A new church? Embracing diversity

After my article on “The Future of Victorian Worship,” I decided to go into more depth regarding the three underlying values (conformity, compliance and standardisation), but this time looking at them from the point of view of new ways of being church, rather than just new ways of doing worship. This is first of three articles to come on this subject. The next two will be tackling the issue of stimulating the imagination, and then encouraging creativity.

1. What we take for granted

If you grew up in the church – depending on the variety of contexts you were exposed to – you will probably have a set of ideas about church that you take for granted. For instance, you may take for granted that a church needs to have a building, a membership roll, a board of elders, a pastor, and of course a Sunday morning service where we sing songs, say prayers, and listen to a sermon. These are only some of the things we take for granted. All these things are important to keep in mind when we set out to imagine new forms of church.

What this means is that when someone asks “Do we really need a building in order to be a church?”, we will probably raise our eyebrows in utter surprise, because it never occurred to us that a church could exist without a building of some kind. It could maybe start without one, but can it go on like that?

This is our experience of church so far. It has to have a building. We have a hymn that says “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple…”, but I wonder how many of us actually buy into that idea. It sounds provocative and counterintuitive, even if the Scriptures never mention the church as being even connected to a building. I sometimes hear people say “I know the church is not a building, but…” Any Gestalt therapist will translate that statement as “The church IS a building”: ‘yes, but’ equals ‘no’ in communication.

There is, obviously, a big discussion around church buildings and how useful they are to sustaining a worshipping congregation, how flexible and fit for purpose they are etc. I am not going to develop that subject here, as I simply want to point out that we automatically assume the necessity of a building when we talk about church.

Then we take for granted that a church has to have a membership roll. It needs to have a list of people who are committed to belonging. I remember when we set up a small house church in my home in 2003, that this idea came to me as a given. We need a list. Who can we count on? Who’s in and who’s out? The idea of belonging is theologically sound, but must it take the form of a linear list? Even to ask that question is a huge departure from what we take for granted when we think about membership.

I like what IKON does in Belfast with their ‘non-membership class’: at the end of the class you get a card that proves you are not a member of Ikon; you just go from time to time. Now, there goes a far-out idea. We rarely think about our current membership lists, and how little they actually mean apart from a quasi legal standpoint. Does it mean that all the people on that list have a sense of belonging to the church? If yes, to what extent, and is there an alternative to that?

We also take for granted that there must be a number of people selected from the membership list who are responsible for leading the church and making decisions. They form a committee, often dividing themselves in even more sub-committees, and they are tasked with decision making. It often turns out to be a highly bureaucratic system, where sometimes committees end up making decisions which other people have to put into practice. Why do we think that is reasonable? It would make so much more sense that a group of people can only decide on what they themselves do, and not on what others do. But we’ve operated like that for so long, that we don’t even think of questioning it.

Another idea is that a church has to have a priest, a pastor, or a minister. We know there are churches out there who continue to be churches during a vacancy, but we still think you can’t have a church without an ordained person being in charge of it in some significant way. The church needs a leader, but does it need a leader to call itself a church? If the leader leaves, does the church cease to be church in some way until a new leader is appointed?

Of course one of the things we always take for granted is what happens when people gather for worship. The worship service has to be called a ‘service’, and it has to have certain ingredients: songs (hymns), prayers, readings, sermon, and announcements. If one of these things are missing, or they are not done in the way we are used to doing them, we are not even sure it’s a church. If it doesn’t meet on a Sunday, it’s probably not a church either.

All these ideas are taken for granted because they are based on values that we don’t even think about. They are common sense to us. We operate from those values without being aware of what we are doing. That is why it is so difficult to think out of the box. If I take the value of conformity for granted, I will automatically react against any departures from the status quo without even knowing why I’m reacting.

However, reacting against conformity does not mean I automatically embrace diversity. I can react against conformity not because I’m aware of it, but maybe because it does not fit with my personality, or because I like a good fight. I can only move away from conformity towards diversity after I become aware of my tendency for conformity. This awareness comes with a discernment that prevents me from attacking the status quo for the mere sake of being different, and not because the status quo doesn’t work anymore. I cannot even begin to evaluate the status quo if I am unaware that I take conformity for granted. Also, holding a balance between conformity and diversity means that I am less likely to go for change for the sake of change.

2. The challenge of a ‘mixed economy’ of church

Several denominations recognise that old forms of church do not reach everyone. They operate with the concept of a ‘mixed economy’ of church. The idea of a ‘mixed economy’ of church is based on the principle that the church should embrace a diversity of expressions across the board, as well as in local situations. It assumes that the church does not need to promote only one form, which is then replicated over and over again. It recognises that different settings and local situations require different expressions of church. It also encourages the local church to become aware of the diversity within it’s own local community, and recognise that only one form of church cannot, and does not reach everyone.

The idea behind ‘Fresh Expressions’ – a 2004 initiative of the Church of England and the Methodist Church – is that local churches are encouraged to listen to the people in their community who are not engaged by the current forms of church, and then establish new forms of church that primarily serves those people. These new forms of church are intended as missional activities of the local existing congregations. They are not independent of the existing congregations, but rather ‘interdependent’, to use Bishop Graham Cray’s distinction. This is what a ‘mixed economy’ of church means.

In my experience, local congregations tend to really struggle with the idea of a mixed economy. Often members cannot understand why non-church goers choose to not do what they are doing. “If it works for us, why can’t it work for others?” At its core, this question assumes the value of conformity.

But there is another issue we need to look at: We assume that the local church is a unitary entity, or a thing that you can name and move about. We tend to think of the church as a uniform group of people meeting together in one place, at the same time. This goes beyond the issue of conformity, and it has to do with how we define church, and how we understand its unity.

Whenever unity is discussed, we often make the point that unity should not be about uniformity. What we are looking for is ‘unity in diversity’: It is easy to be one with people who look like you, think like you, feel like you, and agree on everything. We often confuse such situations with unity. Scripture speaks of such unity as unremarkable (Matthew 5:46). Real unity is when I meet someone who doesn’t look like me, who feels differently than I do, who disagrees with me, and might even dislike me, but with whom I find a common space of connection that goes beyond those seemingly dividing differences.

The problem starts from the idea that the local church is a unitary, circumscribed entity. But this is only true in our imagination. The experience on the ground is that the local church is actually made up of an intricate web of interconnected local interactions and relationships. What they have in common is a population wide pattern, but this is not controlled or commanded by any one person, just as all the neurons in the brain are not commanded by any single neuron. This way of seeing organisations is well developed by Professor Ralph Stacey from the University of Hertfordshire. If one assumes the local church is in fact a unitary entity, then one will also struggle with any attempt to add new expressions alongside what is already there.

In other words, any new form of church that will exist alongside the old might be regarded as a threat to the existing church. If a few people in the church have a vision of starting a new form of church in their community, the suspicion is that it will draw people away from the existing entity, thus weakening it. This is a real fear. Any assurances that the new model is designed to engage with people who are not currently in the church can bring little comfort, especially when the expectation is that these people who are not in church should conform with what is already there. A common view is that we should try to get these people to join the existing expression of church. The fact that they do not is either because we’re not trying hard enough, or because there is something wrong with them.

If we were to even be able to consider a mixed economy of church, we would first of all need to recognise that the current form does NOT reach everyone. This is no small thing, and can prove to be a real challenge for many existing congregations. Accepting that what works for me might not work for someone else is a departure from the expectation of conformity, and is a first necessary step towards embracing diversity. Giving freedom to new expressions is a deeply spiritual decision, and can only happen when we are aware of our expectations for conformity, and then we choose instead to trust God and the leadership of the Holy Spirit even when that involves a departure from what we are familiar with.

In my experience, this is where we need to begin if we are to lead the church towards a mixed economy of expressions. New expressions of church desperately need the prayerful support and nurture of existing congregations. New born babies can have a really hard time if the elder siblings do not embrace and care for them. New babies are cute, but they are also needy, noisy and demanding. A new baby brings change: by definition, they upset the family routines, the sleeping patterns, the budget etc. The only way we can ever truly love and care for this baby is after we decide a new baby is a blessing, and not just something we need to accept.

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One thought on “A new church? Embracing diversity

  1. “Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow to it.”Isaiah 2:2-3 …”Whenever the church steps back from its prophetic calling to occupy the high places of the earth, there will be others who willingly step into the void left by the church,,,” “Postmodern seekers are hungry for authentic spiritual encounters that open up the realm of ecstasy and bliss…It is time to give this generation an encounter with God that will raise up a generation of ecstatic lovers of Christ”…QUANTUM GLORY by Phil Mason (pages 363, 399)

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