Martyn Atkins seems to be very much at home in the post-modern world, which he illustrates so succinctly, and in this book he provides many helpful illustrations of the way the church has moved throughout the years to engage in fresh expressions of living the gospel. He encourages risk and asks the church to consider working from the bottom up with new experiences of working together as lay and ordained people of God. Those who are comfortable in this type of ‘skin’ will find this book inspiring, while those who prefer structure and certainty will be hugely challenged by the many ideas and images Martyn explores.
His passion for God’s mission, his love of the foundations of Methodism, and his joy in people shine through this exploration of mission, and the future of the church in the ‘post-Christian’, post-modern world in which we live in the UK today.
Martyn uses his extensive academic knowledge to lead the reader through reflections on mission beginning with the missionary nature of God: ‘Church defined by the missio Dei never finds its true self by looking inwards on itself’. God’s character, reign and the mission of the church exist in a symbiotic relationship that invites disciples of Jesus Christ to be imitators of God in all we do: bearing witness, proclamation and intentional discipleship, so that the kingdom of God may develop. These are themes that have been echoing across the UK in recent years with particular reference to reaching out through fresh expressions to today’s un-churched society, but it is good to have them so clearly presented and in such a balanced way.
Many people I meet seem to believe that the ‘church’ belongs to them and its primary purpose is to meet their needs. This attitude is firmly challenged by Martyn who sees the church, as the normative mission agency, being the primary partner in God’s purposes. He offers reflections on ‘old clericalism’ and new leadership that returns to New Testament imagery of ‘every member ministry’, that the Methodist Church, in theory, is already committed to.
Martyn suggests a need for a renewed ministry for all and a different model of leadership that is less authoritarian, more vulnerable and authentic, with a strong spiritual focus. His model for church renewal is one of returning to the gospel (he explains this in depth) to the ‘charisms’ of the founders, and to the ability to read the signs of the times and reflect on them. This is profoundly simple yet complex, as it requires commitment to the basics of faith while living in a time of transition that includes uncertainty and brings the requirement to be risk-takers.
This book offers hope. It provides glimpses of what may be to come, but also reminds the reader that there is little good news for those churches are living as ‘poor models of inherited church’.
Reviewed by Susan Johnson, Mission Enabler, Darlington District
Many years ago, some of the people who ran rugby clubs decided their players ought to be paid. They also thought they ought to alter a few of the basics of the game. This new way of doing rugby caused arguments, friendships to be broken and rifts in families. Players who opted for the new style were not welcome back in the clubs where they had previously been sporting heroes. Each side was convinced their version of the game was purer and the other side was somehow deficient and it took many years before people would secretly admit that they had played both Rugby League and Rugby Union - initially at the risk of a lifetime ban from both. Publicly, people would make polite noises about the other code, but in their hearts believed theirs was the true way to play. Meanwhile, in Australia and America …
In 21st Century Methodism we have the challenge of how to encourage the renewal of what Martyn Atkins refers to in his book as ‘inherited’ church, while all sorts of interesting new forms of church emerge parallel to it.
And while the thrust of the Methodist Church’s Team Focus and Priorities initiatives have very helpfully championed both evangelism and new ways of being church, there is the underlying question of how deep such enthusiasm goes when we reach the faithful folk in our churches.
Those of us who have heard Martyn’s lectures, seminars and sermons over recent years will recognise his deep passion for renewal in the text of this book, the profound influences from his trip to Cuba and his ongoing research into shapes of future Church.
As a former student, my ministry has been challenged by his passion for what God is bringing about among the people called Methodist. One quote, by Tim Dearborn, often used by Martyn, has stayed with me: ‘It is not the Church of God that has a mission in the world, but the God of mission who has a Church in the world’.
So we stand, as it were, on a hilltop. To one side there is a playing field where a very familiar version of church is being played out to rules the players understand while a shrinking crowd watches quietly. On the other side there is a chaotic event where everyone seems to have their own strip, no one’s quite sure of the rules but there’s a lot of laughter.
Which one is Church? Are they both Church? Can renewal only happen where the colourful chaos has broken out or is the quiet elderly sister also capable of inviting others to discover their real selves in Jesus?
Both of those pictures are unfair caricatures, of course, and are mine not Martyn’s. However he reminds us that the challenge of shaping churches for the emerging future begins with the need to recognise that we must first be honest about our decline before we can begin to think about renewal.
We must learn that our greatest asset is our people, says Martyn. These must be a people who are prepared for service through mission; a people whose lives and lips are in agreement and who are not afraid to be vulnerable. They also need a more flexible leadership to enable fresh expressions of church to flourish, and the people who are at home in inherited church to rediscover their God-given gifts.
For many of us who minister in mostly traditional settings while trying to encourage alternative communities of faith, there is much to encourage us in this timely book. There is also an underlying starkness in the realisation that we have to begin to model the change long before the churches we serve are ready to accept the different shape of servant ministry that renewal calls for.
Maybe that was always the case. After all, the cross shows us how demanding serving the Servant King should be.
Reviewed by Gareth Hill, a circuit minister in North Cornwall and the pioneer behind the tubestation project in Polzeath: a surf and skateboard mission where a beachside chapel replaced a pulpit with a skateboard ramp (www.tubestation.org).