Ok. Time for another rambling entry…
Books and websites about Mission and Evangelism (I’m working though a ton of them at the moment) increasingly seem to proclaim the 10 (or 12, or 7 or 5 etc) things that ‘successful’ churches should do.
It strikes me that handy though some of those lists might be, something more than a shorthand quick-fix list is required. Whatever denomination or ‘churchmanship’ within it, there is an increasing ‘cri de coeur’ in the Church today about Mission. Mission is an imperative! Well, as if that hadn’t occurred to anyone…
Digging beneath the surface that begs a number of questions in my mind:
Just what is a ‘successful’ church? Is it one which is numerically strong (and what is ‘numerically strong’)? Is it one that reaches out to the poor and marginalized? Is it one where people travel for miles to hear the music, the preaching, to participate in the Liturgy, to adore Jesus, to adore the Vicar? (Not so many of the latter in my experience). Is it one where the Bishop is kept happy, the quota paid, and no one complains? Is it one where everyone is entertained and every PCC meeting is a vision of utopia? Is it one which balances the books and isn’t falling down.
Just what is ‘Mission’ and ‘Evangelism? Yes, I think I know what each one is: but today we seem to use terms interchangeably, and often sloppily. Adding a suffix (normally an “-al”) to big words seems the plat du jour for many at the theological lexicon smorgasbord.
So if you want an incarnational, sacramental, intentional, missional, invitational, hospitable (ok, I cheated there), transformational, liturgical, biblical, vocational, millenial, inspirational (I so, so want to put delusional) Church, you can have one and be one.
Just put lots of words in your “Vision Statement” “Mission Statement” “Identity Statement” etc add “-al” to their end and you’ll have them flooding through the doors. Wont you?
Well, my answer is a profound ‘No’.
I think our problem with mission and evangelism is that we’re really, really good about talking about it, writing about it and blogging about it… What we’re not so good about is doing it – it’s tough. We’re in an age where there’s hardly a shortage or material to work with from the Alpha Course to the Y Course (can someone write the “Z” Course, please). Yet talking about mission and evangelism consumes us. From the Decade of Evangelism to Renewal and Reform we’ve had initiative upon initiative.
Now we have the Archbishop’s Thy Kingdom Come. Great. What did happen to William Temple’s great report Towards the conversion of England?
I’m not knocking these things ( I may be being mildly risible, that’s true ) because they are about trying to get us to be doing something – but my worry is that they do little more than jump on a bandwagon which is about bandying about some well-worn phrases which scratch an itch for those for whom those phrases are buzz words.
Even Archbishop Justin was clear in his inaugural Lambeth Lecture on Mission and Evangelism that:
“When I introduced my third priority [as Archbishop] as evangelism and witness I imagine some, maybe a minority, were high-fiving, while others stopped and stared into space with a look of horror, thinking, ‘Oh golly, here we go again’. I won’t ask you which group you fall into.”
The proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ and the conversion of those who are not yet Christians (and the renewal of those who are already) is, for me (and many clergy), a non-negotiable element of the Faith we have received.
Holding a course, or inviting people to imagine their understanding of the Trinity with some fuzzy felt, glue and glitter is, I’m sure, nice enough – but I feel uncomfortable because it seems too often these things are displacement activities for actually serving as Jesus serves, proclaiming and teaching the Gospel as it has been revealed and celebrating the sacraments of the new covenant.
How many parish priests are there, I wonder, who have people who say “we need more teaching” but the very people who ask, never turn up and the 12th iteration of the Lent/advent/Summer/Autumn/house-group is given, after much preparation to the same 10 people who’ve been each year since Moses first delivered the “Tablet Course”? Yet in an inerrant missional groundhog way, we keep on doing the latest version of ‘what we’ve always done’.
I gently mock, because it strikes me that the greatest beneficiaries of our missionary and evangelistic activities are the authors and publishers of these courses, books and cross-platform multimedia “mission materials” .
I know that’s unfair, but someone somewhere is making quite a bit of dosh out of the frenetic writing about what we should or shouldn’t be doing. Sure, some of that income goes to charitable projects, churches or mission agencies. But we seem to spend more and more money on buying materials and holding training days for talking about what we ought to be doing – and talking almost exclusively to the same audience again and again and again.
I don’t know of any course, initiative, book, or of any ‘How to do mission’ scheme nor indeed of any 5, 7, 10 or 12 point list which has resulted in a great wave of conversions, baptisms or returners to a worshiping community which has had any lasting effect. Well, not in and of themselves.
What I do know are people who have brought these things about. Ok, they may have sometimes found the opportunity or excuse to do so because of a course, an initiative, a book etc. However, if all these things were so effective, so powerful, so great in and of themselves: why aren’t our churches full? We’ve written and produced more in the last 25 years on this subject than almost ever before. And declining numbers continues.
My fear is that we have engaged ourselves in a belief in the doctrine of “Salvation by Missional Materials alone”. What would Jesus do? Well, today he’d get an awfully good book deal.
My thinking is that perhaps we need to take a risk and simply be bolder about what we ‘do’. And what we ‘do’ is God, and his people. And that’s done by people for God and his people. Not simply talked about, or even (hoisted by my own petard here) written about. That might be a great point to contemplate.
So yes, I’m going to write my list of 10 things to ‘do’ and 10 things to ‘don’t’ but the voice of my Old Testament tutor sounds ringing in the back of my head, saying:
“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.
Besides being wise, the Teacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs. The Teacher sought to find pleasing words, and he wrote words of truth plainly.
The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings that are given by one shepherd.
Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgement, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.”