I’ve been reading the official C of E report mission-shaped church recently. People who I’ve spoken to who’ve read it (mostly young adults in leadership roles in the C of E) generally rave about how good it is. As usual, I’m going to disagree....
mission-shaped church is basically trying to answer the question
How can the Church of England go about reaching the people it isn’t reaching at the moment?
Much of the book is good advice about church planting, examining the weaknesses of the parish system in large areas of the country, etc.
Much of the book is looking at ways that people are trying to reach out at the moment, especially in terms of “fresh expressions of church” – doing things differently, cell churches, network churches, especially in terms of growing churches among new groups, etc. The weakness? I think they’ve screwed up the theology.
Don’t get me wrong. I agree that the C of E is not bringing the gospel to a huge proportion of the population, and that a large amount of that is down to the way we do things. It is important to recognise, as the book does, that England today is an increasingly fragmented society, with many different subcultures, often without much in common with each other. I agree with the authors that the C of E all too often is not engaging properly with many of these cultures. In fact, it seems that there are several subcultures within the Church of England, which often have little to do with the cultures in society.
I agree that our response to this situation should be to be “all things to all men, so that by all means possible we may save some”. But I think there is a huge danger in doing that; one which the book hardly even mentions.
The situation in the Roman Empire at the time the New Testament was being written was in many ways similar to ours. Society was fragmented, with the biggest divide that affected the church being that between Jews and Gentiles, and it is against that background that Paul wrote these words
Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.
1 Corinthians 9:19-22, NIV
Paul in that quote seems to be speaking about precisely the same idea as mission-shaped church - that of changing who we are and the way we do things to reach people. But while evangelism does seem to have involved total cultural engagement, Paul had different priorities for how the church worked.
It could certainly be argued that the distinction between Jew and Gentile in the Roman world was at least as big as any of the divisions in modern culture. And yet the New Testament clearly sees them both in the same churches, in the same congregations, working alongside one another.
For [Christ] himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Ephesians 2:14-18, NIV
Part of Paul’s view there is of course on the fact that the Gentiles had previously been excluded from access to God. But part of it is clearly on the fact that Jew and Gentile have been united and reconciled to one another in Christ. In the Bible, there is not even a hint of creating separate Jewish and Gentile churches, though it is clear that the style of outreach used to reach Jews and Gentiles were very different at times.
Once people become Christians, they are united to all other Christians in the same family. Yes, that means that where the way we do things is uncomfortable for other Christians, we should change it. But it does not mean that they should have a separate church meeting because they like a different style of music. It means that we should lovingly accommodate them within the Church. Heaven is not going to be split into ghettos according to social background or ethnicity or musical tastes. Therefore the Church shouldn’t be either.
Where there is a good case for separate meetings is where the same languages aren’t spoken or where people are sufficiently geographically distinct (or indeed there are space considerations) so that it’s not reasonable for everyone to meet in the same place at the same time. And even then, there should be efforts made to express unity together.
This doesn't mean I think all Christians should go to their parish church. In many cases, the parish church will not be accessibly culturally or theologically. In those situations, I would say that ideally the parish church should change, and then the Christians might start going there.
So what would I suggest instead of mission-shaped church? As far as I can tell, there are two truths we need to hold together.
- Church should be accessible to and express the unity of all Christians in the area. If that means compromise on musical or liturgical styles then that is what it means. If that means getting to the point where established Christians are uncomfortable with it, they should do it out of love for God and for one another. It might well involve "fresh expressions of church".
- The way the Church reaches out to groups within the community should be incarnational, seeking to participate in the culture, to “become Jews to win the Jews, goths to win the goths”, etc.
It's worth me noting here that there are some very good insights in this book.