Part XII: Ordinary Life with Gospel Intentionality

A Post-modern voice

In North America, in 2004, Tom Jones of the Church Planting Assessment Center assembled and edited a book of articles by various practitioners seeking to relate church planting theory to the rapidly changing culture. Of note is a chapter co-authored by four self-styled post-moderns, Buffington, Emmert, McDade and Smith. They are unambiguous in critiquing much post-modern theory and practice and its failure to deal adequately with the unfulfilled angst of a generation; but they are equally unambiguous in critiquing the church for its tardiness in listening to, understanding, or offering hope to intelligently seeking post-moderns.

On the one hand they speak of the generation’s “communal loneliness”: “The proximity of information, strangers, and entertainment forces us to absorb bits and pieces of the world around us. In theory this puts us in touch and keeps us connected. But the reality is this: at the end of the day, we go to bed alone.”  On the other hand they are frustrated with a church that seems to be answering the wrong questions:

“The Church is under tremendous pressure to change with the times and to adjust in ways that will not compromise the integrity of God’s kingdom. Issues of style, strategy, and survival consume us…. But postmodernism stands outside of the simple notion of “change”… What matters to us is how old or new is lived out from day to day. Our culture… demands new paradigms consistent with eternal truths and an ancient identity.”

Later they claim that while “change for change’s sake” is actually more of a modernist phenomenon, “postmodernism does not demand innovation as much as renovation”. Although they sometimes exhibit the very common but questionable post-modern trait of dichotomizing propositional and relational truth, they do grasp the timeless uniqueness of the church and their cri de coeur is one all planters would do well to heed:

“We write because we are in the church…we plead to the Church to respond to our deep desire for a place to roost – and a place to which we can invite our hurting friends to roost…. In a world where truth is difficult to pin down, the church plant offers truth a place to land – that is, in lives carefully lived. In a world where people are increasingly isolated from one another, the church plant has an opportunity to remind people of a call to live alongside one another. In a world where uncertainty seems to prevail, the church plant can offer stability and security.”

Escaping the Structures

The willingness of some denominations to attempt an adjustment in how they understand church life by giving a degree of recognition to quite marginal manifestations of Christian community can be seen in the emergence of what has become known as the “fresh expressions” movement. The phrase is actually in the title of the MSC report and is later taken up by a number of authors and practitioners such as Paul Bayes, George Lings, Angela Schier-Jones, Stephen Croft and Martin Robinson, and in a host of pamphlets, books, websites and other media. Fresh expressions may include café churches, pub churches, dining-room table churches, virtual churches, skater churches or messy churches (a children and parent fellowship centered around craft and paint-based activities). You can read about these in George Lings, Leading Fresh Expressions: Lessons from Hindsight; Angela Shier-Jones, Pioneer Ministry and Fresh Expressions of Church; Stephen Croft, Moving on in a Mission-Shaped Church; Martin Robinson, Planting Mission-Shaped Churches Today; Murray and Wilkinson-Hayes, Hope from the Margins and Lucy Moore, Messy Church; as well as on the Fresh Expressions website.

Naturally, there are significant ecclesiological and theological questions raised by such developments. Schier-Jones is careful to insist that these expressions should still be fresh expressions of church:

“There is more to a fresh expression of church than experiments in sound, lighting, space, or even ways of being community… Fresh expressions of church should still be church. No matter how alternative their worship is or how specific or tightly focused they are as a community, they should still be characteristically and recognizably “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” in nature… The invitation to live and work within the faith and unity of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church should not be understood in any restrictive or prescriptive way but in a way that is liberating, even surprising.”

She recognizes that while some fresh expressions may owe their genesis to effective ministry and growth, more than likely they exist because “the gospel is being communicated so badly that only by escaping existing church structures and systems can the kingdom continue to grow.”

The book is an encouragement to pioneer ministers and planters and a plea for more to enter the field. It is also realistic in raising some of the important ecclesiological issues that fresh expression congregations will have to face as they mature: such as how they define and then exhibit all the marks of a healthy church as they move from community-based initiatives to fully nurturing sacramental congregations, and yet still simultaneously maintain their missional edge.

In an interesting chapter in Croft’s book, John Drane questions the traditional categories by which we measure maturity, but the article lacks a biblical cohesion and seems to accept the current cultural milieu rather uncritically.  Croft’s assertion on the ecclesiological issue is also pertinent: “My perspective is that we are at present reasonably good at thinking about mission as a church… However, collectively we remain poor at thinking about the Church.”

Mixed Economy Churches

Shier-Jones’s refers to “mixed economy” churches.  This is a phrase coined by Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, to describe the inherent heterogeneity that must characterize any contemporary missional church.  It is a phrase taken up by Croft in two chapters of his book on mission-shaped churches. He begins the collection of essays with the important observation: “It is no longer enough to imagine that the Christian Church can change in one particular direction… Different parts of our culture are actually moving in different directions.”

The presence of large numbers of ethnic groups in all major cities has obviously played a part in this. In an important book which brought the phrase “Missional Church” to a wider audience, Ed Stetzer and David Putman refer to contemporary culture as being “glocal”.  Commenting on Acts 1:8 they write: “In most cases, our communities consist of various people groups, population segments, and cultural environments. We now live in “JerusaJudeaSamariaEnds” – communities that combine all four targets into one geographical area.”

However, writers such as Croft, Roxburgh, Schier-Jones, Moynagh, Frost and Hirsch correctly emphasize that this fragmentation that has prompted the emergence of fresh expressions is not just due to multiethnicity, but to the existence of increasing numbers of subcultures defined by generation, interests, style, geography, work and countless other boundaries.

Ordinary Gospel-Life

Chester and Timmis, though, are anxious to ensure that the discussion of “new models” and “new expressions” is not purely methodological. They are less interested in the location, ambience, style and reinventions of liturgy than in the theological reasoning and gospel intentionality behind the new fellowships and their effectiveness in truly reaching the unchurched. They want the church experience to be as close to the rest of the participants’ lives as possible and advocate “ordinary life with gospel intentionality… you cannot program ordinary life.”

Church Planting: here to stay

The danger will be to absolutize one particular model, perhaps claiming that a “new expression” or “gospel community” is the only way to go. Al Barth, European director for the Redeemer church planting network, a Presbyterian movement out of Tim Keller’s New York church, reckons that every urban centre will need at least four different types of church model to reach the city: churches with a cathedral ethos, a regional resource ethos, a community ethos, and a cell-church/small group ethos.  As well as reflecting the reality of the situation this gives planters permission to experiment, or even in some cases, if growth occurs unexpectedly, to “go with the flow” and see what type of church they become, reassessing their priorities and structures accordingly.

While church planting literature has undergone quote a journey since its emergence thirty years ago, what is clear is that, with one or two blips, and giving cognizance to the contextual differences on each side of the Atlantic, each new generation of church leader is recognizing the importance of establishing and reinventing new gospel communities, and new models of leadership (including bivocational leadership) will be critical in securing the viability of such communities. Church planting is here to stay.

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