth reminds them of grace and of receiving a gift of life from beyond themselves, rather than a focus on their own power and ability.
So to the second pair
I suggest this mark enshrines the dimension of how the church lives its existence as belonging to God. What is common across recent authors is language of calling, being set apart, being positively different to those outside but without a world denying withdrawal. This is the vocation of the church. To exist for God becomes also the call to become more like God, morally and spiritually. As Dulles puts it, “The church must be characterized by holiness otherwise it could not be a sign of Christ”. Its public worship should be one means by which engagement with God makes it take on his characteristics, but this will be cashed out in discipleship. “Be holy, as I am holy says the Lord”. However the call will always be clearer than its realisation or achievement. Dulles links this to the abiding relevance of the church’s penitential parts of liturgy, and the parable of the wheat and tares is also helpful here. So any claim to holiness must have self aware modesty as well as awareness we are called for a purpose.
Belonging to God and for his purposes will connect holiness to the apostolic mission. An emphasis on calling however opens the question of election, with its attendant temptations to pride and insularity. A corrective is supplied by Newbigin, who is consistent across his writing that calling, with all its gifts and privileges, cannot be separated from missional identity. “They are chosen not for themselves, not to be exclusive beneficiaries of God’s saving work, but to be bearers of the secret of his saving work for the sake of all. They are chosen to go and bear fruit.” The reproduction of churches takes this specific calling very seriously and it embodies linkage between holiness and apostolicity.
The emphasis on holiness then reminds those starting churches that novelty is no substitute for integrity, character and spirituality. Doing what has become popular or fashionable is also no substitute for seeking and hearing the calling of God. And worship at any expression of church should never descend to self indulgence, either in classical or contemporary tastes, but is to be response to God, in order to be transformed to become more like God in grace and character.
I suggest that this fourth mark complements the third of holiness and describes the dimension of how the church lives out belonging like God. It deals with the how the church community understands its internal relationships, because of its externally derived identity. Common to the contemporary writers is that oneness finds its deepest source and understanding from the relationships of the Trinity and the prayer of Christ in John 17 that those who follow will be one like Christ and the Father. There is also some reliance on the list of ones in Ephesians 4: 4-6. Those seven factors are: one body, Spirit, hope, Lord, faith, baptism, God and Father. Notably these seven features include allusion to the Trinity. John Stott argues that the four remaining qualities are dependent on the Trinitarian three. The Father creates the one family, Jesus creates one faith, baptism and hope, the Spirit creates the one body. Whether or not the Stott argument is sustainable, the Trinitarian base for unity immediately puts diversity on the table alongside it. Today any view of unity that disallows diversity has become suspect. The Trinitarian base is fertile for holding together unity and diversity.
Have you ever asked yourself why do have the order as One Holy Catholic and Apostolic? Does this wrongly give the oneness a hermeneutical authority over the other three? It is arguable that this goes back to 3rd century North African Bishop Cyprian and his Roman legal cultural background that prized oneness and singularlity. He notably compared the Church to a Roman Army camp – and they were identical throughout the empire. Thus oneness became code for one centre, one leader, one form – a universal uniformity. Trinitarian understanding has profoundly challenged this and the communal view embraces unity and diversity. Arguments for overseas contextualisation and indigenisation have fuelled the fire. The creation of fresh expressions of church at home has added pragmatic examples of ways of being church that are both different from the inherited and yet clearly are still church. It is as though we used to be mono cultural about church and we have been forced to realise there are other cultures that are as valid.
Such an emphasis does however increase the overlap between understandings of catholicity and oneness. I notice even M level students find it hard to maintain clear borders between them.
Mission-shaped Church follows my suggestion that Oneness today deals more with the dynamics of diversity within a local group of Christians and how they belong together in ways that follow Trinitarian unity and diversity. Catholicity deals more with wider connections across space and thus the bonds and relations between groups of Christians in different places or cultures.
However the reality is more complex. Firstly, earliest use of the word Catholic is of the local church and is about its wholeness there. Secondly, at least in theory, the Oneness of the Church is universal both in time and space, thus Catholicity and Oneness do intertwine.
So these four marks remain though they continue to be reinterpreted and clearly interact. Hence my three sided pyramid diagram that insist they are interconnected dimensions. These I suspect are deep in the DNA of church. They do not say everything that might be said but as a start for an equivalent to the helix of adenine, guanine, cytosine, thiamine, they are not bad.
I think the OF or Catholic dimension is usually the base. Up In and Out are all action words, whereas OF is a being and belonging word. Christians are the Body OF Christ. Our identity is fundamentally and miraculously to be made part of his identity. We are those who are in Christ. Thus we share in his communion with the Father and the Spirit, we join their mission and are reenergised and redirected by encounter with God.
I have explained DNA as an analogy to explore what is the essence of God.
So then a group may be called Church when a diverse community is formed by transformative encounter with Jesus Christ. Called to follow him, this community lovingly responds through the prompting of the Holy Spirit, seeking to live and act as signs of God’s Kingdom. Their call is to be the people of God for a particular place or culture, will be shown by the emergence of the following:
1 By their presence, acts and words they communicate the reality of Jesus Christ, continuing his mission.
2 Living out faithful commitment to one another, they reflect the loving and diverse oneness in the Trinity.
3 Knowing they are an integral part of Christ’s universal people, they love, learn from, and support Christians beyond their own group.
4 By their worship of God the Trinity, they encourage transformation into his holiness, including the practices of attending to Scripture and doing Baptism and Communion.
I’d end by saying we need to trust the DNA of church
Here are my wife Helen and myself. Then I pose a question. What will our children look like? If you have never met them, of course you cannot know. However when you see them, the links become obvious – facial features, face shapes, even casts of mind. Looking back we can see the family likeness, but we also encounter individuality. So it is with DNA and All Expressions of Church. You can’t know what they will be like at the start. When they are grown, the parentage will become apparent.
Notes: Dulles. Models of the Church. He argues that the Institution model was dominant in Catholic thought from Constantine until 1950. Since when he detects no less than 5 other models.
This was a lecture given at the 2008 Vital Church Planting Conference.
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This was a lecture given at the 2008 Vital Church Planting Conference.
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