The very existence of the ‘Unbounded Church’ concept begs the question as to why we need new forms of church and mission with such a strong emphasis on disciple-making and multiplication? It might help to answer that question by referring to a famous tale by Hans Christian Anderson.
It is the story of a vain and gullible emperor who was deluded by a couple of rogue weavers into thinking they could make him a special suit out of magic cloth that only the wise and fit for office could see, fools could not. To cut a long story short, when the emperor visited the loom he could see the weavers working away busily but he was very upset that he couldn’t see any cloth at all. However, not wishing to admit it and so appear a fool he cried out how wonderful, special and truly beautiful the cloth was even though there was actually nothing there.
Then the great day came when he was to parade through the town in his fine new clothes made from the magic cloth that was invisible to the foolish. No one of course wanted to admit that they were unable to see anything, not wanting to appear foolish and stand out from the crowd, so the whole throng called out what a wonderful suit the Emperor was wearing and how fine it was, even though there was no suit at all and he was actually stark naked. However, a young boy in the crowd who wasn’t bothered with such ‘adult’ inhibitions as ‘appearing foolish’ cried out what everyone else was afraid to say “Hey! the Emperor has no clothes on!”
It might be asked why is this story relevant? It is because it has parallels with the current situation regarding the missional malaise of the church in the former Christendom countries and their offspring i.e. UK, Europe, Australia and New Zealand etc. The problem is that we have a naked ‘missional’ emperor and it is not at all certain that the voice of the ‘little boy in the crowd’ has sufficiently been heard.
The current trends for the church in Australia serve as a severe reality check in regard to the health and missional effectiveness of the traditional church , in particular in regard to reaching the increasing number of the totally unchurched with the gospel of Jesus. A demonstration of this is the fact that in Australia those identifying with Christianity dropped from 61% in 2011 to 52% in 2016. It is not hard to see that if these trends are not dramatically reversed then the picture for the future will be bleak indeed.
The reasons for the lack of missional success are complex, however, one of the main ones frequently given is that the western culture is now very hardened, indeed hostile to the gospel. Indeed, one commentator on gospel ministry in Australia has likened it to ploughing concrete! However, we would posit another major reason, which is that the ‘Church’ and church people exist in a ‘Parallel Universe’ to the socio-spiritual universes in which the unchurched live, and our ‘church universe’ is alien and inaccessible to them.
It is time to fully grasp that a large and growing number of Australians (Westerners) are almost totally unchurched, and fundamentally biblically illiterate pagans who worship and are moved by ‘other gods’ . (1 Corinthians 12:2) These, the totally unchurched, now represent the large proportion of society that traditional forms of church have been failing to reach for a long time, and it is for this reason that new forms of church and mission must be developed. In fact, we are called to mission in a spiritual culture more akin to a pagan Africa of 200 years ago than one with any remaining resemblance of the Christendom in which the contemporary church model developed and it is a dangerous delusion of ‘naked emperor’ proportions, to think otherwise.
The purpose here is most certainly not to claim the possession of some magic bullet that will solve all our mission problems, rather it is to encourage us, indeed urge us to listen to the ‘little boy in the crowd’, to open our eyes to the reality that, with glorious but scarce exceptions, the missional Emperor doesn’t have any clothes on. In consequence, and for the purpose of reaching the growing numbers of totally unchurched, it is a call to return to basics, the basic principles for Christian community voiced to us by the New Testament.
The ‘SIC’ Church Problem
A major, but little discussed, factor in the general missional malaise is what might be called the ‘Sunday-Centric; In-Drag, Christendom-Form’ (SIC) model of most local churches, explained as follows-
The standard church is largely completely Sunday-Centric, meaning that nearly all the missional eggs are put in the Sunday basket i.e. missional efforts are designed to get more people to attend Sunday (or at least weekend) services.
This however can only be of limited and declining effectiveness, a major reason for this being that as a result of socio-cultural trends in recent decades, less and less people are able to attend on Sundays even if they wanted to. The fact is that in the UK and similarly in Australia around 20% of adults work on Sundays. Add to this the number of children and adults who are strongly locked into sporting and other recreational activities on Sundays and it can be seen how this will significantly limit the success of a strategy that is largely aimed at growing the church on Sundays.
It is clear therefore that what is needed is a non-Sunday-centric form or forms of church that are ‘sprinkled’ throughout the week
‘In-Drag’ is not ‘Out-Reach’, rather it relies on drawing new people into the existing church services and ministries, a strategy that has been failing for at least 20 to 30 years. The reality is that the best efforts to get (drag) people into church services held in church buildings, especially on Sunday, have been of limited and declining success. As we will discuss later, the cultural gap between the universes in which the unchurched live and the ‘church’ universe is simply too great even for the declining number for whom the Sunday time slot is not a problem.
The response to this must be to change strategy from ‘Go and Bring’ to ‘Go and Stay’ in the cultural mosaic of ‘Live, Work and Play’ universes of the lost.
Despite the fact that we are now well into the 21st century, the standard church model is still structured in a Christendom form. That is, churches are still largely parish centred with fundamentally the same ministry and service forms as developed in Christendom Europe, as if our ministry context is amazingly somehow still Christendom. The style, language, and communication forms of services are culturally alien to the ‘other-universe dwellers’ and so are not culturally accessible to them. Even if they come they generally don’t stay.
“Witnessing to others in daily life and inviting them to church at the weekend frequently requires too big a jump. The style of Sunday worship, the language, and the assumptions ask too much. Visitors have a look. Sometimes they stay. But more often they think, ‘It’s not for me’, and don’t return.”
All of this urgently requires a rethink about, indeed a re-imagining of, what church is and what missionally, and particularly culturally, appropriate strategies should be developed.
A Methodist minister in England was recently quoted as saying that he thought most of his thirty five year ministry had “been insane”! For he had-
“Enthusiastically followed the latest ideas for ministry, evangelism and church growth. However, none of them have gone deep enough to examine, much less challenge, deep rooted ideas about what church is”.
The drawing of such a conclusion would be typical of many current leaders of churches, for it is becoming increasingly clear that a major reason for our missional unfruitfulness is a failure to go “deep enough to examine, much less challenge, deep-rooted ideas about what church is”. Here is the Key Issue – our Ecclesiology (Doctrine of Church).
Such a re-evaluation of our inherited and assumed ecclesiology is urgently needed, to release the ‘Divine freedom’ of the New Testament-voiced ecclesiology to create a truly missional church. However, the fact is that mainline denominations largely continue with a Sunday-Centric, In-Drag, Christendom-form (SIC) model of church that persists in re-treading 20th century forms of local mission. This includes the traditional classic church plant which is generally itself culturally alien, vastly too expensive, and too slow to change for a culture in ongoing turmoil. It is also not rapidly replicable.
More on the ‘Christendom Problem’
It needs to be remembered that our current church model largely developed in the communities of ‘Christendom’ Europe where church structures and ministries were constructed not for mission but for the maintenance of existing Christian congregations. Such communities were ones which were-
- Ethnically Homogenous.
- Where there was only one language.
- Where nearly everybody was in church on Sundays.
- Where all had a biblical world view (even if sub-consciously)
- Where even non-Christians were in church on Sundays to be evangelised
- Where the church was the centre and integrating hub of community life.
- Where everybody worked locally, and not at all on Sundays.
- Where ‘Change’ was so slow as to be imperceptible.
It should come as no great surprise then that we struggle, for western culture is no longer anything like that, rather it is one –
- That is not Homogenous-indeed it is a society being churned by society-changing people movements.
- Where very few attend church services.
- Where the biblical world view has disappeared.
- Experiencing the rampant collapse of religious affiliation.
- Where the church is on the periphery of society.
- Where people work great distances from their residences, with often long commute times.
- Where ‘work and play’ micro-village activities have consumed the erstwhile activity-free zone of Sunday.
- Which is increasingly hostile to Christianity.
- Where ‘Change’ is ongoing, rapid and accelerating.
Given this massive socio-spiritual disconnect, would not keeping on repeating missional strategies based on an improved and expanded SIC church model and continuing with ‘More and Better’ versions of what we are doing now, yet expect different outcomes, be an example of Einstein’s definition of insanity?
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.“
That is, is not the question that begs to be asked?
“Why are we still so thoroughly wedded to Christendom that we refuse to entertain consciously (the) great transition through which we are passing, and therefore fail to engage in the kind of radical reassessment and reforming of our calling, our mission, our structures and ministries that would enable us to pass through this paradigm shift . . .”
Christendom and the Divine Freedom
Surely, the time has come to fully exercise the ‘Divine Freedom’ and unbind the church from its Christendom bondage and release the full potential of the New Testament-voiced principles for Christian community. This bondage results from the ‘Christendom’ paradigm, or metanarrative, which has a set of core beliefs that continue to define the church culture for many members, even if subconsciously.
Consequently, centuries of our current model have left most traditional church members and leaders with frozen imaginations regarding how we ‘do church’. However, there is no biblical/theological reason that the Missional Community concept cannot be birthed in a range of new ‘universe-penetrating’ missional communities that are still based on and shaped by the NT DNA for Christian community and theologically at one with the Bible and the Creeds, the basic faith statements of orthodox Christianity. While there are variations, the missiological strategies of most mainline churches are primarily based on and operate with a fundamentally ‘SIC’ mindset. This despite the ‘Divine Freedom’ to do things very differently. There are a number of arguments that can be made for such a freedom, for example-
- The New Testament gives that freedom by implication because it does not specify any particular model for ‘Church and mission’. Rather it gives us principles for the forming and shaping of Christian community.
- A study by the Sydney (Anglican) Diocesan Doctrine Commission in its 2008 report “A Theology of Christian Assembly”, concluded that-
“Christian assemblies can take place anywhere, do not require the presence of any particular person, can occur at any time on any day and do not involve any essential ritual. Christians do not have a place on earth to which they must come to worship . . . and there is no need to observe particular days or rites” (Clause 24)
- The Divine Freedom is recognised in the Anglican articles of faith. In particular, Article 34 says –
“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.”
Therefore, in the search for greater missional fruitfulness we should obey Paul’s exhortation to “imitate him” (Philippians 3:17) by following his example when he says-
“I have become ALL things to ALL people so that by ALL possible means I might save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:21-23. Author’s emphasis)
It is important to note he does not say ‘Some’ but ALL things, people, means. Yet it is largely the case that centuries of our current model have left many church leaders and members with the entrenched assumption that how church has been done in the past is how it must continue to be done. Further, the hard to comprehend objection of even many allegedly biblically well taught church members to the exercise of the ‘Divine Freedom’ will be that this just isn’t Anglican or Baptist or Presbyterian etc. By which is meant not the Traditional/Christendom form of church that they are used to and are comfortable with.
The reality is that in effect we generally continue to limit our missional efforts and methods to what we have been doing and failing in for decades, and of course what fits comfortably with our particular traditional church paradigm. However, there is no doubt that for greater missional fruitfulness we must recapture and fully exercise the Divine Freedom, and develop a church that is specifically designed to be an effective vehicle for mission into the multiple universes of the unchurched tribes which comprise this post-modern, post Christendom, pluralistic, pagan culture in a constant state of change. This requires that we think and strategize more as if we are faced with evangelizing a pagan Africa of 200 years ago or a Celtic Europe of 1500 years ago, not a residual part of Christendom.
The call here is for an urgent reimagining of a new church, a new paradigm that will unbind the church from its currently limiting and missionally failing forms. This is all for the sake of the mission of the gospel of Jesus (our core business) into the wide variety of cultural universes in which the totally unchurched live. Such a reimagining will be shocking to many, but we are at a time when shock is needed or we will keep on sleepwalking into the iceberg.
A Celtic Interlude
As we struggle in the mission of the gospel to the pagan tribes of our own 21st century society, it may well be helpful to journey back in time and to reacquaint ourselves with the mission of a man called Columba (Columbkille), for to do so is to go back to the Celtic past to find clues for our own missional future.
The mission strategies and methods of Columba give the lie to our so often frozen imaginations and assumptions that how we do church and local mission is the way it has always been done and must be done. For Columba’s methods, and the resulting establishment of Christianity in the pagan tribes of Scotland and northern England, bear almost no resemblance to ours.
Columba’s strategy was to send out small groups who established their huts as missional communities in the middle of pagan villages. They then sought to attract people to the gospel by their way of life, by their care for all, and by the preaching and practice of their faith. Indeed, there are parallels between the way they practiced the Christian faith and the description of ‘First Church Jerusalem’ that we see in Acts 2:42-47.
So, what clues for our own mission can be gleaned from Columba? Columba’s context for mission was a pagan landscape. The reality is, that is now our context and challenge also, but the contemporary church appears, in true ‘naked emperor’ fashion, to find this reality hard to grasp.
- The Celtic mission strategy was not to try to ‘drag’ pagans into sizeable ‘church’ centres as has been western practice for decades, but to embed small missional faith communities within the villages of the pagan tribes.
- These communities were regularly observable by local people (unlike our church gatherings bounded within walls) who could see how Christian communities operated, and also this provided opportunities for engagement, showing God’s love and evangelism.
- Columba’s communities were flexible and mobile and would move according to the dictates of the mission. Something our generally fixed, building-centric models are certainly not designed for.
- The setting up of such missional communities was difficult and required sacrificial commitment.
The reality is that the missional emperor is naked, and a major reason for the general missional malaise in our churches is that we have not listened to the voice of the ‘boy in the crowd’, that is to listen to and analyse the evidence of chronic failure. Further, there is a failure to grasp and adequately responded to the fact that the ‘Church’ and church people exist in a ‘Parallel Universe’ to the socio-spiritual universes in which the unchurched live. Adding to this is the fact that our ‘church universe’ is alien and inaccessible to an increasing proportion of society. In major part, this is the reason that the standard Sunday-Centric, In-Drag, Christendom-form church model is not capable of reaching most of the unchurched population.
It is clear therefore that what is needed is a non-Sunday-centric form or forms of church that are ‘sprinkled’ throughout the week. There must also be a changed missional strategy from the normal ‘Go and Bring’ to ‘Go and Stay’ in the cultural mosaic of ‘Live, Work and Play’ universes of the lost. In addition, Christendom-form churches are culturally alien to the ‘other-universe dwellers’ and so are not culturally accessible to them.
All of this urgently requires a rethink about, indeed a re-imagining of how the ecclesiology of the New Testament, that is what church is, can be expressed, and consequently what missionally, and particularly culturally, appropriate strategies should be developed.