In my opinion one of the best books to come out of the whole Fresh Expressions of Church movement in England is a well written and thought provoking book at the moment called MISSION SHAPED QUESTIONS edited by Steven Croft. It’s a collection of essays which are looking at critical questions surrounding mission in post-modern and post-Christendom Britain.
Out of all the contributions the essay by renowned New Testament scholar James Dunn is the one I found most thought provoking. In his essay “Is there evidence of fresh expressions of Church in the New Testament” he looks at the character of NT Christianity and how it freshly expressed the faith of Israel. Of course this whole 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.
He sees the New Testament Christianity as having five characteristics and goes on to draw out these implications based on those characteristics:
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.
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.
A Christianity that regards the maintenance of and faithfulness to tradition as its highest responsibility is no longer Christianity as defined by the NT.
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.
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, to be in effect “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 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 who recently seem to have been rehabilitated from being heretics to being renewal movements. In the Catholic Church there were the Franciscans, the Jesuits and the Brethren of the Common Life. Then of course the Reformers themselves and the Annabaptists. When the reformed tradition was established and in a sense moribund along came Pietists and Moravians. Of course as we have mentioned already the Methodists sought to reinvigorate the rationalistic and formalistic Anglican Church of three centuries ago. When the almost inevitable happened and Methodism itself became institutional we saw the emergence of the Free Methodists, Wesleyans, Nazarenes and Salvation Army within the Wesleyan tradition as “fresh expressions.” The Charismatic movement in 60-70s in a similar way embodied the characteristics Dunn is describing here.
But sadly that is only half the story because in each of those cases the renewal movements were met by reactionary movements within those churches which tried to defend the ecclesiastical and theological “status quo” as they understood it. Wesley clung onto the Church of England but most Anglicans wrote him off as an “enthusiast” of the worst kind. William Booth was forced out of the Methodist Reform Church and Phinees Bresee was forced out of the United Methodist Church, numerous charismatic congregations felt forced to leave their traditional denominations or were shown the door by the institutional leadership. So it seems like renewal movements inevitably are met by reactionary movements in the Church. I think in general the people who are part of these movements both at an institutional level and grassroots have hearts which are in the right place, to start with at least. The problem as I see it is that they end up defending the status quo which they fail to realise was once a fresh expression of the church opposed by a previous reactionary movement.
In one sense I find Dunn’s points affirming, they seem to affirm some of the key values and positions I have come to hold about why the church needs to change. So the missional church we are seeing emerging at the moment is not an aberration or something that’s just a trendy fad in church. I would argue based on Dunn’s thesis that the current missional movement is the latest expression of the Spirit’s renewing work within God’s People which stretches back to the earliest day of the Church and can in fact be explain the birth of the New Testament Church and Christianity itself.
What if we turned the key points of Dunn’s thesis outlined above on their head and made them positive characteristics of a church experiencing renewal under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit?
Such a church would be
A Church filled with hope about its future and driven by dreams and vision for what God is calling the church to be and do. Filled with a sense of expectation as to where God is leading and what He is doing in and through them.
A Church where in the power of the Spirit the Kingdom of God becomes tangible and the presence of Christ powerful in worship gatherings and in disciples lives
A Church which is committed to the Kingdom of God as its primary commitment and all traditions and aspirations become subservient to that mission of embodying and expressing the Kingdom.
A Church that sees itself as a revolutionary movement of people committed to and shaped by God’s Mission 24/7 365, and so carrying out its incarnational mission of being salt and light in the world. A church of active disciples not passive attenders.
A Church where the “priesthood of all believers” is a living reality and every disciple knows they are “ordained” by God at their baptism and empowered and gifted by the Holy Spirit to be His servant to serve his Kingdom in the world and through the church and so knows they are valued and what they do is significant. A church where servant leadership follows the example of Christ in how it leads rather than unquestioningly following the latest corporate model.
More than anything else I want to be part of a church like that and my excitement at the moment is that I think I am part of group which is beginning to experience these things. I am excited that this “academic” essay reminds me that small group of people who mainly meet in the back room of a nondescript house in Edinburgh is part of a world wide and historic move of the Holy Spirit in renewing the Church.