Mission With An Anabaptist Twist - Urban Church Planting
Some considerations of urban missions from: Urban Church Planting Conference Mission With An Anabaptist Twist
Stuart Murray Williams, the key speaker at the conference, discussed urban (or inner city) church planting, but much of what he said would be relevant to our middleclass suburban situation. He taught "Church Planting and Evangelism" at Spurgeon's College in London, and is the author of Church Planting-Laying Foundations (Paternoster, 1998).
The following notes are a summary of the main points from the conference, together with some quotations from articles by Murray Williams. Stuart works with an organisation in the UK called Urban Expression, "which seeks to recruit, equip, deploy and support self-financing teams which will pioneer innovative and relevant expressions of the Christian Church in the underchurched areas of the inner city." The age range of all team members is 20 to 40 years old. Three of Urban Expressions five teams are in the Tower Hamlets, one of the oldest and, despite its commercial prosperity, most socially deprived communities in London. Tower Hamlets is both multi-religious and very secular; for example, only one in 200 of the residents have church connections, compared with the average in Britain of 14% with church connections.
Murray Williams points out that no book existed on how to plant in an urban locality. You have to live in it and see if it happens. So "dream and be free". A significant feature in the history of church so far has been that it imposes on people. Christendom - the system in which a powerful church cooperated with and mutually supported powerful economic, political and social institutions - was conformist and fundamentally oppressive. It tended to make Christianity boring, and contributed to the alienation from church that characterises post-Christian society. The church in 1900 operated at or near the centre of the social and cultural life of Britain, whereas today the church is increasingly marginal and Christianity is but one of many options in a pluralistic society. There is a strong need for creative Christianity.
- 1 Basic Church Planting Questions to Ask:
- 2 Challenges to Core Values
- 3 Some Functional Issues
Basic Church Planting Questions to Ask:
What Sort of Church is Relevant Here?
We need to go in with as few preconceived ideas about church as possible. There is no set way, and there is a need for innovative and relevant expressions of the Christian church. In addition, do not plant fast; it is a long-term work.
It is important to take a humble approach, with a willingness to learn, and to be experimental and flexible. What we need is the type of church that is relevant in the community where you are planting, rather than the type of church you want. Moreover, we should open ourselves up to the surprises of the Holy Spirit moving, rather than having a grand strategy. Church planting is to not only bring God to the people, but to see where and how God is working and join in.
Acts 10-11 give a good example of the importance of dependence on the Holy Spirit. Following a special revelation, given to overcome his Jewish scruples, Peter obediently witnessed to the Gentiles. The result, the "Pentecost of the Gentile world", was fruitful because Peter had followed God's call and not man's rulings or insights.
Church planting must be ecclesiological as well as evangelical - aimed at renewal of the church as well as evangelism. Church planting is not just about more churches, but about the development of new and more diverse ways of being the church that are biblically rooted and culturally appropriate. One reason we need new churches is that, although reform of existing local churches is to be encouraged, it is uncertain how radical the renewal of existing church structures can be.
In the UK 50% of the churches planted during the Decade of Evangelism (the 1990s) do not exist today. One factor in their decline was poor leadership, but another was that there was too much "photocopy planting", with most of the churches being clones of the existing churches i.e. they failed to break out of the white middle class mould, and in effect were planting more of the churches from which people were leaving.
Another Essential Question to Ask is "What Will the 'Good News' Mean in Our Community?"
Can we tell the Jesus story in a way that connects with people - fresh, sharp, challenging?
- "It is our conviction that we live in a society that is heartily sick of Christianity and of the institutional church but that has yet to encounter the radical Jesus. New ways of being church need also to be new ways of telling the story of Jesus and helping people to encounter him." (Stuart Murray & Anne Wilkinson-Hayes)
This raises the questions: What are we trying to achieve when we get together for church? What are the needs of those in our area? Teaching, mission, worship, fellowship? Stuart Murray Williams comments:
- "The form in which Christians communicate the gospel is another aspect of the use of power. Monologue presentations of the gospel may be perceived as an exercise of a church that is used to speaking without expecting anyone to contradict or challenge. Other ways of sharing the faith, from informal discussions to formal debates, may be more appropriate and even more effective. Perhaps the church could follow the example of Jesus in asking searching questions rather than always giving answers... Humility and weakness might break down barriers that arrogance and powerful methods have failed to penetrate."
Earlier in the same article, Murray Williams made the following comment:
- "Jesus said he came to bring good news to the poor. The gospel we preach and the way we preach it is authentic only insofar as poor people perceive it as good news. Do our evangelistic strategies and methods give priority to the poor? Do they communicate the gospel to the powerless and marginalised?"
However, most of us live in comfortable middle class suburbia where needs are hidden. Should we assume people are all "needy" in a basic spiritual sense despite whatever feelings of security they may have through material wealth, job status etc.?
Other Essential Questions:
Some church plants attune well to the culture, but fail to look at their theology along with their analysis of their community. Like the Anabaptists, we should "stretch" theology a bit, questioning some of the accepted concepts and developing a theological rationale for new practices. What do we mean by "discipleship"? What is the relationship between evangelism and discipleship? What do we mean by "Christian community"? In addition, the fundamental question: What do we mean by church? The word "church" should be seen as dynamic, an activity, a verb rather than a noun. One definition:
- Church is what happens when those who are excited about Jesus meet together.
- A group which is aspiring towards three essentials: mission (which involves not just conversion but also transformation to being followers of Christ), worship, and being community.
We may agree church is people rather than a building, but we need to remember it is not just people in services - it is people dispersed as well i.e. people both gathered and scattered. This requires a more holistic attitude. Church planters should not be aiming at just planting worship services. Meetings in themselves are not church.
Stuart sees the following two legacies of Constantine's embrace of Christianity in the fourth century:
- "First, the church began to perceive itself as a social institution rather than a missionary movement; and second, 'going to church' replaced the church going to others."
However, we can no longer assume that "coming to church" is a natural step for anyone interested in Christianity; as Murray Williams says, "the church is alien for a large number of people with no churchgoing heritage." There is a need to recapture grassroots mission and the vision of the church as a missionary community.
- "The true nature of the church is as a society that exists, not simply for its own nurture, but for the benefit of non-members. A church that mobilises thousands of ordinary believers as witnesses in word and deed still has the potential to transform the world around us."
Challenges to Core Values
Creativity in church planting should not only be to do with the packaging, but with core values. Often we talk about different church models, but all we end up doing is changing the structures, the peripheral things; we do not change the ethos of the church.
Values can replace our dependence on structures - so if we lose the structures we have relied on, we still hang on to something. Some of the values and convictions of the planting agency Urban Expressions, mentioned above, are:
- "Jesus-ness": a dedication to being Jesus-like in every area of our lives, demonstrating the radical nature of Jesus Christ to our fellow believers and to those who don't yet know him i.e. the counter-cultural Jesus. Although society may be sick of the institutional church, Jesus and his story is still a drawcard, fascinating to many people. We should not just focus on his death and resurrection but explore and present his life and teaching. Many people today do not know the story of Jesus.
- Church planting needs to be incarnational i.e. growing out of the community by working from within.
- Church planting needs to be holistic i.e. engaging with the whole person and the whole community, not just being evangelical but also attempting to build relationships. Holistic mission demonstrates most completely the love Jesus has for the whole person and for communities.
- Humility: A recognition that who we are and what we attempt to do is part of a much larger story; a recognition that we are not indispensable; a respect for other faith communities who are serving God in the area; gratitude for the foundation laid by many who have gone before; and a commitment to learn from others.
- Experimenting: Encourage creativity and diversity of expression in planting and mission; doing church differently, with more cultural significance, and not imposing models of church. It is possible to have churches based on similar fundamental convictions but to be diverse in style and ethos.
- Empowering: Focusing on discovery and development of gifts, and encouraging individuals to excel in their area of gifting, to reach their potential and thus benefit the whole. They are committed to the priesthood and prophethood of all believers. They seek to develop mature churches that will be able to sustain themselves and will be able to reproduce other churches.
- Resourcing: They are committed to self-financing, but encourage interdependence within the wider church family. They encourage accountability, seeking the wisdom of others and taking responsibility for encouraging and disciplining one another as followers of Jesus. They are committed to living uncluttered lives, holding onto possessions lightly and regarding all we have as being at Gods disposal.
- It is important there be a high level of openness and trust within and between teams that are supporting each other. The fundamental Anabaptist contribution to contemporary church planting is to encourage deeper and more radical reflection on the kinds of churches planted.
- "Whether or not these churches embody values and practices that Anabaptists would endorse, they will be healthier and more likely to engage effectively in mission and ministry if they have emerged from a process of questioning about the kind of churches they should be." (Stuart Murray)
Some questions the Anabaptist tradition might pose for contemporary church planters:
Some Functional Issues
One way new churches can explore change is to move away from clerical dominance, as have the Anabaptists, and embrace the multi-voiced priesthood and "prophethood" of all believers.
Is the Lord's Table a place of inclusion or exclusion i.e. who do we invite to the Table? This raises questions of membership. Note also the general importance of sharing a meal together, the need to discover church around the table - this assists in progressing from fellowship to friendship. Murray Williams comments:
- "The success of the Alpha courses, some would argue for example, has much to do with the central feature of the shared meal. In some expressions of church, this has developed an acknowledged liturgical significance - it is that community's expression of Communion. In others, they would still take part in the more formal celebration of the Lord's Supper within their tradition, but in real terms view the community meal-times as the high points of genuine 'communion' with God and with the gathered fellowship."
What is the relationship between "believing" and "belonging"? Following the Reformation, it was accepted that "believing" should precede "belonging" (first join Jesus, then the church). However, this assumed that everyone understood what church was about. In the present social climate, this is no longer true, and
- "if the gospel is to make sense it seems essential that unbelievers are embraced within the Christian community and can witness the life-transforming practice of the gospel. Many churches are responding... by adopting a philosophy of 'belonging' preceding 'believing'." (Stuart Murray)
How large and how quickly can a new church grow without jeopardising its community life? Is numerical church growth always a sign of health? Note the general fixation with numbers on seats. There should be a determination not to sacrifice quality for quantity, and a recognition that
- "the multiplication of small churches enables the development and renewal of authentic Christian community and mission more effectively than the indefinite enlargement of local churches." (Stuart Murray)
Do not start too many meetings or programs in a new church. Whatever you start put an end date on e.g. review during its second year.
One problem with house churches and informal styles of worship and relating is that there can be difficulty with the more sacramental expressions of church life, especially with capturing the solemnity of ritual. As Stuart Murray observes,
- "it is hard to create a transcendent experience around your kitchen table."
Many planters setting out with radical ideas end up with a traditional sort of church, having discovered that some traditional ways of doing things were sound.
Perhaps Acts 17 gives an indication of what church planters can expect. Day by day Paul witnessed to the unsaved in the Athenian marketplace. He proclaimed the truth and encouraged the listeners; the battle between truth and evil raged in debate; many scoffed, but some wanted to know more and wished to hear Paul again. Some became followers and believed.
"Post-Christendom is a New Missionary Challenge"
The following comments by Stuart Murray Williams, in an article in the Autumn 2000 edition of Anabaptism Today, provide an appropriate conclusion:
- "Post-Christendom is not an easy environment for Christians. Nor will the transition from Christendom ways of reacting be quick or painless. There is much to unlearn. There are new attitudes and strategies to discover. We can no longer think, speak or act as if we were still at the centre. Accepting our situation on the margins will be an important starting point. This will give us a fresh orientation, a changed perspective and a new humility. We will still worship and pray, but with a new tone and focus. We will still evangelise, but with a new blend of boldness and sensitivity. We will still work for justice and care for our community, but with a new understanding of the issues.
- And we will settle down for the long haul. We will never lose the note of urgency as we pray for the coming of God's kingdom, but we will no longer assume that we know fully what we are praying for. We will continue to testify faithfully, by word and deed, to the unchanging gospel, but we will pray for discernment as we listen to our culture and ask what the gospel means in this context. Rather than despairing of a delayed harvest, we will dig deep, sow seeds and water them patiently, rejoicing in signs of early growth without succumbing to the temptation to confuse these with the full harvest. And, as we do these things, we will begin to sense the excitement of this time and respond to the challenge of following God's Spirit into this new century and this new era.
- A vital task as we enter the third millennium is to discover new ways of being church that operate from the margins, do not require as much institutional support, are less grandiose and expensive to maintain, abandon an inappropriate moral majority stance in favour of a prophetic vocation, and embody the missionary ethos appropriate in post-Christendom...
- Above all, a church on the margins refuses to despair because we worship a God who throughout history and in Scripture has frequently chosen to break in from the margins rather than out from the centre. Rather than pining nostalgically for the good old days at the centre, we may choose to accept the freedom and struggle of life on the margins, learn from others in similar circumstances, discover new ways of being church and wait with expectation for what God will do next."
I thought these notes were most helpful, that's why I share them with you here.