Pioneer mission: a peddling of religion? (David Muir)

David MuirDavid Muir asks whether pioneer mission is just a peddling of religion.

When it comes to the mission of God in our world, there is no point in just going through the motions. Either we do it from the heart, from deep inside our spirits, or we might as well stay home and watch TV – because the Enemy will find us out. OK, nonetheless the grace of God still sometimes works through even our most shallow of efforts, but then that same grace sometimes works without our efforts altogether.

What fires us up? In generations gone by, and still in some places today, it was literally the fire – and the brimstone – stored up for all who did not come to that point of acknowledging Christ as Saviour and Lord. Whose heart could not be moved by the awful prospect that those who today form part of our daily (even intimate) life might suffer in eternal and unimaginable pain? Mission was sheer compassion, not wanting anyone to suffer any such fate.

I still believe in hell. But I am probably not alone in being a whole lot less sure that anyone who has not been signed, sealed and delivered into the life of the church will end up there. It is then an easy slide into seeing the spiritual life as the icing on the cake of humanity. And suddenly even pioneer mission becomes a promotion of the glorious icing, a selling of a great enhancement to your life – or, as St Paul put it, a peddling of religion.

What I'm missing is the grief, that good grief that tears the heart over the state of those who do not find Christ. The best I can think to do is pray for those I know who do not yet have a faith, seeking a vision for who they could be if only they put their lives into the hands of their Creator and Redeemer – and hope that a gulf opens up in my heart and mind between that and who they are at present, that will truly grieve my soul. Or does anyone out there know how to enter into the 'good grief' another way? I fear that all my best efforts will be too shallow without it.

Why approving women bishops is important for fresh expressions (David Muir)

David MuirDavid Muir explains why approving women bishops is important for fresh expressions.

I have just come back from a 'Sacred Synod' in our diocese, as part of the national process of deliberation about the ordination of women to the episcopate. I almost didn't go because it's the kind of occasion that feels a million miles from pioneer work with the unchurched. But actually the outcome will speak volumes about what we think Christianity is all about, and how God relates to our world.

That's because the issue of whether we should have women as bishops is not really about how God sees women, or about how God sees the role of 'overseers' of his people. It's about how God relates to human beings at all. And the answer, clear in the pages of Holy Scripture, is that it's by exercising enormous grace.

Whether it's Abraham, clearly at ease with the idea of sacrificing a son, or conquering peoples slaughtering civilians to clear the area of idolatry, or a society's acceptance of slavery, or the low place of women in the life and leadership of a community, God graciously relates to humanity, even draws them into his purposes in the world, without thereby condoning every social, moral or political attitude they have.

So we get communities of faith which in key ways do reflect his character but which were never perfect, not even in their perception of perfection, not even when their life is recorded in Holy Scripture. Their life cannot be a prescriptive pattern for ours.

How does God relate to a society which has championed the rights of women and drawn them into the highest leadership?

God is forming communities of faith within 21st Century British society. He calls those communities to be different, in ways that reflect and reveal his holy character within our particular human cultural setting. But he does not call us to be the same as the peoples he has related to before, as if they were entirely shaped into his will already. If we copy our forefathers in that kind of way, we become merely a people apart, separated from society around in a kind of time warp, a culture trap, with distinctives that for that very reason fail to reveal the heart and character of God in our particular setting.

This is vital for fresh expressions of church. How does God relate to a society which has championed the rights of women and drawn them into the highest leadership? How God revealed himself within societies that kept women out of high office, both in society and in the church, is not the point. The point is: what will best reveal the holy character of God in our setting? If Christians involved in fresh expressions of church don't really get this, then whatever we do on the ground is just window-dressing for culture-warp Christianity that does not understand the depth of grace that is revealed to us in Holy Scripture.

So where are we, ten years on? (David Muir)

David MuirDavid Muir asks where we are, ten years on from the end of the decade of evangelism.

We are already ten years into the new millennium, ten years since the end of the Decade of Evangelism in which church attendance declined at an even faster rate than in the previous decade, ten years since we tried to turn all that around. Fresh Expressions has been a central plank in that, embraced extensively by the mainstream church. So where are we up to?

We seem to have made headway in the debate about 'bums on seats', although the numbers game continues with mid-week attendance figures (as well as Sundays) now coming under the spotlight.  But the people being counted are, in many quarters, simply vehicles for counting something else – money, or at least the potential for it.

How can we keep funding the big post-Christendom ship we call The Church, without a humiliating 'restructuring' that radically reappraises what a 21st century British Christian community needs to look like? We in the Anglican Church still have bishops with chauffeurs and clergy in big houses, and there is no appetite for changing much of that. Some of the enthusiasm for fresh expressions of church comes from anxiety about the church's present finances. If we are struggling for money and our present membership is dying out, perhaps we can grow ourselves out of trouble…

The truth is that the 21st Century church has inherited a very expensive model of church life. When the rich and powerful of our land put their money where their mouth was (and they did), this model served us rather well. But with its paid professional leadership and thousands of historic buildings in every corner of the land, it has been creaking at its financial seams for a century and more. We need to explore some very different models, ones that don't rely on the idea of 'Christendom' for their financial viability. Fresh expressions of church must not be regarded as 'saviour siblings'. We must not create them to resolve the sickness of unviable Christendom assumptions about how to be the church. They are new children in the Christian family, and it is not their responsibility to balance the overall family finances.

Can fresh expressions survive without Christendom styles of funding?

The institution of the church is very aware that the whole Fresh Expressions movement continues to be subsidised by inherited forms of church which themselves are struggling to survive. It is important to ask hard economic questions of our newest expressions of corporate Christian faith. In particular, are they significantly 'leaner' than our inherited models and assumptions, and so can they survive without Christendom styles of funding? We could learn lessons from the secular charitable and campaigning sector. The Avaaz movement for instance is a web campaigning community which aims to 'bring people-powered politics to decision-making worldwide'. It has a global membership of 6.6m and is funded through modest online donations with no corporate sponsor or government backer.

The ongoing funding for the British Fresh Expressions movement will be back up for grabs in the next few years. We may not feel ready for it, but perhaps it's time to grow up, leave some of the comforts of home behind, and find independent ways to survive. In campaigning for parity of ministry provision with the rest of the church, we can easily lumber ourselves with the same Christendom assumptions about funding the church that is presently dragging the Titanic down. The danger is that the Fresh Expressions ship will also go down.

Mission is like John Drane’s pullover (David Muir)

David MuirDavid Muir reflects on why mission is like John Drane's pullover.

I went to the Break Out Pioneer Gathering in Northampton and came back with John Drane's old pullover. Well, not the pullover itself, but the pullover as his throwaway illustration at the end of his talk.

It's the old pullover he does his gardening in – it fits him wonderfully because over the years it has become his 'shape'. It is good quality but very frayed at the edges now, through on the elbows, has been darned many times, and although he really likes it he knows it cannot last for ever. He knows that what he really needs to do, if he wants to keep wearing it, is to pull out the wool, unpick the whole thing, wash it in order to straighten all the crinkles in the fibres, add some new wool, and then knit it all into a new pullover.

And I have mused ever since why he doesn't just do it. And why our church leaders are so reticent to allow our present forms of church to be re-knitted into new expressions of church, rather than allowing them to be frayed into oblivion. Of course, it is a lot of work. But more than that, perhaps they just don't know how to knit; the skill got lost in Christendom when the world was stuffed full of pullovers, and now we dare not allow a pullover to unravel because the truth is we haven't a clue how to knit it back together. We only know how to darn the glorious old pullover inherited from the past and pass it down the generations, adjusting it a little for a new kind of wearer.

We then create a theology that covers our embarrassment by affirming that the inheritance of faith is the pullover, gloriously historical and to be treasured by future generations. As a priest I was trained in the art of pullover maintenance and repair. And even now I recognise the weakness of that better than I am able to enter into the spiritual arts we now require.

Why are our church leaders are so reticent to allow our present forms of church to be re-knitted into new expressions of church?

The illustration has helped me articulate for myself that the 'inheritance of faith' which we pass on to others is the skills of spinning and knitting (of helping people into faith and knitting them together into 'churches' that are useful to the Master), creating pullover after pullover, each different but all recognisably from the same 'stable' – a mix of quality, warmth, creative design, a certain 'zest' in its creation such as you can recognise in Dartington Glass and other creative brands.

At this point in British church history, our key calling is to re-knit the pullover. We have quite a number of creative ways of helping individuals into faith (spinning the fibres), but we are struggling to knit them together into churches that serve the purposes of the Master. I am told that up to half of all people who find faith through Alpha courses never become long-term members of any church. Perhaps it's because they don't want to be darned into the old pullover, however cleverly that is done. They are looking for the old pullover to allow itself to be unpicked, and then to be knitted with them into a new one.

So what about some Transition Churches? (David Muir)

David MuirDavid Muir wants to know where all the transition churches are.

Do you know about the Transition Movement? Its central aim is to help communities restructure the way they live in a way that uses very little oil, partly because our oil use is warming the planet too much, and partly because the oil is anyway running out. The whole pattern of modern life is centred around cheap and available oil, and we have become comfortably dependent on it. But we have passed 'peak oil' and we need to start thinking creatively about how we are going to live after it is gone. So the buzz words are resilience and sustainability.

Now I know we have eco congregations, although they are still largely about lightbulbs and churchyard gardens. You might fondly think that using a bit less electricity is doing your bit for turning the tide of global warming. It isn't – not even close. And it's great if Christians can get involved in the Transition agenda, not least because it calls for significant personal change in local communities, and the Christian faith has a lot of wisdom and power to bring to that.

But don't our churches themselves need a Transition agenda? Just as oil is running out, isn't Christendom running out too? Our churches have long been dependent on the power of Christendom, making all kinds of things possible that local Christian communities could not have done on their own. Christendom made church a very comfortable place to be. As Christendom runs out, many of the ways we are used to 'being church' are becoming unsustainable. We can improve our welcoming processes, we can take out the pews, we can use PowerPoint in the sermons, but these are lightbulb measures. We need to help our churches become resilient and sustainable Christian communities, not dependent on the structures and support of Christendom for their future.

We need to help our churches become … not dependent on the structures and support of Christendom for their future

The danger with the 'mixed economy' is that our existing church communities are being assured that they will continue to have a parallel existence much as they are. But if Christendom runs out, most of them won't; and they will run into the coming era ill-equipped to be resilient and sustainable church. In the present battle over resources within the mixed economy, fresh expressions are already beginning to feel the heat. Here in the Diocese of Exeter, out of the 40 or so 'mission posts' promised in our restructuring five years ago, only a handful have seen the light of day and now there is a moratorium on them because of lack of resources. The future of the church could fall between two stools.

A musing on sustainability (David Muir)

David MuirDavid Muir has been musing about sustainability.

I have been musing about sustainability in fresh expressions. Perhaps there are two levels of sustainability.

The first is when people who have no church background begin to serve the purposes of God in the same way that the 'starter group' first served them. The weakness of some fresh expressions is that the 'serving centre' reflects the culture of mainstream church, well schooled in Christian teaching and practice. So from the start we need to think about how an unchurched person can become a full part of its community life, and begin to serve others as they were once served. It is as if the process has come full circle – like a rope going around something and creating a kind of knot. It secures the day to day life of the fresh expression. If the initial team collapsed, the fresh expression would hold, at least for a time. Before this point the whole rope would simply unravel and all the initial energy would be lost. So from the beginning we need to think about how to get to that first point of sustainability.

Then I wonder if there is a second 'loop' of the rope – when the unchurched person initially served is enabled into leadership. This is like putting a double knot on the rope and securing it properly. So from early on in a fresh expression we need to be looking at people who are being drawn into faith, and asking how these people are going to share in its leadership. If the way we model leadership requires being comfortable with (even keen on) the ways of mainstream church, this fresh expression is never going to become entirely secure. It will always depend on importing leaders with the right credentials. 

Both these tests of sustainability help to focus my mind. In offering to serve others in the name of Christ, can I see how new people can start to help others in the same way they have been served, albeit relying on the grace of God as they do so? Is it too 'expert' a form of service for this to happen very soon? Does it require too much theological understanding, or pastoral expertise, or public speaking skills, or group facilitation skills, or whatever? If so, it is going to be absolutely ages before this fresh expression even achieves the basic level of sustainability. During that time it could fail.

And then, how could ordinary people enter into leadership fairly quickly? Is the leadership task massively complex? Does it require awesome organisational skills? Is it a 'burnout' model that no one in their right mind would take on? Is it deeply fulfilling to do, albeit also a lot of hard work? Is it a shared and meaningful experience, rather than a long and lonely road?

In other words, how can my new fresh expression be something that new members get involved in fairly quickly and the more able ones move into leadership fairly easily?

Does any of that make sense?

Worship-shaped churches? Get real and get over them! (David Muir)

David MuirDavid Muir suggests we get real and get over our worship-shaped churches.

The discussion in the house group strayed onto the subject of mission. A strange feeling descended on the room. There was a genuine desire to engage in mission as a church. But alongside that there was a sense of weariness about the suggestion. We have been this way before and we feel exhausted just remembering it…

Churches often ask how 'we' can do mission. But who are the 'we'? How was the membership of our church determined? And the answer mostly is: worship style. In these 'worship-shaped churches', the worship style gives people their essential sense of 'belonging'. The problem with worship-shaped churches engaging in mission is that they find it very hard work. It is like introverts going to parties, or extroverts going on silent retreats – it's just not their 'shape' or their inner style. They can do it, but it drains them because their membership is not 'gathered' around this purpose.

The churches in one Devon town provide a housing trust that supports homeless people. Now, if a homeless young man is touched by God's care for him expressed in this project and wants to explore the Christian faith, what does he 'join'? Where is the fellowship of Christian people who are energised by this aspect of the Christian mission that has touched him? He can't join it because it isn't there. The Christians who work together in this project have melted away into their separate worship-shaped churches, where that project is frankly peripheral to their corporate life.

Our challenge today is to create churches where the primary reason people join is the particular focus of its mission. Such churches will find worship hard – as hard as the worship-shaped churches find mission. Worship will not be the emotional powerhouse that it is for worship-shaped churches. But it will also not need to be. 'Gathering for mission' is what will give a mission-shaped church energy, and will keep it on track as a mission-oriented church.

The problem with worship-shaped churches engaging in mission is that they find it very hard work – it drains them because their membership is not 'gathered' around this purpose

In a sense, worship stands at the most intimate centre of the church's life. It can be totally enthralling, whether it be a charismatic celebration or choral evensong. A good worship life in a church is like a good sex life in a marriage. But what would we say about a marriage where the couple talk constantly about sex, earnestly read books about how to make their sex life even better, spend most of their spare time in bed together, live from one sexual encounter to the next? We would worry for them – because the truth is that marriage is much more than sex. It is about building home, creating stability, providing places of companionship and welcome – and, of course, having and raising children.

Jesus invites us to put the kingdom of God and his justice first, and everything else will be ours as well. For those who love to worship, but who also want to be instruments of God's kingdom purposes and his justice in our day, it is a saying they need to learn to trust.

Can pioneers water down the gospel? (David Muir)

David MuirDavid Muir asks whether pioneers can water down the gospel.

As an Ordained Pioneer Minister, I am sometimes asked whether gospel truths are being watered down in my pioneer work. People are worried that I may be diluting the challenge of the gospel in order to make it acceptable to the kinds of people I want to reach.

I can only agree that this is a genuine and important concern. Pioneer work involves expressing Christian faith in new and innovative ways, ways that resonate with people in our society and strike a chord in their hearts. It seeks to reformulate Christian truth and Christian lifestyle in order to apply the wisdom and grace of God to a different situation. There is a danger that we are not wise and astute enough to sustain the abiding truth of the gospel as we put new clothes on it. Keeping Christianity true to itself requires constant vigilance.

I think this is a danger that most of us pioneers are very aware of. Precisely because we long for people to embrace the Christian faith, we are tempted to 'soften' the gospel where it sits uncomfortably with people's values and viewpoints. But the danger mustn't deter us from engaging in the process of making the gospel relevant to today's society. An irrelevant gospel is just as untrue to the Faith as a watered down one. Both deprive the gospel of its power.

Christian faith becomes richer as it becomes more diverse

But beyond the danger there is a wonderful thing happening in pioneer work. As the gospel is related to more situations, to more different kinds of people, the truth of God keeps expanding. The wisdom of God is shown to be wise in new and unexpected ways. The grace of God transforms yet another situation, which we had never seen before. Far from being diminished and diluted, Christian faith becomes richer as it becomes more diverse. Christ is shown to be truly the Saviour of the whole world.