There is a probably apocryphal story that some tourists stopped in the middle of nowhere in the Highlands to ask a local teuchter the way to Fort William only to be told “I wouldn’t start here if you are going there.”
Its been my experience that whether apocryphal or not that story is a sort of parable of the church. Since I became involved in church leadership over 20 years ago it seems in retrospect that to get to where churches, at least in theory want to be, a more authentic and effective expression of the Body of Christ that they all too often start at the wrong place.
As a young pastor I thought that what was wrong with the church was a methodological problem, we were using the wrong programmes. In the 1990s there were a couple of big movements in the church that started from this point. Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago and Saddleback Community Church in California with their “seeker sensitive” approach to church started with the surrounding culture were the two best known examples. Basically both churches started by surveying what people in their communities liked and disliked about church and then built their church, its programmes and structures in away that was designed to appeal to those people who didn’t come to church. I must be honest and say I learned a lot from Rick Warren and Bill Hybels and wouldn’t want to write off everything they did but I do now think they started at the wrong place in creating an expression of church. The evidence also suggests that perhaps the “seeker sensitive” model was more effective at reaching those who had dropped out of church rather than those who had never been connected to it before. (not a bad thing in itself)
Later on I was leader of another congregation which certainly wasn’t “seeker sensitive” instead their starting point, the thing that shaped how they did church, was their traditions and structures. Church was on Sunday at 11am and 6:30pm in a building that “looked like” a church. There was even resistance to having worship anywhere but in the cavernous main “sanctuary.” Nothing really was allowed which would have threatened the familiar patterns and programmes that suited those who were already members. It felt to me like the traditions, structures and preferences of the church acted like a strait-jacket on the Holy Spirit. That’s probably a bit unfair but not totally untrue either.
Now I need to be clear that both these approaches have something to offer. The church is called to be “incarnational” to express the Kingdom of God where appropriate in the cultural forms of the surrounding culture. When we don’t do that we end up with that strange picture of Africans in heavy wool suits and ties, sitting in rows in a gothic style stone building singing hymns they don’t really understand accompanied by a pipe organ. Church “tradition” in the best sense of the word is also important. Its arrogant to believe that the Holy Spirit has been hanging around in heaven twiddling his thumbs waiting for us start a new church so He can guide and influence God’s people. The church down the centuries has often resisted the Holy Spirit and got things wrong, but it has also done some great things under His inspiration and we shouldn’t ignore what past generations have learned. Yet while we can learn from these approaches I am now utterly convinced that in shaping the church they start at the wrong point.
My thinking changed a few years ago when I read some stuff by Australian church leaders and missiologists Alan Hirsch and Mike Frost. This is what they proposed.
CHRISTOLOGY ————> MISSIOLOGY ————> ECCESIOLOGY
(Who we understand Jesus is and what He does) — SHAPES–> (What we understand the mission of the church is) –SHAPES –> (How we understand and structure church)
What they were proposing was starting with Jesus, who He was, what He did and allowing that to shape what we understand the mission of God’s people to be and then in turn allow that to shape how we exist and structure ourselves as the church. There is so much that could be said about why I think starting with Jesus and in fact God as Trinity is the right starting place for developing how we exist and function as the church but I will keep that for another time. (bet you’re glad)
Right now we are working our way through Mark’s Gospel for Lent. I hope that going on this journey with Jesus will have profound implications for us as His disciples. That once more we will be amazed and enthralled by Jesus our Lord and Saviour. I am pretty sure that the Holy Spirit will lead us to encounter the “Living Word” in the “Written Word” and we’ll encounter Jesus in fresh and powerful ways. However I have another hope for our journey I would like to share with you.
Working our way through Mark’s Gospel is a great way for us as a new church community to start at the right place in shaping the future of our community of faith. I would like to ask you to consciously read it that way. To ask yourself in each passage
WHAT DOES THIS TELL ME ABOUT WHO JESUS IS?
WHAT DOES THIS PASSAGE TELL ME ABOUT WHAT JESUS MISSION WAS?
WHAT IMPLICATIONS DOES THAT HAVE FOR HOW WE UNDERSTAND OUR MISSION AS THE BODY OF CHRIST?
HOW COULD WE ORGANISE AND STRUCTURE OUR COMMUNITY TODAY HERE IN EDINBURGH IN A WAY THAT WOULD ALLOW US TO BE SHAPED BY JESUS’ MISSION?
It would be great talk about this kind of stuff when we get together. Reading Mark’s Gospel is a “God given” opportunity to reimagine what it means to be church, to live as God’s people shaped by God’s mission and empowered by God’s Spirit. Not sure I can imagine anything more exciting and significant!