Defining issues for today's Church
Steven Croft (Editor)
When this book landed on my desk I knew immediately that I wanted to read it. More than that, I wanted to give it a ringing endorsement, a glowing review, to say to other Christian booksellers, You must stock this book! The title, the subtitle, the maze of a question mark on the cover, the list of contributors (detailed below with their topics) — everything about it shouted, "Read Me!"
But as I read, disappointment began to set in: the contents simply did not live up to the title. The vast majority of questions being asked are, quite simply, not Mission-shaped: they are Church-shaped. This is not, then, a book about missiology: it is about ecclesiology. Rather than raising questions about how emerging churches (or fresh expressions of church, whichever term you prefer) can be most effectively supported as they engage in the Church's overall task of mission, the questions are essentially about whether these emergent groups are, in fact, church: about what constitutes church; about legitimacy, precedent, recognition and status.
That's not to say that most of the contributions are not brilliant in their own way and in their field: church-shaped questions deserve to be asked, need to be asked; and, indeed, that's precisely what this volume's forerunner, Mission-shaped Church, did so well when it was published back in 2004, rapidly proving itself in presenting a powerful challenge to — and even a charter for — a church that (apart from some bold exceptions) was becoming increasingly stuck in a rut of navel-gazing and self-absorption.
A friend of mine suggests that being stuck in a rut is not necessarily the worst place to be if we take RUT to stand for 'Reservoirs of Untapped Talent'. In this case that's surely right: Mission-shaped Church opened the floodgates of the church's reservoirs, but not without much resistance and a backwash of questions. It's some of those questions that this book — essentially a distillation of papers presented at last year's Fresh Expressions 'Hard Questions' day conference series — sets out to tackle via the following chapter headings:
But my question back is: how many of these are mission-shaped questions? With some notable exceptions, I contend that they are not. Yes, they should be asked: but not under this title. Whatever your view on that, however, one thing this book most certainly is not is a book of answers; rather it probes the questions, turns them around, forces us as readers to face them for ourselves.
Nor does the book offer a single-party line: the contributors do not all agree with one another; and that ensures a healthy level of debate — not seeking conflict but not seeking undue uniformity either — diversity is the order of the day. Despite the misleading title, the question mark on the cover does sum the book up beautifully: these questions are a maze and the way through is far from obvious or straightforward. Some questions will lead on to the next; others, not so much to dead ends as to places to pause, rethink, turn around and take another route. Nor is it a book to read from cover to cover in a single sitting: each paper deserves its own space and time for reflection.
Steven Croft does an excellent job in his opening and closing chapters, setting the scene at the outset and giving a thorough round-up of the issues raised at the end. His introduction, however, gives the first hint that whilst mission is by no means off the agenda, it is not at the centre: his final chapter, he explains, "attempts to draw together some threads and perspectives on ecclesiology and fresh expressions of church." (Introduction, p.x). His first chapter is essential reading: for anyone like me, approaching the book scratching my head and asking, Whatever is this talk of a "mixed economy church" all about? Croft explains succinctly: the phrase was coined by Rowan Williams to describe two types of church co-existing, the traditional "old economy" and the "new economy" of fresh expressions (p.3). Quite why the contrast should to be made in terms of an economy remains less clear: I for one find the model less than helpful. If the idea were that we're in an interim period as the old currency is phased out it would, perhaps, make sense; but it's the very opposite that is being proposed, that there's room for both traditional and fresh expressions of church, not merely to co-exist but to co-operate and grow together. Far better, then, the phrase preferred by Angela Tilby, a "mixed ecology" church (p.83).
Inevitably, as with any volume of this sort, the quality of the contributions varies, and to comment on them all would lead to a review almost as long as the book itself: I therefore offer only a few brief snapshots. Atkins' analysis of what constitutes church, Chapter 2, whilst fascinating, left me uninspired, wanting to move on to the next essay. Jumping on to Dunn, Chapter 5, I was bemused by the question: evidence of fresh expressions in the New Testament? Christianity in and of itself was a fresh expression of Judaism — and this is precisely the point that Dunn makes quite clearly and cogently. Anyone who has not encountered Dunn's writing before would do well to start here: excellent.
Tomlin's contribution, Chapter 6, was a disappointment, the message, it seemed, of someone conceding defeat: Christendom has failed and we dare not go near it again. The church's call, he argues — essentially following Hauerwas — is not to transform culture but to form disciples: any influence on society emerges as a by-product of that personal spiritual formation. Although he does not state it in as many words himself, he seems to believe in some sort of spiritual version of Thatcher's capitalism with its "trickle-down" of wealth effect as Church culture essentially bleeds out into its surroundings.
Drane's question, Chapter 8, raises as many questions as it answers. Who defines 'maturity'? What do we mean by 'emerging church' and is it the same thing as 'fresh expressions of church'? But he addresses these questions with his customary skill and insight, highlighting the emerging church's emphasis on inclusivity and hospitality as signs of maturity (pp.97-98) whilst also noting its generally male-dominated leadership as a clear sign that it still has some way to go (p.100) — a point reflected in this very book, with ten male contributors and only four female!
Hull and Alexander, Chapters 10 and 11 respectively, are outstanding: here we find a true mission focus. Hull argues that it is only as we love our fellow human beings that our love for God has any meaning. The kingdom of God is amongst us: "The mission of God is therefore to restore the brokenness of the body of humanity and to renew the face of the earth." (p.127). "... love of God is only formed through love to others." (p.131). Alexander takes us on a breathless roller-coaster ride through the Book of Acts with its 'mission-shaped' portrait of the early church, tackling a number of hard questions along the way, questions of historicity, supersessionism, postcolonialism and ecclesiology: "learning to listen — and to trust the Spirit — is at the heart of Luke's vision of mission-shaped Church." (p.141).
A few snapshots, then, to whet your appetite. Not the ringing endorsement I wanted to give, but an endorsement nonetheless: anyone concerned about the shape of the emerging church, of fresh expressions, would do well to read this book. But beware the trap of ecclesiology, of becoming so bogged down in questions about what constitutes church that you lose sight of the mission to which God's church is called.
Phil Groom, April 2008
Phil Groom is this site's Webmaster and Reviews Editor. He's a freelance blogger, writer and web developer who spent ten years managing the bookshop at London School of Theology alongside eight years writing web reviews for Christian Marketplace magazine before he came to his senses and went independent. You can find him on facebook or follow him on twitter @notbovvered.Church House Publishing | Comments? Feedback? | Order from www.christianbookshops.org