Category Archives: mission

Bosch on Missio Dei

Bosch, Witness to the World (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1980)

Missio Dei is an oft used phrase in popular missiology. It can be hard, though, to pin down its significance. The ‘mission of God’ is definitely repeatedly as an introductory justification that missiology should be an essential topic of conversation for the Church and that the practice of mission should be an essential action of the Church. Used in this manner, it is treated as a form of theological shorthand. The actual workings that lay out why these things are so are left unexplained. Such has been my experience, anyway.

Bosch offers a fairly compact ten pages, the conclusion to the book, on this topic. The context of his thoughts is a two pronged correction to both evangelical and ecumenical missiology. He argues first (Ch. 19) that evangelical missiology has risked using an unhelpful dualism where salvation history is divorced from world history. This has led to a passivity in the face of injustice meted out to others. In contrast, the Church must realize that Christ is the head of the Church and the cosmos, and following the example of her saviour must take up her cross in identification with the outcast. Against ‘ecumenical’ theology, he insists on the distinctiveness of the Church from the world (Ch. 20). The Church can only be apostolic if she is different in her being from the world. She must maintain that God’s judgement is not ours, that the cross remains at the heart of our life together and our proclamation, that our political actions will be fallible and that the kingdom will be made present to the world in signs and not in fullness until Christ returns. Mission is therefore an eschatological event (Ch. 21), seeking to see the kingdom come on earth now, aware that our actions can only provide signs of that kingdom. Communal church life in the present is a life filled by God’s presence (Ch. 22), waiting and witnessing, identifying with the hopeless while yet never losing hope.

Bosch’s explanation of missio dei is set out as an alternative to these two limited approaches. It is worth reflecting on this. Although Bosch’s presentation of missio dei ostensibly comes from first principles, so to speak, he is still offering his alternative to two failed approaches to missio dei. Given this, simply importing missio dei as presented here should be done with caution, until we’re convinced that we are not, in doing so, responding to a problem (evangelicals and ecumenical missiologies at loggerheads thirty-five years ago) that is not our pressing concern.

In outline then, Bosch offers missio Dei (God’s mission) because mission begins with God. The Word and Spirit are ‘missionaries’ of God in creation and redemption, being sent to the world.

Although Aquinas (?) may have used missio with respect to the sending of the Son by the Father and the Holy Spirit by the Father and the Son, this is not obviously the basis for the modern use of the term. Only in the early to mid- twentieth century did mission become explicitly linked to trinitarian theology. Having said this, I should add, the precise link is rarely explicated.

Barth’s connection to all of this is important. He is frequently argued to be an advocate for this form of theology but, again, rarely with a description of what he said. Bosch here is not guilty of that. There is to be no ‘speculative interpretation of a foundation of mission on the Trinity’. Instead, Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection are events of particular historical involvement. It is in these events that we learn of the nature of the Trinity, and indeed that God is ‘a missionary God’. [A curious phrase, monotheistically speaking.]

In Christ’s actions we discover a new dimension to God’s concern for the world, and his actions are therefore to be definitive for ours. Here our saviour is revealed, and we are not to look elsewhere for alternative revelations of God’s will. The role of the Spirit does not diversify our missiology, providing an alternative mode of God’s concern for the world, but rather further specifies that the Church’s life, in the Spirit of Christ, is to be shaped by Christ: “As the Father sent me…” (Jn 20:21). The Spirit’s role is two-fold, inward and outward, setting us apart that we might then be witnesses to the world.

Bosch complains of a diluting of missio Dei. Mission does not now become a human responsibility to the degree that it ceases to be God’s work. The kingdom remains God’s work, wrought by him. Missionary ‘success’ is therefore never to be the criterion by which we judge mission. To the extent that we view the world as perfectible through our actions, we lose sight of the missio Dei. But equally, we cannot be passive. Because God’s kingdom has dawned, we cannot be resigned to the way things are. We are to pray, ‘thy kingdom come’, and therefore we are to act, believing we can make difference, knowing we must wait for the final day.

Bosch concludes by claiming that the Church owes the world faith, hope and love. She is to be herself, faithful to her head, and so she will worship, live and serve as Christ did for her.

As a brief postscript, I can see nothing dramatically wrong with Bosch’s presentation. At the same time, the basing of missiology in the Trinity and therefore in the revealed acts of God in Christ leads us directly to considering ecclesiology in direct connection with missiology. We are not at liberty to speculate about the life of the Trinity and to see analogy in political action, nor are we justified by this bare statement to claim to see God in the world and to pursue these things with scant regard to the Church. Instead we are directed to the ascending Christ, and the sending of the Spirit upon the Church. Missiology and ecclesiology can not, responsibly, be considered apart from one another. Both are to be derived from Christology and Pneumatology and therefore (and only therefore) from the Trinity. This is not presuppose a particular ecclesiology.  It is not to advocate for a reactionary attitude towards our institutions. What it is is many things, not the least of which is that the life of the kingdom in the Spirit of Christ is communal.

Bosch on Dimension and Intention

Bosch, Witness to the World (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1980), pp. 199-201.

Bosch offers here a thought-provoking, if not immediately obvious discussion on the relation between mission and church and in particular on whether mission is an essential aspect of the church. He uses a pair of concepts from H.-W. Gensichen: ‘dimension’ and ‘intention’.

‘Intention’ refers to an explicitly missionary act, something that is primarily intended to be an expression of the love of God, and of the Church, to the outsider.

‘Dimension’, somewhat opaquely, refers to manner in which every aspect of the Church’s life must have a missionary element or, perhaps better, must have a character derived from that of God, who in Christ has shown himself to be ‘missionary’. The Church’s nature is missionary, taken as it is from Christ, the Son of God who who created and redeemed the world as an expression of the love of God.

Therefore, everything the church does must have a missionary dimension, not everything must have a missionary intention.

The church is missionary when she is welcoming to outsiders, open to change for the sake of others, when she upholds the and defends the truth the Gospel, even though there may be no explicitly missionary intention in any of these acts. She has to be this in order to perform mission at all. Intention can only exist on the basis of dimension.

Useful texts listed are:

Phil. 2:14-16. ‘Do everything … as you hold our the word of life.’

Col. 4:5. ‘Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.’

1 The. 4:9-12. ‘Now concerning love of the brothers and sisters … so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one.’

1 Pet. 2:12. ‘Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.’

1 Cor. 5:12-15. ‘What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked man from among you.”’

2 Cor. 3:2-3. ‘You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.’

More generally, I’m reminded of Barth’s discussion of Salt and Light in CD IV.3.2 par.72 and, unsurprisingly for us, the manner in which the Church’s nature is to be shaped by her source in 1 Corinthians: we are the body of Christ. If Christ is the Son of God, and we are the body of Christ, how can our nature be anything but self-giving for the world? Even when we prophesy to one another, our words will point to the one who sets the world free (1 Cor. 14:24-25).

Experimental Church (Part 1)

An ‘Experimental’ Church

Here at NYNO, we suggest that it can be really helpful to think of the life of a church (a new church plant or an existing church) as an ‘experimental’ work. By using this term we are making an analogy to science … but it is only an analogy and all analogies have limits. So, please don’t be put off by something that might sound intimidating. What we actually mean by this is relatively simple and also, we believe, quite important.

So, what do we mean by ‘experimental’? In very brief and broad outline, the term is useful in at least two ways: firstly, in the educational relationship between our church plant and the wider church; and, secondly, in the manner in which our church communities handle the adaptation that is necessarily at the heart of a missional life. This post will address the first of these and hopefully a second post will follow to take up the matter of experimentation in a local congregation.

‘Experimental’ Church Work in the Context of the Wider Church

The Goal of ‘Experimental’ Church Life

What everyone wants to see in the Church is faithful communities growing through mission. We would all like to see this, but few of us do. This just seems an empirical fact given the ongoing shrinkage of the Church in the Western world in the twenty-first century. We use the term ‘faithful’ because numerical growth is not everything. Filling an arena is not an end in itself. Christ must be at the centre of our lives as individuals and as a community. We use the term ‘mission’ because we want to insist that out new communities come from an engagement with the world outside of our existing church communities. It doesn’t really prove much, at least with regard to the questions NYNO is interested in, if a church grows through attracting people who are already Christians. All this being said, this is what we hope for our churches: faithful communities, growing, engaged in mission. The problem would seem to be, though, that none of us really know how to do this.

No-one Has the Answer

When we say, ‘we don’t know how to do this’, this is no exaggeration! If there was an answer, we would all be using it. Part of the issue is that the Church as a whole has not come to terms with its new position in society after the end of Christendom. Whether we are dealing with the Church’s relationship to other faiths, what we have to say with regard to society’s attitudes towards money, sexuality or celebrity, as a Church we struggle to convince one another and arrive at a common mind, let alone speak with a provocative and faithful clarity to the world. Now it may be that my search for a common mind that would speak powerfully to the world is all a bit of a power trip on my part, but that’s not really my point. The issue is rather that the Church feels as though her anchors have been lost and she has been cast adrift. We feel as though our faith necessitates that we should have some answers – even if that answer is a practice of prayerful silence in the face of the world! – but we don’t. There is lots we could say. Many doctrines we could rehearse but too often, to our consternation and the test of faith, they seem empty and powerless, dry, dusty, dead.

The Difference ‘Experimental’ Churches Could Make to the Wider Church

In this context, in our context, we think ‘experimental’ church is important. Here is why.

An experiment is a step into the unknown. We create a hypothesis and then we test it. The hypothesis might be, ‘Could a Church prosper, meeting in the context of a library’, or ‘Is it possible to create an diversely aged church that is particularly accessible to older people’ (that one might sound familiar to you), or ‘Is it possible to make our musical worship feel fresh and joyful without feeling as though our attention is constantly drawn to performers on a stage?’. The point about the hypothesis is that it sounds like a plausible and attractive solution to a problem, but we don’t know whether it would work. Hopefully our ideas will be informed by the needs of the people in front of us, the state of the wider church, the priorities of Scripture and doctrine and the wise counsel of those who went before us in Church history. Hopefully they will be great ideas, inspirational and exciting. Testing these ideas might involve a new direction for an existing church, or might involve the creation of a whole new church shaped in an important sense to address this pressing issue. The grand hope would be, whatever our hypothesis that we wish to test, that we will learn from from our experiment and be able to pass that information on to others.

We said above that we wanted our churches to be ‘faithful communities growing through mission’. In this world, where the church feels cast adrift we need to learn from each other’s successes and failures. This is particularly true for church planting which is an especially challenging task, often working without the established structures and support of an institution. The principle applies, though, to all churches that want to try something new. Lessons can be learned from success and failure, if we’re humble and honest enough to listen to others and to tell our story.

The Problem of Success

As was discussed above, we all need and want success. This is true when you face up to the general situation of the Church in the western word: what is the answer that might turn our situation around, fill our buildings and our coffers? This is also true on a local level: what might bring our church to life, fill our services and encourage the world outside of the church to look on us with respect. On the one hand, we need more people. Without them, the future looks grim as our churches will be unable to sustain their existing infrastructure. On the other hand, we want to be the people with the answer, the people with the thriving church, the people others look to for the answer. This second issue is made all the more tempting because of the seriousness of the first.

The problem is, that this need and desire for success actually gets in the way of our achieving it. What we need in order to achieve success is freedom to experiment, freedom to follow the priorities of the Gospel, even if that leads us into apparently unpopular places. We can only have that freedom, if we give each other permission to ‘fail’, if we value and support each other as we learn together, irrespective of whether things do or do not lead to the conversion of towns and cities en masse.

While we value success, we will be tempted into pragmatism, doing ‘what works’ or trying to follow the models of apparently large and ‘successful’ churches. Let me give an awkward example. A successful church might have a number of talented musicians who produce a rock concert like experience for a large number of people. This looks like success. Smaller churches will try to emulate their performances, perhaps without the same slick professionalism. Other churches with no musicians will feel hopeless, unable even to begin to emulate such success. A better way forward for the small church is to experiment, to try something completely different, to question these established norms that seem to doom our meetings to ‘unattractive failure’; believing that God is with us and that must count for more than the presence of a skilled guitarist and large amplifier. To do this, we would seek to base our existence as a community afresh in the life of the Holy Spirit. We would pick up inspired Scripture and try to read it afresh as it points us to Christ. We would start a conversation amongst God’s people, trusting that God has given us the people we need for this place and that these people are endowed by the Spirit with gifts for the equipping of his church (and that these gifts might not be the conventional tools of ‘success’ that we hope for). We would try to be students of the Church’s history, listening patiently to those who went before us, trusting that they were no more fallen and no less indwelt by God’s Spirit than ourselves. And finally, we would seek to do this in supportive conversation with other churches doing the same thing. We don’t know what might result for all of this, but I suspect that at the least it might be a community that knows it has a purpose and that values its own members and that those would be an improvement on feeling hopelessly small, uncool and under-skilled.

All of this is to say that we need churches – and projects that are not yet churches but want to be – that are willing to try something different. But it is hard for these new churches and new initiatives because they may not be able to offer the prospect of immediate ‘success’. They will feel self-conscious, under pressure to produce results, and possibly under-valued if they perceive themselves to be evaluated according to ‘success’. What might an alternative be?

The purpose of viewing our churches and initiatives as ‘experimental’ is that everyone might recognise the need to try new things and the challenge and risk involved in that. To view a new church plant as ‘experimental’ would be to expect that church plant to try new things and that this is a worthwhile thing in and of itself. Such a project should not be evaluated according to success, but rather promise and progress. The question might must simply be ‘are they successful?’ but rather, ‘are they learning something that can be shared with the rest of us?’. Those lessons might be small things, questions of pastoral wisdom, advice on organising events, or bigger notions to do with society’s response to a certain presentation of the Gospel. The lessons might come from apparent success or failure. Both should be valued. Individuals and teams embarking on experimental projects need to feel valued by the wider church not because they have all the answers, but because they learning. If we were all involved in this task, learning and listening to one another, is it possible that our Church would be better equipped to witness faithfully to the world in our new and disconcerting age?

More Bosch, this time on Missio Dei

Bosch, Witness to the World (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1980), pp. 179-80. My underlining.

The mooring of mission to the doctrine of the Trinity led to the introduction of the expression missio Dei (God’s mission) at Willingen. The term was in all probability coined by Hartenstein. He intended it to give expression to the conviction that God, and God alone was the subject of mission. The initiative for our mission lay with him alone (missio ecclesiae, the Church’s mission). Only in God’s hands our mission could be truly [sic] called mission. In the period after Willingen the concept missio Dei gradually changed its meaning. It came to signify God’s hidden activities in the world, independent of the Church, and our responsibility to discover and participate in these activities.

It’s interesting how the final idea is, at least in part, the basis of Roxburgh’s advice. Again, strange to see ideas from 1952, reported on in 1980, offered as the latest and greatest solution to the Church’s problems.

Just to repeat what was in the previous post, and speaking more generally of the use of missio Dei: the missionary focus on the world as we follow God’s initiative is right. The side-lining of the Church is a grave mistake.

The Church Inside Out

I discovered the following in Bosch, Witness to the World (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1980), pp. 176-78.

The theology of the apostolate soon underwent a certain radicalisation due to Hoekendijk’s contribution. He polemicised against the church-centric mission that had been especially in vogue since Tambaran 1939. The Church was an illegitimate centre. Not the Church but the world, the oikoumene, stood in the centre of God’s concern. Van Ruler’s thesis that mission was a function of the Church, was inverted by Hoekendijk: the Church was a function of mission. There was no room for a ‘doctrine of the Church’. We should refer to the Church only in passing and without any emphasis. Ecclesiology should not be more than a single paragraph in Christology (the messianic involvement with the world) and a few sentences in eschatology (the messianic involvement with the world) … 

From the outset Hoekendijk could not accept a ‘theology of mission’. If he did so it would imply that mission would once again be an extra. There would then also conceivably be other ‘theologies of …’. He therefore pleaded not for ‘theology of mission’, but for ‘missionary theology’ as expression of all authentic theology. …

In this way Hoekendijk’s theology of the apostolate became a theology of the world. Theology is God inviting us to share the world with him. For precisely this reason it was a theology of the Kingdom. Mission was not the road from church to church: mission or Church was the interaction between Kingdom and world, involved in both … The form which this involvement took he called shalom, Hebrew for ‘peace’, which he described as a ‘social happening’, and which was an ethical rather than a soteriological concept. Reconciliation became a universal humanisation process. In his earlier writings he did characterise the task of the Church as kerygma, koinonia and diakonia – proclamation, community, and service. In the course of time, however, he increasingly moved towards the last of the three.

I find it curious that the following theology derives from the 1960. Theological language along these lines is, I find, being used with plenty of enthusiasm today. Not having read Hoekendijk’s theology at first hand I should be cautious speaking directly about him. An English translation of some of his shorter works was published in 1966 with the title ‘The Church Inside Out’ (SCM). It’s another one to add to the list …

I am all the more interested having just read Barth on the Church as witness (CD IV.3), and also John Flett’s head spinning The Witness of God. When I hear this language used today, it is in my experience without reflection on Bosch’s concluding analysis (from 1980!): you get rid of the Church  and something essential is lost.

It’s not as though I don’t have sympathy for Hoekendijk’s frustration with the Church. It is only because of faith that I stay loyal to the church structures and institutions. Yes, I have enough self-knowledge to know that I am no less fallen than the next church member, but that doesn’t make identifying with and living with and in the Church any more comfortable.

As an attempt to flesh out something more positive, here follows a brief summary of something I was going to provide more detail of later … some Barth inspired thoughts.

The move from missio dei to church-less service (identified by Bosch above) seems to stem from an absence of Christology. The language of mission and kingdom seems to have been abstracted from Christ himself. One often hears today this language used in connection with discipleship. On the face of it, this sounds quite Christocentric! With it, though is a closely connected assumption that the discipleship of the gospels has no direct relationship with the Church. As Barth points out, this is a case of not seeing the wood for the trees. The ‘absence’ of Church from the gospels is because it is everywhere assumed! Of course it is, the gospels themselves were written from within ecclesial community, often addressing the concerns of that community (the assumptions of form and canonical criticism spring to mind).

This being so, the Church’s existence is determined (skirting over a discussion of actualistic ontology) by her saviour, by whom the covenant between God and humanity is concluded. Christ is about his Father’s work. Humanity is called to witness to that, to echo Christ’s words and actions as the covenant partner and so point others to him. The Church follows the attitude of Christ, who is about his Father’s business. God’s concern firstly is for the world and in Christ the world is justified. We come to faith and join the Church as members of the world. The Church is composed of those brought to the knowledge of this salvation found in Christ and so are called to participate in their own proper way in the loving work of God. The Church therefore cannot be and must not be firstly concerned with its own life, or see itself as an end in itself. To do so would be to be radically incoherent. The Church is called, and therefore the Church must follow Christ and do the Father’s work. But because it is called it is the Church and it is as a community that the Church can witness in a manner no individual can (Stringfellow springs to mind for the ability of the Church to witness politically today). Think of the roles of forgiveness and accountability. The Church here is not somehow establishing a perfect society on earth, it is pointing in a faltering manner to the one who has already forgiven them. Of course, I can forgive people outside of the Church and this can be a witness, but in the Church I don’t just forgive. In the Church I can be forgiven too.

The future of popular missionary theology is not the removal of ecclesiology. It is rather having a good ecclesiology by which the Church can understand her very nature is to be outward focussed, in which even her most private worship in word and form, can be a witness to the world of the coming kingdom.

Consumerist Church Leaves People Behind

Reflections on Mission-Shaped Church (London: Church House Publishing, 2004), p. 35-36

Consumerism appears to affect the church and society equally.

The author talks about the Church being made from an ‘impossible combination’ of varied styles and churchmanship, within which there are diverse personalities, cultures and interests. The argument is given that diversity and accessibility to this wide range of people cannot be sustained through one single style as modelled by a single minister, or congregation, or parish. Diversity within the Church and outside of the Church means that there is an infinite number of combinations – as many as there are people – and that therefore different churches can meet the needs of different people. Fresh Expressions of Church that locate themselves in networks of people are therefore well positioned to provide appropriate discipleship for ‘their’ people.

We are worried, though. It seems as though the state of affairs described above, inside the Church and outside of it, is well suited to a consumerist attitude of the Christian towards Church. By this we mean that the Christian can choose the church that suits, whether it be high, low, conservative or progressive. Similarly, church planters seek to create churches that are easily accessible to particular networks of people – as opposed to a geographically defined group of people – in society. For example, church for shoppers, pub or gym users, or even remote control enthusiasts (Michael Frost & Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2003), pp. 42-43). In both cases, church risks losing its catholicity and we fear that this has unintended consequences.

As an illustration, consider this familiar and unpleasant scenario from most of our school days. It’s a P.E. lesson and the class is lined up in the gym. Two captains are elected by the teacher. One pupil at a time is chosen by the captains to form their team. We all know who gets chosen first. Unfortunately, we also know who would be chosen last, or, even worse, not chosen at all and by default left to make up the numbers on the other team.

A consumerist approach to church, whereby we choose the church that suits, or create churches that fit into self-selected networks of people, almost inevitably means that someone gets left behind.

In choosing our church we divide from others we don’t like. We see other Christians and churches as less than desirable. Rather than facing up to our differences and loving those who are different from us, consumerist church allows us to separate ourselves.

In creating churches based in self-selecting networks of people, we risk giving up on the call of God to identify with the ‘least’ of His children. We risk building churches with people who feel comfortable with one another, but which have nothing to do with those outside the network.

From NYNO’s perspective, there seemed to be little mission, few church plants that thought there was any hope for the Church to be found amongst older people. No one was ‘picking’ them; they were left behind. Once we started to think hard about what form of church was best suited to them, we quickly realised that a church for older people would just be compounding the problem. What this part of society needed was not their own church, but rather a church, diverse in age and experience, to embrace them as essential members of God’s society.

Julie and Matthew

Reflections on Mission-Shaped Church (1)

The following is the first of a series of posts, consisting of our thoughts and reflections as we read Mission-Shaped Church (Mission-Shaped Church (London: Church House Publishing, 2004)). This isn’t an attempt to offer a thorough-going review, but rather a chance for us to order our own thoughts for NYNO.

A question about our changing society and culture (pp. 6-7)

The report suggests that our society has changed, so that whereas we formerly found our community within a geographically defined area, now we look for our community to a greater extent within ‘networks’ – relationships found with others who share aspects of our lifestyle (leisure, work, friendships). Is it possible that these networks have always to some extent existed? Is what we are experiencing not a transference of our community allegiance from the local to the lifestyle, but instead a reduction of it?

Further, are these networks the basis of lifelong commitments, or rather temporary arrangements? What happens if our we attempt to build churches in a community that is inherently unstable?

The report advocates that the church prioritise the poor (p. 7). The report also notes that the poor are more likely to retain relationships that are locally geographically bounded. This is because of the influence of tertiary education and the cost of transport (pp. 2-3). If so, is it the case the fresh-expressions based on ‘networks’ are predominantly middle-class. Further, is this a reason to question whether ‘networks’ are a good place to look to build church? The report advocates ‘engagement’ with networks as ‘a change in the structure of community’ (p. 7). Could this be just as ‘corrosive’ to the church as the lack of commitment in society that it also diagnoses?

In the questions for discussion, the report speaks about people being “‘consumers’ of faith and religion” and urges that the church challenge such attitudes. Is it not possible that churches built upon or within ‘network’ communities based on shared aspects of our lifestyles will be inherently consumerist?

Concluding Thought

Basing a church on any pre-existing community risks building on shifting sands. ‘Networks’ may be ephemeral, but local familial relationships do not necessarily provide a solid basis for a church community. Christ calls us to leave father and mother, and so the church will have to call people to – and falteringly be a model of – Christ’s commitment to us. This looks more incongruous in a community based essentially on the similar consumerist choices of its members, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing so long as that commitment to Christ and each other transcends our ‘natural’ preferences.

Julie & Matthew

Mission and Culture

‘Culture is good’, so I was told recently. ‘Cultural diversity is part of God’s wonderful many faceted creation. You occasionally hear people claim that it’s a result of the Fall and Pentecost signalled a reversal of Babel. No, diversity is good. Those who heard the Gospel at Pentecost heard it in their own languages.’

The context of the discussion was one of missiology, chastened by criticisms of imperialism, applied to the Western situation of a shrinking church.

What we are to be, so the methodology goes, is incarnational. We neither impose our culture nor compromise the Gospel message but rather seek to inculturate it and so allow the Gospel to engage and challenge the culture from within. This is fine, of course.

A couple of points sprang to mind when listening to this. Firstly, to describe issue in terms of the problems of imperialism or syncretism works for simplicity’s sake but strikes me as potentially quite conservative, and not in a good way. It risks being conservative in an unhelpful way if it’s accompanied by an assumption that ecclesiology are necessarily culturally bound and therefore have to be set aside. Of course, everything we do is culturally bound but there is an implication here that the ‘Gospel’ is somehow more free than our ecclesiologies. Is this really the case? You could respond to this by setting aside the Gospel in the name of inculturation, but alternatively one could recognise that the Gospel cannot be separated from ecclesiology. This is not a plea for those within whom we mission to sing Wesleyian hymns or use Hillsong resources (although I don’t think an emergent form of Christianity should be expected to remain ‘pure’, untainted by ‘foreign’ Christian tradition but rather to make the case that the ‘Gospel’ has greater implications for ecclesiological form than is being given credit.

Christian practices, such as Baptism and the Lord’s Supper and the use of the Lord’s Prayer transmit to us the outlines of an ecclesial form and practice, I would want to argue. They also come to us within the context of the culture of first century Palestine. Perhaps what it is I want to say is that the Gospel is not mere words and if nothing else, the sacraments point us to this. The big challenge is not just to find a form of words, but a way of life.

And, briefly, this brings me to a second issue that I think needs to be embraced by this discussion. When we talk of inculturation and incarnation these are not trivial matters. Those engaged in these matters can’t dabble. This isn’t a hobby. And, if we’re talking of applying these matters to the West and particularly the UK, I’m tempted to say the biggest divides we face are socio-economic and class based. If all we’re actually talking about is ministering to the sub-cultures of the consumerist middle-class (Is this the case? I fear that exceptions may prove the rule), then it will be all the more important for these ecclesial forms to fleshed out. Criticism without personal engagement in alternative forms will just be heard as bare words.

We need ecclesial forms that challenge our culture and we should expect this to involve major life commitment.


The world is tired with words of the Church.

I think I may be too.

Words without actions are dead, I’m tempted to say. Cruel, possibly, too, if it comes to us arrogantly, without humility, a declaration of truth as a statement of power to which others must submit. This can be the case even when the truth being enunciated is ostensibly one of God’s grace in Christ.

But all we have are words. Is this not the case? The words of the Bible, the message of the Gospel. Is not God’s forgiveness a word.

But equally, I’m frightened of the alternative. If the communication of God’s grace in Christ is dependent on my ability to live a saint’s life, then this is all hopeless.

We can’t rightly talk about evangelism independently of the nature, character, attitude of those who witness to Christ and how this is formed by the Gospel.

Christians, and the Church, do not possess a truth that they are responsible for communicating to the world. (Yes, it can be seen that way, but it may not be helpful in this day.) Instead, we are those who have heard the Word of God and so found themselves to be guilty, proud, arrogant, possessive, fearful. In Christ we find ourselves to be both judged and acquitted at one and the next moment.

All we can do, all we should do, is live in the light of this, in humility and quietness and faithfulness. Our words as the church are empty. We have nothing to say, no position of power from which to argue and convince. On that basis we will realise our position is hopeless and we will be driven to prayer.

Does this mean we will say nothing? No, it just means that we must experience the knowledge of our state before Christ, judged and loved, before we can adequately witness to him before others.

Anything else will just be propaganda.

Privilege or Patronize?

NYNO aims to privilege the elderly. We do this for two reasons.

Firstly, many of the elderly are segregated in society and the church. We could talk about this more, discuss the extent to which it is the case or not, and the reasons for it but perhaps not here and now. We’ll take it as a given.

Secondly, in the Kingdom of God, the poor, the oppressed, the underprivileged are to be blessed. In this time and in the place, because of our first point, some of the elderly should surely also find themselves blessed by the kingdom.

However, it’s the not Church’s job simply to serve or bless the underprivileged. To see things this way can lead to us patronizing others. It presupposes that we have something that others need, that we are in the position of power and that others need what we have. In the body of Christ, however, all have something to give.

It’s essential therefore, for NYNO, that while we seek to privilege the elderly in that we create congregations that are accessible to them, we don’t patronize them. These churches are not acts of service for the young and acts of reception for the elderly. They are places where all are equal.