A friend of mine likens visits to western churches as akin to taking the Jurassic Park ride, in the film by Stephen Spielberg.
They are often full of rare species, demanding detailed exegetical sermons, gargantuan in structure, voracious in appetite, consuming so much time energy and money foraging for food, that they have little left for those around them.
And like the dinosaurs they are out of place, out of touch and in danger of becoming extinct.
This might be a surprise to many of our dinosaur churches, but increasingly there are many voices from within the church about the prospective demise of the western church.
Another friend of mine said to me: ‘The last two years have seen a number of significant books speculating on the future of Christianity. I suppose the millennium is a good time to take stock; to look back over our modest successes (from 12 Christians to over two billion in two thousand years) and some spectacular failures (100 Hymns for Today).’
What is the cause of this demise? You have probably heard the word modernity, and the much overuse word post-modernity, with all its fashionable derivatives (many of which you may already object to).
Well it seems that the change to post-modernity, (if I can put it in it’s crudest terms, how people form beliefs about belief), is so seismic, that our churches are left standing on the broken and shaking ground of modernity, which formed their foundations. Our dinosaur churches are locked in a culture and belief system, produced by modernity, that our western world, by and large, no longer inhabits, leaving our churches irrelevant.
The past few years saw many books trying to convince us of this predicament of the church. Yet recently there have been many further voices, books, web sites, blogs etc., trying to go further, and offer suggestions as to a way forward, and avoid this demise.
A review of church history shows us that there is nothing new in this situation, and offers us some comfort. The church has faced monumental changes in culture, like the transition from a pre-modern medieval worldview to a modern worldview, and has faced our Jurassic park quandary repeatedly.
Most of the lessons to learn seem to be how the church has had to rediscover its purpose, mission and meaning, and has formed new ways, whilst revitalizing old ways, of doing church.
Already the suggestions, and examples being used are so many that I’ll need to point you to some of the books on it (see end of this essay), as they are beyond this article. One particular model, response, formation and re-formation has been ‘missional communities’, and is the one I have been asked to comment on.
One problem is that new missional communities are so varied and different, how do we make an assessment of them?
I have found the idea of ‘modalities and sodalities’ helpful in this regard. The terms are from anthropology, and were introduced to church growth by Ralph D. Winter in 1971 (Winter, The Warp and Woof pp. 52-62)
A modality is a church/group with hierarchy and vertical structure that has people of all ages, and stages of life, involved in the life of the church at many levels. Some people are very committed, whilst others due to life stages, beliefs, and choice are nominally involved.
Sodalities on the other hand are much more narrowly focused. They are usually very task and relationally focused, where belonging to the community means deep, and multiple commitments. It is almost impossible to be a nominal part of a sodality as they define themselves by high commitment levels. These high commitment, narrowly focused groups, have enabled the church to rediscover what Christian faith is, and preserve it in a time of dilution and ineffectiveness.
Again a review of church history shows us that at times of large cultural change, the church has often responded by starting sodalities, when it becomes marginalized. In the Catholic Church, sodalities were given expression as monastic orders. The Protestant church in rejecting Catholicism, saw sodalities as invalid. It wasn’t until the time of William Carey (Hailed as ‘Father of Modern Missions’), a Baptist minister who in 1792 published Enquiry, the classic delineation of missions, and helped found the Baptist Missionary Society, that sodalities were accepted by the Protestant church.
Missional communities in post-Christian countries can be seen as an extension and acceptance of the sodality model of mission. In church history there have been many marginalized, sodality groups, and one in particular that is currently in fashion and vogue, that new missional communities are drawing on, is the Anabaptist Mennonites.
The Anabaptists, were marginalized, and persecuted by both the Catholic Church, and the Reformers. They mainly saw church and civil state as evil, and formed sodality communities, with subversive theology and non-hierarchical structures, where commitment levels were high. Indeed many historians have seen the Anabaptists as revising and using medieval monastic forms.
That rather crude history lesson is an attempt to place missional communities in context. So how are they doing, and what can we learn from them?
In my readings, research, church planting experience, and involvement with Emergent viewing missional communities, I have found much about them that is helpful, and some things that concern me.
First the helpful things…. By the way not all these are exclusive to missional communities but they are key to them.
1. A reminder of mission
In the past, mission was seen as something churches sent people out of to do. Now missional communities remind us that we need to be missionaries in our own, post-Christendom/Christian culture. We are no longer Christians inhabiting a dominant Christian culture, sending missionaries to un-churched peoples. We are now all missionaries in an un-churched/post-church culture.
2. The Hermeneutic of Community
An authentic community of people living differently, with Christianity as an alternative basis for living, and not just a set of propositional beliefs, becomes a powerful apologetic for our postmodern culture. In post-modernity, there is no truth except that expressed in community. To access truth you have to be involved in an authentic life changing community.
3. Spiritual Formation
Becoming a better person and more like Christ, practising Christian disciplines, is rediscovered, and valued highly in these groups. To belong to the community is to be an active disciple seeking to grow as a Christian. Subscribing primarily to intellectual knowledge as the basis of Christian faith is not highly valued. Being a Christian in thought, word and deed is.
A faith that permeates work, home, and neighborhood, and every area of life is vital to these groups. It’s about fitting my life into Christianity not Christianity into a compartment in my life.
5. Social Justice
Care for the poor and socially abused is of high value to these groups. Ministry to the poor, issues of social action and justice are seen as a normal part of Christian faith and expression.
6. Power from the margins
Probably most significant is that all of the above combine to remind us that the church can speak from the margins of society and affect it profoundly, which is where the church is increasingly finding itself in the West today.
1. The death of public space
Many missional communities pride themselves on being hard to find, having no advertising, no teaching, minimal programmes, no obvious leaders. To attend one is to run the risk of being subjected to uncertainty, food and relationship. Missional communities are in danger of inviting people into their worst fear, forced intimacy, sharing, and lack of public space. People want to be able to watch, listen, observe, without pressure to be involved. Yet missional communities by their nature make this very hard to do. People who visit and don’t stay, can be seen and labeled as ‘consumers’, whereas the group validates people not joining by seeing themselves as committed and ‘real’ Christians. In fact missional communities have always been small, as they have always been hard to join.
My worry is that rather than being open communities, they can become closed and as culturally exclusive to people around them as the modern church. The term ‘missional community’ means nothing to the average un-churched person, but is a signifier to other Christians of the nature of the group.
Rather than new communities that are full of new believers, they often become small communities made up from tired and burned out Christians, fed up with church, finding the new community a place of idealism where everyone is practising hard core Christianity, compared to the compromising modality of the main church they have left.
2. Despising the larger church
Missional communities often despise the larger church. After all if they were real Christians wouldn’t they all be in missional communities!?
In extreme cases I have seen missional community people describe the main church as an abusive alcoholic parent that they need to separate from. Their communities are places of safety from abuse, where their children can grow in faith without the knowledge of the abusing parent.
Built into the history of missional communities, as we have seen, and the drawing on Anabaptists, means that many communities will find their identity in seeing state and church as evil.
I heard someone in a missional community say that all churches should be closed, and pastors fired, and people forced into missional community, and that it would be beautiful! ( I know one over enthusiastic person does not make a movement.)
Maybe mainline churches won’t be able to transition, but are the people in them 2nd class Christians, which is how they can feel labeled? Missional communities can arouse the resentment of mainline churches, and thus history repeats itself.
3. Lack of leadership and pasturing
In missional communities, leadership by people is often seen as unneeded, and the Holy Spirit becomes the group’s leader. Perhaps n reaction to the CEO leadership of the modern church, these communities embrace the Holy Spirit as their leader. This can lead to powerfully moving mutual submission to each other, or alternatively to people unable to make decisions, and lead, as they are subject to community consensus of what the spirit is saying. Aversion to pastoral authority and intervention can also leave the groups able to be very abusive, with no-one able to call the group or individuals to accountability.
What can we learn in overview? Missional communities are repeating parts of our church history that should encourage us. Through their experimentation strong voices will emerge that will influence the main church and our communities.
History also teaches us that many will fail. We can and will learn from both.
In our church, we have tried to become missional, learning from these communities by trying to take the positive lessons and see our selves as missional, with a hard committed centre of people, working out their faith in life changing ways.
But we don’t want to give up the modality, the public space, the front door, that enables people around us to enter into our community, and ultimately be challenged to deeper commitment, to a life given over to following Christ in community.
Someone in a missional community asked me if we were a missional community. I replied yes, and his next question was did we have Sunday services, to which I said yes again. He was aghast. How could we be missional and have Sunday services? he asked. I horrified him further by saying we still had preaching and teaching.
Yet 60 % of our church in south London has grown from un-churched/pre-Christian peoples, and most of our current growth is from people who previously thought of themselves as not Christian.
So what makes us missional? Reaching people around us, to have Christ as their basis for living, or changing our progammes, for Christians who are tired of services, teaching, pastors?
There is a danger that we unnecessarily re-invent our churches to please tired Christians rather than radically reach those around us.
Please e-mail for a longer list of recommended books.