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.
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.
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.
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.
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?