The Unbounded Church and the Prior Question
The proceedings of a church conference I recently attended were often ponderously slow, however one benefit the ponderous intervals did provide were spaces for reflection. In one such ‘space’, in the midst of debates regarding the various structural changes being made to governance, funding proposals, and a paper on mission and how we should do it, there floated into my mind something Albert Einstein once said-
“the significant problems we face can’t be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”
This seemed to be to be an idea that has particular relevance for our time, in the context of the missional weakness of our churches. Could it be I wondered, that even as surveys seem to indicate the ongoing collapse of the numbers of Australians professing any level of Christian allegiance, even though we are trying new things, and trying to improve our current ‘model’ of church for mission, the fact is that we are still continuing to think with the “same level of thinking” as in the past. Whereas, what is actually needed is a totally new level of thinking?
Fifteen years ago Darryl Guder argued that-“the current predicament of churches . . . . . . . requires more than a mere tinkering with long-assumed notions about the identity and mission of the church.” However, we are still tinkering, and the basis of this paper, and the genesis of the idea of the Unbounded Church, is that it is no longer tinkering improvement that is needed but replacement, replacement with something much more radical, indeed with a-
“Church as We Haven’t Known it, for a Society as We Haven’t Known It”.
Such a church we have called here ‘The Unbounded Church’, that is a church not bound by the Christendom cords that still bind the western church.
As someone once said “in times of rapid change it is not reformation that is needed but revolution”, and it is certain that we live in times of dizzily rapid change, in culture, in technology, mobility, communications; change that falls like acid rain corroding the structures of Christendom-shaped western civilization. In this frenzy of change there is a question begging to be asked, and that is ‘can the form of church that we are running with, even reformed with many new improvements and additions actually become capable of the missional task God sets for us?’ The fundamental argument of this article is that this is the pressing question for our time and one that is long past its ‘need to be answered by date’.
Economists often talk about the ‘fundamentals’ of an economy, i.e. the data in regard to the basic trends and policies that govern and drive an economy. Even if the economy appears superficially not to be doing well they will be relatively reassuring if the ‘fundamentals’ appear to be on the right track. In the same way we may ask of the growth of ministry levels etc. in the church- Are the fundamentals right? The thesis here is that in regard to the ecclesiastical fundamentals the answer is a resounding no!
It is true that many faithful and godly brothers and sisters in Christ have engaged in, and continue to carry out, much work on trying new things in terms of mission, and their efforts must be honoured. However, there is a nagging feeling we may have failed to ask what I will call the ‘Prior Question’. So what is that?
The Prior Question
Several months ago I was in the United Kingdom and came across an article in one of the main national newspapers in regard to the ongoing saga as to what to do about London’s grossly overloaded Heathrow Airport. The article asked a ‘Prior Question’, one that must be asked before other decisions are made for the rebuilding, reorganization, replacement of any major airport, and to make the point I would suggest of any diocese also. The ‘Prior Question’ was, “if we took a helicopter ride over the city and asked what would we build if London had no airports?”, and part of the answer given was that “we would certainly not build Heathrow”! The point being that what may have evolved up to today, may well not at all be, or more importantly be capable of being changed to be, what is needed for the needs of the hour. Could it be that in assessing the future needs of ‘Mission Sydney’, and in spite of the many missional endeavours in train, we have not asked the ‘Prior Question’, which is- ‘if we were to build a Mission structure for a Sydney with no churches what would we build?’ I believe that part of the answer to that question will certainly be that we would not build ‘what we have now’. If indeed that is our response to that prior question then this would tell us that what we have now is not what we need. What a ‘helicopter’ approach should do is to instigate a process of firstly determining what we actually do need, so that we can then begin to work out an overarching strategy for the painful, costly and long journey from where we are now to where we need to be.
Reviewing governance without asking and answering the prior question of what needs to be governed; reviewing resources without asking and answering the prior question of what needs to be resourced; making strategic decisions without determining the prior question as to what we need to strategise towards; is likely to fail the missional needs of our time.
The pressing question of the hour and one that is not being sufficiently addressed, is what sort of church is needed for 21st century pluralistic and ‘church-averse’ Australian culture. Our fundamentally Christendom-shaped model designed for a slow moving culture in another age, no matter how much improved, will not meet that need, it requires to be unbound, and for this to happen will necessitate that we move to a new level of thinking, actually more, that we make a quantum cognitive leap into a parallel ecclesiastical universe.
And so- we must continue the journey to see how that can be.