Renewal Movements v Reactionary Movements

If you are interested in thinking about missional expressions of Christianity, particularly outside the US I would recommend a well written and thought provoking book called MISSION SHAPED QUESTIONS edited by Steven Croft. It’s a collection of essays from an Anglican context in the UK which looks at some important questions surrounding mission in post-modern and post-Christendom Britain. Its sometimes a but Anglican “in house” but worth reading nevertheless.

One of the best essays is by renowned New Testament scholar James Dunn. In this essay “Is there evidence of fresh expressions of Church in the New Testament” he looks at the character of NT Christianity and how it, to use current Church of England missional speak, “freshly expressed” the faith of Israel. Of course this area of Christian and Jewish divergence is Dunn’s particular area of interest and expertise so what he says comes with real understanding and authority.

Dunn sees the New Testament Christianity as having five characteristics and goes on to draw out these implications based on those characteristics:

1. A Christianity that has lost all sense of newness, of what had only been hoped for being now realised, is no longer Christianity as defined by the NT.

2. A Christianity that cherishes no sense of intimate relation with God through Christ, that regards the Spirit as effectively shut up in the bible or confined to the church, and that treats experience of the Spirit as essentially threatening, is no longer Christianity as defined by the NT.

3. A Christianity that regards the maintenance of and faithfulness to tradition as its highest responsibility is no longer Christianity as defined by the NT.

4. A Christianity that can think of Church only as building and not as people and that is not seeking new ways to be the people of God, to be church, is no longer Christianity as defined by the New Testament.

5. A Christianity that defines itself less in terms of Christ and more in terms of ecclesiastical hierarchy and liturgically correct forms is no longer Christianity as defined by the NT.

Dunn goes to described early Methodism as a renewal movement within Anglicanism seeking to restore these characteristics to the church, to express them freshly, that is to be “a fresh expression of church” to use the current British term. He goes on to say “Methodism reminds us that fresh expressions are not the only way in which Christianity began but also the way in which Christianity will be revived.”

As part of my doctoral course at Asbury we did a huge survey of church history and what struck me was the regularity with which revival/reforming movements emerged in the church to “freshly express” these characteristics Dunn is talking about. There were the Montantists and Dontatists in the Early Church. In the Catholic Church the Franciscans and the Brethren of the Common Life among many others appeared. Then of course there were the Reformers themselves and the radical reformers, the Annabaptists. When the reformed tradition was established and perhaps grown stale, along came Pietists and Moravians. Of course, as we have mentioned already within the Church of England there were the Methodists but when Methodism became institutional itself the Free Methodists, Wesleyans, Nazarenes and Salvation Army to but a few of many similar groups, emerged as “fresh expressions.”

But sadly that is only half the story because in each of those cases the renewal movements were met by reactionary movements within the church that tried to defend the ecclesiastical “status quo” as they understood. Apart from with the Reformers, the Catholic Church managed to keep most of these renewal movements either “in house” or stamped them out with the Inquisition. Wesley clung onto the Church of England but most Anglicans wrote him off as an “enthusiast” of the worst kind. Not long after Wesley’s death, Methodism was shown the Anglican door. In a similar manner William Booth was forced out of the Methodist Reform Church in the UK and Phinees Bresee was forced out of the United Methodist Church in the US with their respective renewal movements. So it seems that renewal movements inevitably are met by reactionary “movements” or a reactionary movement in the Church. Interestingly in the past the reaction was largely led by the church institutional leadership, today with social networking and the blogsphere, there are often “grassroots” conservative reactionary movements too. I think in general these people’s hearts are in the right place, to start with, but they end up defending the status quo which they fail to realise was once itself a fresh expression of the church opposed by a previous a reactionary movement of a previous generation.

As the missional/incarnational expression of church begins to gain traction in the West I think we will see increasing “confrontations” being played outing denominations and congregations by those who wish to renew the church by expressing it through a missional ecclesiology and those who resist that and see it as a betrayal of some key values of the church. In my own church there is a grassroots type reactionary movement trying to get the church to exclude those supporting missional expressions of church. Although there are tensions as the theory moves to practice here in the UK I am encouraged by the determination of the Anglican Churchto encourage and enable fresh expressions of church, protect them from reactionaries and keep them within the Anglican communion. I see these sorts of tensions/conflicts over missional expressions of church being one of the key features of church life over the next five years or so. It will be interesting to see whether some middle way can be found which will keep most renewal movements in established settings and allay the fears of those whom we have perhaps unfairly characterised as reactionary. My prayer is that my own church would exhbit the same nurturing and protective attitude to those of uswho want to freshly express our faith and heritage incarnationally in our communities.

What about you? Are you encountering tensions between renewal/reactionary groups over missional ecclesiology
If you are involved in a new expression of church, how has that been received by the wider church body you belong to, if you are part of a denomination or stream?
Have you had any experience of reactionary movements seeking to exclude you?

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