Ministry AND Mission: some potential problems with an emphasis on church growth

Three apostles, three ways to follow Christ

Three apostles, three ways to follow Christ

In a recent Facebook discussion between members of the United Reformed Church about the Local Ministry and Mission Review process it was suggested that this should:

a) have an evaluative component, assessing the extent and effectiveness of the mission of the church and

b) this evaluation should influence the deployment of the main resource of the denomination, its stipendiary ministers.

Churches without effective mission were likely to wither on the vine, it was suggested, with the implication being that our resources should be concentrated on those churches with greater potential for growth and continuing life.

This is an argument that makes good sense in some was and one I have encountered before. The idea that some of our churches are not viable or have no long term future and that the denomination should prioritise supporting the more dynamic or higher potential churches is one possible response to the “crisis” in the denomination that I have recently read diagnosed by a potential candidate for the position of Moderator of General Assembly.

I am not totally without sympathy with the idea of analysing the possible pastoral positions in this way and identifying and prioritising “missional” posts in areas of intense activity or particular potential. This would enable those called to this kind of work to engage in it intentionally and purposively in contexts where it would be properly valued and supported. Given the current wave of enthusiasm for church growth in parts of our denomination that would feel appropriate and Spirit led.

I would, however, not two ways in which I think we should acknowledge problems with adopting this as a universal or simple strategy for the URC:

1) we, of all people, should be looking at our problems and our decisions ecumenically, at all times, that is to say we should avoid confusing our denomination with the Church

2) we should remember that “mission” (however we define that word) is not the whole life of the Church and that it is quite possible for a person, a congregation, or a denomination to follow Jesus faithfully without engaging in explicit “mission”

1) the ecumenical dimension

If we accept that our denomination is not the Church then the kind of tests it is suggested are applied to churches to assess their suitability for support might be applied to the URC as a whole. I believe strongly that as a denomination we should take some time to ask ourselves about our stewardship of our inherited resources. We are, in some ways, a very rich group of people. Our 60,000 or so remaining members are the beneficiaries of a formerly much larger movement within the church. This expresses itself in large part through our holding, communally, a property portfolio worth some hundreds of millions of pounds.

If we apply the test of “missional effectiveness” to our churches why do we not apply it to the URC as a whole? Are we convinced that we are the best possible users of what we have inherited? I am not prejudging the answer to that question. It seems credible to me that we could answer that question in the affirmative, if we could formulate what it is “we” bring to the Church catholic that is distinctive and of value.

Some would argue that it is our tradition of openness and innovation, our collective “liberalism”, “radicalism”, or “progressive” nature. There is something in this. After all the Congregationalists were early with ordination of women and there was a strong connection between the old non-conformity and radical politics. It is not straightforward, though. We can also be seen as inheriting a rather “conservative” evangelical theology, we are divided on many of the questions that now act as markers between radical and progressive Christianity and the rest. One way to understand the failure of the marketing initiative that became “Zero Intolerance” was that it represented an attempt to define a radical/progressive identity that found little resonance in the URC as a whole.

Another option is that we act as the bearers of the “Reformed tradition”. Again there is obviously something in this but it is rather problematic. What is distinctively “Reformed” (as against, on the one hand, the other traditions of the magisterial Reformation, Anglicanism and Lutheranism and on the other the radical Reformation) is hard to pin down and it is unclear that the URC as a whole embodies it, and certainly that it embodies it better than some of the alternatives. Congregationalism as a tradition stood somewhere between the Reformed and Anabaptist strands of the Reformation and since the evangelical revival has been deeply influenced by other currents.

We have work to do to define the URC as a body which still has something distinctive, vital and worthwhile to contribute. For what it’s worth my own view is that we do and that what we have to offer is our ecumenism, that we are “United” rather than that we are “Reformed”.

b) Ministry AND Mission

I think it is essential that we do not come to say or to believe that Mission is always and absolutely more important or a condition of Ministry. The two words should be held in balance. There are forms of Christian life that are profoundly valuable and which do not emphasis mission at all. Think, as an extreme case, of a hermit who spends their life in contemplation and prayer. They may well be living out a true and important vocation.

I recall a story I heard about small and isolated congregation of the Scottish Episcopal Church, who were custodians of a beautiful little church and a tradition of worship in a location where there was little in the way of a settled community among whom they could engage in any form of missional activity. In the course of a review of their life they came to believe that what they were called to was to make their worship accessible to visitors, of whom their location had a significant number. Their calling (their “mission”) was not to do anything much beyond provision of the most faithful worship they were capable of.

Again, I think of some of our churches I have experience of where long established, mostly elderly, fellowships have rich communal lives, of worship, of prayer, of Bible study and of mutual pastoral care. These churches are deeply committed to the gospel, as they understand it, and to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. There may be little that they are doing or know how to do or have the resources to do that we would recognise as “mission” but I would be very sad if we said or did anything that indicated we did not value their discipleship and their faithfulness.

Over the last six months I have really got acquainted with the books of the Bible associated with the “Johanine” strand in the apostolic Church. Reading 1 John with a Bible study group had a particular impact on me. The contrast with the Pauline epistles, which I know much better, could not have been starker. Paul was the missional Christian par excellence. Once a congregation was established he was on his way to plant a new one. He cared for and supported the existing communities but his drive was towards growth and expansion.

The letters of John are very different. He urges his communities not to worry about the fact that some have left and their numbers have fallen. Those who have gone were never true members, he says. The “world” is to be rejected, the believers are to be bound closely together and separate from the rest of humanity. The Johanine Church, seen through this lens, is exclusive, separated, strongly demarcated and inward looking.

I am not, in any way, suggesting that we adopt an exclusively Johanine model, just that it reminds us that there is more than one way to be the Church. In deciding how to proceed and how to evaluate, how to deploy and how to resource I hope we will remember that.

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