today i have been asked to promote/review three books for the following the missionary spirit gathering in london. i assume this is because i have been very enthusiastic about two of those three in reviews!
i reviewed church for every context here
and fresh here
the third one is called fresh expressions and the kingdom of god and as far as i know is not out yet though maybe it will be available at the day today? according to amazon it's out at the end of december. but i got sent an advance electronic copy so let me give another enthusiastic review! no one is paying me to do positive reviews btw - i have a reputation of saying what i think so i wouldn't be reviewing them in this way if i didn't think they were good.
the book is in the series ancient faith future mission and edited by the usual suspects - graham cray, ian mobsby and aaron kennedy - and follows a similar pattern. it opens up with a few chapters that give some theological reflections, and is then followed by stories and accounts from practictioners working it out in various contexts. of course there are stories and theology in both parts but that is the broad picture.
my approach to the book was to read all of the first section. in fact i couldn't put it down! and then to pick and choose the stories that most grabbed my attention. i'm sure i'll come back to the rest.
the backdrop to the book seems to be quite explicitly criticism that has come fresh expressions way of variously
- being too sold out to a consumer culture of taste on the one hand with its creation of churches for niches
- being too church focused and not being transformative enough in the wider world
- and ironically almost the opposite - not taking the church seriously enough and its part in the message she proclaims
i was worried that the book was going to therefore be too defensive or too locked into an internal dispute but fortunately whilst the concerns are taken seriously they are used as a launch pad rather than a narrow corridor.
i think i said this on a previous book in this series but it's worth getting for archbishop rowan williams chapter alone. he simply throws down a challenge to every church community that runs the risk of reducing worship to entertainment, doctrine to uplift, and witness to marketing! yes every church including fresh expressions should take a good hard look in the mirror on that analysis of his. in contrast the church is called to manifest the new humanity together. he suggests three very simple ways this might be - in relations with god in prayer, in effecting some tangible contribution to the wider society, and growing into a maturity in the community of genuinely mutual shared life and building up. he has some lovely ways as ever of describing things and suggest fresh expressions at their best affirm the freedom of god from our comfort zones and religiosity, learning new things about god from what god is doing ahead of us in the world god loves. (if only the church of england in its structures embodied that same sense of the freedom of god but that's another tangent...)
this is followed up by an equally brilliant chapter by graham cray called communities of the kingdom in which he explores the symbiotic relationship between church and kingdom and uses lesslie newbiggin's church as sign, instrument and foretaste of the kingdom. curiously it was the title of the chapter that has lingered with me. i was recently at a gathering in london diocese where the focus of new communities was anything but their own life - they all seemed to have come together to serve the communities and contexts in which they find themselves. perhaps this is simply a maturing of the movement and hopefully a responding to the spirit calling the church outwards? alt worship, fresh expressions, emerging church have probably all spent lots of hours deconstructing and reconstructing church and worship which has been helpful in lots of ways but this overall direction of being missional and getting involved in transformation in the local community is a very encouraging turn. every church should be asking itself if it is a community of the kingdom and as rowan has his three things so graham introduces a different (though not dissimilar) four. i much prefer these two lists to a lot of the healthy church or natural church growth type measures of success.
then we are into a whole range of chapters and stories of communites of the kingdom. it's hugely encouraging to read of the creative ways people are doing this. and lots of communities are really connecting with challenging contexts with people on the margins. one chapter i particularly liked was nadia bolz webber's and their community's manifold ways of making connections and engaging with people in their locale - loved the blessing of the bicycles amongst other things. but what interested me about her story was the tesnsion many communites feel between engaging outwards thinking that people will come to attend their church services. but finding out that what happens is a growing set of relations and transformation in the community and peoples lives but the core community doesn't necessarily grow hugely. i guess it's akin to jesus' metaphors of the kingdom of god being like salt and yeast that flavours and gets in amongst the culture to affect the whole? if i may i'll quote nadia as i think this will resonate with many...
I write these final few pages having just come home from our community’s Theology Pub. Every month we gather in the Horseshoe Lounge to talk theology. So many people show up to this event that we have to break up into two, sometimes three groups. Talking about forgiveness, last night’s topic, over 80s pop music, my group consisted of four HFASSers, one United Church of Christ, one Roman Catholic and a couple of Evangelicals. We shared our experiences, talked about the meaning of reconciliation, reminded each other of the cross, disagreed about free will and knocked back a couple of beers. That is to say, we were being church.
As I was leaving, the young Roman Catholic man who had joined us for the first time thanked me for creating a space where our conversation could take place. Is he going to ‘join our church’? There are two answers to that: 1) no; 2) he already has. You see, when we started doing all these things out in the community and were joined by so many people (like last Friday when there were 60 people at Beer & Carols – only 18 of whom were actually HFASS ‘members’), I thought that these fun, quirky events would draw lots of new people into our regular Sunday worshipping community. That never happened. Ends up, that’s been a lousy church growth strategy.
And for a few months early on I even began to actually believe that these events were a failure. Then, like so often is the case when you are part of this whole death-and-resurrection thing called Christianity, I realized that I had been seeing it all wrong. I think we call this repentance. These events are an end – not a means to an end. We live out our life as a church in public, porous ways in which others are always invited to participate, and they do. The point is not to get them to join us on Sundays for the Eucharist. The point is that the Eucharist sustains us in the life we live out all week long, in which so many othersparticipate.
look out for the book when it comes out. to me it's a sign of a growing and maturing move of the spirit of god that we are trying to catch up with. having read it i feel challenged about my own life and the community i am part of and how we join in with this as a community of the kingdom.