The 5th chapter of Mission-Shaped Church outlined some great concepts regarding mission-oriented churches in today’s culture. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of the Church of England, and the Church of England’s Mission and Public Affairs Council have done an admirable job identifying the need for mission-oriented church. I am particularly impressed that this kind of thinking is coming out of a high-church hierarchy. One would expect radical thinking to be birthed in independent or other churches already immersing themselves in today’s culture, perhaps churches with a more ‘liberal’ or less “traditional” worship service. This indicates that the Anglican Church senses the rapidly approaching demise of church in Britain, and an eye to the fact that less than one million actually attends Anglican services on Sunday – the first in its history. I am deeply encouraged to see a traditional and institutional Church embarking on such a radical mission.
I became aware of two important concepts while reading this chapter: 1. Guiding Principles that affect mission in our present context; and a quote, 2. “Perhaps our greatest need is of a baptism of imagination about the forms of the Church.” (p.90) These seem to form the backbone of the entire chapter.
Guiding Principles. The authors identify two principles that affect mission in our present context (p.84):
- The Demise of Christendom
- Emergence of a dominant consumerist ethos in society
We must keep these in mind as we pursue mission-oriented church in the post-modern context. With the demise of Christendom comes the demise of church-as-we-know-it in its institutional, attractional form. Since consumerism is the heartbeat of our society the Church has to respond to the culture in ways the culture will understand (which plays into the ‘baptized imaginations” above, but not yet). New forms of church are needed. However, the authors are quick to point out – and I think they are right in doing so – the importance of both traditional and new forms of church. Just because the attractional mode needs to be replaced with a missional mode (using the language of Hirsch and Frost) does not mean that the traditional form of church has lost all significance. Indeed, what these traditional churches need is a conversion to mission and a vision to planting new forms of church. They should serve the new churches by giving them an “adequate missiology”. “Since no Christian group can afford to believe it lives independently,” (p.96) the church plants are dependant on the traditional forms of church and vice versa. I do agree with Hirsch and Frost that the medium is the message (and we often have to look no further than how our ‘sanctuaries’ are laid out). But I’m not willing to throw out all forms of the traditional church. There is still much meaning and guidance to be received from it and much to learn from its history. It guards the “handed-down” things and hands them down. What is important for the traditional church to embrace is that while there are qualities that every church should have (breaking social boundaries, hope for the poor, the message of God’s welcome for all, and being focused in Christ) “there is no specific blueprint (thank you, Healy) for a normative outward form of church,” (94) particularly when it comes to cultural-specific forms of church.
Baptism of Imagination
I love this phrase. The Anglican authors and editors believe strongly that “the gospel can only be proclaimed in a culture, not at a culture. (p.87) Since one of the guiding principles for our sense of mission is realizing that the “context of our culture is consumerism” (p.92), new expressions of church must be mindful of this – and not only mindful, but must enter into that culture in order “to discover [with those in it] how to express an authentic shared life in Christ” surrounded by consumerist worldviews. The Church is to be in the culture and to proclaim Christ and community within it. Big thinkers and wild dreamers need to be employed in imagining what forms churches can take. And in order to facilitate the formation of a church within a culture, the authors are united on three vital needs. They are:
- The historic gospel (revealed in Scripture and Creeds, the handed-down things – Paradosis)
- The Church (engaging in mission)
- The Culture (which the Church is attempting to influence)
They recognize the danger of syncretism and taking on present self-centered cultural values. However, for them the options are clear: To become “relevant, one may fall into syncretism, [but] in the effort to avoid syncretism one may become irrelevant.” (p.91) The Church will never impose change on culture from the outside; transformation only occurs from within. I, for one, would rather risk the danger of syncretism than avoid it by refusing to engage postmodernity.
This brings us to a final point: The Cross must always accompany the Incarnation. The writers conclude that the present forms of church are not adequate to meet the needs of today’s postmodern culture. And yet the Church is very comfortable, especially in the United States. We still enjoy the patronage of well over a hundred million dedicated attendees. In many, many places the Church is not only not decreasing, but increasing. But there is a larger world out there, and the Church is missing huge opportunities to be Christ to postmodern culture – to be Christ in culture. What that takes is nothing short of incarnation. The Church must dedicate itself to incarnating itself into postmodern culture.
But with incarnation inevitably comes the cross. And the cross is about death. Today’s Church must be willing to die to its present cultural mindset (increasingly the culture of the past) in order to be resurrected and incarnated into the postmodern culture. But this is not the only cross to bear. Churches that do begin this process of incarnation must understand that they will be misunderstood – not just by postmodern culture, but by their very own adherents, their own congregations and denominations. They must be prepared to have their actions misunderstood by a suspicious postmodern culture; they must also be willing to endure criticism from institutionally-minded people who are suspicious of the incarnating church becoming too much ‘like the world.’ The incarnated Church must be willing to live with this tension – belonging to the culture – being in it – “yet [being] prophetically critical of it.” (p.87)
The conclusion? With old and new patterns and methodologies of ministry “there is continuity and discontinuity.” (102) This is okay. Some old things die and some new things come. The Church must be ready to embrace this.