Unbounded Church – A Paradigm Shift

“The significant problems we face can’t be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”
Albert Einstein

The 2013 Session of the Diocese of Sydney Synod received a report entitled “Review of the Diocesan Mission and the Next Phase of Mission”. This report gave a comprehensive overview of the results of the Diocesan Mission 2002-2012. A period that includes the “Connect09” campaign. It indicated many good things such as the establishment of new congregations, overall attendance growth, an increase in the percentage of attendees who were born in non-English speaking countries and the ordination of more clergy.

However it also revealed some ‘Concerning Trends’ which should focus the minds of all who desire to maximise the effectiveness of the new ‘Diocesan Mission’ that the report also flagged. For example-

• The net attendance growth over the period of the 2002 Mission is only in line with the population growth.

• There is a rising age profile of attendees.

• There has been a significant decline in the percentage of ‘Newcomers’ in congregations (from approximately 12% to 9%), these being defined as “people who have joined a church for the first time . . . . or who have returned to church after an absence of several years.” It is of significant note that this decline appears to have started with the Mission period and continued with it.

It can be argued that it is the ‘Newcomer’ figure that is the best indicator of Kingdom growth. It is thus concerning that at least in one region of the Diocese the ‘Transfer growth’ figure (those joining our churches from other Anglican churches outside the region or other denominations) appears to be greater than the overall growth in attendance in the NCLS 2006-2011 survey period. This would appear to amount to a net negative Kingdom growth.

• There has been a continuation of the longstanding trend of decline in the percentage of youth in our congregations.

All this after a 10 year Mission, including Connect 09. Now a new Diocesan Mission is being proposed a draft of which was presented in the “Review of the Diocesan Mission and the Next Phase of Mission” document. The Mission proposal is a worthy document that sets important goals for mission. However, while I am probably not fully aware of all the thinking behind the draft Mission proposal, it does raise two areas of concern both of which if unaddressed have the potential to seriously limit our missional effectiveness, something that I am sure no one wishes to see happen.

Firstly, there appears to be an implicit, unspoken assumption that we can be more missionally effective using what is in effect an improved and extended version of the same model of ‘church’ as we have been using for a long time, i.e. doing what we have been doing but ‘more and better’. For example-

• All the sub points under Goal 2 appear to assume our traditional ‘In-drag’ strategy into our existing model.

• Goal 4.2 in regard to “Reach the Next Generation” talks about enfolding more children and youth from the wider community, which presumably is what we are trying to do now, but still implies using our existing model only better.

Secondly, and extremely importantly, there appears to be limited acknowledgement that we are in a cultural matrix much like for example a pagan Borneo, rather than anything like the culture our model was, and still basically is, designed for. However, the reality is that all mission to the mosaic of tribes that make up contemporary Sydney is now effectively ‘Cross Cultural’ mission. Such is the degree of the church-culture divide and alienation that is our missional context.

The following paper is largely written in response to, and with a desire to encourage a much greater examination of those issues than currently seems to be taking place.

A New Model for a New Age

We have had a ten year Mission in which we have invested, and in which we continue to invest, a huge amount of resources. Much of this has been in Church planting, i.e. new churches, and this is the ongoing strategy, particularly in ‘Greenfield’ and ‘Brownfield’ areas. Yet the Synod report itself asks and answers a most relevant question-

“Did the 10 year Diocesan Mission achieve it’s goals? Clearly not.”
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 all that well they will still be relatively reassuring if the ‘fundamentals’ appear to be on the right track. In the same way we may ask of the contemporary church- ‘are the fundamentals right?’ The thesis of this paper based at least in part on the ‘Concerning trends’ listed above is that in regard to the ecclesiastical fundamentals the answer to that question is clearly ‘not any longer’!
Something Albert Einstein once said would appear to be very relevant to our situation in regard to Mission Sydney.
“The significant problems we face can’t be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”
Could it be that this statement is pertinent to the situation the Diocese currently faces? Could it be 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 largely with the “same level of thinking” as in the past. Whereas, what is actually needed is a paradigm shift driven by a new level of thinking? Fifteen years or so ago Darrell 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.”
Could it be that we are really only still tinkering? The belief expressed in this paper is that it is no longer tinkering improvement that is needed but something much more radical, indeed a new (Anglican) model that will be a-
“Church as we haven’t known it, for a society as we haven’t known it”.
The need for the development of such a church, generically called here an Unbounded Church’ is the concern of this paper.
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, and demographic composition; change that falls like acid rain corroding the structures of Christendom-shaped western civilization. In this frenzy of change there is a very difficult and painful question begging to be asked, and that is-
‘Can the form of church that we are running with, even extended and reformed, with many new improvements and ‘mission’ add-ons actually become capable of the missional task God sets for us?’
The fundamental argument here is that this is the pressing question for our time and one that is past its ‘need to be answered by’ date.
Yes it is true that many faithful and godly brothers and sisters in Christ have engaged in, and continue to carry out, much work in church planting strategies and improvements to our missional effectiveness with some fruit, and these efforts must be honoured. However, we have still ended up with the “Clearly not” answer quoted above, and so there is a nagging feeling we may have failed to ask what I will call the ‘Prior Question’.
The Prior Question
A year or so 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 expressed as,
“if we took a helicopter ride over the city and asked what would we build if London had no airports?”
Part of the answer given was that “we would certainly not build Heathrow”! The point being that what may have evolved up to today, undergone many improvements, and even functioned well until recent times, 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 would certainly be that we would not build ‘what we have now’. If indeed that is our response to that prior question then this may just suggest that ‘what we have now’ may not be what we need. What a ‘helicopter’ approach would 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 (meta-strategy) for the difficult and costly journey from where we are now to where we need to be.
Unbounded Church-Moving on from ‘The FX Holden’
The current Anglican model largely developed in Christendom England where church structures and ministries were in the main constructed not for mission but for the maintenance of existing congregations, in homogenous communities where nearly everybody went to church. However, our culture has long since moved away from anything like Christendom, therefore it should be no great surprise that we struggle to be effective in mission to our own 21st century Australian culture.
To use an analogy, there came a time when no amount of improvement, ‘add-ons’, new colour options etc, avoided the conclusion that the much appreciated FX Holden, despite its excellent record of service, needed to be replaced by a new model. This is where the Einstein quote is helpful, and the thesis here is that what is now needed for a missionally effective church is a totally new mind-set or way of thinking. If we continue to use “the same level of thinking” as we have in the past in regard to the church it is the concern of this paper that we will likely end up at the end of the new Mission period with the same results, i.e. not deal with the concerning issues and trends the ‘Review of Mission’ report highlights. Again it is the contention here that what in fact is needed is a-
“Church as we haven’t known it for a society as we haven’t known it”.
Such a church will not, nor is it biblically required to, owe anything to a Christendom model that evolved for a pastoral maintenance role in terms of its host culture, when change was either non-existent or at most very slow; nor will it have a Christendom mindset. The quite rigid, inflexible model we have, and the thinking that goes with it, is epitomized by our buildings and church structures that are far too slow, and far too difficult to change to be the church needed for the challenge we face in a culture in rapid flux. This challenge is in fact the task of‘pagan mission’, something that, arguably, the western Anglican Church has never really done ‘in its own culture’, and so not surprisingly we are finding it difficult to do.
It may well be that the time has come when it is thinking outside the box that is needed. Great efforts have been put into establishing ‘new churches’, but these often seem to be more like new editions of ’old church’, still owing a lot to the Christendom model, styles and thought patterns. Could it be that in the goals of the new Mission there is a need for more creative thinking?

It should also be noted that not only does our existing model appear not to have achieved the mission results we desire, as the “Review of Mission” report seems to indicate, as does much anecdotal and parish level evidence, but it is also the most expensive. To primarily depend on a strategy that uses a model which generally requires an expensive block of land, an expensive building and an expensive minister at a time of financial difficulty not likely to change any time soon may well need to be questioned, especially when other options are available.

Could it be in fact that it is not just new churches that we actually need but a “New Church”? i.e. what will be generically called here an ‘Unbounded Church’. The basic question I wish to pose is-‘When does the time come to stop trying to improve the model we have, and to develop a new one?’ When does the time come (to use the imagery of a recent blogger) when we need to stop trying to repair the broken bike and look for a new form of transport. However, even in thinking about a new model it could it be that the whole idea of ‘a (singular) new model’ is actually symptomatic of the problem. For a new model will still be ‘a (singular) model’ i.e. fixed in form and still likely to be inflexible.

Unbounded Church Characteristics

The argument of this paper is that there is a need to lift our thinking to a new level, to think ‘outside of the box’, to think and act missionally, to create a new model (better-‘organism’), a “Church as we haven’t known it” because we live in a “Society as we haven’t known it”. If this is the case the question then arises as to what might such a church look like? What should we imagine, prayerfully equipped with ‘over the horizon spectacles’?

An Organic Mission-Fluid Church

Firstly, an Unbounded Church must address the widespread weakness of a key fundamental in our churches, and that is the lack of ‘Flexibility’. Our culture is in an ongoing state of rapid flux and will not be the same in ten, fifteen, twenty years etc. For this reason an Unbounded Church must be one that is a highly flexible organism, not locked into any specific shape so that essential to its DNA is an ability to ‘flow’ into a form required for the mission needs of any time and cultural context. Such is not a Mission-Shaped church, a description that still implies one particular shape, rather one that may be called a Mission-Fluid church. That is a church that is formed in an organic way such that it is always able to quickly change its form for the mission needs of the hour, one more like a skeleton-less unshaped Amoeba than a skeletoned mammal.

Secondly, this key characteristic of Unbounded Church means it will be a church that is not bound by forms and structures which while they may be biblically permitted (as long as they are effective for the gospel that is) are not biblically required. In Unbounded Church there will be no limits to what we must be prepared to do except those voiced to us by the New Testament. However such a concept is not likely to be achievable by the quite rigid and ponderous structures of our current model. The ‘Mission Fluid’ church will need to be one in which the rapid adaptability of a Chameleon to fit into its background is an essential part of its DNA, such that it can blend into and become what it needs to be for any given missional situation, and do it quickly. It must be emphasized that this is not just a new mission strategy appended to the existing church, but a new organic, mission-fluid church.

Thirdly, the effective missional cells, groups and fellowships that comprise an Unbounded Church network are likely to be significantly smaller than the majority of current congregational sizes. Sizable congregations meeting in fixed buildings with static forms and structures are far too rigid, far too difficult and far too slow to change in order to meet the missional challenge we face. Unbounded Church will need to be made up of ‘Micro-cons’ , i.e. small Christian communities that can be moved, changed and reshaped as needed. Such units will be more like Field Marshall Rommel’s flexible and fast moving Panzer units, or guerilla warfare cells, than the large, slow and fixed standing army which was characteristic of the Christendom era, and which serves as a metaphor for the church in Australia as it now is.

DNA Not Form

For most church members their understanding of what is ‘church’ is defined by a matrix of fairly fixed concepts. If asked about their ‘church’ they will talk about a meeting of people that gather at fixed times, at fixed places, in fixed buildings and take part in relatively fixed ‘services’ controlled by relatively fixed ‘liturgies’ (whether written or assumed). In contrast what defines Unbounded Church is not its ‘Form’, which can take any shape a ‘spiritual amoeba’ can fit into, but its ‘Spiritual DNA’.

The DNA of Unbounded Church is a group of people who meet intentionally in the name of Jesus–

• Where the Bible is learned
• Where there is prayer
• Where there is Pastoral Care
• Which meets on a regular basis where non-Christians already are
• Which is a ‘Centred Set’ (see Appendix)- a ‘Church with no walls’ i.e. physically and visually open to the non-Christian people around in its location.
• Which is missionally intentional= an ongoing source of blessing for those around

A group defined by the above characteristics can be of any shape and of any size as is appropriate for the context, can meet at any time at any place, all or any of which can be changed very quickly and at will.

From Cathedral to Coffee Shop

Unbounded Church will need to be a Dispersed and Culturally Accessible entity. This requires what could be described as a movement from cathedral to coffee shop! i.e. from the static form, and culturally alienating style of the sizeable and mostly ‘in-drag’ church operations, to a truly ‘incarnational’ model consisting of many micro-cons, sub-congregational sized groups dispersed throughout the community where non-Christians are, in coffee shops, clubs etc. Culturally accessible in the sense of reflecting, using and relating to the cultural forms of, and the ‘street’ language of, the context in which they are set. These groups will be the presence of Christ embedded in and engaging with the community, ‘Centred Sets’ that is ‘churches without walls’, open to the community, in public places, not ‘Bounded sets’ where people have to enter through a doorway to ‘become one of us’ and also ‘become like us’. Unbounded Church will thus be one that is cellular in form with the cells forming a network across a large area, one that perhaps has more resemblance to the pre-Christendom house churches we have evidence of in the New Testament. Such groups and cells are intended to act as God’s ‘Trojan horses’ in the pagan cultural mosaic which is 21st century Australia.

Leaders with Over the Horizon Radar

Leadership in the Australian church is strongly shaped by the Christendom paradigm which is primarily suited to maintenance, the building up of the ‘saints’, not mission. This is not the leadership required for Unbounded Church which is missional leadership.

Essential qualities for such leaders are that they will be ‘entrepreneurial’, have a ‘missionary personality’, are able to think ‘outside of the box’ and be highly ‘flexible and innovative’. They will also need to have over the horizon radar-i.e. to be able to see, indeed ‘imagine’, the church as it must become before it is! To put it another way, leaders will need to prayerfully submit their imaginations to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the voice of the New Testament, and dare to ‘imagine what is not’ for the glory of God. Indeed, to be suitable leaders for Unbounded Church requires a ‘Star Trek’ vision, i.e. a preparedness to go where “no man (or church) has gone before” i.e. truly be ‘missional’. Such leaders will not be constrained by a Christendom box. As Alan Roxburgh has said-

“Today’s global culture is experiencing rapid, tumultuous change that is affecting the very structure and significance of church leadership” and “What the church urgently needs are men and women capable of leading others toward missional transformation for a future church which has not yet been imagined.”

The fact is that if leaders cannot imagine the ‘over the horizon’ vision, i.e. of a ‘Church as we have not known it’, they will most certainly not be capable of leading people towards it.

We Have the Freedom!

The fear of this writer is that it is not a lack of zeal for the missional task, or hard work, or planning but that it is our existing model itself that is a significant constraint on our shared vision to be more effective in reaching the lost for Jesus, because fundamentally it is not designed for mission. If it is the case that our very model tends to militate against the mission needs of our time and place, then surely it’s time to seriously consider alternatives, and a mechanism for serious consideration of this should be part of the new Mission goals.

The fact is that we are free to do it, for both the divine permission of the New Testament voice and our Anglican formularies give us that freedom. However, when we are constrained by a model that, while it is permitted by scripture, and has been the norm for centuries, is not required by scripture, when what is perceived to be Anglican form is more important than the gospel imperative, then we fall foul of the schemes of the ‘Stoixeia ‘. These are the elemental spirits that seek to control human, and Christian, behaviour through holding us captive in “human institutions, traditions, ideas, and religious philosophies”. We then lose the New Testament-voiced freedom for the new humanity so dearly won for us by Christ .

The reality is that the Word of God requires no particular model for how we are to ‘do church’, therefore no-one can demand any particular model. Yet many church leaders and the majority of members do exactly that, even if subconsciously, and will fight like hell (word used deliberately) against significant change.

The objection of many to the thinking of this paper will be that this just isn’t Anglican! However there is no reason that this new organism, this Unbounded Church, in any and all of its manifestations, cannot be birthed as a totally new form yet still be based on and shaped by Anglican Theology. Indeed, the idea that things may be done differently is envisaged by Article 34 of the Anglican 39 Articles of Faith which in part states that-

“It is not necessary that the Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places,
one and utterly alike: for at all times they have been divers,
and may be changed according to the diversities of countries times,
and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word.”

The Cost
The thoughts contained in this paper will certainly produce strong objection from many who are not able, or do not wish, to think outside the current paradigm, perhaps lulled into a false sense of security by a degree of missional success. Such success does and will occur as we get better at harvesting the ‘low hanging fruit’, that is largely those in the community who have some affinity with the Anglican church for some reason, but that is a shrivelling orchard.
The ‘Concerning trends’ identified in the report will inevitably result in the medium and long term decline of the Diocese if not addressed. The argument here is that there needs to be a lift to a new level of thinking, that grapples with the reality that we have to do ‘Mission Borneo’ i.e. we live in a society effectively now pagan, biblically illiterate and retreating rapidly from any sense of Christian affiliation, indeed becoming hostile to it. To do this it is time to think outside the box within which we currently operate, to envisage a new model, here described generically as an Unbounded Church, one that is Mission-Fluid and not bound by any remnants of the Christendom model, for the sake of what is effectively ‘Mission Borneo’. For such a church to come into existence requires the asking and answering of the ‘Prior Question’, coupled with a genuine desire to construct a truly missional church, to move from ‘what is’ to ‘what needs to be’ for mission to this effectively pagan culture. It means a truly dispersed, ‘incarnational’ rather than ‘in-drag’ model. It will be a bespoke model, that is specifically designed for cultural accessibility. It will be a church where the drive to mission is the fundamental DNA permeating every aspect of church life, not just some. This will be costly because in general the vast majority of church members are not likely to embrace such change for-

“the culturally compliant strain of Christianity promoted in Australia does not . . . oblige (people) to embrace lifestyle choices that might involve discomfort.”

To create an ‘Unbounded Church’ will not be easy, for it is likely to involve the pruning of what exists, yet while pruning is painful, it does produce more fruit.

The Parallel Option

To bring a congregation to the point where the members have developed a truly ‘missional’ mind set and are ready to attempt to build a new model is a costly exercise but can be achieved as is illustrated in the CrossNet model shown in the Appendix. In the case of a ‘standard’ Anglican parish it will be a very slow and painful process which may well take many years. This begs a number of questions. Firstly, in view of the concerning trends highlighted in the “Review of the Diocesan Mission” report and the rapid cultural flux of Australian society, can we afford to move at that speed? Secondly, how many leaders and parishes will be prepared to engage with and persevere in such a process?

Bearing these challenges in mind it may be that there is another way. This is not to try and redevelop the existing model but to develop an Unbounded Church as a separate model in parallel to it, as is illustrated in the Appendix.

And So Then-

We live in momentous and very insecure times, in a culture in turmoil being churned by society-changing immigration flows, the disappearance of the biblical guidance system that supported and shaped the ‘old’ Christendom countries of Europe, and those founded by them such as Australia, and the collapse of religious affiliation. The ABS census statistics for 2011 indicate that in Australia 20% plus of people now claim no religion and a higher percentage of young people. The pool of Anglo-originating, or Anglophile people that has formed the natural constituency of the Anglican church is rapidly shrinking. Further it needs to be recognized that cross cultural mission is effectively now to all sections of what is a largely pagan society, not just to those who originate overseas.

In this context it would seem to be somewhat unwise to limit our missional strategy to one based on an improved and expanded version of what we are doing now. To prosper in mission surely we have to become a church that is specifically designed to be an effective ‘Missional’ church in this post-modern, post Christendom, pluralistic, pagan culture in flux. In terms of our missional context, we need to think and strategize as if we are faced with evangelizing a pagan Borneo, not a residual part of Christendom.

This paper is most certainly not a claim to know all the answers, or even all the questions. It is written however in the belief that we need to ask the hard question-

Is the form of church we have capable of achieving the gospel purpose we want?’

And to ask the ‘Prior question’ as to whether we need a new model ( better- ‘organism’), generically called in this paper an Unbounded Church, a church founded on and shaped by Anglican theology but set free from its Christendom form. This is one that is ‘Mission-Fluid’, highly flexible, highly mobile, culturally accessible, made up of a network of incarnational, dispersed, centred sets defined not by ‘form, but their spiritual DNA.
Is it not time to consider a paradigm shift, to create not just more ‘new churches’ of our current type but an Unbounded Church, the shaping of which is in accordance with the voice of the New Testament for Christian community, yet which uses the divine freedom of that voice, and also the freedom implied by the Anglican formularies. This ‘new church’ will be one in the design of which nothing is specifically required except that demanded by the NT voice, and in regard to which se will not be limited in our thinking to our current model, where we are mostly locked into a ‘form’ of church that functions as a box outside of which we need to be for missional effectiveness.
We are seeing the slow motion collapse of western civilization, a civilization that has now lost its Christendom underpinnings. In the context of the current cultural meltdown, the idea that a church model that developed in, and thrived in, Christendom can continue to be the main vehicle for ‘Mission Borneo’ must at least be seriously questioned.

It is worth repeating the question and answer in the “Review of Mission” report-

“Did the 10 year Diocesan Mission achieve it’s goals? Clearly not.”

The urgency of this issue is highlighted by the ‘Concerning Trends’ referred to earlier which if unaddressed will have serious medium, and even more serious long term consequences. For this reason the argument of this paper is that an essential additional ‘Goal’ of the new Mission must be to move to “a new level of thinking”, to set up a mechanism to investigate the creation of new forms of Anglican Church that are specifically designed for our twenty first century times where we need a church that is truly missional, defined and shaped by missional DNA, indeed a-

“Church as we haven’t known it for a society as we haven’t known it”


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