Last weekend was the 10th anniversary of G2 in York. G2 is a satellite church of The Belfrey and what’s known as a Fresh Expression. What’s particularly good about G2 is they’ve worked hard not just to be fresh but to stay fresh. Unless you’re intentional about that, you soon go stale. So how do you get fresh and stay fresh? The simple answer is by putting mission at the heart of everything. It’s about becoming and remaining mission-shaped. That’s the key to staying fresh.
Last week I re-read a short chapter I’d written for Mark Tanner’s What is the Spirit Saying to the Church? (Cambridge: Grove) back in 2010. It’s a call to those concerned for the leadership of the church in the UK to make sure that everything we do is shaped by mission. I found myself challenged by my own words (!) and so I put it out on this Leadership Blog for anyone who might find it helpful.
New Forms of Church – Matthew Porter
In the early 1990s I heard John Wimber prophecy that the UK church in the early years of the next millennium would be ‘unrecognisable’ from the church of that day, and how it would be more fit for the job to which it was called by the Lord. I remember wondering at the time whether Wimber really was prophetically seeing something of the future church, or whether he was simply describing his hope and dreams. Whichever it was, Wimber was right. The UK church is different, and continues to change.
The Decade of Evangelism of the 1990s did not immediately halt the numerical decline in church attendance but was significant in bringing mission back onto the heart of the church. This should not be underestimated for many of today’s cutting-edge mission initiatives might never have begun had it not been for the lessons learned from the Decade. To embrace the shift from maintenance to mission is not easy as it is truly an ontological change (that is, in identity and being) and not just a functional change (that is, in practice). UK churches which are going to survive and thrive in the future have woken up to their calling to be missionary congregations. The implications of this are only just being realised.
What is the Spirit Saying Today?
As I scan the body of Christ, looking at the shape and feel of the church in the UK, I think God is continuing to renew our missionary roots. In particular I believe the Lord wants us to return to Scripture and hear afresh the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20:
All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me,
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations,
baptising them in the name of the Father
and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.
And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
This Great Commission can be summarised into three areas:
– Go, with Christ’s authority
– Make disciples, with an emphasis on initiation, the Trinity, teaching
– The presence of the Lord
One result of the communications revolution for Christians is that we now know more easily what is happening elsewhere in the world church. As well as hearing stories of persecution, there are tales of tremendous church growth. We know that the centre of Christian influence is shifting south – from Europe and North America – to Africa and Asia. One of the main reasons for this is that our materially poorer Christian cousins in the two-thirds world have obeyed Christ’s call to ‘go’. In short, they are a missionary church, whose vision is outward-looking.
An outward-looking church is not immune from internal difficulties – from having to discuss and debate doctrine, policy, ethics and much more – but these things are secondary to the call to ‘go’. If we are to be this kind of outward-looking church then we need to be less concerned about internal issues. Indeed, working together in mission, especially across denomination or church tradition causes many internal difficulties to seem less significant. An outward-looking Church of England requires mission-shaped leaders who can skilfully guide us. It also needs mission-shaped structures. Structural review – both locally, at the level of the parish church and its PCC, regionally in the dioceses and nationally at Archbishops’ Council and General Synod – will be important.
God has given the church two hands to use in mission: the hand of evangelism (telling the good news); and the hand of social action (showing the good news). For too long churches have emphasised one and neglected the other. We need to recognise that, in the same way that most people have a dominant hand, we will prefer to use one more than the other, but the church that really makes a difference will use both hands, naturally and resourcefully.
Christ’s call to go to all nations is actually a call to go to all people groups. We are to engage in culturally-appropriate mission, showing and telling the gospel in ways that each culture can understand. There is much for us to learn from mission studies about embracing rather than demonizing local culture, not just in different parts of the world, but within our own towns and cities. We need to speak the language of our neighbours so that one day we can enjoy worshipping together with these many people groups around Christ’s throne in heaven (Rev 7:9).
So a future UK church characterised by going will be a church confident in its identity and calling as a missionary people, sharing in the mission of God. This is not about being proud or about being feeble; it is about having a mature blend of humility and authority.
Whilst the future church is, I believe, being called again to truly embrace being a church in mission, the Great Commission does not call us just to show and tell the gospel. The call is actually to make disciples. This work of discipleship is the main task of the church.
Bishop Graham Cray has been touring the UK church recently, calling churches to return to this task of making disciples in the 21st Century. Cray rightly emphasises that discipleship happens in the context of mission and that we grow as we go. I sense a prophetic edge to this.
In the Great Commission Jesus highlights Christian initiation, and specifically baptism ass foundational to discipleship. I believe the Lord is wanting us again to see baptism as the official welcome into the church family, not raising a hand or attending a course (important as those things are). Baptism is not an optional extra. We need more teaching on the importance of baptism as the mark of the disciple, and if done as an infant it needs later public acknowledgment – either formally (through Confirmation) or more informally (through Affirmation of Baptismal Faith). It should be soon after a decision is made to follow Christ, with good follow-up and discipling (perhaps initially through Alpha and/or a newcomers course). This is something we are taking much more seriously at St Michael le Belfrey at the moment: baptism services are planned on a monthly basis and we are expectant of people coming to faith and committing themselves to Christ and church in this way. New believers need birthing well.
Christians are baptised into the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are immersed in all three persons of the godhead and need to mature in our understanding and relationship with God, through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Spirit. Jesus tells us to teach people these things, and we should not be afraid to do so. The future UK church needs good Bible teachers, encouraging people to obey Christ and grow and live as his disciples. You do not have to agree with all its theology to note how The Shack has met with such success, as the author incorporates an accessible trinitarian theology within a compelling novel. People are hungry to grow as disciples, and the future UK church needs to feed them through simple, clear and creative Bible teaching, discussed and prayed through in small groups and accountable relationships.
The Presence of the Lord
Be still for the presence of the Lord was recently voted as the most popular Christian song sung in the UK church during the last decade. It speaks powerfully of our need and desire for the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Great Commission ends with this promise, that the presence of Jesus will go with us as we do what he tells us to do.
We are given Christ’s Spirit at initiation (Rom 8:9) but there is an ongoing need for disciples to be continually filled (Eph 5:18) through to eternity. With so much (rightful) emphasis on mission at present, we can easily neglect our basic need to be regularly filled with God’s Spirit. We must not go in our name or in our own strength, but empowered by the Lord. As we stay grounded in worship and prayer, doing the basics well, so God will fill us up and send us out (Acts 1:8). It is a Spirit-filled missional community that will make the difference.
The astute will have noticed that a new kind of ecclesiology has begun to develop in recent years. It is clearly seen in Church House Publishing’s 2004 best-seller, Mission-Shaped Church. In the past, courses or books on ecclesiology were rather dry and boring – very ‘churchy’! Whilst there is still some interest in the old ecclesiological issues, such as the mode of baptism, the theology of Holy Communion and the nature of church government, these are increasingly being seen as secondary to issues of mission. The new ecclesiology is missionary ecclesiology – and rightly so. After all, the church was birthed in mission, for mission – and, as such, missiology is the mother of all theology. Missionary ecclesiology is the way ahead.
If our fast-changing nation is to experience the revival for which so many of us work and pray, then we need the constant renewing power of the Holy Spirit in the church, renewing people, leaders, vision and structures. We need a truly missionary ecclesiology so that a renewed church can work and pray for the Lord to revive our nation.