UNLEARNING CHURCH

My last post was about learning to be church in new ways for a new era, so I thought I would update an old post about “unlearning” church because we can’t learn to live as God’s people in new effective and authentic ways until we “unlearn” how we have been living as church in unhelpful ways.

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I am not a great golf fan, well actually I am not a fan at all but I happened to over hear something interesting on the radio. A professional golf player was talking about “unlearning” his swing so he could develop a more effective one. He had to stop swinging the club the way he had been doing for years in order to be able to learn how to swing the club in a more effective way. It struck me that I was in a very similar position as a church leader in relation to church. Since at least the year 2000 I have been in the process of “unlearning” not my golf swing but how I understand church, that is what church is and how it functions. I thought I would share a couple of the areas where I have been “unlearning”

I AM UNLEARNING that mission is “a” part of the church’s purpose
The 80s-90s were the high point of the church growth and church “health” movement. In 1999 I had the great privilege of going to one of Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Conferences at Saddleback Church in the USA. Apart from enjoying the weather I was pretty taken by Rick Warren and the whole Purpose Driven Church thing, you know with the five purposes of the church, Worship, Discipleship, Evangelism, Fellowship & Ministry.. I still believe we can learn a tremendous amount from him and what Saddleback are doing, but I no longer believe that mission is just “one of” the purposes of the church. Since 1999 I have come to the conclusion that the Church exists for mission. The church was created to join God in His mission of restoration and transformation of all creation, to use the cliche “its not so much that the church of God has a mission but that the mission of God has a church.” I now see that the other so called “purposes” of the church find their meaning and expression in the context of the missional church which serves and is so shaped by the mission of God. Darrell Gruder’s “Missional Church” introduced me to the concept of “missional” and work by Lesslie Newbigin, Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost was key for me in making this paradigm shift in my thinking. They helped me see that mission is not simply an activity of the church but an attribute of God that should definitively shape His people and their mission. This has been the most fundamental of the things I have “unlearned.”

I AM UNLEARNING that church is mainly about Sunday services
I have to confess that my training and gifting as a preacher made me over emphasise the importance of church services on a Sunday in the life and mission of the Church. As I said I was influenced by the Church Growth Movement whose main emphasis was getting more people to the Sunday service and making that service as attractive and relevant as possible. I have been unlearning that perspective and trying to develop a simpler and more wholistic expression of church. I now believe that what is much more important is what we do as disciples and as a community 24/7 in all areas of our life and community. Gathering for worship is important, but not more important than gathering for prayer, acts of compassion, social action, serving others etc. So I have unlearned that the Sunday service is all important in the life of a congregation.

I AM UNLEARNING that the goal of mission is the growth of the church.
As I said I drank deeply from the Church Growth Movement and still believe that it gave us many key insights and helped us rediscover the missional nature of God and the church. However the CGM was obsessed by numbers and bigger was always better, so the growth of the church was the goal of mission in a functional sense. I still believe that the growth of the church is hugely important but the mission of the church is greater and more important than just bums on seats on a Sunday or names on a membership roll. I now see that as God’s people. the church exists to embody, express and extend the Kingdom of God. That is to bring healing, justice, peace, love, compassion, freedom, to work to see individuals, communities, nations and ultimately all of creation transformed. The Church doesn’t just pray “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” it seeks in the power of the Spirit and the manner of Jesus to see that happen. So I have unlearned that the goal of the church is to always grow as an end intself, sort of filling the waiting room for heaven and instead now see the growth of the church is a byproduct of the mission of the church not it’s goal.

I AM UNLEARNING an obsession with conversion.
Now I need to be careful about this, I still think that people have to make a positive choice to become a Christ Follower. I am clear no one enters the Kingdom of God by osmosis. However earlier in my ministry I was a bit obsessed with getting people “saved”, what that meant was to the conversion point and then over it. I was elated when people decided for Christ (and so I should be, after all heaven is according to Jesus) and depressed when I saw no one coming to faith. Now I see conversion or better salvation as a continuing process. I now see that what happens after “conversion” is equally, if not more important, than the moment of decision. To me a Christ follower is not someone who came forward at a meeting, or prayed a certain prayer with the right words, but someone who has encountered Jesus and is continuing to be transformed by that encounter. So I have unlearned an unhealthy focus on the moment of conversion and I am trying to be as excited about discipleship as I am about evangelism.

I AM UNLEARNING the idea that the point of the Gospel is all about going to heaven in the future.
Praise God the Gospel does say that our eternal future is secure but it seems equally insistent that eternal life starts now, its about a quality of life as much as a quantity. We aren’t saved to twiddle our thumbs waiting for the rapture, but to be involved in seeing the future we are part of invading the here and now. The Gospel cannot be reduced to a one way ticket to eternal paradise or an insurance policy against eternal punishment. Scholars like NT Wright have helped me see that there is a continuity between what we do here in the mission of God and our future in the new heaven and earth.

I AM UNLEARNING that mission starts with the church
In both the churches I have led previously to coming to Edinburgh essentially the mission of the church was determined by the church. What I mean is that what we could or were allowed to do in terms of mission was determined by what people in the church liked, or disliked, what the board would approve and give money for. Mission for me now starts with God, I want to understand what the mission of our great Trinitarian God is, from that I can understand what the mission of God’s people should be and from that flows my understanding of the church. Alan Hirsch and Mike Frost really helped me on this one with their book “The Shaping of Things to Come” it really was a “scales falling of the eyes” experience reading that book at Asbury Seminary in 2006.

I AM UNLEARNING my role.
I was basically trained to be a “pastor” because in standard “Christendom Mode” pastor was just about the only church leadership role that was acknowledged, well maybe “pastor/teacher.” The “minister” cared for and taught already Christians with a minor emphasis on evangelism among the “unchurched” fringe of the congregation. So I was trained and employed to look after the pastoral needs of an established congregation but now I am unlearning that role. I now no longer see myself as a pastor, the truth is I just ain’t very pastoral. I now believe I am gifted more in the area of apostolic ministry than pastoral ministry. I don’t mean that I am a contemporary Apostle Paul and have ultimate authority but that my gifting and wiring by God has made me passionate and effective in moving the church forward in mission. I always want to push the edges, try new things in new ways. Pastoral gifts are still really important to the church but part of the problem with the church in recent years it seems to me is that it has been led by pastors or those forced to be pastors and so inevitably has been inward looking and focused on its own needs.

I AM UNLEARNING the clergy / laity divide
Growing up when we went to big denominational gatherings and had a meal, the ministers sat at table with a table cloth and china tea cups and plates, the rest of us got a plastic cup and a pie on a serviette. That was my introduction to the “laity / clergy” divide and as I grew up I gradually learned that despite protestants believing in the “priesthood of all believers” the pastors were the professionals and the rest of us amateurs. The basic position in Christendom era church was that the professional clergy did the really important ministry and the laity’s role was to support them. I am unlearning that attitude and realise that there is no more than a functional distinction between those whose ministry is in the church and those whose mission and ministry is primarily outside it. In fact I realise now that so called “laity” have a far more significant role in the mission of God than I have as their jobs etc take them to the frontline of the Kingdom of God.

I could probably go on, but these are among the most significant of my paradigm shift when it comes to Church and my ministry.
What about you, how has your understanding of the church changed?
What have you had to unlearn?

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One Response to UNLEARNING CHURCH

  1. robgray2607 says:

    Hi James, thanks for this article…I can resonate with much if not all of it. Blessings for 2015.

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