Ministry, Mission, Maintenance: what is the church, what are its ministers, for?

I attended a really interesting and thought-provoking event this week, organised by my Synod (Thames North) for its ministers and church related community workers. There were many aspects of this gathering that I found informative about the differences between this synod and the one I have come to it from. The main thing that got my thinking, though, was the content, centred on “new ways of being/doing church” and on “mission”.

Mission is a word with great power in the contemporary church but also with an amazing range of meanings-in-use. One of the striking things about this particular set of discussions was that this range was actually rather narrower than it sometimes is. Nobody seemed to be using mission to mean the kinds of service the Christian community to engage in without making any explicit attempt to spread the gospel and to make disciples. That our “mission” includes the imperative to grow the Church in numbers appeared to be an unquestioned assumption we all shared (I’ll come back to how far I include myself in that “we”).

This is a positive, I think, since it means that the ministers who were gathered probably agree with the overwhelming view of the other members of our churches. My experience is that churches almost always want to grow. This seems just to be a part of what being a Christian community entails, the desire that more people would come and join. The evangelical impulse seems to lie deep within us.

The next thing that struck me was that there was very broad consensus that growing:

  1. required conscious effort on the part of the Church, that it depends on missionary outreach more than on anything else;
  2. requires, in the current context, new and imaginative forms of activity, unlike those of the church forms that emerged from the Victorian and Edwardian periods that largely formed what we know as “traditional”, with its organ accompanied hymns, biblically oriented sermons, monthly communion received seated with unfermented wine in small glasses, and so on.

I’m rather sceptical about both of these propositions while recognising that they contain a good deal of truth. Part of my scepticism comes from my experience. Soon after my baptism in 1998 our family joined Morningside United Church in Edinburgh. We had recently moved to the South Side of Edinburgh and were looking for a church to worship in. I saw the minister preach elsewhere and liked what I heard. We visited the church and found it friendly, welcoming, and unthreatening (in that order of priority) so we joined.

At that time there were about 180 people on its membership roll and a weekly worshipping congregation of about 50-60. Every year of our membership until we left this summer for me to begin my ministry in Hertfordshire that church grew. It’s roll is now about 230, most weeks will see at least 80 people in church and the average age of both membership and worshippers has tumbled. It;s programme has expanded with a regular prayer group now meeting, more study groups added, specialised meetings for women and young people initiated, and so on.

All this happened not because of any imaginative outreach or mission projects on the part of the minister but largely out of the church being, under his leadership, the right kind of church for the context it sits in. Morningside is one of the main places people associated with Edinburgh University live. Many of those who have contributed to its life have been members of the University’s staff or graduate students at it. These people come and go and when they come the Christians among them look for a home. MUC has managed to be that home for some of them. Others also move into and out of the area, a prosperous inner suburb, and again some of them look for a church home.

By combining a thoughtful and mainstream preaching style with traditional but somewhat flexible liturgical practice and excellent music MUC’s minister has made many people with Church experience feel at home. By listening to them and responding to what they say he has been able to both create opportunities to serve and places where discipleship can grow for the people who turn up.

I write about this particular church not because I think it’s a translatable model for others, it is highly contextual, but because it’s an example of doing the “basics” (what our synod mission enabler calls the “rhythm”) of church life well and reacting to opportunities as they arise (there’s much more I could say about this at Morningside United but I won’t).

In many cases people speak, rather dismissively, about this kind of thing, putting effort into weekly worship and getting it right for your congregation, visiting and speaking to the people who come, helping where you can with their needs, praying, studying, as maintenance. What I’m suggesting is that maintaining the quality of Christian life among those already trying to live it and especially paying attention to their discipleship, whether through the desire to do things or to learn things, is essential.

Also I would say that there are historical and social factors. There are times when all a church has to do is to be ready in order to grow (I’m thinking especially about the transformation of Congregationalism by the evangelical revival that also created Methodism and sent new life through the Church of England). Other times a tradition can be revived by demographic events that it could not create or predict, like the resurrection of English Presbyterianism by Scottish migration.

Thus I would argue:

  1. we should take seriously the idea that the Church depends primarily on God’s calling of people into it not on our efforts;
  2. we should be clear that “maintenance” in the sense I used this term above is the precondition for everything else;
  3. we should respect and nourish those people and activities whose focus is on deepening rather than broadening discipleship.

I’m not against “missional” initiatives, not against reaching out with the gospel, not against numerical growth, but I wouldn’t like us to become so focussed on it that we lose sight of those already following Jesus.

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2 comments
  1. Paul said:

    Thoughtful, but the final paragraph prompts a reply. Yesterday, as part of ‘Back to Church Sunday’ I preached from Luke 15:1-7, which we commonly know as the parable of the lost sheep. Towards the end I raised a question for the church, rather than for the visitors who had come thanks to people’s invitations. Shouldn’t we call this the “Parable of the 99 OK Sheep” and ask here our priorities lie: are they with keeping the 99 comfortable, or with leaving the 99 in order to search for the lost? Jesus’ parable paints picture of God:

    “Won’t he leave the 99… …and go to search for the one that is lost?” (Luke 15:4)
    What would we do? Would our priority be the same as Jesus’ priority?

    • I would certainly agree that keeping anyone comfortable can’t be the main purpose of the Church. Our responsibility as and to disciples is to build one another up, to help one another discern what our vocation as followers of Christ is. I’m not at all convinced that those inside the Church are (all) OK and that those outside are (all) lost. Rather I would suggest that we are all under God’s providential rule and all struggling with and against our sinfulness.

      Thus with regard to those inside and those outside the Church the task is, in some respects, the same. To work together to open ourselves to the leading of the Spirit which will take each individual down their own disciple path. Those called into the Church have some special things to do together, in worship, in the proclamation of the gospel, in the administration of the sacraments.

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