Mission-shaped question

We seem to have “Mission-shaped” titles for everything these days, but this one is good. It focuses on Fresh Expressions of church (hence Steve Croft) and addresses the need to get some missiological and ecclesiological depth into the subject. In this respect it is a title mainly for those who are engaging seriously, not only with the practice, but with the theology of Fresh Expressions and so is not essential reading for practitioners generally, although I would still put it on the ‘recommended’ list. It’s not an easy read; not that the contributions are especially theologically dense, but with such a variety of different contributors on different issues each one is a pretty solid read in itself and, I found, needs to be digested separately. But it is worthwhile and for some, I would guess, essential.

The compendium comprises in-depth material from 13 contributors, based on a series of day conferences held during 2007, ably topped and tailed by Stephen Croft. They look at the topic from a wide range of perspectives and so any one reader will find that some are more or less relevant to their situation, or attention-grabbing, or simply interesting, than others.

I found four contributions especially helpful. Martyn Atkins, on What is the essence of church?, is excellent as usual. Martyn points out that quite a lot of the material appeared last year in his Resourcing renewal which we have already reviewed so I won’t enlarge on it here, although, to me, it seems to sit better in the context of his book. Graham Tomlin, Principal of St. Paul’s Theological Centre at Holy Trinity Brompton, writing on Can we develop churches that can transform the culture? draws out the need to go beyond looking at forms of communication to Kingdom values: countering greed with contentment and simplicity, relationship breakdown with faithfulness, violence with a place of peaceableness, futility with passion, busyness with Sabbath and ubiquitous sexual imagery with a place of healthy relationships. ‘Church is a community of people created by God, filled with the Spirit, learning to live the life of Christ ... It .. becomes hard to see the point of joining a community that is just a religious version of the surrounding culture’. Very HTB, very thought-provoking.

Loveday Alexander, a Cliff College Committee member and formerly Professor of Biblical Studies at Sheffield University, looks at What patterns of church and mission are found in the Acts of the Apostles? in a very readable way with some memorable turns of phrase: ‘the 120 gathered in the upper room are first blown out onto the streets ... then “scattered” from Jerusalem ... then launched into full-blown mission from Antioch’. She explores the tensions between the ‘centre’ (such as the Jerusalem church) and the ‘periphery’ (the new churches) possibly, I wondered, searching for more of a role for the centre than then Acts narrative might suggest? Acts is my favourite book of the Bible and I found Alexander’s insights really valuable.

For a clear charismatic perspective with both breadth and depth, we have What does the gift of the Spirit mean for the shape of the church from Alison Morgan, who is heavily involved in the Anglican Resource movement. I came across her material only this year when she was guest speaker at the Cliff College postgraduate conference, and am hooked! It gives an excellent charismatic take on post-modernity and draws a fascinating timeline of the shaping activity of the Spirit in creation, in Jesus’ teaching, in the NT church, in the historical church, in the church today and into the future. In this way the perspective of the activity of the Holy Spirit is anchored in the past and projected - however unpredictably - into the future. Morgan criticises the tendency to ‘clip the Spirit’s wings’, who instead ‘tears holes in heaven, and has a habit of descending with apparent total lack of discrimination on the most unlikely people. It’s alarming stuff’. But we are reminded, very tellingly, that at creation ‘the Spirit did not, as we fear, bring chaos into order, but rather order into chaos’ - her (Morgan’s term when referring to the Ruach of the OT) hovering over the waters in the formless, empty darkness led to the very deliberate, ordered creation of all things and people. A timely point for those of us who see the Spirit as bringing chaos into our nice ordered church routines.

Some of the other contributors seemed to me, in parts, to reach a little less than the standard set by most, while a couple of writers (Angela Tilby, on Catholic ecclesiology and John Hull, on mission-shaped and Kingdom focused) made references to other perspectives or traditions in a way that suggested, to me at least, that they were not especially informed about or in close contact with them. John Drane’s contribution, on the marks of maturity in the emerging church, was thought-provoking but, dare I say it, not desperately clear, a little polemic and perhaps not at his best.

I think that most readers would find one or more contributions by those from a different ecclesiastical tradition very helpful. For me, Lindsay Urwin OGS, from a more sacramental tradition, gave some fascinating insights into important issues, examining the role of sacramental ministry in fresh expressions, an issue which, it is suggested, is often overlooked but I guess becomes more important the more liturgical the tradition of the founding church. For example, it would not be an issue to most Baptists, as I was for a long time, where the Lord’s Supper and Believer’s Baptism are often conducted in a contemporary and informal manner. But it would be an issue to ‘high’ Anglicans and those from the writer’s tradition.

Let me leave the final word to Steve Croft. In his conclusion, he notes that the fresh expression taking place in the new community at Antioch (Acts 11) was ‘recognized and authorized’ as ‘the church’ (v.26, noting the definite article) by ‘the church in Jerusalem’ (v.22). He contrasts this with how ‘In the eighteenth century the Church of England applied its corporate discernment to whether the Methodist Societies were in fact to be recognized as church and (with hindsight) conspicuously lacked the wisdom and grace of Barnabas’. What can one say?

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