Exploring mission-shaped evangelism (Steve Hollinghurst)

Steve HollinghurstSteve Hollinghurst explores mission-shaped evangelism.

Several people when I was writing the book Mission Shaped Evangelism asked why I had chosen that title. I was well aware of a growing tendency to label everything as 'mission-shaped' and certainly didn't want to add to that trend.

However, I did want to expressly link the book to the Mission-shaped Church report. This had highlighted the need to learn from foreign mission practice in creating fresh expressions of church and I felt we needed to do the same in our evangelism. This had not been the case for over 1,000 years of Christendom in which we could take for granted that those we communicated faith amongst shared a Christian background. By the end of the 20th century this was only the case for a minority of people. In the new situation traditional evangelism was increasingly like tourists who can't speak the language and so speak louder and slower in the hope of being understood.

This is why, as John Finney showed in Finding Faith Today 1992, most people who come to faith as adults were raised in church; they are the ones who understand its language and message. With the increasing numbers of people with no such background, we are in effect foreign missionaries and need to discover a mission-shaped evangelism.

Mission-shaped Church offered a useful approach to the task: double listening. This meant entering into the culture of others, learning from it and assuming God would be found speaking within it. Then it was important to listen to the Christian tradition and finally seek the places the two connected as the place to explore what the gospel was in that context, what it affirmed or could adopt and what it needed to question and challenge. The three sections of Mission-shaped Evangelism reflect the three stages of that approach.

With the increasing numbers of people with no church background, we are in effect foreign missionaries and need to discover a mission-shaped evangelism

The first section draws on statistical and sociological analysis with theological reflection. Amongst the key points this raises are that secularism does seem to be a global phenomenon, but it behaves differently from country to country due to the context. The things that seem to prevent the process are slow economic development, limited contact with globalisation, and conflict in which religion is a factor. However, the end of this process appears to be a secular consumer religiosity, not atheism. Religion increasingly operates as a consumer process and is thus based on providers and clients, not leaders and members. Also post-modernity – or whatever that is becoming – not only brings a consumer logic to religion but to everything else. Truth becomes personal, not universal, and in response the question 'Is it true?' is increasingly irrelevant, a challenge for our traditional apologetics.

The second section explores the history of cross-cultural mission. This begins with the way early Jews adopted the language of local Paganism but realised it applied to one God, not many. It goes on to explore how Paul used this insight to make the transition from evangelising his fellow Jews to evangelising Gentile Pagans.

This approach was continued in the early church in the East and the West. In this manner Celtic and Saxon missionaries created expressions of faith that built on the Pagan religions the missionaries found.  Yet as Christendom became established, a desire to have common patterns across the western church and the increasing linkage of military conquest and foreign mission led to this cross-cultural approach dying out with a few exceptions until the 20th century.

Finally, with reference to the lessons of on-the-ground examples, an approach to evangelism for a multi-faith multi-cultural world is fleshed out. One in which we seek to show why faith is attractive rather than true and which offers a vision for our diverse and often fragmented societies against a background of ecological damage. That argues evangelism should be viewed as a processes of lifelong discipleship, not instant conversion. That views its end not primarily as church growth or getting people into heaven but transforming creation so that the kingdom of God comes on earth as it is in heaven.

The language of ‘fresh expressions of church’ may be killing our mission (Steve Hollinghurst)

Steve HollinghurstSteven Hollinghurst asks whether the language of 'fresh expressions of church' is killing our mission.

I think we often underestimate the power of language. The words we choose conjure up images of what we are describing, and sometimes these can have unintended consequences. I am increasingly seeing this happen when people use the phrase 'fresh expressions of church'; indeed, even more so when people talk of their mission as 'creating fresh expressions of church'.

I remain a great supporter of both the analysis and aims of the Mission-Shaped Church report which has led to this kind of language. The problem is that the language has taken on a life of its own that means it is often no longer serving that report's vision; indeed, I think it is often working against it.

The insight of the report that we need fresh expressions of church for a new cross-cultural mission situation remains true, but increasingly the effect of the fresh expressions language is leading to something quite different. People seem to have got into their heads that the need is to 'create a fresh expression of church' and not that they are called to cross-cultural mission which may in time, and sometimes a long time, lead to a fresh expression of church emerging from that mission.

The result of this is that people set up whatever kind of fresh expression they think they ought to run and then go looking for people who might want to join it. Such churches are not in the least bit 'mission-shaped'; they are simply a way of consumer niche marketing existing church to provide a wider range of choices for church shoppers.

They have already had the culture of the 'fresh expression' decided for them in advance by a group of well meaning but culturally different Christians

The categorising of fresh expressions as certain types of church may add to the problem, suggesting they are styles of worship. The likely result is that those attracted will be existing church members, or those who have left church. Such churches cannot enable new Christians from non-churched backgrounds to worship in their own culture when they have already had the culture of the 'fresh expression' decided for them in advance by a group of well meaning but culturally different Christians.

So, my suggestion? Let's stop starting fresh expressions of church and let's start doing the real task of cross-cultural mission in the belief that in time fresh expressions will emerge.