Very near to the place I grew up in there is a hill which has the name of Barr Beacon, which means in Old English ‘a hill used for lighting fires’. Such Beacons existed on a chain of hills across the United Kingdom each in ‘line of sight’ of the ones next in the chain. Fires were lit on the first beacon and then the next and then the next and so on. This was for the purpose of communication of some great event. In the last two centuries or so the beacon chains have been used to communicate some great celebration e.g. for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebrations and in 2005 for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Victory in Europe at the end of the second world war.
Originally however, Barr Beacon and the chain of such beacons were used for the communication of some national threat. For example, the beacon chain was used to send a warning throughout England of the approaching Spanish Armada in the reign of Elizabeth the First, which was ultimately defeated by the Royal Navy under Francis Drake (1588). While the beacon chain was the fastest means of communication in those days, it was only used in times of national crisis. In normal times the fastest form of communication was by horse. Compare this with today. In less than the time it takes a messenger to saddle his horse we can send an email or text message and receive a reply from the other side of the world!
Why do I make this comparison? It is because it illustrates just how much has changed between the reign of Elizabeth the First (the time when most mainline Christian denominations were formed) and the reign of the current Queen Elizabeth the Second. However, it is not just change in terms of means and speed of communication! Elizabeth 1 reigned over a Christendom England, one religion, one language, one ethnicity, where Sunday was a ‘work, shop and sport’ -free zone and where everybody went to church. Fast forward to the reign of Elizabeth 2 and none of that is true anymore. There has been a religio-cultural meltdown of seismic proportions, a cultural reordering and splintering into a kaleidoscope of pluralistic, post-modern, multi-faith, multi-ethnic, post Christendom ‘Tribes’. It seems that every aspect of life is dramatically changed.
Except one that is! For I have omitted something important for those of us who are concerned with the mission of God. Yes, there has been massive and rapid change, except – in the church! The church structures and forms developed in the time of Elizabeth I are little changed. Yes the music has been moved somewhere into the late 20th century and in many churches the ministers no longer wear robes, but the Sunday centred, meeting in special buildings largely invisible to the community form is largely unchanged. The come and join us (and be like us) invite to the world continues, along with decline in missional fruitfulness.
It is quite obvious, that the Elizabeth 1 ‘form’ of church that largely still operates needs to be updated to an Elizabeth 2 version such that it is culturally accessible to the majority non-Christian population.
However, this is not the most important change that is needed. We could put all our efforts into reinventing a model of church suitable for today, and indeed that new model may well be more missionally fruitful. The problem is however that in 10 years’ time the cultural kaleidoscope will have turned again presenting a once more changed missional landscape for which our ‘new’ model is again unsuitable.
The key socio-cultural characteristic that makes our time unique is that of ongoing constant and rapid ‘change’. Any ‘form’ of ‘church’ and associated missional strategy that is not designed for that will again fail the missional task.
While I value the insights of those who propose and have worked to establish a ‘Mission Shaped’ church I believe we need to go further. Rather the need is for an ‘Amoeba Shaped’’ Church-that is one with no particular shape at all, but one which is able to constantly reshape itself into whatever ‘Form’ is required for any particular cultural context, and then to reshape itself again when the cultural context changes – as it most certainly will!
For the church to resurrect its missional vitality it will need to be reimagined, not just for today but so it is able to reshape itself for every turn of the cultural kaleidoscope. This will require ‘Messy’ thinking about both church and mission, something the western church is little equipped for. (See ‘Mission and Messy Theology article on this site). It will require the current forms to be ‘unbound’, set free to express the ‘Divine Freedom’ of the New Testament for Church and Mission.
Barr Beacon provides an interesting but distant memory of discarded 16th century communication technology, along with the horse. We do not however require a ‘church’ to match!
Indeed, it is time for an Elizabethan Update!