The embryonic ideal of the missional church fifteen or so years ago has lead to what I would call the mashional church; a mash up between radical and traditional models. In that time, as one would expect, some expressions of church have flourished, others have withered.
The last six years we have been working in the church network in which I am now a pastor. At the end of that toughest year following my illness, we somehow, miraculously, felt that we could get involved in a church plant again. It was in our blood. God had put it in our blood. He must have, because honestly I was ready to hide out and write the next great Australian novel while Jill’s increasingly well regarded clinical psychology practice paid the bills!
We were both much more cautious, much more savvy about what direction we should take. It was then that long-term close friends working in a newish church plant asked us to come on a day per week to work alongside them. It was a great match and has been for six years. If there is one lesson I have learned in our journey it’s this: Plant a church with people you know very, very well. How well? Very!
It’s been an encouraging and rebuilding time, not without its challenges. But as I look at it, our current church is a good example of that mashional mash-up. It was started as a household church, birthed out of a large evangelical Anglican setting, with the express purpose of doing what we had been involved in in Sheffield. The demographic was different (older, professionals, plenty of kids); the sociological setting was poles apart (well-heeled western inner-western/coastal suburbs of Perth). There’s certainly been no sense of over-reach among any of those involved. We’ve left ideology behind. We’re pretty much the Bonhoeffer’s happy “disillusioned”. But the goal? The goal is the same as it has been for since we started – reaching lost people with the good news of Jesus.
So we started as household churches – both in Perth city, and then through some conversions, out in our eastern suburbs. Rather than shift to the city we decided to stay where we were and see what God would do. Today there are three separate locations, two in the city, one out in Midland, with some 400 people, multiple pastoral staff, and currently no week in-week out missional household model running at all.
However it’s still in the DNA, resulting in a high level of community “life-on-life” commitment among its members. There’s a strong desire to retain elements of that original household model. Of course we’ve got our own issues, our own pressures, our own struggles. But we love it!
However that hasn’t made us pull our heads in. It’s not beyond a possibility that the next time we plant something it will look completely different to what we are doing now. And we’re pretty open to helping people establish other expressions of church that suit their context and are reaching people we might never reach the way we do church. In that sense we’re something of a mish-mash, a mash-up, a true expression of mashional church, in which we’re happy to give anything a go. It’s an R&D kinda church.
Here’s the reason I think it’s working. The mission when our network began was this:
To bring glory to God by planting seeds of the gospel of Jesus Christ, giving rise to the church
That’s still the same mission. And the reason I like it (it was put together by an engineer who obviously over-engineered it because it still seems pretty robust to me), is threefold:
1: It Begins With the Goal of God’s Glory
It doesn’t begin with a whinge or an angst about the state of the church. And that is crucial. It begins with the stated goal of all creation, the chief end of man and woman – to bring glory to God.
In my experience, many, including me, began the missional journey, antsy about church and why it was the way it was. And those were good questions to ask. But along the way there came a point for me that I had to stop the deconstruction process. And when things begin with an angst about the church, I believe that that angst becomes addictive.
That goal also heads off at the pass the unfortunate tendency to chuck the theological baby out with the ecclesiological bathwater. Even in those early days a “new theology” was being touted – one that has proven to be less of a new theology to lead us into a post-Christian world (the much vaunted church on the other side of Brian McLaren) than a cultural cave in to an increasingly hostile secular culture.
The once much touted “emergent church”, which whilst calling for a radical overhaul of ecclesiology, was all too often angling for a radical overhaul of theology, or more to the point, a deconstruction of it.
The result, over time, has been no surprise. The emergent has submerged – simple as that. It has rarely been sighted again, at least not in a significant, growing church form. In those early days it was seen as a contest between those with a more traditional theology and ecclesiology who were church planting, (emerging missional?) and those who wanted a radical overhaul of everything. Who would take the lead? Who would map a path forward? Well let’s just say, it’s been more a case of Facebook versus MySpace, or, if you’re older, VHS versus Beta. I well remember Alan Hirsch saying “if you don’t have a mission (and by that he meant the gospel mission), then don’t emerge”.
To be honest, the dregs of the emergent scene looks to me more like a “me-tooism”, a progressive liberalism with an anaemic ecclesiology that cannot in any significant manner, convince people that it is distinct enough from the surrounding cultural morass to be worth signing up for. In short where are the converts? Sorry if that offends anyone. Actually, I’m not that sorry, as it’s ended up being a blind alley for a lot of people, the last exit point for many a post-Christian.
2. It’s About Planting Seeds of the Gospel
This is clearly a commitment to speaking the Word insofar as it draws its imagery from the parable of the sower in Mark 4. And what we have in that chapter is a clear conclusion that seed broadcasting is something we need to do – scatter it wide. And we do so in Word – though not in word only – but without word, we’re not planting seeds of the gospel, if indeed the gospel is primarily good news about an event, the event. Which it is.
Hence Nigel, the bloke who started our first plant, made a commitment to put the words “missional” and “evangelistic” together. He and his first team of young families in household churches were committed to missional lifestyles among their neighbours and friends, but were equally committed to being evangelistic – the telling of the good news of Jesus. And that’s been our pattern to this day, whatever our iteration of church structure.
Sometimes that commitment cost. It meant that many who came across their path in the end turned away because, like in the parable, though the seed takes root in three of the four souls, it only lasts in one of them. There is nothing so painful in a household church, in which the relationships are thick and rich, to see someone who has come to Jesus in the past couple of years, slowly wither and fall away because of exactly what Jesus said why they would fall away: trouble on account of the Word, the lure of wealth, the desire for other things, etc.
That fall away is painful in a traditional church model, but when the empty lounge chair remains empty week after week, the pop-ins and chats over coffee, the meals together, become more awkward with people with whom you once shared life, it can be devastating. And when the emails no longer get exchanged or the phone not answered, well it feels at best like a waste of time, and at worst, a great loss of fellowship and love, never mind the concern for your friend’s spiritual state. Believe me, if you want to avoid the pain of watching Christians you love fall away, then the thick community that household church brings is not for you!
Yet that is also a reminder that from the outset Jesus predicted this, but still calls on us to share the good news. He knows who are His. We are simply called to proclaim the message.
3. Giving Rise to the Church
Here’s the freedom I like in our mission. Here’s the opportunity for a church planter/church planting team to take a risk and to do mashional church: We don’t have a preconceived idea of what it has to look like. Sure there are things that are necessary: Word, Sacrament, Church Discipline (let the reader understand), Gathering, Praise, Prayer, Service – all bound together in L-O-V-E love, with Christ at our centre. The gospel – and only the gospel – gives rise to the church
And in what form does that church rise? Well if you’ve got the essentials right, then you have a huge freedom to experiment I reckon. Contrast that with the mainline churches that are struggling today. They’ve pretty much lost the essentials. They’re draining the life-blood out of any thing remotely orthodox, and replacing it with heterodoxy and heteropraxy. But form? You’d better line up with who can do communion, what colour needs to be worn in what season, who can say what to whom, a love of titles and stations. Not that evangelicals are immune from that, but it seems odd that those who are so loose theologically are so tight ecclesiologically, at least in terms of form.
Gospel conviction gives you gospel guts. Keep theological orthodoxy central and you can be as radical as you want. Indeed you will want to be! Gospel conviction gives you guts to try things when you plant churches; guts to experiment; guts to get it wrong and start again if you have to; guts to go out on a limb; guts to go out on an even higher limb; all the while knowing that taking risk for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ is, in the long run, no risk at all. Look what He gave for you, after all!
So as I begin to conclude this series (there’s a Part 10 called Ten Things I Learned in Ten Years), I would have to say it’s been the most exciting, most painful, most self-searching ten years of our lives. I’ve done – we’ve done – a lot of screaming in pain, and laughing with joy. But in the midst of it, God our Saviour has been exactly that – our Saviour. And not only our Saviour, but the Saviour of His church, of which by his grace he has called us not only to belong to, but to work within across the world. May His church rise until the day we too, in resurrection power, rise to meet Him and the rest of His bride in the air.