April, 1st 2007

Missional Life Emerges in the Local Church

“This guy gets it!” – continuing stories of missional life.

This week’s Podcast is with Dr Mike Goheen. I first met Mike Goheen more than fifteen years ago when we both lived in Hamilton, Ontario. I was teaching at McMaster Divinity College and Mike had recently moved in just down the street at Redeemer College – a Christian liberal arts university. Mike had been involved in church planting within his denomination. In that context he was seeking for ways of understanding what it meant to be on mission in one’s own, Western, culture. Mike began to read Lesslie Newbigin. The impact was so great that he shifted the focus of his doctoral studies to engage Newbigin’s missiology and its implications for the church in the West. We connected with one another out of a sense of common interest around questions of the church and awareness that Newbigin’s work provided a rich and fertile source of investigation.

Mike is both a teacher and pastor. It was out of this dual role of practioner and reflector that I wanted to reconnect and create this week’s Podcast. He taught worldview studies at Redeemer College and became team leader at a long-standing Christian Reformed church in a poorer section of Hamilton, Ontario. Over a period of eight years or significant missional change took place in this long established Dutch immigrant congregation. I wanted to find out what had happened. Could an old, established Christian Reformed church filled with Dutch immigrants and their children really shift their imagination from a gathering of the ‘family’ to become a missional community open to the very different men and women living in the neighborhood around the church building? It’s a fascinating story. Mike describes finding a people who, while turned in on themselves and struggling with the fact that the great days of a big church and filled pews were long gone, had a deep passion for the Gospel. These were people schooled in the ways of Christ with a deep devotion to Jesus and a strong memory of the biblical narratives. This, Mike tells us, was a key element in engine of imagination and emergence that transformed this congregation. There was DNA of Gospel life in these people. From that identity sprung a missional life none of them would have imagined.

The other side of Mike is his commitment to thinking through the implication of mission in our own culture. He regularly teaches worldview studies and has just moved to the West coast to the Geneva Chair in Reformed Theology at Trinity Western University in Vancouver, British Columbia. In this position Mike teaches and writes around issues of missiology and Western culture. As I interviewed him late one afternoon last month in his new home with a view of the snow-covered coastal mountains from his office window it was a joy to engage someone who combines these habits of a practical, on-the-ground-leader and a teacher. I was listening again to another leader who could describe what it means to be missional as well as talk about the experience of leading an established community toward missional life. In subsequent Podcasts we plan to interview other leaders in the Hamilton church to get the stories of innovation and transformation. Contrary to the mythology that has been created in recent years about churches we are seeing missional imagination start to shape some of these old wine skins in fresh ways. But that shouldn’t surprise us!

Last December I interviewed Steve Taylor in Christchurch, New Zealand. Steve is another leader who thinks deeply about the issues of missional life (he has a Ph. D) as well as practicing this life in a long established local church. Following the publication of the Podcast last month we had some further conversations in which I was able to reflect a little more on this question of missional/emergent life and established congregations.

“This guy gets it!” was the energized greeting on the email in last month from Steve. In the first issue of the Journal I described Steve’s work in Opawa Baptist church in suburban Christchurch. His patient, creative work is helping form an emerging missional community in an old suburban church that had lost its direction. The larger culture hardly recognizes a church tradition anymore, let alone a denominational nametag. Steve’s Podcast shows emergent life can happen inside a regular, ordinary, institutional church without lots of external consulting or programs borrowed from elsewhere. Steve’s enthusiastic email in January was pointing me to other blog conversations of people who get this. They know rather than writing off existing churches, under the radar of God is doing things none of us could have guessed in these places.

Leaders often ask me if it’s really possible to make these kinds of changes in existing local churches? As I ponder the sources of this question there seems to exist a kind of either/or polarity going on that goes something like this:

  1. The church in the West is dying (How many books with that as the starting premise have we read in recent years?)
  2. There’s not much hope for turning around existing churches around – its too hard, takes too long or just impossible. (People out there are making this argument in order to contrast the ‘old’ with the ‘new’ thing they’re about. Of course they locate their ‘new’ thing in some past context or experience but usually the implication is that if we are recapture the real vitality of what they church was at some point in the past then we have to start new because it can’t be done in existing churches.)
  3. Therefore, we shouldn’t try but start alternative churches or focus primary energy on or new church development.

This is a strange logic that seems based in either/or categories that are quite alien to a Christian imagination. This way of thinking can’t be sustained from the ways of God’s working in the history of the church. Further, if one knows even a little about complexity and emergence theory it’s pretty clear that things do change; the old does transform and adapt (I’m getting older by the day so have a stake in this.), bottom-up happens in all kinds of strange and unexpected places. Now, such change requires new learning and an openness to adapt – but, honestly, what’s new? I’ve been with too may groups of people in existing churches to count them out.

It’s not only possible for all kinds of existing churches to innovate missional life but it’s at the heart of what God does. There are stories out there of the Spirit calling into being emerging missional local churches in congregations some of us would have given up on a few years ago. This is the nature of the God we worship and praise. Our Lord just keeps turning up in the most God-forsaken places. How else do you make sense of the Incarnation and the perduring life of both Israel and the church? These convictions are not based upon new theories of change, complexity and emergence but are a confession about the way God is revealed in Jesus. Those who say the church is dying in the West are mistaking the phenomenon of transition for death. They’re not the same! We may say the church we have known and experienced for the last 150 years or so no longer has legitimacy as the sign, witness, instrument and foretaste of the kingdom. But that’s very different from saying the church is dying. We shouldn’t confuse the two. The church in the West isn’t dying and it wont because God keeps turning up in all these places we so easily give up on because we see them as hopelessly out of tune with the times or just not getting what needs to take place. The stories emerging in these places are harbingers of God’s emerging life in old churches. Emergence theory tells us that when lots of little stories start to percolate you can be sure some strange attractors will start doing uncharacteristic and unexpected things. I believe lots of existing congregations are pregnant with strange attractors ready to do uncharacteristic things. That’s always the way of the Spirit. What a great time to be alive!

This takes me back to Steve's 'This guy gets it!' comment. He's referring to a blog site run by Tom Allen in the UK called Bigbulkyanglican .
Tom says: ‘I believe that most local churches have within them a missional gene (so to speak) which is a divine gift of the Spirit to the present Post-Christendom world of declining churches.’ He sees this missional presence more in specific individuals within these local churches rather than, as yet, expressed within the local church as a system. A great insight! If we confess that God’s Spirit is among God’s people then we’re confessing the expectation that God’s future is among God’s people in all those ordinary local churches discounted as too difficult to change or just not getting ‘it’ – whatever the ‘it’ is they’re supposed to get. Without this conviction the One who encounters us in Jesus Christ is not shaping our imaginations.

We’re focusing some of our first Journals and Podcasts on stories of what the Spirit is doing in local churches. As in any process of transition what we’ll first see are groups of individuals experimenting in local churches. These experiments are always matters of try and fail, learn from failure and try again – and so it goes on! Sometime ago I read a fascinating account about the ascent of Everest and the tragic story of why numbers of very experienced climbers died in one attempt. Climbers must adapt to the high altitude environment around Everest before attempting the summit. There’s an established method to doing this – climbing is not a serendipitous happening in which anything goes. There are rules and laws that must be respected or catastrophe results. What happens is that climbers will go up to a certain elevation, set camp and remain at that elevation for several days before going down again to a lower elevation where they rest. The process is repeated over and over again but each time they climb to higher elevations. In this way their bodies become acclimatized to the rarified atmosphere. Without this process a climber might try to simply climb straight up to the summit; the result would not simply be exhaustion but death because the human body can’t make such sudden adjustments to very high elevations.

Some time ago, perhaps three hundred years, churches in the West were confronted by a massive eruption in the culture we call by various names: modernity, secularization etc. By whatever name it represented the emergence of a new socio-cultural environment. The church found itself in a strange new kind of atmosphere. Lots of experiments were initiated. There were all kinds of trail and error; claims of renewal and lots of accusation went around in terms of accommodation to the culture or escape into some idealized world. Some groups tried rushing up the mountain of the new culture to claim it as their own; they seemed to rush ahead for a while with new energy then faltered, exhausted and fell back or disappeared from the scene. Others experimented more slowly (probably because the resisters in their midst didn’t get the change that had taken place) but over time discovered a plateau on the mountain where they established a base camp and began to thrive once more in the changed atmosphere. Other churches discovered these plateaus the pioneers had settled. After a while most adapted and then settled in having successfully navigated the challenges of change. These were times filled with creative people learning as they went, making mistakes and trying again. Whether we agree with what they achieved or not (most of us want to condemn the ‘accomodationist’ forms of late Christendom that emerged over the last several hundred years without appreciating the challenges our fathers and mothers faced) they adapted.

Over the past thirty to forty years our culture has been going through yet another upheaval (this time we’re calling it by other names: late modernity, postmodernity, globalization etc). Almost all the churches that set up shop on these plateaus are now finding the environment is changing radically yet again and they’re unprepared. So the process has started again. Some resist the need to climb off their long established plateau convinced the weather pattern shifts will be short lived. They expect the high winds, bitter cold and continual storms will soon pass and everything will return to normal. Their numbers are getting fewer and fewer. Others are struggling into awareness and starting to go down from their plateau. It’s been tough because in the years between most leaders lost the memory and skills of these basic laws of climbing. There has been need to time reexamine traditions and tentatively take little risks in moving down the mountain. But it’s happening! I’m encountering increasing numbers of leaders who know they have to climb to a different plateau and re-acclimatize to the changing environment. They are in the early days of figuring it out as they go. A few weeks ago I was in Phoenix, Arizona with some 70 leaders from the United Methodist Church, a long established denomination in America. This is exactly what they were doing – figuring out how to climb to a new plateau. I think they’ll do it! In the Kansas City area I met with a team of Disciples of Christ regional leaders. Over a day and half I watched in amazement as a group of local leaders meeting in an Augustinian monastery worked through the issues of missional life for themselves. Just recently I met with a series of diocesan leaders in the Anglican Church of Canada meeting to understand how they parishes might discover mission-shaped life. They are on a journey of climbing from a long established plateau in order to discover fresh expressions of God’s life in a new environment.

If you could read the emails I receive from such you’d know there’s movement and creativity happening in these old wineskins. Existing churches are catching on that these climate changes are here to stay and have to be addressed with changes in practice. They are open to starting the journey and joining the experiments. Missional life is emerging in existing churches. Lots of them aren’t going to die – they’re in early days of experimentation and adaptation. It’s messy! Steve Taylor tells of how leaders in the Baptist Union in NZ are talking about the formation of missional churches. In the UK Graham Cray describes how the relatively new experiment of ‘fresh expressions’ in the Church of England is encouraging multiple local church experiments in missional life as well as creating a gathering interest from other groups. Fresh Expression gives permission for ordinary people in local parishes to initiate experiments in mission appropriate to their contexts. People in these dull, risk-averse existing churches are connecting and experimenting. It’s early days but the old local church isn’t going the way of the dodo bird. Just as God has done throughout the church’s history, experiments around the edge are starting to change the life of local churches. People are finding partners and fellow travelers in a transformational journey of the Spirit.

Whether from fear, anxiety, a sense of loss or sometimes despair ordinary men and women are discovering hope as the Spirit encourages missional in their communities. Don’t look for full-blown ‘models’ or ‘test sites’ to visit. Listen to the stories of hundreds of ‘strange attractors’ in local churches around you tentatively testing and experiencing God do things none of us could plan or imagine on our own.

Allelon wants to be a place where these stories are shared – a new commons where we learn together to celebrate the ways God is inviting experimentation and emergent life.


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This was great. I find these "on the ground" stories so helpful and so encouraging.

Slow but sure, my church is catching the mission! Although we've been going overseas for 30 years, it's very difficult to get the same folks interested in reaching out to their next door neighbors. Me included! Why is it so much easier to "witness" out of town?

Gee that was an interesting conversation. The theology of hope underpinning the conversation combined with the stories rooted in the Gospel and a local context made it a great interview & discussion. Thanks.

I really love that Allelon is as committed to seeing the local/institutional church thrive as it is to see people involved in missional living. A lot of time people give up on the church and seek to do something totally different. I am not saying this is bad, but at the same time God has gifted a lot of people to be involved in the local church setting. To see its strengths and its flaws, and then evaluate and shape, and see what God is doing in that context. That to me is truly exciting!

What I like about Alan's comments have specifically to do with the word, "HOPE". Many times, people level their critique at current "church" praxis without a level of perceived love, encouragement, or hope. They level the boom without overtly communicating that God still has a say. I'm always appreciative of a hopeful stance for any thinker or author or leader who takes up the mantle of bringing insight and prophetic words to the church. Most of us need to see thing clearly but also we need to have the sense that the story is NOT finished and that we have still have a chance of bringing a smile to the heart of God. Well done Alan and Allelon! Keep it up!

Hi Alan, Thanks for sharing this encouraging example. I, too, am a firm believer in emergence and complexity theories. I think a lot of what the Church is a function of the groundswells that have caught on from undercurrents connecting folks of disparate walks of life. It's those connections across whatever differences we have that really strengthen us (local church bodies and Christian communities in a given geographic area) for the work we need to do. The question is how we accomplish those connections. When we focus so much on reaching those without the Hope we have, it is sometimes hard to remember to assist the pillars in our churches to continue maturing in their faith as well. My passion, is to work with churches going through internal conflict. I think these two intersections (socioeconomic/differing walks of life & focus on supporting the mature AND newcomers) are ones that any church can really grow transform the conflict into growth and maturity that blesses each of our communities (church and geographic).

I wish you the best and pray blessings into this encouraging effort you and ALLELON are undertaking for the health and growth of the body. Blessings, Drew Strayer

Great stuff, and wonderfully encouraging for those of us who are ministers in 'old' churches. Just one clarification: the Fresh Expressions project in the UK is not just Church of England project, it's a joint Church of England/Methodist initiative. But then I would say that, I'm a Methodist minister!

I have worked in Africa for many years, am now at home trying to adjust to the US church climate. I am working with a large suburban church that has done quite well at reaching their neighbors but has done zip internationally in fifty years. In the last 3 years the Holy Spirit has been speaking to this congregation of 5K, and people are waking up to the mission of the church! So we are approaching this at a grass roots discipleship level: Who are you, and what has God called called you to be/do? And we are not allowing geography to determine the call . We are consciously not setting up programs and are really 'pushing' the relational dynamic as the core of mission. This is fun, and some of the managers are sputtering.

This is so encouraging to hear! I will soon be taking over the leadership of a church that has been in decline for a long time. But there is a core of people at this church who are convinced that they need to become a missional body Christ-followers. That's exciting to me!! I can't wait to see what God will do!


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Recent Journal Comments:

Missional Life Emerges in the Local Church
Posted by Markus Watson
06/22/2007 9:57 PM

This is so encouraging to hear! I will soon be taking over the leadership of a ...

Missional Life Emerges in the Local Church
Posted by Bill Kieselhorst
04/15/2007 10:29 PM

I have worked in Africa for many years, am now at home trying to adjust to the U...

Missional Life Emerges in the Local Church
Posted by Dave Faulkner
04/14/2007 7:31 AM

Great stuff, and wonderfully encouraging for those of us who are ministers in 'o...

Missional Life Emerges in the Local Church
Posted by Drew Strayer
04/12/2007 9:37 AM

Hi Alan, Thanks for sharing this encouraging example. I, too, am a firm believ...

Missional Life Emerges in the Local Church
Posted by Robin Dugall
04/11/2007 1:51 PM

What I like about Alan's comments have specifically to do with the word, "HOPE"....









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