Moynagh’s vision of small diverse networks did begin to experience something of a tentative incarnation in the first decade of this century with the advent of, in some contexts, the emergent church; and in others, what became known as Fresh Expressions of church. The former carries with it a degree of postmodern theological baggage; the latter is a term applied purely to methodological experimentations where the theology could be as diverse as the forms.
Murray gives numerous examples of these, from café churches, to table churches, to virtual churches. The “mainstreaming” of some of these new and innovative models in Britain can be traced back to an influential 2009 report of the Church of England. Mission-Shaped Church: Church planting and fresh expressions of church in a changing context (MSC) built on an earlier report of 1994 Breaking New Ground (BNG), which was published at the beginning of the boom of interest in planting. In between these two reports, from a Presbyterian Perspective, the Church of Scotland produced its Church Without Walls (CWW) report in 2001.
Established Churches Bite the Bullet
Breaking New Ground put church planting firmly onto the agenda of the established church and categorised and analysed the relative success of the different models employed in the early 90s (runner plants, graft plants, transplants, seed plants.) It also acknowledged the problems presented by parish boundaries and how they were already being overcome and named other key obstacles to possible bivocational leadership: the tendency for clergy-dependence, institutional regulations, diocesan requirements and congregational expectations. There was, too, an awareness at this stage that “community exists in networks of relationship and not just in territorial closeness.” They quote Ulrich Bech: “to live in one place no longer means to live together, and living together no longer means living in the same place.”
Mission-Shaped Church begins by acknowledging the cultural changes in Britain within a generation – even in the decade since Breaking New Ground first came out. While para.8.2 of the report defined planting as normally involving “the establishing of a new congregation or worship center and is to be encouraged as an important part of Church Growth”, the authors of Mission-Shaped Church admit that “virtually every concept in that sentence is now challenged by the variety that has emerged.” They now prefer to speak of the evolving of a Christian community rather than the establishment of a congregation and, instead of encouraging a longer-term strategy, they find that: “Practitioners working at the edge of the Church…prefer to talk of sowing the gospel and seeing what results…It is more like a process of discerning the prior action of God…. Planning for predetermined outcomes is legitimate but no longer primary. A mission-informed response, rather than a structural initiative, is now seen as authentic.
As for cultural changes, the report mentions changes in living patterns, sport and entertainment, the nuclear family, increased mobility and employment, and how they have all contributed to the traditional church experiencing a rapid marginalization from mainstream society. Their survey essentially echoed Moynagh’s earlier findings: “One key conclusion from these snapshots of British society is that we are living increasingly fragmented lives.”
While this resulted in a loss of traditional neighborhood, a new social structure and a redefinition of community – the authors of the report, understandably given the Anglican context in which they were writing, did not want to dispense altogether with the concept of parish, although they agreed it needed to be more flexible: “Networks have not replaced neighborhoods, but they change them… It is not that locality, place and territory have no significance. It is simply that they are now just one layer of the complex shape of society.”
Tearing up the Rule-book?
This recognition of the need for structural flexibility was made by no less than Rowan WIlliams, Archbishop of Canterbury the previous year:
“Tearing up the rule book and trying to replace the parochial system is a recipe for disaster and wasted energy. In all kinds of places, the parochial system is working remarkably. It’s just that we are increasingly aware of the contexts where it simply isn’t capable of making an impact, where something has to grow out of it or alongside it… as an attempt to answer questions that the parish system was never meant to answer.”
Bayes recognizes that four of the plants that occurred back in 1991 did more or less “tear up the rule book”. However, although the plants happened “without obtaining the necessary permissions, both the catching-on and the law-breaking caused the church to think.” So from the earliest days of planting there was recognition in activist quarters that sometimes it was better to do than to ask, and then to wait for the structures to catch up.
The fragmentation and independence that is characteristic of so much of the emergent and postmodern expressions of church, however, is a double-edged sword. As well as offering interesting new challenges and opportunities for creativity, it has obvious negative implications that had earlier been highlighted by Chester among others. The report says: “A network society can both connect and fragment. It can include and exclude at local, national and global levels. Mobility can provide freedom and opportunity, but it is also a force that destabilizes society by undermining long-term commitments.” Chester agrees: “While those of a postmodern generation talk a lot about relationships, they are usually reluctant to make long-term commitments, especially to inter-generational relationships.”
This was also something highlighted by the Church of Scotland in CWW:
A church that can trace 40 years of declining youth statistics must ask if all the excellent youth work of two generations has been frozen out of church life because we have failed to build relationships of friendship across the generations. We are a covenant community. By baptism we welcome children into that covenant community, but too often our congregations fail to be the covenanting community needed for children and families to flourish in faith and life… Communication with the next generation will require many creative youth ministry skills and pioneering work to develop new patterns of church, but communication without community will be sterile. The church culture of formality, regulations, expectations and conformity sends out a corporate “vibe” that makes today’s generation instinctively uncomfortable.
Working inwards from the margins
A feature of the CWW report was how, in its summary statement, it brought to the foreground the clear transitions the church needed to make.
In this it was paralleling the findings of Eddie Gibbs and Ian Coffey. Church Next, published the same year as CWW, is also structured round several key transitions. They warn against the church reacting to their marginalization by trying to reclaim the center: “If the church found itself marginalized under modernism, it must not now expect that it can return to the position it once held under the Constantinian model. A fragmented world means that there is no longer either a center or a circumference.”
Instead the authors advise that the church should work inwards from the margins making connections and infiltrating all sorts of mini-cultures that form the individual fragments of the broken culture. This conscious move to the margins is significant given that Gibbs and Coffey would previously have been strongly involved in the CGM- in fact Gibbs, an Englishman but working at Fuller (the erstwhile CGM headquarters), once described himself in a lecture at Belfast Bible College as “a recovering Church Growth Specialist”.