“The current trajectory of our church is a huge mistake”
George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury
Every now and then little ‘Chinks of Light’ appear in the generally gloomy Australian missional landscape in which, now for decades, successful ventures are a rarity. However, I started to get that ‘every now and then’ feeling as I recently started to read two recent submissions to the Synod of the Church of England with the titles ‘A Vision for the Church of England in the 2020s’ and ‘Simpler, Humbler, Bolder’, the latter document being the practical unpacking of the ‘Vision’.
Weirdly, as I read, it was an expression from the movie ‘My Fair Lady, in which an expert in phonetics and accents recruits a London Flower-Girl to take part in an experiment to see whether he can transform her strong, slang-peppered Cockney accent so that she speaks ‘proper’. After a while, as he is teaching her to say the sentence ‘the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain’ he hears her say it perfectly, and declares the well-known line ‘By George, she’s got it!’.
As I read the C of E documents, it was that expression, although amended a little to ‘By George! They’ve Got it!’ that came to mind, although with the caveat ‘Maybe’.
Initially, what caught my attention were various statements and proposals in the documents which can be described as little ‘Chinks of Light’ in the overarching gloom of missional failure that has characterised the mission of the western Church for decades, not least in both England and Australia. Followers of this site will recognise that we have been raising most of the below mentioned ‘Chinks of Light’ that can be seen in the C of E Vision documents for a long time. They are worth noting, or should be, because they are highly relevant to our current missional challenge and thinking. Importantly, they also indicate that at least some Church leaders are, at least in part, ‘Getting it’.
A Tectonic Cultural ‘Mega-Shift‘
‘It would be foolish to ignore the huge shift in the tectonic plates of European and World culture that have shaped the world in which we serve and worship’.
This grasp of, and response to, the Tectonic Cultural Mega Shift that western societies are going through (see more here), is an essential starting point for planning future mission strategies. Yet it appears that, whether out of ignorance, laziness or deliberately, this up to now has factored little in the thinking of the majority of church leaderships, certainly in Australia.
Cultural Intelligence and Adaptability
‘The Church that we see forming, changing and growing in the New Testament understood that as the Gospel encountered new cultures, so its life and message needed to be translated into the language of that culture.’ And –
‘the success of the Church of Jesus Christ in becoming a world faith is largely due to this astonishing cultural adaptability’
Tragically, however, in the context of the current revolving Kaleidoscope of micro-cultures that comprise Australian society, it is hard to see ‘cultural adaptability’ as having any sort of significant presence, certainly in mainline churches, rather it is a case of-
‘The church in the west is ‘blinded to the fact they have trapped Christ
in their own culture’
Bishop Paul Donovan
Yet such ‘adaptability’ must be primary, and its absence is a major factor in the Church’s chronic missional failure. This quote by Charles Darwin from the biological realm is equally applicable to the Church and Mission.
‘It’s not the strongest of species that survive, nor the most
intelligent, but the most responsive to change’
A Mixed Ecology Church
‘A church where mixed ecology is the norm’
A Mixed Ecology church ( I generally use the term Mixed Economy but the meaning is basically the same) is one where networks of alternative forms of much more culturally appropriate Christian fellowships are developed alongside the traditional Parish structure.
A Caveat: While this is a positive proposal it is also one reason for my cautionary ‘Maybe’ above, because the Synod submission still allows far too much of available resources to continue to be devoured by the failed and failing traditional structure. However, the ‘Chink of Light’ promoting the Mixed Ecology concept is both essential and welcome.
“Lay-led churches release the church from key limiting factors”
This the brightest ‘Chink of Light’ in the Vision. That is the proposal for the creation of ‘10,000 new Christian communities’ in 10 years (the equivalent number in Australia scaled for population would be 5000). These new communities are proposed to be set up in village halls, cafes, warehouses, empty shops etc, and will be to a large extent Lay led. (I can’t resist a little Hallelujah here!)
I don’t know how the figure of 10,000 was arrived at, but the very acknowledgement of this huge number is a very significant breakthrough and a blast of fresh air, for it is a belated recognition (although not stated as such) of the size of the missional challenge in western countries, and the massive effort and input of resources that is needed to have any prospect of changing the decades long decline in both church memberships and the Gospel influence in society. Here is the crux of the issue; the creation of such large numbers of new Christian communities is only possible if they are small, very low cost and mostly lay led. They also need to be easily reproducible. There is simply no way that a Classic Church Planting strategy can even remotely achieve such a numerical goal.
As Rev. John McGinley of the ‘New Wine Network’ in the UK is quoted as saying-
“lay-led churches release the church from key limiting factors” – defined as “a building and a stipend and long, costly college-based training for every leader of the church”.
The ‘Chink of Light’ here is the realization that the sheer numbers of new missional communities required must be small, very low cost and largely lay led. This is because the owning or renting of buildings and the paying of staff (except for the limited numbers required to provide adequate oversight of large clusters of new fellowships) is simply not affordable. To put it succinctly the new missional entity must not be staff or building dependent.
Continuation of the centuries-old model of ‘building, stipend (salary) and long, costly college-based training for every leader of the church’, will only entrench the dismal tale of missional failure.
To give this some perspective, as we have previously shown in ‘Something Completely Different’ (See here), the largest Anglican Diocese in Australia over the period 2013-17 would have had to create three new 50 strong congregations of unchurched people every month just to stabilize the decline in church membership against population growth. This is the equivalent of 15 new 10 member-strong fellowships per month of the type the C of E documents envisage. This amounts to around 1800 such communities in ten years, just in one city alone.
Of course, the Vision has encountered massive opposition (another reason for my ‘Maybe’ above). A strong campaign is being mounted against the proposals under the banner of ‘Save the Parish’ in order to preserve ‘the system that has defined Christianity for 1,000 years’, for they are seen as an attempt to dismantle the current parish church. This should be no surprise to anyone, for such opposition is everywhere when visionary change is proposed for the sake of greater missional effectiveness. Over recent years I have spoken to large numbers of Church ministers about a missional community-based future; most listen politely but have no intention of engaging in ‘Something Completely Different’.
However, it is not just Church leaders who are resistant to the quantum leap in missional strategy that will actually bear fruit. Most lay people, even those committed to mission and even willing to engage in more creative ventures seem to be simply unable to totally let go of the traditional church model. While that remains the case there won’t be any better missional future, because as Dr Carey says-
“The current trajectory of our church is a huge mistake”
Millions stumble in ignorance and without hope in the Darkness of a Christ-less existence. However, no longer are they just ‘overseas’ as was the motive for the creation of the Mission Societies in the Christendom centuries of yesteryear; rather they now form the vast majority in the Neo-Pagan societies of the West.
It is encouraging to see that in the sea of Neo-Pagan darkness, there are faint ‘Chinks of Light’ appearing. May they flame into a firestorm of the Gospel for the sake of those millions, and for God’s glory.