this is a personal reflection on how we have got to where we are w.r.t. mission and the church. it was written for a think tank group in the church of england on mixed ecology (which means the ecosystem that can contain multiple ways of being church especially embracing new forms that relate to those outside of church cultures). in other words it is an english perspective, not attempting to give a global overview, and it is related primarily to the church of england. it was written as a discussion starter so reads as a set of notes rather than a crafted article. i wrote it in the wake of covid. but now seems a good moment to publish it prompted by the emerged podcast. after I had written a draft of this I came across a chapter written by graham cray in cultivating missional change which was a book published in south africa which gives an excellent overview. i have opinions on what i have written but have tried to resist commenting or critiquing at this juncture. i think it best to be generous and see these threads as part of a whole, a wider movement.
Mixed Ecology: How Did We Get Here?
This is inevitably a take and there will be many other takes and lots to fill in. So think of this as a conversation starter and something that others can add to or possibly write other takes. There is a question of how far you go back and why but I think 50 years is probably a reasonable window.
Two environmental factors
Culture - the world changed significantly whatever way you describe it - post modern, emerging, post Christendom, post Christian even. One significant factor aligned with this is digital and communication technology which has changed so much more than we realise. Some writers see the change as a threat and some as opportunity but the change is not really contested.
Decline - I remember a staged walkout at an event in the 90s of 300 young people which at the time was the stat leaving the UK church each week. Whatever way you come at it church was declining which created anxiety and pressure.
Urban areas - there is a long history of engaging in poorer areas - worker priests and so forth but the marker that sticks out is the Faith in the City report in 1985 which made an impact. The reason it’s worth mentioning is it raised questions about resourcing, liturgy, young people, race, culture, mission and so forth. It probably didn’t use the term but was asking contextual questions.
Charismatic renewal - there are various tributaries of this but a lot of the same issues we talk about now were in the renewal conversations though talk of new churches came later. Whatever your tradition that movement softened the church and generated openness to the Spirit in a fresh way, and emphasised ministry in the body of Christ rather than being too clerical. There was some threat in this too in that many left and set up other things but a lot stayed and quite a lot came back. Festivals and conferences led to various networks addressing questions of church and mission in a range of ways. The likes of Graham Cray, for example, were quite shaped by that movement. John Collins who was the modern founder of HTB was too. A later tributary though less Anglican was the coalition of youth led initiatives that were part of house church movements and mission agencies from the 1990’s. This included in particular Ichthus and Pioneer along with NGM, Youth For Christ, Frontier Youth trust, Oasis, New Wine and YWAM England. This was a fusion of alt worship exploration and mission impulse. Events such as Greenbelt and Remix explored the objective of reimagining faith in the cultural commons with art and justice themes. This laid the ground for catalysing a number of other significant sub movements including, cultural shift, 24/7, the Factory, Soul Survivor and so forth.
Global missions - Lesslie Newbigin is probably the most famous voice from when he returned to England from India (1974) and drew on issues of mission and culture to say that we needed mission that took the gospel and culture in the West seriously. Another thread from missions was contextual theology which is a relatively new concept growing either out of liberation theology in S America and S Africa. The postmodern turn questioned the West’s overarching domination and narrative in theology as much as in other disciplines so global voices and other voices from the margins became very important. Contextual approaches fit this new environment well. CMS first engaged in Britain as a mission context in the 1970s. And then engaged in a new way following a report in the 2000s recommending engagement with what it described as the emerging culture.
Youthwork - as noted above the decline in young people was a lightning rod for the church’s anxiety around decline. Pete Ward made the link between cross cultural mission and youth ministry in his book Youth Culture and the Gospel in 1992. Youth ministers began experimenting and developing youth church (which they were not able to call that at times). Oxford Youthworks and Frontier Youth Trust pioneered in that space, with some iterations of YFC on board.
Some chapters in the story
Decade of evangelism. The Church of England’s efforts in the decade of evangelism (1990s) haven’t gone down that favourably in history - a review said that it had probably slowed decline at least. There was a lot of effort but not a lot to show for it. That partly fuelled questions of what a better approach was and what might come out of it. At the conference ACE99 reflecting on it, a memorable moment was when John Drane shared a cross cultural approach with spiritual seekers at new age fairs using tarot cards that seemed to polarise the room - one half excited about contextual mission and the other thinking they were hearing some new heresy.
Theology. It was not just a pragmatic movement. A re-theologising was most certainly taking place, with a significant level of thought leadership and theological reflection. Missio Dei became a widely received theological idea that flipped peoples understanding (albeit it had emerged in the 1950s). More broadly there has been a turn to context and a new appreciation of the incarnation in theology – inculturation or contextualization are two ways of expressing it. Trinitarian participation is another way that has been opened up of understanding mission. There has been a new emphasis on the Spirit in mission. Ecclesiology is also an area that has had a lot of attention, notably Rowan Williams introduction to MSC setting the tone for that. And more latterly a whole conversation has kicked off around decolonising mission and deconstructing whiteness.
Church planting. There were several ways into this but church planting became a growing area of interest. Growing indigenous expressions of church was a logical outcome of mission that drew on cross cultural approaches - youth churches grew from this understanding in the 1980s. Anglican Church Planting Initiatives was founded as a charity in 1996 though I imagine was doing things from around 1991. Interestingly in the late 1990s and early 2000s (I think) the annual conferences that they hosted showcased anything and everything new - congregation plants, alternative worship, cell church, youth church. It was only much later that the language of planting became more polarising as it seemed to be the preserve of more conservative approaches to both theology and church.
Alternative Worship. This was a movement that engaged imaginatively with postmodern culture in quite radical ways in the 90s both in terms of the structure of church and worship but also exploring theology in ways that seemed to fit postmodern sensibilities - black, eco, feminist and liberation theologies were all at the table. Intriguingly it also seemed a playful turning away from modernising moves of the charismatic movement towards a blend of more ancient with urban club culture. Greenbelt festival was home to this and then a range of other new forms that were picked up and shared.
Emerging church. The issue named by emerging church seemed to be that it was not simply about changing worship but about the whole - discipleship, spirituality, church, leadership and so on all needed exploring in light of the new environment. In 2002 ACPI, Church Army, CMS and others to agree to start a web site to catch some of the stories of what was emerging and emergingchurch.info was set up to do that. Perhaps a significant book (though not well received by some Anglicans) was The Shaping of Things To Come by Hirsch and Frost which catalysed a lot of conversation about what being missional meant. Some started to call their church expressions missional communities, others drew on monastic patterns and claimed a new monasticism.
Mission Shaped Church. In 2004 this report named the surprise of the bubbling up of fresh expressions of church around the edge, said it was a good thing and named the mixed economy of church in the intro by Rowan Williams. Messy church started that year I think which became one of the most widespread fresh expressions.
Fresh Expressions. The Lambeth Partners funded fresh expressions under Rowan Williams wooing and persuasion and that quite quickly diffused across the church. For example at one time I think Mission Shaped Ministry, a course in fresh expressions had run in 40 dioceses. Other denominations got on board - Baptists, Methodists, Salvation Army, Congregataional Federation, URC to name a few. It also generated a lot of interest in other parts of the world. For example I know MSC was translated into Korean. FX was keen to appeal across all streams of the church and notably published books relating to the sacramental traditions. It has always struggled to shake off accusations of being overly evangelical which is slightly odd given Rowan’s leadership. Several years later the Church of England backed off funding FX - I think because the view was it had become embedded or mainstream but also the funding through Lambeth Partners stopped with a change of Archbishop from Rowan to Justin. Other denominations still support it. The argument in defence of this will be that it is embedded in the strategy now. I will resist commenting at this point.
Church Army and CMS (two of the mission communities or sodalities of the C of E) - Church Army and CMS have been players all the way through the above both contributing to the thinking and theological imagination as far back as the likes of John Taylor but also through publishing, being on the group that wrote MSC, developing training and so forth. Other newer charities or groups have since emerged (CCX, Myriad etc). Dioceses have really needed the sodal structures to call the church forward and to work in partnership with.
Pioneer Ministry. It was a recommendation in Mission Shaped Church that the kind of ministry that was starting new things should be seen as a new designation and pioneer ministry was what it was called. Another recommendation was that training for pioneer ministry should be done through a cross cultural lens which is why CMS for example were invited by the church to design training. Stephen Croft the first Fresh Expression worker under Rowan managed to do the policy work for a recognition of a designation of pioneer ministry and also worked to change the pastoral measure so that it was possible to plant church across parochial boundaries.
HTB. It is probably worth singling out HTB as a passionate advocate of church planting - hosting the church planting conferences above but also developing a model of planting in London by taking on churches that were low in numbers to revitalise them. I am less familiar with the timeline on this and how the trajectory developed into the Resource church model over time.
SDF - the Church Commissioners shifted how they gave surplus money towards dioceses. Dioceses could bid but one large area of funding needed to be tied to mission and ministry that grew the church. Whilst there have been a range of bids Resource church has been in vogue with the SDF board so a lot of investment has gone into larger city centre church plants.
CCX - London appointed a Bishop of Islington in 2015 to oversee church planting which was a fairly radical idea at the time. Out of that CCX and latterly Myriad have grown with a focus on encouraging planting.
July 2019 C of E Synod - A report was presented at Synod in July 2019 15 years on from Mission Shaped Church . Research from Church Army has been done at various points on fresh expressions and the report The Day Of Small Things showed that fresh expressions was probably the most effective means of reaching those outside the church that the church had seen for quite some time. A motion was presented and passed encouraging every parish to explore adding a contextual expression of church.
C of E Mixed Ecology Vision - The C of E has a new vision for a church of missionary disciples with Jesus at the centre and a mixed ecology of church. This seems a logical extension of all the above.
COVID. In July 2019 it felt like momentum was really there but the church is now emerging the other side of COVID more anxious and resource stretched. It remains to be seen how that vision is to be embedded and carried forward into the next 50 years.
[a slightly more expansive view of the last twenty years and my personal take on it is in this baker's dozen 13 reflections celebrating twenty years at cms]