Shapes of Future Church

In the historic and inspiring setting of Cliff College, over a hundred people met for a conference, ably coordinated by the Rev Dr Martyn Atkins and accompanied by a host of highly experienced speakers with a view to exploring future shapes of the church. Martyn, who takes over as principal of Cliff College this summer, launched the conference with a challenge to recognise that the shape of the church should be dictated by its mission, not the other way around. The church is a human construct whereas our mission is God-given. We now see a whole host of different models of church emerging, and our challenge is to recognise that God has already gone ahead of us to reach out to a lost world and the church has (by and large) remained rooted to outdated practices. The Rev Dr Peter Philips, New Testament Tutor at Cliff, gave a fascinating overview of the historic shapes of church in a talk entitled ‘Sacred Spaces’. Plotting the origins of the Christian movement, we considered the household' gatherings of Acts and the Epistles, through the 'basilica' models of the Roman world, the 'baroque' models of the 18th century, and finally, the 'auditorium' churches of the reformation, so prevalent in the Methodist tradition. We pondered whether, in this post-modern world where authority is viewed sceptically, the preacher-centred model of church building is a turn-off for this generation. We reflected upon how, in our numerous Methodist circuits, so many small churches are replicating the work of their near neighbours rather than offering their own unique contribution. A different approach to being church will require not only a different style of clergy, but also an effective laity working alongside them. Church has traditionally been territorial, reflecting the parish system of the Church of England. Today we are recognising that people are far more mobile and engage in different networks in their work places and sports clubs. Dormitory towns pose a new challenge to our mission with so many people using their weekends for more productive pursuits than attending church. The church, however, still expects people to come to her, rather than reaching out into the work and leisure places. George Lings of the Church Army, a leading authority on church planting, gave an inspiring vision of new models of church around the country today. Many growing churches are recognising that ‘one size suits all’ simply isn’t true any more. He gave an example of one church whose Sunday programme offered a morning communion, modern all-age worship, informal worship, seeker friendly, reflective Taizé/Celtic and charismatic praise all in the same day. He stressed that we should be encouraging participation rather than just attendance. Reflecting on the fact that water assumes the shape of the container it sits in, so the church should assume the shape of its community. We were urged to let go our obsession with church buildings, an illusion of the influence we once enjoyed and the expectations that if we simply modernise the way we do things, people will come and join us. The conference concluded with a hard-hitting presentation by Nick Spencer of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity of his research into society’s attitudes towards church and Christianity. People today are not afraid to admit their dislike of religion and the church, and yet show a hunger for spiritual reality and retain a healthy respect for Jesus. The church, he concluded, has a massive image problem. For many people today, morality is a personal matter but, when challenged, most people have no real foundation to their beliefs and, secretly, admire those who live out their Christian faith. The church is likened to an elephant – slow to change, unable to turn around but somehow avoids extinction! Martyn Atkins shared his hope at the start of the conference that we should avoid being cynical, and by the time the conference was over we were anything but, with many returning home with new resolve and inspiration about what is possible in the future with God in the driving seat.

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